Peter Carpenter

Dance and Theatre

Peter Carpenter pushes the envelope in his choreography and in the classroom.

Choreographer Peter Carpenter doesn’t know the word “traditional.” Whether exploring economic ideas or the nuances of AIDS, he aims to make audiences think—and he takes that attitude into the classroom. In his own words, Carpenter—who serves as interim chair of the Theatre Department in addition to teaching in the Dance Department—talks about his work, modern Marxism, and Columbia College Chicago.

I grew up in Grant, Michigan, population 700, onion capital of the state. I got out of there, did my undergraduate degree at Northwestern, and haven’t spent a lot of time there since.

I was a theatre major. As an actor or director, you get handed a script. The thing I love about choreography is that I get to make my own script. My dances are completely informed by my work in theatre, and many people often view my works as both plays and dance.

Most of my ideas are based on social and political discourse. For example, I’m working on a series of dances—I’ve been working on it for the last two years—Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times. I’m working on No. 12 now. I started making them in the wake of the economic recession and thinking, “What are alternate systems of wealth beyond money?” How do things like bravery, compassion, empathy become sources of wealth—things that we can actually hold onto as other, more conventional notions of wealth are eroding?

I’ve been interested in economy for a long time, and how principles from Marxism get played out in the contemporary world. I think some of his critiques of capitalism are still really interesting.

My dancers talk a lot [and explain how their dances were created]. This gets into a Marxist idea of exposing the means of production. A lot of dance will show you this beautiful, composed product that’s effortless looking. You don’t think about the wear and tear on the body. [I want to] show what it took to make this. Showing the seams or showing the cracks are things I’m really interested in.

The thing that’s cool about dance is a lot of the personal stuff gets set to the side. It’s your whole body that you’re bringing into the work, so the tension in your shoulders from the argument you might have had earlier in the day, or the pit in your stomach from something you’re nervous about—you have to release that to be fully functional. I think it’s great training for living, to be able to say, “That was the past. Let’s focus on the present.”

I think our students really appreciate the amount of challenge we give them in the Dance program, and I think they appreciate that the push comes from multiple directions. We’re pushing them in terms of their technical foundation, we’re pushing them as artists, we push them to be better teachers, and we push them to be better scholars. I think students in the Dance Center come out as truly well-rounded dance artists, and they come out as pretty well-rounded people.