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The Making of Northern Harmony

Staying in our true curiosity as learners: An interview with Kristin Horrigan

In October, Sativa Leonard ’23 sat down with dance professor Kristin Horrigan to talk about chemistry, contact improvisation, and heteronormativity.

Sativa: So how long have you been at Marlboro? 

Kristin: This is my 14th year. 

S: Nice, and how are you liking it here? 

K: Oh my, I love it. This is my dream job. I feel so blessed to be here. I lucked out. 

S: How did you come to be here? 

K: I came here in stages. I first came here as an outside examiner in 2005. There was a student who was studying dance and technology, and they reached out to a professor of mine from graduate school. He wasn’t available, so he passed it down to one of his recent graduate students: me. That was my first time coming to Marlboro. 

S: Who is that student? 

K: Ian Smith-Heisters (’05), a great student—lovely person. And then later that same year, in the summer I got a call from Dana Holby, who was my predecessor here. She taught dance for, I think, 30 years at Marlboro, and she had decided very suddenly to retire in the middle of the summer. They needed someone for the next year, so they had a search for a part-time replacement person. I applied and got the job. And then while I was here they decided to have a search for full-time replacement for Dana, and I applied. I was very lucky to get to stay. 

S: Well, we're glad to have you here. 

K: Thank you. 

S: So what do you think is the most rewarding part of your career here at Marlboro?

K: That’s a good question. Definitely the work with the students. The deep relationships you form and how intimately you get to support someone in their growth—that's very rewarding. There's also the part where the students stretch us as faculty in a million directions. They cause us to study things, think about things, talk about things, and do things that we never would have thought to otherwise. That keeps the job from ever getting boring, and is a gift that this job brings that most academic teaching jobs don’t bring in the same way, unless you have graduate students.

S: On the flip side, what would you say is the most challenging part?

K: Oh, workload. You know, in this community, we’re all here pretty much based on love, right? You get involved in the community, you care so much for your students, so you go the extra mile. Nobody tells you to not do more. You have to place your own limits.

S: Do you find that even with the smaller student population that it’s still a heavy workload? 

K: Yes. Part of it is that my Plan student population is not that much smaller. 

S: Oh interesting. 

K: I’m graduating five Plan students this year, and five is as many as I’ve ever had in a year. It is different than it was though. I used to have 30 people in a Contact Improv class and now I'll have 12 or something like that. 

S: Is it Plan students that really take up the extra time?

K:The Plan students, yes,  and I think also I've stepped up in my committee work in a way. In my earlier years—when I was having 30 students in a class—I was new, so I wasn't getting elected to heavy workload committees like the curriculum committee. 

S: So do you prefer having a smaller class group size? 

K: There are benefits to both. There’s such a thing as too small and such a thing as too big. But no, I been very lucky. Dance classes serve a variety of needs in the student body—academic, personal, social, and health-related. There are a lot of reasons people take dance, so there tends to be enough people around. And I think the dance students also draw each other in, you know, because it is a social practice, even though it is an academic study. So there’s a peer group that forms, and people who aren't necessarily friends outside the classroom have an activity-based friendship that supports them to keep coming back. 

S: And they want to be in each other’s choreography?

K: Yes, exactly. The social network is one of the main reasons I went on into dance instead of what I did my undergrad degree in, which was chemistry. 

S: Really?

K: Yes. I have a B.A. in chemistry.  

S: Wow.

K: Ultimately, a life of being in dance was more appealing to me, both because I exercise for work and because I relate to all sorts of passionate people. I worked a few years in a lab, and it just wasn’t what I felt called to do. I was conflicted about it though. That could be a longer conversation about how I struggled through my 20s, trying to figure out which direction to go!  

S: What do you like most about teaching here? 

K: So many things. One of the things I love about teaching here is that students are following their passions, interests, and curiosities, which means, most of the time when you have a student in class, they’re in your class because they want to be in your class. There are a few exceptions, where I ask a student who’s doing a Plan in my field to take a particular class to round out their understanding of the field. But most of the time everyone’s in that room because they want to be there, and that’s really beautiful. I taught as visiting faculty at a number of different colleges before I came here, and it is such a different vibe when you’re teaching a group of people who are there because they have to be. So that’s one thing, I suppose, that I love most about teaching at Marlboro. Also, we have incredible freedom to follow our students’ interests, and our own. That is a real gift that you don’t get most other places. Right now I’m meeting with my Plan students, and other students I know are interested in dancing, to figure out what I should teach next semester, and whether I should teach courses I’ve taught before or whether I should make up something new that better suits their interests (or that incorporates my evolving interests). That is so cool. Many other college faculty have their two or three courses they teach every year for their whole lives, and it’s a big process to initiate anything new or any change. Here at Marlboro the curriculum is so malleable, and it really allows us to stay in our true curiosity as learners. 

S:  could see some professors preferring to teach the same thing over and over again. 

K: Absolutely. Yes. 

S: There’s a freedom in that as well. 

K: Yes, I know people who feel that way. For me, I have a passion for teaching, and feel that it, in some ways, has become part of my art. Mentoring student choreographers to find their voices, make their work as strong as possible, and develop their thinking processes to get below the surface in their own work is a creative practice. 

K: May I ask you a question? I'm curious what is most speaking to you about your experience at Marlboro, thus far, although I know it has been brief. 

S: Yeah, that’s a tricky question. 

K: It is. And this transition is also one of the hardest ones, to start college. I’m sure there’s a lot that’s bumpy too. 

S: Oh yeah. I'm really enjoying my creative writing class. Just kind of learning how to stretch myself as a writer, and try knew styles and voices. 

K: Oh that's so great. Are you writing poetry or short stories? 

S: Short narratives, yes. So some fiction, some non-fiction. I’ve come to realize non-fiction is not generally what I write. So it’s a little harder for me. But it’s interesting. 

K: I appreciate your openness, especially what you said about enjoying being stretched to try different styles. That reflects an openness that is so helpful as a creator and that can be hard to have, too, because it can be vulnerable to try new styles or approaches that aren’t what you’ve gone towards before. 

S: Yeah, it’s also helping me know what I don’t like to write. 

K: Totally. Right. And there’s virtue in that too. Do you have any interest in dance, perhaps? No pressure. 

S: I do like dance, but I'm also somewhat uncoordinated. 

K: Well, that is not a prerequisite. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to dance. There are no demarcators of who is allowed to dance and who’s allowed to learn. We’re all learning.

S: I’ve definitely seen quite a range in student performances here.  

K: Yeah, totally. I think that’s part of why I got hired here. I was running an intergenerational dance company at the time—people ranging from their teens up to their 80s—which is even more diverse than a Marlboro classroom in terms of abilities and experience. There's a lot of creative interest and potential in people bringing their lived experience to dance, even without a lot of prior dance training, and that makes sense to me in teaching. And it’s also a political stance, I think. I don't believe that someone’s family should have been able to afford dance lessons in order for them to be able to dance in college. And I don’t want to make it that kind of issue because I know there are people who would love to dance, but who, for reasons of geographic location or family income or whatever, couldn’t. 

K: I think we first met in the dance studio? 

S: Yes. I was there for a play rehearsal. John (Marinelli ’20)’s Hamlet production.  

K: Nice, that’s so great. Who are you? 

S: Horatio.

K: An important character.  

S: Yes.

K: You die, though, right? 

S: No, I’m like the one character who doesn't die. 

K: I haven’t read Hamlet in too long. 

S: I do get the last line. After Hamlet dies. It's very dramatic, emotional. So I have to work on that. 

K: Yes, because everybody’s dead except you! I bet John is great as a director, though.

S: Oh yeah. We'll be using actual swords since he knows fencing. And Reily (Mumpton ’15), the fencing instructor, is going to be in it.

K: Wow. Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t sit in the front row!

S: Probably not. 

S: So, are there any projects you're working on right now that you’re excited about?  

K: Let’s see. There are several, all in a very nascent stage. I’ve been working on a solo for myself, though I usually make dances for other people. I’m mostly more interested in creating dances for other people, especially people who have relationships. For example, I like to work with families or communities. And I have been less interested in artmaking as baring my own soul in recent years. But, I have been re-considering what it is to make solo work on myself. And I’m excited about that. That said, I don’t have a performance date or anything fixed like that yet. 

S: You think it’s something we might be able to see at some point? 

K: At some point, but I haven't made anything in probably 15 years without the concert date breathing down my back. And so right now I’m just making without having a set time I have to show it, and it’s a totally different process. We’ll see. I hope I make something I show, but I can’t guarantee it. 

S: Well we would definitely be interested in seeing it, one day.

K: Thank you. There are other projects as well. I just launched a new website. That was my summer research project. I haven’t had a website for my professional dance work since I closed my dance company, Dance Generators, five years ago. It was time to launch my own site, reflecting the different branches of my work.

S: Is Dance Generators not a thing anymore, or you’re just not involved in it? 

K: There’s still a branch of Dance Generators on the west coast, but the Dance Generators I was directing out here is closed. It’s something I would love to do again someday, but it's just not sustainable with a full-time job here. The company is pretty full-time on its own, and it’s entirely unremunerated. 

S: So what’s on your website? 

K: My website tries to reflect the different branches of my work. It has a section on the research I’ve been doing with gender and contact improvisation which I wrote about in Potash Hilla couple years ago. That research is ongoing. I started a blog, which I was pressured into by a friend, but it’s turning out to be a nice outlet. I do write some things for publication, but publication by peer reviewed journals takes so long. It can take two years between when you write the article and when they publish it. By the time they publish it, it’s old hat. It’s not my interest anymore. The website has also stuff about my choreographic practice—about my intergenerational work both with the company and with family dances. For example, it has the family dance I created last spring with Adam (Franklin-Lyons, history professor) and his family. 

S: That sounds precious. 

K: I’ve also done a lot of community-based projects that are about bringing a community of usually untrained dancers together to think about a community issue of importance to them, through movement and theater activities. The process results in a performance that shares back to that community and generates dialogue around the issue at hand. There’s also journal article I want to be writing but haven’t been. It’s about some changes I’ve made in my curriculum to de-center whiteness and welcome students with a broader range of backgrounds. Also, an outcropping of my gender research has to do with holding queer spaces in the dance community, as well as, some other work about diversity, inclusion, equity ,and access in dance communities. So some of it has to do with diversity broadly and some of it specifically with gender and sexuality. Earlier this week I got asked to hold a three-day-long dance event, a combined workshop and collaborative space, specifically aimed at people who identify as queer—who self-identify as queer: we're not checking their queer cards at the door! 

S: Sounds like a really good conversation to have. 

K: There definitely is a need, particularly in the contact improvisation world, to have spaces that are safer for queer individuals. There’s also a need to build awareness so the dance spaces are not dominated by unconscious heteronormative patterns of interaction, which are often really predominant in contact improvisation world. 

S: Great. We could use a little less heteronormativity everywhere. 

K: Amen. Yeah, it’s so complicated. One of my gender studies Plan students and I talk about this all the time. Gender and queerness, both in and out of academia, are changing so fast right now. 

S: Yes.

K: There’s a huge difference between my generation and your generation. There are so many different options and words and understandings and histories and experiences. How to hold a space that includes not only your generation and my generation, but the people older than both of us?

S: So you studied gender and dance. How did you come to study that combination? 

K: My gender studies knowledge is mostly self-taught. Lots of reading. I was a dance minor in college and then I got an MFA in dance. 

S: So you had a dance background?

K: Yes, I've been dancing since I was 4. And in grad school I got really interested in dance and politics—social and political issues. I think it was because dancing and making dances all day, and it felt like intense navel-gazing. I was in this program with 35 grad students, all focused on dancing all the time, and it just felt so self-absorbed. I didn’t want to just be dancing to look pretty, or dancing because I like to jump around. I wanted there to be some way in which I could connect to the outside world and make some kind of difference.  I studied many different artists—how are people doing this? And that’s how I ended up in intergenerational work, because I ended up concluding that the people you work with are the people most deeply affected, not the people who see you dance for an hour in a show. 

S: I’m sure you had an impact on your audience, too. I mean they see they see the connection. 

K: That was how the work made an impact. Our real relationships were visible on stage, and that was powerful. We also did 10 shows a year in elementary schools, nursing homes, and all around the community. And so we were quite known because we showed up all over the place. The idea that senior citizens can dance with younger people and we’re all artists together was pretty well accepted in that community because of that. I didn’t start this company—I can’t take credit for this notion. My mentor, Amie Dowling, started the company and I danced in it. Then when she moved away, I took it over. 

But anyway, you asked about gender and I didn’t talk about that at all. Gender is something I've been interested and curious about since college, when I had my own struggles with my gender. I was pissed about sexism, I was pissed about heteronormativity. I was upset about a lot of things I didn't have words for, and there was no gender studies back then where I was at school. I had no language to put to this. So I’ve been sort of piecing it together over years. And then, at some point I started to gather together stuff I’d been reading and looking at in the dance field and decided, well, I’m going to teach a course on gender studies as it’s applied to dance. And since then my knowledge has grown, and I’ve read a lot. Then about five years ago, on my sabbatical, I got in an argument with some colleagues at a teachers’ exchange in Germany. That was really the turning point, where gender became the focus of my research. Because it was a contact improvisation conference, and we were all experienced teachers, and the men—cis-gender, male-identified people—in the room completely took over this conversation and began shouting. Eventually all the women—this was a very cis-gender, binary kind of crowd at that particular event—sank to the floor. 

S: Literally? 

K: Yes, literally. At a certain point I stood up and started yelling "stop!" I said, “look at what we are doing. This is an un-gendered dance form based on equality and mutual respect. Look at the dynamic in this room. Is this how we want to comport ourselves as an international body of experienced teachers in this form?” And everybody, to their credit, was like, “This isn’t what we want to do,” and it led to a lot of interesting conversations. That was the moment where I realized that my field really needs to think more about issues of gender and power, habits and heteronormativity, and all this stuff. So, in the five years since then, that’s been the main thrust of my research.  

S: Have you had students along the way that have kind of had that interest as well?  

K: I've had a few, not necessarily in gender and contact improvisation though, I don't think. Rosie (Kahan ’15) did a Plan on gender and ballet. And Mercy (Solbeck ’19) is doing a gender studies Plan that has nothing to do with dance. Erika (Klemperer ’15) did her Plan in physical humor, but she played a lot off of binary gender roles and heteronormativity—poking fun at them. She also did some really interesting work early on about dance and gender—a piece that John (Marinelli ’20) starred in. It was a dance for a person who was transitioning. And it was so detailed and so articulate in all these little subtle ways of embodying this teenager in transition. 

S: That’s amazing. 

K: That was a really sweet and powerful work, especially because it was really before we had a particularly articulate conversation about trans identities on this campus.