Junior combines love for literature and dance

February 18, 2020
A&S students are encouraged to pursue their diverse interests and foster those interests alongside other student scholars.

Through different courses and programs, A&S students are encouraged to pursue their diverse interests and foster those interests alongside other student scholars. For junior Karen Fleming, the Humanities Fellows Program helped her achieve this. 

The Humanities Fellows Program is a community of sophomores interested in the humanities who have the opportunity to explore those interests through a seminar that focuses on a certain subject matter. After completing a semester-long course, students then pursue their own research endeavors based off the class to create a project that relates to the year’s theme and their own field interests. 

Fleming, a double major in English and Dance, was interested to see what a research project in the humanities would like. 

“I realized I had no idea what humanities research actually looked like because oftentimes when you hear ‘research,’ you automatically think of a science lab. So I was intrigued,” Fleming said. “I thought I should know what English academics do, you know...It’s just been great from there, definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made in college so far.” 

The program starts with a seminar in the spring semester of a student’s sophomore year. In the seminar, students explore how humanists may approach and examine a critical issue within the human experience. In Fleming’s year, the theme of the program was Human Migration. 

“Going into it, I had obviously heard things about migration, but I had never really studied it in-depth. The class is structured in that we have three different case studies and in each case study we looked at a different period of migration through a different humanities lens,” Fleming said. 

History was the first lens the class used to look at human migration, followed by English then film. As students approached the different perspectives, each one began to find the area they were most interested in exploring further. 

Fleming said she was determined to find a way to meld her two majors into one cohesive project. The summer after her first semester of the program, Fleming worked with Dr. Monika Siebert to complete the English research portion of the project, reading six novels that covered three different time periods of migration. However, Fleming decided early on that she did not want to write a paper. Instead, she decided to do something that would allow her love of dance to shine through. 

“My final product is a dance piece, a work of choreography, that pulls from some of the major themes I found from these six different novels,” Fleming said. “It’s looking at primarily how migration affects your sense of identity—going from one place to something completely different and having to negotiate between the old values and the new values, and the kind of emotional impact that has.” 

After completing her research, Fleming began to choreograph her dance piece with the help of Professor Anne Van Gelder in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Fleming said she wanted to do the books justice through conveying the emotional hardships through her choreography.  

“Over the fall semester, I really went through and thought ‘this line of text really makes me feel this’ or I looked at the way they structure the novel—some plots are linear, some plots are circular,”  Fleming said. “There was one book - How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents by Julia Alvarez - that started in the present day and worked backwards so the story was told in reverse. So looking for those structures helped me structure my dance in a way.” 

Dr. Abigail Cheever, the director of the Humanities Fellows Program, said she finds Fleming’s project fascinating and is excited to see the finished product. 

“You go from thinking about movement as a literary device to something that propels or motivates a novel and then it becomes an actual literal movement and Karen’s own choreography and work with other dancers [is] going to bring that choreography to life,” Cheever said. 

Fleming’s work From the Passage will first be performed at the University Dancers’ 35th annual concert, which will run from February 28th to March 1st. It will be performed once again at the end-of-the-year student showcase for the Department of Theatre and Dance. At this year’s Student Symposium, Fleming will also present a poster about her research and the project that has been a year in the making. 

Fleming’s choreographic work has also been selected to represent the “Outstanding Student Choreographer” for the 18th Annual Mid-Atlantic Choreographer’s Showcase hosted by Starr Foster Dance, a Richmond-based modern dance company. 

“From the Passage is conceptionally sophisticated and Karen has maintained an exceptional level of investigation throughout her creative process,” said Van Gelder. “It is apparent that Karen has the rare ability, especially for a new choreographer, to challenge the dancers through demanding and interesting choreography that allows the performers themselves to grow technically and artistically.” 

Fleming looks forward to seeing her work on stage, in front of an audience of her peers and professors. 

“Everyone has worked so hard. I’m really proud of my dancers and everything they’ve done,” Fleming said. “I can’t even begin to express how excited I am to see it on stage.”