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A Conversation With Alumni Sarah Gamblin

A Conversation With Alumni Sarah Gamblin

Daniel J King | Jul 6, 2018

Sarah Gamblin (B.A.’88). Photo by Brent Hirak.


Interview with alumna Sarah Gamblin

Sarah Gamblin (B.A. Dance, ’88) joined the dance faculty at Texas Woman's University (TWU) in 2002, where she teaches modern technique, choreography, improvisation, and experiential anatomy courses, and has helped ignite regional interest in modern improvisational dance and movement in Texas. Gamblin helped establish the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival, in 2009, with a growing network of partner schools, and an impressive list of international visiting artists.

When Gamblin talks about her own work, she positions her own creative questions in her experiences working with Bebe Miller and Bill Young, in the New York City dance scene of the late 1990s. A passion for improvised movement and dance has been at the center of her production, performance, and teaching for most of her career. Throughout her career, she’s continued asking never-ending research questions, such as “how can you improvise the same piece twice?”

Gamblin’s choreography has been produced at Conduit Dance Center’s Dance Plus Series in Portland, Oregon, the New Genre Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Seattle Festival of Dance and Improvisation, Bates Dance Festival, Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards, in New York City at Hundred Grand and Dia Center for the Arts, and has produced work in Texas, Montana, Florida, and Washington DC.

You’re working with Bebe Miller again, with her project The Making Room. How does this model of dance making and performing compare to your work with Bill Young in the 1990s?

When I moved to New York City the National Endowment for the Arts was under attack, everything was expensive, no one could afford anything, and now it’s even more expensive. So the model was shifting at that time. Arts funding and support changes over time. During that time, everyone working with Bebe Miller lived there as well. About the time I left for graduate school, Miller moved to Ohio to start teaching, and many of the company members also found work in academia in various locations. The company began finding creative funding through residencies, continuing a tradition of using the artist residency as the primary creative time to make new work. It’s usually not in New York City, so the deep work in Miller’s company comes from these out of state long term residencies.

I just recently started working with her again after about 15 years, I first worked with her from 1993 to 2000, before going to graduate school. I move to New York City right after studying at Ohio University, and lived there for five years, working independently, including making work with other OHIO alumni, before eventually starting to work with Miller. I would say that she has really defined my artistic pathway, including her methodology, ideas, and approach to performance. My ideas are largely rooted in her work, but I’ve articulated them in my own way. Now it’s interesting to come back and re-occupy the role of a dancer in a large evening-length work directed by Miller.

When I first started with her in 1993 it was more traditional dance making, like creating and learning steps but always with a sense of inquiry and formal development around the movement. Curiosity would lead us to ask what if we moved our arms like this, or like that— drawing from dancer’s creativity, the need of every dancer to make the work their own expression. That was fun, but I’d say that by the later ‘90s we, as a group, were employing movement generation ideas that weren’t about set choreographed material, but instead used set frameworks into which dancer’s were invited to inhabit, to be present within the choreography. This created some exciting dynamics, some surprises, and the experience of being really present in the moment during the performance. That’s the thing I continued to pursue in my own work, in my choreography, and teaching. It’s a never-ending research question. How can you improvise the same piece twice?

Miller’s work continued to develop in that direction after I left, so it’s a great challenge to me now, as I’m a more mature dancer, and this looks like an opportunity to really flex all the things I know how to do.


Sarah Gamblin; photo by Lynn Lane.Sarah Gamblin; photo by Lynn Lane.


Since the late ‘90s, how do you see the world of dance changing?

In the 1990’s there was low unemployment, I chose to work in a restaurant in between creative work, so I could take time off for dance knowing I’d be able to come back to a job. I worked really hard. Dancing is a commitment. If you’re the kind of person who wakes up asking “where am I going to dance today” you’ll find something, but it never really feels like you’re doing the career you expect to have. I think that’s still true. As artists, we can be ok with not going on vacation for awhile, you get used to a certain standard of living as a working artist, but when I was about thirty-something, I decided I needed something else. Something stable.

I toured with Miller within the US, who was connected to national funding sources. Bill Young had this way of cultivated relationships around the world— so we toured Eastern Europe and South America. Young just had a different vision, for instance he spent much of his free time on the phone with somebody from a small theater in Estonia, and he would always find the money to pay our way to go perform in these various places around the world. It was always an adventure—we never really knew what was going to happen. We went to Estonia, Poland, Venezuela, and Peru. The theaters were small, it was super fun!

Many dancers I know moved into academia after building their careers as dancers. We tell our dance students here, that even if they want to teach in academia, they really first need to move into the world, dig in, and do their time as an art maker.

In the long run the commitment to making pays off. I live in Texas, not New York City. It’s important that students get to see this kind of success also. Even if it’s not exactly what and where I thought I’d be, I get to teach what I love, and I’m developing my work. I’ve really got nothing to complain about at all.


Images of Sarah Gamblin

Gamblin performed her Senior B.F.A. Dance Concert, at OHIO in 1989, pictured on left in the local student run newspaper The Post. On the right, a recent image of Gamblin. Photo by Brent Hirak.


Can you tell me more about the TWU Dance Lab and the Contact Improvisation Jam?

I started the Dance Lab in 2006, and the intention was to put together a group of students curious about performing improvised work. It’s such a fun interesting problem. I’ve been developing methods for performing improvised ensemble work, drawing from great artists like Nina Martin, Deborah Hay, and others. We would put together small shows. Different, but related to the Lab is the open improvisational jam, which we called the Contact Improv Jam, which met every Thursday.

We started a state wide improv festival, that’s what came out of these improv studies. We’re not really technique dancers, so instead of the American College Dance Festival, we started the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival. We hold our festival in October each year, bring in a guest artist who teaches, and we usually get around 200 students each year taking classes for a whole weekend, coming in from many different schools in Texas, and from outside academic settings. I’m pretty proud of this festival.


Closing Circle of 2017 Texas Improv Festival, photo by Erika Record.

The closing circle of the 9th annual Texas Dance Improvisation Festival, October 2017, at Texas Christian University, School for Classical & Contemporary Dance. Photo by Erika Record.


Has your approach to teaching changed over the years since you began?

One thread, and there are many, has to do with finding the right pedagogical angle. I think about my time at Ohio University a lot. One thing that I never appreciated, when I was there, was what great teachers I had! I was ambitious about dancing, but I never really thought about how great Madeleine Scott and Mickie Geller, and all my teachers, really were at teaching. Needless to say, I think about them a lot today. On the other hand, the style of dance making in the ‘80s was like here’s the movement, and get it right, stay in your releve, and kick your leg. This had more to do with something like motor output, rather than organizing your attention as a performer. I think it was my senior year when I discovered improvisation as a mode of performing. So my biggest challenge is to find a way to synthesize the artistry with the methodology.


Sarah Gamblin was on tour visiting the Dance Center of Columbia College (IL) in April. In June she’s headed to Peru and Colombia for a State Department sponsored program called Dance Motion USA, a cross-cultural exchange program that connects America's finest dance companies with international artists and communities. Find out more about Gamblin on her website,


Read more stories from the Summer 2018 Dance, Film, and Theater Alumni Newsletter.

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