When Jill Johnson took the helm of the Harvard Dance Program in 2011, she drew inspiration from the University’s goal of incorporating the arts more broadly into life on campus.

“I am fascinated by this idea of transdisciplinary investigation, and that dance is a substantive source of inquiry,” Johnson told the Gazette shortly after her appointment.

Three years later, Johnson is fulfilling that promise. Building on Harvard’s move to accept various performance-related courses for academic credit, in 2013 she created the Harvard Dance Project, a faculty-led ensemble that combines rigorous study with the rewards of being part of a professional dance company.

The goal of the project, said Johnson, is to teach students about “choreographic thinking and how to examine ideas in fields beyond dance which can be used to create a dance and in dance performance research.”

The for-credit class meets twice a week. Any subject can provide the seeds of inspiration. Students’ diverse areas of study, such as neuroscience, education, and philosophy, all have “fueled the artistic process,” said Johnson.

“It’s not about forgetting other practices,” she added, “it’s about integrating them and seeing what they look like on the physical plane.”

Last month the Harvard Dance Project performed “LOOK UP,” a two-hour improvisational piece based on a series of “set choreographed phrases” and inspired by the works of architect Louis Kahn, Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 book “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” and recent research into how the brain perceives digital media.

As food for thought — and creativity — Johnson shared with the class articles on how digital overload is “affecting our brains and our perception and our relationship to the world and our physicality.” The material, she said, inspired conversations about how to interpret the notion of attention-deprived lives through the choreographic structure and states of dance.

“We talked about what that might look like and what we are really craving in this hyper-connected world. … It became very clear that it was to be in the presence of others; that the analog body has become separate from what we do. We thought about how we might create the conditions that would provide an analog break from our digital screens.”

“LOOK UP” was driven by impromptu, real-time interactions between the dancers and the audience.

For Johnson, the University’s embrace of the arts represents a natural evolution of a 21st-century liberal arts education. “The idea that the arts are purely performative is to limit what the possibility for the study of the arts provides,” she said.

“What dance does is help students negotiate very complex and sophisticated situations in any given moment. Those are great intellectual and life and visceral skills that I think are really exciting. This is true in visual arts, music, and theater. The integration of the arts in academic study can only serve to broaden what an education looks like in and for the 21st century.”


1 Jill Johnson (center) leads the Harvard Dance Project class at the Harvard Dance Center.
2 Sun streams across Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, during warm-up exercises.
3 Jill Johnson strikes a pose during rehearsal. “I really truly believe as a radical optimist that the power of the arts really is potent,” said Johnson. “It’s nonverbal; it’s of the body.”
4 Tessa Markewich ’16 lifts weights as part of strengthening exercises during class.
5 Aru Gonzalez ’14, Ed.M. ’15, (from left), Liza Batkin ’15, Julia Cataldo ’15, Jill Johnson, Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, and Tessa Markewich ’16 are captured in the reflection of a mirror in the Dance Center’s studio.
6 Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, (from left), Liza Batkin ’15, Aru Gonzalez ’14, Ed.M. ’15, Jill Johnson, and Tessa Markewich ’16 connect on the floor.
7 Jill Johnson effortlessly grips her feet.
8 Aru Gonzalez ’14, Ed.M. ’15, said that taking part in the Dance Project has helped give him “more voice as a dancer and a person. I’ve been able to contribute more and to be more creative; to take more risks in dance.”
9 Tessa Markewich ’16 captured in an evocative pose.
10 Julia Cataldo ’15 (left) and Aru Gonzalez ’14, Ed.M. ’15, move in sync. Cataldo called the Dance Project “a space for exploration in something I thought I was well versed in. It was an opportunity to look at dance in new ways, but it also confirmed why I loved dance in the first place.”
11 Jill Johnson (from left), Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, Lauren Balbus ’17, Tessa Markewich ’16, Liza Batkin ’15, Aru Gonzalez ’14, Ed.M. ’15, and Julia Cataldo ’15 check their smartphones to schedule their next meeting.
12 Maya Park ’16 (from left), Tessa Markewich ’16, and Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, share a lighthearted moment.
13 Jill Johnson (from left), Liza Batkin ’15, Maya Park ’16, Tessa Markewich ’16, and Lauren Balbus ’17 practice a dance gesture on the floor for their most recent installation, “Look Up.”
14 Jill Johnson (left) and Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, rehearse Cover’s solo.
15 Whitney Cover, Ed.M. ’15, incorporating Jill Johnson’s comments, rehearses her solo.
16 Liza Batkin ’15 revels in the moment.