MFA Thesis Choreographies to Light up Mondavi Center

By Josy Miller, Arts Initiative Story Corps

“Push it, Kevin. Where are you afraid to go? Lean into it.” These words from Kevin O’Connor’s advisor led the Master of Fine Arts candidate to dis/connect, his interdisciplinary circus-theatre-choreography-song experiment that opens February 16th at the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

dis/connect will be presented with MFA candidate Folawole’s Light Phases in a double-bill of MFA Thesis Choreographies, the culmination of two years of study in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in the Department of Theatre & Dance.

“We started with an idea,” said O’Connor, the “we” referring to his company of nationally renowned circus artists, performance artists, and musicians. “We wanted to let the site [the Studio Theatre] act as the influence for the piece, rather than impose work onto it.”

O’Connor and his collaborators wanted to reexamine the Mondavi Center as a building fundamentally in conversation with the living, breathing community around it. Beginning from a place of determined experimentation, the artists started rehearsal with only this objective guiding their process: connection to space and place. At the end of each week, O’Connor asked his company to write out what the piece was about. This exercise provided a crucial artistic buoy that simultaneously facilitated multiple voices while preventing overly deterministic work.

The company’s collaborative process produced a piece that continues to use multiple perspectives even in performance, relying heavily on audience engagement and participation. After an opening exterior sequence, the audience is invited to “bring something in with them. Not necessarily physical. Maybe just a memory of the outside space,” said O’Connor. Later in the piece, audience members act as stencils for spectral images that get hung from the theater ceiling and interacted with by the performers. The show closes with the audience at round tables brainstorming ways that the Mondavi Center could be more “porous,” according to O’Connor.

Folawole, who is the recipient of the prestigious Djerassi Fellowship, will present a series of works entitled Light Phases that use his expertise in hip-hop, ballet, theatre and light installation in “four unique pieces that share a core of improvisation and play.”

The central artistic and ideological tenet of free play that the choreographers share has been directly influenced by UC Davis’s choreography program, in which “we are given time and space to explore, to play with ideas,” said O’Connor.

The candidates are both equally committed to the university’s cultivation of the mind as well as their discipline’s interest in knowledge that emerges from the body. Their professors and the department have actively fostered this convergence; the department not only encourages but requires interdisciplinary work as part of the MFA program. “In my time here, I have taken courses in video and sculpture,” noted O’Connor, a circus artist and ecologist now about to earn an MFA in choreography. “They have both had real impact on my work. We have to be porous, connected to what is around us.”

In its mission statement, the Department of Theatre & Dance articulates its focus on interdisciplinary study, collaboration and facilitation of “a supportive work environment to help students explore new understandings.” Indeed, O’Connor’s sentiments reflect the philosophy of the Department in general, but also his piece specifically. He acknowledges and appreciates that his study at UC Davis has shaped him and has been simultaneously shaped by him, and all of its students, in ways both intentional and inescapable. And this symbiosis extends to every aspect of the campus, not least in its most visible incarnations such as the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

“The Mondavi Center can facilitate the artistic energy of this community, and its dispersal,” argues O’Connor, which is why the MFA Thesis Choreographies performance will begin outside to allow the audience to be fully aware of the environment surrounding and informing its interior experience.

This goal of reciprocity is also the impetus for a series of free circus workshops that O’Connor offered last Sunday, February 5th, for “all ages – from children to grandparents!” he says with a characteristic grin. “I hate the idea of empty space.”

Performances will run February 16-26, 2012 in the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre. To see a full schedule and purchase tickets, visit

To read more about the MFA Thesis Choreographies and view video promos, go to