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By Siobhan Burke
Barnard students in CoLab’s site-specific event. Photo by Kate Ryan.
It was a typical spring day at Columbia University. The steps of Low Library, a popular hang-out spot on campus, offered a quaint snapshot of collegiate life: students gathered in groups, chatting, sunbathing, studying. To a passerby, the sight of a girl in a bright blue sweatshirt, waving her arms up and down (perhaps signaling to a friend), would not have seemed out of place. Until it became clear that the girl was waving rather vigorously, and that behind her was another girl, in a neon yellow T-shirt, slithering down the stairs on her belly—oh, and another one, in hot pink, lying on her side, making rapid swimming motions with her free arm and leg. Eventually, a total of eight dancers emerged, clad in various fluorescent shades, descending through the crowd in ways both lizard-like and reminiscent of air traffic controllers.
The women who stirred up this site-specific event last April were members of CoLab, a young—but quickly growing—student performance collective at Barnard College (the women’s college affiliated with Columbia). In 2007, co-founder Hadley Smith, then a junior, began holding informal meetings in her dorm room for students who wanted to make dances—and who were interested in process as much as product. “I didn’t necessarily expect it to live on,” says Smith, who graduated in 2009. “At the time, we were just creating an opportunity for ourselves and giving it a name.” But the Collective of the Ludicrous and Beautiful, as the acronym goes, filled a gap in the dance scene on campus. Students quickly latched onto the idea and haven’t let go.
Smith, who now lives and choreographs in Brooklyn, conceived of CoLab with fellow dancer Tara Willis after her sophomore year. “In my composition classes, I was having good experiences with the other students,” she says. “The feedback we were giving each other felt really satisfying.” Outside of class, though, she hadn’t found this same sense of community. While she had tried choreographing for Orchesis, the largest student dance group on campus, she had felt both fenced in by some of its rules and adrift in the vastness of the organization, which didn’t foster the kind of intimate, artist-to-artist feedback she craved.
“I was interested in taking more time to meet weekly with other choreographers and dancers,” Smith recalls, “to talk about how everyone was feeling about their piece, what we were learning, what was working or not.” Lorene Bouboushian, a 2010 graduate who helped to get the group off the ground, adds that she and her peers wanted “an outlet for more experimental work that no other entity on campus provided—site-specific work, collaboration between different genres, work that wasn’t so technical.”
From its first showing in a Barnard painting studio to performing for over-full houses in the school’s new black box theater last spring, CoLab has provided fertile ground for this kind of open-ended, process-driven investigation.
“It’s a great group that calls upon the creative diversity of Barnard and Columbia students,” says Barnard dance professor Katie Glasner, “students who are interested in making work that doesn’t fit within a neat paradigm.” Projects have included collaborations with video artists and musicians; the group organized its first visual art exhibition last semester. Any student can be involved, and there is no proposal too zany. “With CoLab, you can really just experiment,” says Nicole Cerutti, a senior who is co-leader of the group this semester. “You can do whatever crazy idea comes into your head, and there are people to help you move forward with that.”
The collective, which is now an official club of Barnard’s Student Government Association and attracts about 40 participants each semester, also teaches students about the practicalities of being an artist. Smith feels that her logistical responsibilities—finding rehearsal space, applying for grants—were good preparation for life as a choreographer. “In terms of planning how you are going to present your work,” she says, “it was a microcosm of the real world. No one’s gonna come crawling out of the woodwork to say, ‘Hey, kid, there’s this venue where you can perform this weekend!’ You have to go look for that.”
What’s your advice for starting a student collective?
Having a central idea that’s important to you and a small group of people to help that idea develop—that’s the key thing. At first, we were incredibly disorganized and just tugging at all the strings we could find to get costumes and things like that. But we believed in what we were doing, and we could strongly present that to other people. We were comfortable enough with each other to throw around new ideas, disagree, try to figure out what this thing was. It can certainly seem daunting. Realize what kind of impact you can have, and go for it with the resources you can find. —Lorene Bouboushian, choreographer and former CoLab member