Many students at Wesleyan combine the seemingly hermetic fields of art and science. It’s common to meet actors who work in biology labs, chemists who excel at figure drawing, or opera-singing computer science majors. As a Dance and Psychology double major, Adriana (Ady) Phillips has certainly taken advantage of the interdisciplinary approach to education emphasized here and is currently pursuing a senior dance project combining her two fields of study. Phillips’ choreography, which will be shown at the Spring Senior Thesis Dance Concert in April, roots from the notion of displacement, yet is anchored in a strong sense of home.
“It’s pretty much about memory,” said Phillips. “First I wanted to make a piece about my history and my family background, and then I kind of wanted to broaden it.”
Her ensemble, composed of all international or first-generation American students, explores the experiences of immigrant families in a physical and visual way. But beyond choreographing and dancing together, there’s a sense of mutual understanding and community that’s also developed between her dancers. Rehearsals are a time for engaging with movement, but also for discussing their identities that have become divided between home and Wesleyan. For Phillips and her dancers, it is sometimes easy to become overwhelmed by the notion of home—one that might live more in memories than the everyday.
“It kind of is a space where we all can talk about what it feels like to come here and have this strong cultural background, but where we’re kind of split,” Phillips said.
In order to keep with her artistic theme of memory, Phillips selected five female dancers who are either first-generation Americans or international students. She said she found casting a challenge at first, but over time it became clear who should be part of her piece. The members include Iris Ridley ’19, Viviane Eng ’18, Natalia Gomez-Vasquez ’21, Medha Swaminathan ’19, and Rachel Rosin ’19.
“I love working with women,” Phillips said.
When Phillips talks about her dancers, it’s clear that she is invested in them as people, rather than canvases to place choreography on. She describes working on her project as an activity of solace. While Phillips makes it clear that she has nothing against male dancers, she also expresses that since her project moves through such vulnerable space, there is something comforting about having an entirely female cast. Aside from empowering international and first-generation students and sharing the immigrant experience with a broader audience, Phillips is creating an all-female-identifying space to empower women as well.
Despite her collaborative work style and attachment to her dancers’ experiences, Phillips’ project would not have been conceived without her own personal experiences and family history as an Iraqi-Iranian Jew. Her own story is comprised of a sense of attachment to a place she’s never been, and is a theme that permeates the dance piece.
“[My grandparents were] born in Iraq, in Basra, and my mom grew up in Iran,” said Phillips. “They’ve had to flee several times from religious persecution, and I think just being a first-generation American in my household—where Iran and Iraq are mentioned literally in every other sentence—it’s like we’re still there. Dance is how I make sense of things, so I was like, ‘I just have to make a dance about this.’”
During rehearsals, Phillips and her dancers focus on how emotion and memory sits in the body and how that can be translated into movement. She assigns written prompts for her dancers to explore in journals, encourages them to think about the clothing their relatives might’ve worn—to rummage through photos of family members, if possible. She even had her dancers choreograph imagined “duets” with family members, urging them to dig deep into themes of loss and separation from one’s self and past.
“Rehearsals involve a lot of reminiscing—talking about relatives, what the experience of having had to move, and having a parent who’s an immigrant is like,” said Phillips. “Does that give you more anxiety, and where does that sit in the body?”
As she speaks, the link between Phillips’ concentrations in psychology and dance becomes pronounced. She’s particularly interested in how stress and emotion root themselves in the physical body—how they affect the way we move, or how they manifest in mental illness. She intends to push this curiosity further, as she plans to pursue dance therapy after graduation.
Phillips’ investment in her dancers is also evident in the choreographic process, right down to her selection of music played during rehearsals. The ensemble has a collaborative Spotify playlist that all the dancers can add to, comprised of songs that remind them of home and family.
“It’s kind of cute watching one of their faces light up when I put it on ‘cause they don’t know when it’s gonna happen, so it’s really special,” said Phillips.
Every level of Phillips’ project is collaborative, and aims to create a new experience of family and community from each dancer’s conceptions of those very entities. She does this distinctively by placing an emphasis on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of her dancers above all else, even the final performance. A work centered on family, home, and comfort must be created in a space that values those experiences, otherwise the emotional message will not come through in the final product. It is evident that Phillips is very interested in the emotional components of modern dance, citing her icon, Pina Bausch.
“She does not care about how long they can stretch their legs or splits or pirouettes,” said Phillips. “Even if they’re the most talented technique dancer in the world, she just wants to bring out the truth in them and to make the piece as authentic as possible, and I think that’s why when people leave, they’re not talking about the material or the lines or whatever—they’re talking about this feeling that they leave with.”
Much like her idol, it is truly the expressive capacity of dance, rather than the technical components, that is central to Phillips’ work. It is clear that her project is deeply rooted in the human psyche, and is bound to move audience members at the thesis concert in April.
Mae Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org