A certain simplicity

World Arts Today interviews dance choreographer Adam Hougland, an Artist-in-Residence at Southern Methodist University this fall.

By Karen McDonough

Adam Hougland is one of two Artists-in-Residence at Southern Methodist University this fall, bringing their considerable know-how to the prestigious college dance program.
Inside a large dance studio at the Owens Center on the tree-lined campus of SMU, a dozen male ballet students with their feet crossed tightly in fifth position hold the barre and wait for direction.
It’s a warm autumn morning outside, and their teacher, Adam Hougland, walks the room, quietly giving direction and demonstrating alongside his charges.  It’s a rather nondescript studio with tall, mustard yellow cinderblock walls and fairly dim lighting.  But what’s going on here far transcends the lackluster décor.

Hougland, 36, is the Artist-in-Residence at the Meadows School of the Arts at the acclaimed university. He’s become a regular face on campus over the past few years, serving as a previous Artist-in-Residence here and a guest teacher as well. In that time, he’s seen the progression of many of the dance majors, some of whom recently graduated and are launching professional careers. . .

Hougland sat down with World Arts Today after teaching recently to talk about his career and why he enjoys working with college students.

Your teaching style seems deliberately laid back.

AH: I think being frightened is never a good way to start in any kind of collaborative [laughing] process and learning is very collaborative. If I’m quiet and I approach things in a positive way, I can still get them to work really hard, oftentimes, by using humor. They work really hard for me without me having to pull it out of them too much. Giving students opportunities how to demonstrate makes them have to really think about how they’re dancing and not just learning steps. I used to demonstrate a lot more, now I make them do it. If you have them figure things out for themselves and they actually perform the exercises like they’re dancing, not just doing like aerobics, it creates this healthy competitive environment where everybody is trying to dance well and they get to show something. It makes them all work really hard.

Who were some of your influential teachers?

AH: There are a lot of them. When I was younger, I studied with Thom Clower, director of Ballet Dallas [which no longer exists], Anna Donovan, [principal ballet master] at Texas Ballet Theater, Jenny Johnston. And I trained at the high school [Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts] with Lily Weiss, who was fantastic and who I owe a lot to. Everybody at the high school was adamant I audition for Juilliard so I did and at Juilliard I trained a lot with Benjamin Harkarvy, I loved his classes. Hector Zaraspe was a favorite ballet teacher. It was a good time to be at Juilliard when I was there. The faculty was amazing, it was very special.

Why do a residency program like this?

AH: Teaching comes naturally to me. Being a choreographer, you learn how to figure out how to get things out of people physically. You want to see them look a certain way or move a certain way, so you find all these different ways to get to the same result. That’s what teaching is about. I’ve noticed when I’m choreographing now I have more of the teacher mentality, so if something doesn’t look exactly the way I want it to right away, I feel like I have the right language, the right approach, to get the dancers to do the movement the way I want them to.

The thing that’s nice about teaching, with ballet, it’s such a set vocabulary, there’s a set structure to a class, it’s not like you have to reinvent the wheel everyday. You come in and say, ‘Let’s really work on those tendus today.’ When you’re choreographing, you’re always trying to be innovative and find something brand new or find something you haven’t explored before in your work or find a different way to use music or try to make that partnering look more unusual. With this, I don’t have to worry about being creative I can just focus on helping them find their most effortless, free and uninhibited use of the technique. It’s more about facilitating their growth rather than worrying about my choreography.

Read the full interview.

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