Anjali Austin is a student in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program and a returning professional. A former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem for 13 years, she has worked with noted teachers and choreographers such as Agnes de Mille, Louis Johnson, Alexandra Danilova, Glen Tetley, Valerie Bettis, Geoffrey Holder, and Frederick Franklin. Ballets she has performed in include Billy the Kid, Swan Lake (Act II), Serenade, Flower Festival, Dougla, Concerto Barocco, Prince Igor, Paquita and Frankie and Johnny. Her credits also include the PBS television specials, Fall River Legend, A Streetcar Named Desire and Creole Giselle.
She has trained in Pilates and GYROTONIC® systems of exercise for over 35 years and is currently a Specialized GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® Master Trainer. Anjali has been a member of the School of Dance at Florida State University (FSU) since 1995 and teaches ballet, Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis, choreographs, and mentors undergraduate and graduate students.
Below is a brief interview with Anjali as she speaks about her art practice and her choice to come to Goddard:
How do you define yourself as an artist?
I’ve always been an artist, but what’s becoming clear is how I am evolving at this stage of my life. In many ways it’s absolutely freeing. I’m at a place where I’m not trying to make myself appropriate for someone else’s guidelines or box. It’s about developing into who I am as an artist and exploring the realm of possibilities of who that is, physically, mentally, creatively.
I just returned to the studio this past semester. This was my goal for returning to school – to create a solo work. As a dancer and vocalist, it was about feeling comfortable about what I do and finding myself in an unexpected place. This creative work has now turned out to be more a tribute to my ancestors. About me, but not about me. Finding myself delving into childhood, areas of my upbringing, family, roots, ideas, and conversations as a child. It all shows me as an artist and who I’m becoming.
Working with quilts that my maternal grandmother (Gussie Beatrice Arnold Hill) made, over 30 of them, has also turned this project into an interdisciplinary process. I realize that’s why I’ve been keeping these quilts all these years. Seeing them all spread out and as both artworks and specimens of an incredible amount of time. A couple of them are over nine feet. I had them all photographed as part of a collaboration with dancer/photographer Kaitlyn Christiansen, and our relationship has developed in the process. Another collaborator in this was with costume designer Currie Leggoe, who altered a jumpsuit my grandmother never finished to fit me to wear as the costume.
The whole experience is about how to become an independent artist. The importance of just asking the question, are you willing to work with me. I always pulled back from this, but now I’m finding that this way of working has opened up opportunities. For example, my collaborators and I are interested in finding other ways to work together.
This process (of opening myself to myself) also pushed my buttons because it’s an emotional subject. What are my foundational beliefs? I’ve found that as a mature artist, it’s okay if my beliefs differ from my ancestors.
I’m thinking I’ll do portions of it at Considered Space, and maybe at graduating presentation. Part of what’s enabling me to do this on time for those events is that the performance’s dialogue is coming out of all the writing I’ve done in the MFAIA program to date.
How has the MFAIA affected your work as an educator?
It’s plunged me into something new, refreshed who I am as an educator, and given me new tools as a studio practitioner so students see me in a different way. In many ways this has surprised some of them and made them curious. Getting a degree should be about much more than just the piece of paper received. It should be a pathway to accomplishing your goals, and those should be about shifting and growing.
I’m a dancer, but I’m also a performer with varying skills. I have a renewed interested in the entire art of performing, practically and theoretically.
My Goddard studies have affected me positively in all areas of teaching. I’m more conscious of working one on one. I have more tools to feed folks. I’m listening differently and speaking less. I am wanting them to come to me with their own questions, which can guide me in the teaching instead of my just throwing everything I know at them.
How do you feel as a returning professional in a grad program?
I didn’t know how I was going to respond to this situation, but I thought, I could pay and have a show, or I could pay for a show and earn a degree. It’s definitely pushed my buttons because I’m used to being mostly a studio-based artist. When I entered the program I didn’t have trouble critically thinking about my work, but I did have trouble writing about it.
The process made me look at my choreographic skills, which are clear in theme and construction, to find a means for expressing critical thought on paper. Laiwan guided me into thinking and writing with a more critical view. It’s still a challenge for me since my writing work has been both autobiographical and ethnographic. However I find it has definitely shifted my thinking process and calls me to question the obvious. I am digesting information with a new critical sophistication.
Do you see yourself as an interdisciplinary artist?
I’m realizing I’ve always been interdisciplinary. In terms of life skills, I didn’t recognize this fact as such. I compartmentalized and kept things intentionally separate. I danced in one place, sang in another, and sewed over there. But they’re all equal strengths, skills, and talents. I’m now really valuing how much I can do, solidifying those areas, and then also thinking about collaborators. I’m shifting into new areas and synthesizing everything in the studio.
What do you feel are the program’s strengths?
For me, I like and need the freedom. Having worked in an academic setting for a number of years with everything mapped out, my life revolved around structure. I often say, as a dancer, we are very obedient. I needed the freeform process now to get where I’m going because I was so busy trying to meet those guidelines and deadlines that I didn’t always explore my full range of possibilities or talents. As someone who’s hard on herself, I had to get to a freer space.
Have your goals for your MFA degree changed since you entered the program?
I wouldn’t say my goals have changed – they have simply expanded. If I use my solo work as an example, I am now considering how this piece can fit into various communities and alternative performance spaces like galleries or someone’s home. I feel I am just scratching the surface of this piece. There is additional research on my Black Seminole heritage that I am delving into and which is having a profound affect on my piece. This is a welcome and valuable expansion of my goals since entering the MFAIA program.
Any other thoughts?
To me Goddard’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program is unique and suited to my needs. I didn’t’ really have any idea what I was getting into, but this was where I needed to be as an artist and individual who’s trying to better herself. Honestly my first residency at Port Townsend I became very emotional and spent a good amount of time walking the coastline trying to sort through my feelings. I had fear and anxiety that this place was going to pilot me to grow in a way that I’d been avoiding and, possibly, let me meet my truest self. That, I decided, was an opportunity I simply could not turn down.