Arts & Culture

School of the Arts students go back to the ’60s with art happening at Foss Seaport

None of the students earnestly practicing abstract choreography in the School of the Arts dance classroom this week in Tacoma are old enough to have gone to an art happening in the 1960s. Neither, probably, are their parents. But those students, plus more in the SOTA art and music departments, are collaborating on an original, public art “happening” next week in the warehouse atmosphere of the Foss Seaport building.

“It’s probably the weirdest thing they’ve ever done,” says dance teacher Robin Jaecklein.

“And the weirdest thing their parents have ever seen, too,” adds head of music Paul Eliot.

Together with art instructor Mary Mann, Eliot and Jaecklein are in the middle of their third session of “Walls” — a multidisciplinary, in-depth class that’s a part of the three-week J-term offered in January by SOTA. Students choose an out-of-the-box subject to dive into for the miniterm, and in this case, produce a public show at the end. Offered once every three or four years, “Walls” gives students the chance to learn about the 1960s art movement of indeterminacy, where dance, art and music parted ways from traditional narratives informed by events, feelings or characters, and into pure, abstract art created by chance. Pioneers like composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg serve as the inspiration for the course; the 71 students spend one week learning, one week creating their own material in small groups, and one week rehearsing and performing.

“The kids respond really well to the ideas,” says Eliot, who spent the first week teaching music students short pieces by composer Herbert Brün to get a feel for how chance music works. “It’s blowing their minds a little. The big challenge is to coach them to not go just to the absurd and call it art, not to go to improvisation or be goofy. But they’re really taking it seriously. … They roll dice to decide what goes next in the piece.”

While Eliot’s music students are sampling random noises (a blender, popcorn popping in a microwave) and Mann’s art students are painting enormous cardboard walls with cell structures and designing lighting and costumes, Jaecklein’s dance students are working moves in front of a mirror, their gestures coordinated, yet entirely separate — like fish in a reef.

The resulting performance next week will involve six 10-minute performances dotted around the cavernous space. There won’t be chairs; audience members will wander over to each piece as it is lit up. Previous “Walls” shows featured pink lighting, ladders, lamps on the floor and psychedelic LED costumes, among other things. To add a fun component, the admission ticket buys a voting chip that can be used to vote for a favorite piece — although audience members can buy as many chips as they like.

While recreating a 1960s art happening might seem either wacky or old-fashioned, all three teachers say it’s of huge educational value.

“In this day and age, dance is very emotional, you align the movement to what you hear and feel,” Jaecklein says. “This is a very intellectual way of creating dance, where you take the emotion out of it.”

“It’s the same for the music,” adds Eliot.

While “Walls” is a highly popular J-term class, the final performance can be a little unpredictable for parents.

“I saw a lot of confusion on people’s faces,” recalls Mann of the last show.

“Parents have told me it’s the coolest thing ever that we’re doing for the kids, but then kids will say, ‘My grandma walked out,’ ” says Eliot with a laugh.