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Jacksonville University graduates first class in lauded MFA in Choreography program

By Phillip Milano

When they made their way across the stage May 5 to receive their diplomas, these Jacksonville University graduates made a little history, too.

They were part of the first graduating class of JU’s prestigious MFA in Choreography program, one of only a handful nationwide whose low-residency approach lets mid-career artists continue their professional lives while advancing their knowledge in performance and choreography.

Members of Jacksonville University's first MFA in Choreography graduating class May 5, 2012, with MFA Coordinator Cari Coble (center)

“This program expanded my mind and perspective in terms of thinking about my career and potential,” said an excited Michelle Grant Murray, one of 10 graduates of the program, who teaches dance in Miami and has directed shows as far away as Japan. “It gave me the opportunity to meet new people and go to new places. It’s amazing, the amount of freedom to explore your processes without having everything superimposed on you.”

Indeed, the program’s mantra is “Where Professionals are Reborn.” Even students in it as esteemed as performer and choreographer David Parsons, called “one of the great movers of modern dance” by The New York Times, have acknowledged the value of JU’s approach to instruction. Among other things, it features an immersive 10-day residency at the exclusive White Oak Plantation in North Florida, two non-resident semesters combining distance study with JU faculty and one-on-one mentoring, and a one-week mini-residency on campus spent tutoring undergraduate students.

Instructors even use Skype on the Internet to evaluate and communicate across the miles with their charges. The goal is to offer anything that gives artists-in-transition a chance to breathe new life into their creative processes while helping set them up for new directions in their careers, including in instruction at higher levels, according to MFA Coordinator Cari Coble and JU College of Fine Arts Dean Bill Hill..

“It was so exhilarating to see them graduate,” Coble said. “It’s going to be great to see dancers of this caliber with an advanced degree go out and educate the next generation. I felt a real sense of giving back to this field I love so much.”

For Coble, the program is just one more assurance that the field of dance will continue to grow and prosper.

“Dance is such a part of everyone’s life in some way or another, whether it’s a person just dancing at a wedding, or as part of a career,” she said. “It’s nice to see it so popular in this country, and to see it thriving as an industry. So parents, don’t be afraid to let your kids be dancers. If you love what you do, you can find a place for yourself and be happy with your life.”

Graduates of the JU program spoke of its creative approach to instruction as the engine that drove their inspiration during their two-year stint.

“Getting to go to White Oak, for example, was incredible. There were guest artists from all over the world — Israel, France,” said Tiffany Sullivan Fish, a choreographer who also has performed at the Kennedy Center and with the Metropolitan Opera. “To be in that space with that kind of talent lets you cultivate new ideas for your art. It’s a way to let you explore in an environment of freedom.”

Alexia Adock-Stanford, meanwhile, who teaches locally and studied at the Palm Beach Ballet Center, appreciated the practical aspects of the degree as well.

“For people like me, it’s a doable program,” she said. “You can investigate what you’re interested in. You have the freedom to find your own way and take your talent and visions in new directions.”

Heading in new directions is what the program is all about for the graduates, as many of them plan to use their new knowledge and degrees to advance their careers into teaching, or to guide other artists in professional productions.

They won’t forget what brought them their newfound opportunities, they all agreed.

“I remember on the first day when we were all together on campus and getting introduced, and thinking how I’m in the company of all these incredible people and inspiring artists,” said Dara Swisher Carman, who teaches locally and whose choreography has been showcased by the Rock School for Dance Education, the American College Dance Festival and elsewhere.

“It really sunk in that this was something bigger than just me.”

2012 graduates of the program were Alexia Adcock-Stanford, Ella Ben-Aharon, Dara Swisher Carman, Tiffany Sullivan Fish, Lana Carroll Heylock, Jamie Sue McGreevy, Michelle Grant Murray, David Parsons, Amy Colleen Schwiethale and JoAnna M. Ursal.