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Eric Kupers: The Art of Interpretive Dance

Dance ensemble makes personal connection with music.

Dance ensemble makes personal connection with music.

Photo | Kris Stewart

Dance ensemble makes personal connection with music.

Photo | Kris Stewart

Photo | Kris Stewart

Dance ensemble makes personal connection with music.

Eric Kupers: The Art of Interpretive Dance

March 21, 2013

Whenever dance is mentioned at CSU East Bay one name always comes up: Eric Ray Kupers.

Quiet and unassuming Kupers, sporting a curly mohawk and piercings, could easily be mistaken for a student. Despite his youthful appearance, Kupers is a full time professor at CSU East Bay, known for his innovative teaching styles.

Kupers was born in London, England, but lived there less than a year before his family uprooted and moved to the city of Los Angeles. Kupers started dancing around the age of 12 through a program at his school; a magnet school focused on performing arts.

“I did theatre and some music but I loved dance most of all. When I discovered dance, I felt like I had found home, in a way,” said Kupers. “I’ve let it go at different times over the years but I always come back.”

One of Kupers’ first memorable moments in dance was when he finally made the folk dance group in 5th grade. He had auditioned the year before and did not make the cut. Although he was just beginning his dance journey, and by his own admission was not that good, he made the team. “I just remember being so happy,” said Kupers.

Kupers completed his undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz and received his Masters in Fine Arts at UC Davis. According to Kupers, the definition of dance depends on whom he is talking to and in what context. He starts off by describing dance as movement. In some ways, anything that moves is dancing while on the other hand, it’s movement that we call dance.

“The reason it’s hard to define is that dance can be different things to different people and there’s whole movements in the dance world that were about challenging what we think is dance and saying that any movement at all is dance,” said Kupers. “I tend to hold to that view, yet at the same time when I teach a dance class I don’t just say, ‘Okay just be yourself and do whatever you want and that’s dance.’ There is technique and there are frameworks to learn within and so it’s both all movement and then specific movement, that’s geared towards some kind of communication.”

In 1996 Kupers, along with CSUEB faculty member Kimiko Guthrie, founded the Dandelion Dance Theater. Kupers and Guthrie had been working together since 1991. “We met at UC Santa Cruz and started working together, then graduated and formed a company,” Kupers stated.

In 2000, the head of the dance department at CSUEB was looking for someone to take over and asked Guthrie and Kupers to teach a quarter; they both were asked to come back at the end of the quarter.

Kupers spent the next six years teaching part time; in 2006 he began teaching full time.

While gifted as a choreographer, Kupers did not always want to be one. For a while he just wanted to be a dancer. Ten years ago things began to shift and he got interested in choreograping and directing.

“I started finding my way through the choreographic process and through that got interested in diversity and the foundation for creating interesting art,” explained Kupers. “I kept working towards art that felt meaningful to me, felt engaging and felt like it was having some kind of transformative quality on the communities in which we made the art and performed it; an aspect of social activism but even though the pieces aren’t always about the political themes.”

Kupers, now Associate Professor of Dance, is the Director of Dance for the All Bodies & Abilities Program and as part of the program he directs the Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble.

The ensemble is filled with students, alumni, community members and professional performers who all come together to do research on inclusive performance, which includes people with and without disabilities. People of all sizes, shapes and ages comprise this collection; they come from various art forms including dance, theatre and music.

On Thursday evenings, you can find Kupers in the studio theater at CSU East Bay, chewing on his pen top, contemplating new arrangements for the dance ensemble. The ensemble is comprised of an eclectic group of individuals that includes adults and children. Some are in jeans; some are in sweats and some in dresses. There are props placed throughout the room; masks, blocks, chairs and a variety of other items are used throughout the choreography to contribute to the telling of stories.

Working with people from different backgrounds could be stressful for some, but theatre arts major, Belgica Rodriguez said Kupers has never lost his cool.

“He is the most patient person I have ever met, seriously. I mean, he deals with everyone. He will say yes to everyone. He will be polite to everyone,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him really get mad at someone.”

Rodriguez began classes with Kupers during her freshman year and there she discovered her love of dance. “I was like, wait I can dance?” she exclaimed. “I mean I wasn’t very good but I’ve gotten better through the years. This is my fourth year dancing and I’ve gotten progressively better.”

Kupers recently came back from Hawaii where he, and members of various dance ensembles he directs, participated in a dance exchange with University of Hawaii at Hilo and Hawaii Community College.

“It was great. It was jam-packed. We did so much in five days. It was a nice bonding experience with the students. We learned a lot about traditional Hawaiian dance. We got to meet all these other dancers and have a really rich exchange,” said Kupers.

Among the students who attended was health science and dance major, Alejandra Aguilera.

“One thing that stuck out to me the most, was the connection that they have with their culture through the movement that they do,” said Aguilera. “I think a lot of us here, focus more on our dance to show exactly what we’re feeling. Whereas they show, the connection of the heaven and the earth, the whole Mother Nature idea, that’s what they do with their dance. It was inspiring to watch.”

When Aguilera first came to CSUEB, her idea of dance was technique based. With a background in ballet, she was used to structure and uniformed choreography. Through Kupers’ instruction, she was able to learn fluidity and other forms of dance.

“I got the chance to learn that you can still have dance but express it through different parts and different styles and I think that’s something really special about Eric and Nina, who’s another faculty member here, is that they really show students how to dance with their bodies as opposed to just dancing,” said Aguilera.

One of Aguilera’s most memorable moments from Kupers’ class is when Kupers instructed the students to dance with their fat.

“I had no idea what that meant,” said Aguilera. “In ballet, you do chasses, you do plies, you releve and you’re supposed to be very light and with his class it’s just like, okay, go across the floor and dance with some part of your body that has fat.”

For students in Kupers class it is very common for him to request them to dance with their skin, pretend they are a skeleton and then pretend they have no bones at all.

“It just really really helped, for me at least and I think for a lot of other dancers, to just loosen up and create your own style of dance through your own body instead of trying to mimic one specific style or a certain technique,” said Aguilera.

The dance studio is also filled with different tools to assist those with disabilities, such as wheelchairs, specially made for dance. Sometimes Kupers has students use these wheelchairs despite not having a physical disability.

“I think it’s a really powerful way of teaching because you get to learn dance through other people’s perspectives,” said Aguilera.

It is just one of the ways in which Kupers encourages his students to experience dance through a different perspective.

“He would give us so many exercises where we would close our eyes so we would stop depending on our eyes for balance and it was so different and I loved it,” said Rodriguez.

In Kupers’ ensemble, having a disability doesn’t necessarily make it harder or easier to dance. Although it may be difficult for those with a disability or different style of dancing to be considered mainstream, Kupers is trying to find a way to counteract that.

“What I’ve been doing is sort of redefining what performance technique means. I’m not necessarily interested in working with people who can kick their leg really high and do a flip and twelve turns or anything like that,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s a nice ability but what I’m interested in is people who are committed to the process, who are responsible, who are focused and people have that or don’t have that, with or without disabilities.”

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