Nationally and Internationally, Dance M.F.A. Alumni Are Major Catalysts in the Field

Nationally and Internationally, Dance M.F.A. Alumni Are Major Catalysts in the Field

Alumnae/i, Graduate Studies

January 17, 2024

Nationally and Internationally, Dance M.F.A. Alumni Are Major Catalysts in the Field Dance MFA

Graduates of Hollins University’s Master of Fine Arts program in dance are making notable contributions to the dance world as choreographers, performers, and artistic directors.

A conflict specialist, author, and performing artist, Dana Caspersen M.F.A. ’09 is devoted to “empowering individuals to affect change in destructive systems.” A leading artist with Ballet Frankfurt and the Forsythe Company since 1988, she has been both an inspiration to and a collaborative creative partner with choreographer William Forsythe. Her book, Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution, was published by Penguin USA in 2015 and “offers effective tools for turning conflict into an opportunity for positive change.” Her bio states, “Caspersen’s work using choreographic thinking to create large-scale international public dialogue projects on topics ranging from immigration to violence has brought together thousands of people from diverse communities across the world.

The New York Times documented the challenges Caspersen has overcome to achieve success. “Ms. Caspersen, who wore a neck-to-hip brace for severe scoliosis from 14 to 18, is not one to shrink from hard work,” the Times reported in 2015. “Through performing, writing and three hip operations, she got a master of fine arts degree through Hollins University in Virginia, which is geared to dancers’ schedules and offers credit for professional experience.”

Kirven Douthit-Boyd M.F.A. ’19 became artistic director of The Big Muddy Dance Company in St. Louis in 2022 after serving seven years as associate director of dance and artistic director of COCAdance, the city’s acclaimed dance training program at the Center of Creative Arts. He performed nationally and internationally with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company for 11 years beginning in 2004, with leading roles in works by choreographers such as Ailey, Geoffrey Holder, Twyla Tharp, and Judith Jamison. In 2010, he performed at a White House tribute to Jamison hosted by Michelle Obama. He has also appeared as a guest artist in ballet and contemporary dance galas in Argentina, Canada, and Mexico.

Expressing his vision for Big Muddy in an interview with Dance Magazine, Douthit-Boyd said, “There are two things simultaneously developing. One is engaging diverse artists to create…and elevating the caliber of the artistic experience for both the artists and the audience. Then there’s the actual artists that I’m working with. Something that I made very clear very early on was that we have to diversify the ensemble. We just have to do it.”

As the pinnacle of an accomplished career as a professional dance artist and educator, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell M.F.A. ’07 in 2021 became the first woman and first person of color named artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She began her professional dance career at Hubbard Street when she was 19 years old and a student at The Julliard School. She went on to spend 13 years as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performing all over the world. Career highlights include special performances at a White House State Dinner in honor of the president of Kenya, and at the 12th Annual Kennedy Center Gala. As a dance educator, she was a professor of dance at Towson University and served on the faculty of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Of her role at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Fisher-Harrell told The New York Times last year, “I’m conscious of the responsibility of my being in this position. I felt like, ‘Yes, represent! Get in that position and do a great job.’ But I also think that greater representation broadens audience appeal. There weren’t a lot of people of color coming to see Hubbard Street. And having a more diverse swath of people onstage and behind the scenes will bring more audiences to us.”

Choreographer Helen Pickett M.F.A. ’12 has created more than 60 ballets including The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play, for the Scottish Ballet. When it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2019, the production won the UK Theatre Critics Award and the Herald Angel Award. Upon its London debut three years later, the Financial Times said it “casts a powerful spell…this Crucible belongs in the international repertoire.” In 2023, The Crucible toured the Kennedy Center, Spoleto Festival USA, and Nashville. Last year Pickett also premiered Emma Bovary at the National Ballet of Canada, IN Cognito, and the West Australian Ballet. Pickett will create full-length narratives for the American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet, and a new short work for the Boston Ballet, in 2024 and 2025.

For 11 years, Pickett danced for choreographer William Forsythe. In its profile, “Helen Pickett: Dancing Into the Liminal Space,” Dance ICONS stated, “Like Forsythe, Pickett stretches the boundaries of ballet idioms by often engaging with works of literature, where her movement reveals elegant intimacy and emotional depth spiraling with a distinct feminine sensitivity.”

Amara Tabor-Smith M.F.A. ’16 is the artistic director of Oakland’s Deep Waters Dance Theater, which she founded in 2006. The ensemble of dance and performance artists creates interdisciplinary performance experiences that utilize Yoruba/Lukumi spiritual technologies to address social and environmental issues facing BIPOC and the community at large. Her work has been presented throughout the San Francisco Bay area as well as nationally and internationally, and Tabor-Smith won a San Francisco Guardian 2013 Best of the Bay Award for “He Moved Swiftly but Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street: Ed Mock and Other True Tales in a City that Once Was.”

In 2021, Tabor-Smith was one of four Bay Area artists to be named inaugural recipients of The Rainin Fellowship, which included an unrestricted grant of $100,000 as well as supplemental support to address specific needs and goals, including financial planning, communications and marketing help, and legal services. According to the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the fellowship “funds artists working across dance, film, public space, and theater who push the boundaries of creative expression, anchor local communities, and advance the field.”