CSUMB instructor Fran Spector Atkins takes an essential step in making Monterey a Mecca for dance.
Thursday, May 17, 2001
Fran Spector Atkins is no flighty dancer speaking in vague, self-conscious half-truisms. She is articulate, driven and high-energy, with a passionate belief in dance''s power to transform.
Looking out across the derelict buildings and windswept fields that dot the vista, it''s easy to see how Fran Spector Atkins can consider herself a pioneer and California State University at Monterey Bay a strange new frontier.
Petite and raven-haired, Atkins is the force behind the first Monterey Dance Week, which takes place this week at CSUMB. She is a transplanted New Yorker--a sophisticated cultural aesthete who''s crossed into the virtual wasteland that describes the state of dance in Monterey County. But like her literary predecessor John Steinbeck, whose work she has used as inspiration for her choreography, Atkins sees promise in the landscape, no matter how brutal its appearance.
Driving across campus, Atkins is just this side of frazzled. The preparations for Monterey Dance Week have left her overwhelmed but elated, and as a result, she''s misplacing her car keys and risking parking tickets--small prices to pay when considering her larger goal: to make Monterey a Mecca for dance.
"I see the potential of Monterey County to be an international dance center," says Atkins. "A dance festival is an essential step in bringing exposure to the area."
And don''t let those misplaced keys fool you. Atkins is no flighty dancer speaking in vague, self-conscious half-truisms, a stereotype immortalized to perfection by Jules Feiffer in his cartoon strip. She is articulate, driven and high-energy, with a passionate belief in dance''s power to transform. Dressed in a smart taupe pantsuit and high-heeled pumps, her artistic sensibility is East Coast, something she makes good use of by bringing Charles Anderson and Sara Hook--dancers with a long performance history in New York City--to Monterey as part of Dance Week''s festivities.
If Atkins has big ideas now, they weren''t always evident. Dance wasn''t her original career objective. She got her bachelor''s degree in Occupational Therapy from Boston University in 1972 and then turned to dance, spending eight years dancing in New York City, where she was exposed to cutting edge performances. It was an experience that continues to influence her.
"I''ve always thought of myself as a New Yorker," she says, claiming her time in New York had such an impact on her she feels as though she never left. But leave she did, first to work with ballet teacher Richard Gibson in Palo Alto for four years and then to travel to Europe for a two-year sojourn guest teaching and choreographing in places as disparate as Israel and Denmark.
It was a one-suitcase adventure, says Atkins, one that eventually brought her back to her hometown of Cleveland. She guest-taught at Oberlin College and opened her own dance studio, SpectorDance, which she operated out of Cleveland for two years. Atkins says that near the end of her time in Ohio, she had a yearning for California and ventured back west.
She wound up teaching dance at Contra Costa Valley College until she got a call from Gibson that there was a director of ballet studies job opening at Carmel''s Hidden Valley Arts Center. Would she be interested? She took the job and directed the Hidden Valley ballet program for six years. She also married shortly after coming to Carmel "and became immersed that way," she says, by way of explaining her attachment to the area.
When she left her post at Hidden Valley in 1993, Atkins spent two years getting her MFA in Dance and Choreography from Mills College. She then spent an additional year becoming certified in Laban Movement, a system that provides a framework for the analytic description of human movement. She spent another year doing guest choreography in Taiwan and finally, in 1997, reformed SpectorDance and began pursuing CSUMB about beginning a dance program with her as its head.
But a dance department wasn''t a priority for a university where, Atkins says, there was more call for aerobics than for the classics. Nevertheless, through an unusual entrepreneurial relationship, the university built a top-notch dance facility not only for its own use but also for Atkins to rent as studio space for her own SpectorDance Ballet School and Dance Company. That particular relationship is soon to end, however, when Atkins opens her own 7,500-square-foot studio in Marina this September.
Shape of Things to Come
Currently, there is no formal dance department at CSUMB, but Atkins has no doubt there will be one in the future--she estimates it will take two to three years. The next step toward that process takes place this coming fall when the university will have its own performing arts department, headed by Richard Bains, that will oversee music, theater and dance. Atkins makes no bones about her desire to head the eventual dance department. Whether or not that will be the case is yet to unfold.
"We have so many wonderful cultures that exist here in Monterey," says Atkins'' CSUMB boss Bobbi Bonace, "but dance is one that hasn''t really evolved." Bonace, who was instrumental in giving the go-ahead for a dance festival, has a high regard for Atkins, calling her passionate, disciplined and energetic. But the stress of virtually single-handedly putting on an ambitious venture like Dance Week takes its toll. "When she''s calm," said Bonace, "she has a gentle way about her that''s just lovely to see. And when she''s not, she drives you nuts because she''s relentless with questions and making sure tasks are done."
If Atkins once had any doubts about her mission, they seem to have dissolved in her quest to see Monterey County become a major contender in dance. She is certain that it was destiny that brought her to the Monterey Bay area, a place where her desire to educate about the possibilities and potential of dance aligns with a virtual dance vacuum--Monterey is her tabula rasa.
But Atkins is also sensitive to the perceived notions of dance. Often misunderstood, frequently discounted, dance has persistently been under-appreciated outside major cultural centers like New York and San Francisco. With this in mind, Atkins has designed a performance for Dance Week that makes use of local cultural mainstays. Not only does she use Steinbeck as the basis for her own work, she brings in performers whose work has vestigial ties to the area as well.
Sara Hook is assistant professor of dance at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She also directs her own company, Sara Hook Dances, which she will bring to Monterey Dance Week to teach master classes and perform in the Friday and Saturday performances at the World Theater.
Hook''s piece, Learn to Return, is set to the music of J.S. Bach. Since the Carmel Bach Festival stands as a pillar of local culture, Atkins knew Hook''s piece was a match. "Fran definitely has her audience and her mission in mind," says Hook from her University of Illinois office.
Atkins also knows that younger potential audience members have been raised on technical wizardry. To that end, she has worked with Bill Roden of New Dawn Studios to incorporate visual imagery into her pieces. It''s all part of Atkins'' plan to make dance more accessible, and Roden agrees.
"I think it''s one step of the process of taking modern dance, which has traditionally been esoteric, and making it more immediate and something people can relate to," says Roden.
Also participating in Dance Week is Charles Anderson, who will teach master classes and present one of his choreographed works to the music of Vivaldi as part of the World Theater performances. Anderson is a former dancer with the New York Ballet and has maintained a choreographic residence with Contra Costa Ballet for the past 10 years.
Whether these connections can serve to pull in audiences unaccustomed to appreciating dance remains to be seen. Atkins and Bonace are both optimistic about the upcoming festival and, despite the arid dance landscape, Atkins has seen a shift in attitudes about dance. "Since I''ve been here, there''s been so much change in the level of interest. There''s another level of awareness. It''s progressing at the right rate."
Poised on the brink of a new studio and the first-ever Monterey Dance Week, Atkins is equally proud of her work as a choreographer and as a teacher--both do the job of getting more attention for local dance. And though she was raised on the latest and greatest as it was happening in New York and misses that climate, she says she''s on a different mission now, one that''s in service to dance and the changes it can affect in people and in communities. "I feel I''m a pioneer," she says. "I belong here. This is where my work is."
Treasures: Celebrating Our Heritage will be performed Friday and Saturday (8pm) at the CSUMB World Theater, Sixth Avenue in Marina at the former Fort Ord. Tickets cost $15/adults and $12/children under 12. For reservations or more info, call 582-4580.