Princeton Weekly Bulletin May 3, 1999
Beauty through movement
Performer, choreographer Aleta Hayes combines dance with singing, acting
By Sally Freedman
I was premed at Stanford," says Aleta Hayes. "I worked in a genetics lab, in an emergency room and as a patient advocate. I did all the things you do to get into medical school. And I liked science. But I wasn't meant to do it."
Hayes, performer and choreographer, is in her fifth year at Princeton as lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and Theater and Dance.
Even when she meant to be a doctor, she says, "I was always doing arts things, rushing from the lab to a dance class or a cello lesson or a painting class." In 1991 she graduated from Stanford with a BA in drama; then she went to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she earned her 1993 MFA in dance and choreography.
"At first I thought the program at NYU wasn't intellectual enough," she says, laughing at her brash younger self. "I thought an intelligent person had to read certain things, study a certain way. It took me a while to comprehend what it is to have a physical intelligence.
"When I finished my degree," she adds, "I was still so naïve I didn't realize you couldn't just go out and earn a living being an artist."
Like most young artists, Hayes cobbled together a livelihood from a variety of jobs -- though, unlike many, she never had to wait tables or drive a taxi.
"My first job," she says, "was teaching dance to children. I thought it was a comedown, but a friend convinced me that that, too, was dance. Now I love teaching children; I still teach preschoolers once a week. They have a kind of natural expressiveness that older people have to struggle to regain.
"In teaching dance," she says, "I look for people to express their own beauty through movement. I want to develop the person in the dancing body."
Hayes first came to Princeton in 1994 as a guest choreographer. Dance program director Ze'eva Cohen, professor in the Council of the Humanities, found her through a colleague at NYU.
"It was my practice to invite established professionals to teach in the program," says Cohen. "But that year two guest choreographers canceled, one after the other, to take up longer term opportunities. So I thought I'd try the other tack: get someone with outstanding potential who was just beginning a career."
"Ze'eva really took a chance on me," says Hayes, "and her mentorship has meant a lot to me ever since."
In 1995 Hayes joined the Theater and Dance Program as regular faculty, teaching on a part-time basis. She teaches a studio class called Introduction to Movement, and last year she cotaught a course called Performance Theory and Composition with Roger Babb.
"I try to combine dance and theater, theory and practice," she says.
Hayes leads a very busy life. In general, she acknowledges, "I tend to do too many things." In addition to teaching at Princeton and at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York, she keeps up an active schedule of performance.
Among the recent highlights of her career, as choreographer she points to "Seele Brennt," which went on world tours with the London-based Transitions Dance Company in 1996 and 1997; "Hatshepsut," a solo piece she has danced in London as well as several times at Princeton; and "Taratantara," a piece she has shown at Jacob's Pillow and several venues in New York. As performer, she cites a NY City Opera production of Orfeo this past fall and participation in the International Jazz Festival in Verona, Italy last summer.
"I'm a bit of a strange bird," she asserts. "As a dancer, I don't really fit in. I didn't dance with Paul Taylor or Martha Graham. I do combinations of things. At City Opera I combined dance with acting; in Verona I com-bined singing with dance. Thank God I can do other things besides dance. There are so many incredible dancers and so few slots in professional companies."
Paris in the '20s, '30s
For the immediate future, Hayes is working on a one-woman show that will "revisit Paris of the late '20s and early '30s, and the black people who went there and flourished. Josephine Baker is perhaps the most famous, but she was by no means the only one. It was an interesting period in art, music and dance, and I'm interested in the people who contributed during that rich time."
She is also planning a fall freshman seminar on social dance, as a well as a collaboration with Nell Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, for the Program in African American Studies. "I have the idea of exploring my art form in the context of the black cultural experience in a fresh way," she says. "As a black woman and an artist who has studied different ethic dance forms, I don't necessarily seek to do something culturally specific all the time, but there's a lot of richness in the black experience for me to explore and impart."
Upcoming performances by Hayes in New York City include a video-dance piece called "Somebody Special" at 6:00 p.m. on May 15 in Symphony Space (also presented April 30 and May 1 at Aaron Davis Hall) and a song-and-dance presentation with jazz bassist Joelle Landry at 8:45 p.m. as part of the Vision Festival on May 21 at St. Nicholas of Myra Church. On May 3 there will be a showing of her Introduction to Dance Movement class at 3:30 p.m in the Hagan Dance Studio, 185 Nassau St.