Two dancers sit motionless onstage at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York City. Arms wrapped in an embrace, their heads rest dreamily together while their legs reach out, lithe like tree roots.
Choreographer Xinyi Zhang ’25 closes her eyes and waits for the music to start and the lights to brighten. The audience blurs from her consciousness; she turns inward, anticipating her New York debut.
Zhang’s piece, In Between the House Light and the Sunrise, is the culmination of her study-away semester with the immersive Trinity/La Mama Performing Arts Program. As one of 14 students from across the country accepted into the highly competitive program last fall, Zhang’s capacity as a performing artist ballooned.
Remarkably, when she first arrived at Colby from the United World College in Changshu, China, she had not considered dance as a field of study. In just four semesters, Colby’s Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance changed that by giving her flexibility to follow her creative curiosity, an array of opportunities to connect her interests, and a space where she felt supported and safe to take risks.
By the time the music and lights coaxed her into movement on the La Mama stage, she knew exactly what to do.
“It feels really good,” she said of performing. “And really right.”
An arts mindset
Arriving at a place where performance felt nourishing and welcome was a process for Zhang, a Chinese native who came to Colby as a Davis United World College Scholar with her heart set on becoming a math teacher.
Growing up in a Shanghai family with no background in the arts, she took casual ballet classes as a young girl and acted in theater in high school. Even so, the arts always felt far away from her.
Once on Mayflower Hill, the abundance of dance classes intrigued her. In her first semester, she experienced two creative processes—a first-year dance project and a play—where students had the agency to author their roles through experiments and prompts instead of being subject to a top-down directorial model. She was excited by the access to experimentation while being in a supportive, collaborative environment.
Zhang found herself at Colby shortly after the Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance adopted a new curricular model that is more flexible and open, said Annie Kloppenberg, associate professor and chair of performance, theater, and dance. “It gives students a lot of choice to follow areas of focus that they determine” while working with faculty who “model and center exploratory creative research practices within their pedagogy.”
Zhang began to think being an artist was indeed something she could do. Before long, she added a major in performance, theater, and dance to her major in educational studies and minor in mathematics.
“I thought it was a very high standard to be an artist, but [Assistant Professor] AB Brown said that if you’re in the art field, thinking about art all the time, trying to do things with artworks, then you’re an artist. They told me it’s all about the mindset. It’s not what you achieve.”
Coursework rooted in core values
Zhang’s curiosity and creativity continued to expand. She enrolled in the course Colby Collaborative Company with Assistant Professor Gwyneth Shanks, where she developed a series of collaborative performance experiments, and Introduction to Community Performance with Visiting Assistant Professor Matthew Cumbie, where she broadened her idea of who can be a collaborator.
Work during her first two years included choreographing a site-specific piece in collaboration with a music major for the Arts in Bloom Festival at the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville; performing in Colby Dance Company’s Break, Burn, Build; and acting in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and in Haunting Hour.
Her work and values are now more deeply aligned with the department’s focus on collaboration and community reciprocity, two of its four core values. The other core values are leadership and justice.
The values work like containers, said Kloppenberg, with room for nuance and distinctions. “As students work their way through the major or minor, they are asked to interrogate and declare their relationship to each of those core values through their creative and scholarly practices.” They’re also encouraged to take courses outside the department that dovetail with the major. “Instead of scaffolding a curriculum in the traditional sense of courses that build sequentially,” said Kloppenberg, “we work to ground our courses in our newly declared core values.”
Cumbie called the work Zhang made in his class “so sophisticated and so smart. So smart.” It’s the kind of interdisciplinary, hybrid, and experimental work the department encourages.
Reflecting from New York in the days before her La Mama performance, Zhang acknowledged the cumulative impact of her Colby experiences. “Those classes changed me and led me to where I am right now, to how I approach performing art and creative work.”
New York, New York
The Trinity/La Mama Performing Arts Program, administered by Trinity College in Hartford, provides an immersive experience that draws on New York City’s vibrant theater, dance, and performance communities.
“Interdisciplinary performance is at the heart of the program,” said Program Director Barbara Karger. “Our foundational mission is to open students’ eyes to their own possibilities and give them the opportunity to experiment, channel inspirations, and explore their authentic artistic voices.”
From her room at 92NY in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she stayed during her semester away, Zhang recounted a typical week.
Master classes—ranging from various dance styles to grant writing to auditioning—in the La Mama studios on East 4th Street three days a week. An internship in the education department at Brooklyn Arts Exchange twice a week. The creation of original work, either on her own or in small groups with classmates, one night a week. Attendance at a live performance in the city four nights a week.
“Coming into the program, she was unsure where she would fit in and was torn between her different interests and talents,” continued Karger, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at Trinity College. “Over the course of the semester, she realized that she did not have to limit herself to any particular field.”
Part of Zhang’s expanded view was the broad and diverse array of shows she saw during the 14-week program—51 in total.
“The volume of performances they see can’t be replicated anywhere else in the United States,” said Kloppenberg. “For artists, seeing a lot is just as important as doing a lot. We learn about ourselves in comparison to other artists. We develop—and change—our ‘taste’ as we see more, and see what is possible.”
That held true for Zhang, who said the entire New York experience made her feel there are endless possibilities for the future.
Becoming an interdisciplinary artist
Zhang’s performance piece on the La Mama stage explored international identity, artificial boundaries, and ideas of community by using houseplants as a metaphor to describe her multicultural experience of feeling transplanted from one culture to another. Dressed in earthy tans and browns, Zhang and her collaborative dancers represented roots resisting an invisible pot and its barriers.
Zhang explained that a plant’s pot creates interior and exterior environments, akin to humans separating themselves from nature by living indoors. Humans do the same when creating community, she said, allowing some people in while others remain out. “Community—and all the barriers it creates—protects us, giving us soil to live. At the same time, we are inside the pot, and it’s controlling us.”
In Between the House Light and the Sunrise also included video monitors, a light installation, and spoken word to add layers to the piece. Incorporating these effects required Zhang to push through self-imposed barriers and tap into her confidence. It paid off. Now, she sees herself anew as an interdisciplinary artist.
Next year at Colby, Zhang plans to develop the piece and possibly use it as the foundation for her senior capstone project. At the same time, she has not abandoned her dream of becoming an educator. She has spent this Jan Plan teaching high school precalculus at an international school in Taiwan with the newfound realization that teaching performance and dance is also an option in the future.
“I feel that performing arts have an educational purpose,” said Zhang. “Maybe because I’m an education major, but I believe in the power of performing arts in educating people and changing people’s minds.”