A row of bright red garments hung in a row behind Leslie Kraus’ desk in her Reynolds Performing Arts Center office. She’s an assistant professor in the University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance. The crimson costumes’ ready access was in preparation for Kraus’ trip to the People’s Republic of China a few days later. Propitiously, red is the happiest of hues in Middle Kingdom culture.
The former principal dancer and soloist for Kate Weare Company recently turned academic would be leading a group of six undergraduate students participating in the International Creative Dance Seminar in Beijing. The event is part cultural exchange and part educational opportunity. It extends a cooperative pact between OU and Beijing Normal University (BNU) that began in 2017. Both this year and last, OU hosted BNU students for intensive seminars and performances on the Norman campus.
“I didn’t have an official capacity during those visits,” Kraus said. “But I had a lot of interactions, teaching a technique class and got to see the beautiful show our students collaborated with them on. I gained a familiarity with the BNU students and their professors.”
Kraus recognizes the value of exposing students to dancers who don’t necessarily share similar frames of reference.
“Some of these students have traveled to Europe, but China is a radically different culture from our own,” she said. “It just blows open your mind. I haven’t been to China but have gone to Africa and felt like I’d landed on another planet. I found the experience to be really profound. It’s important and healthy to be around people who are not obviously in any way like yourself. They may not dance, study or worship like you but it’s vital to learn about each other.”
For the Beijing seminar Kraus prepared instruction on modern dance technique with improvisational emphasis along with a restaging of “Bicuspid” by Austin Hartel and her own new and original work “Condor Kiss.”
“It will be a tone or mood of what the New York City downtown dance scene is,” she said. “That’s my background and where I studied the most. I’ll teach out of that vernacular and a lot of my professional work has had some aspect of improvisation training in it. So I’ll season my classes with some of those moments. It’s asking the dancers to create movement, contributing creatively to the class.”
Dance has proven to be a functional language across cultural divides.
“As an undergrad, a choreographer named Ralph Lemon came to my college,” Kraus said. “He brought dancers from Africa, China, Australia and other countries. I was astounded to see them come together and work. They could not speak each other’s languages and back then there were no phones you could type in and get an immediate translation.”
Communication came from movement alone.
“Especially for trained dancers who can read dance cues or body language in a certain way, they can truly rehearse together. It might take longer, be confusing and chaotic but it’s messy in a good way. It’s putting you up against someone who’s unlike yourself and how much you can still communicate with someone even though they don’t speak your language. It all happened in a meaningful and vibrant way. We do it all the time with children who aren’t verbal yet.”
Kraus is the mother of a toddler.
“We get less thoughtful about our words but get on the floor with kids and communicate,” she said. “It’s kind of the same thing while in dance you’re doing it more formally and you’re trying to put on a show.”
The half dozen OU undergraduate students selected to attend the Chinese seminar are not that far removed in age from toddlers. It would be a big responsibility for anyone leading such a sextet. International travel and a demanding seminar schedule could be a rigorous test for many.
“I know all these students well and the School of Dance is a really robust program,” Kraus said. “I know what I’ve seen required of all these students. Their work effort and ethic is very strong. This is a big opportunity for these students. And I’m an obvious advocate for dance, its power of communication and ability to translate across cultures.”