Unconventional Senior Breaks from Tradition
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:26
Photo courtesy of Philip Dupont '12
Next year, Dupont will work with the Copeland Colloquium on campus, helping to invigorate Amherst’s cultural scene.

It was an early January evening, when, along with four other cast members, I was invited to a house dinner by our choreographer and director Philip Dupont ’12, whose senior project in Theater and Dance, “BelReso Curvus,” would be staged in less than two weeks. Shrouded in blue misty twilight, the path to North Amherst rose up and became narrower as I double-checked the directions on my iPhone. I wondered why he chose to live off campus and was equally baffled by the manner in which he conducted our rehearsals, which were filled with collages of spoken words, improvisation, movement formulae and heavy metal mosh scores against a landscape of perilously hung metal chimes (or so they seemed) and white rustling drapes. Dupont, a double major in Music and Theater and Dance, spoke an esoteric language both in arts — with his music thesis “American America,” performed last fall — and in everyday life, giving an impression of being half-hippie, half-ruminator, an image that had not change much since our first encounter backstage in Performance Project more than a year earlier.

Dupont was preparing salad in the kitchen, a small but cozy space adjacent to the dining area, open to the main living room and a balcony one hammock shy of a back-door haven. I looked around. Oil and watercolor paintings of all sizes adorned the walls. There were scattered handicrafts. A dark-colored rocking chair inches away from a sideway door faced a solitary flight of stairs that ended abruptly mid-air, whose fold-carved base hosted an army of neat wooden drawers. A spacious home to three other students, the house bore visible remnants of its previous owners, obvious connoisseurs of lifestyle and the arts.

The house seemed an appropriate metaphor for our host: Dupont was generous with his thoughts and words, making offhand comments about background music and Moroccan cuisine. Yet there was a certain multitude that intrigued me. “There is something going on somewhere in his mind that [was translated into] drawings, movements [and] patterns, and…I still [wonder] what it is,” said fellow cast member Romain Bigé to me months later.

An Unconventional and Daring Artisan

Bigé was not the only one who struggled to unwrap the enigma that was Dupont. When I paid Dupont another visit as Commencement approached, I too harbored similar thoughts. The visit felt like an extension of the previous one, shaded with the same gloomy coldness and taking place at the same time of day. Looking dapper in a dark purple tie and gray cardigan, Dupont greeted me at the door. He had had a bad day, he told me, so he had dressed up to lighten his mood. Not long ago, his thesis was nominated for Latin honors and he received the Bryant Prize for best performance, so what, I asked him, had brought him down?
He admitted he was angry earlier that day. “I had to write something that I really felt wasn’t me, [but] it was due and I just had to, like, edit it and send it out.” A departure from the stereotypical, nonchalant senior, the soon-to-be graduate looked bothered by one assignment.

Honesty was more a creed than a mantra to him. “I try to be as honest as I can be about what’s going through my mind.” He flipped through the black tome on the round table in a hallway nook, his personal copy of his Theater and Dance thesis, explaining his non-standard, flak-inviting choices: mixed fonts, journal entries as appendices and line-spacing (“Double-space is the ugliest thing in the world.”). He wanted his thesis to be pretty open about what it actually meant for him.

I believed him. During the first rehearsal of “BelReso Curvus,” we had a candid conversation where he acknowledged his lack of technical dance training and promised that he would give me freedom to use my own movement vocabulary. During my interview, he seldom held back, his musing even more probing than my questions. Yet unlike the “bare-all,” conceited type of interviewee, he was self-conscious even in the most innocuous reflections. “For me, the process of making the piece…” He stopped suddenly, “oh my gosh.” Having been hovering over the nook table while contemplating on his creative process, he straightened his back. “It’s really hard not to sound like a d*** when you’re talking about this stuff,” he mocked himself softly, before showing me his ambitious proposal and every step in the evolution of his project, including notes on his dreads and doubts.

A Passion for Music and New Beginnings

Part of the stress of making “BelReso Curvus” came from an absence of theater and dance background prior to Amherst, in contrast with his strong musical background. Growing up in Bowling Greens, Ohio, the second son of two UMass Amherst alumni has been playing the piano since age six. His passion for music continued in college, where he frequently performed at music gigs, Marsh Coffee Haüs, Jazz Ensemble and recitals in the area. His pursuit of virtuosity was relentless: Alissa Leiser, his piano teacher at Northampton, fondly recalled how Dupont showed up at her house on an “unbelievably hot day” last July for his first piano lesson that was in preparation for his music thesis. Having ridden on a bike all the way, he was sweating profusely but smiling at the door, eager to get started. “He came hungry. He came prepared to eat up ideas, talk about his own [and] schmooze about the music and how it should or could be played,” Leiser wrote to me in an email. “Intelligent, creative and enthusiastic,” Dupont earned her high regards and was “a pleasure to teach.”

His thesis advisor, Professor Eric Sawyer, echoed Leiser’s praise, complimenting Dupont as an “omnivore of the arts” who “turned the standard form of a piano recital thesis into a theatrical presentation that was highly entertaining and at the same time musically substantive.” In contrast, his interest in Theatre and Dance, the only experience of which he had through high school drama club, did not blossom until he took “Language of Movement,” a class offered by Professor Wendy Woodson, who would later advise him on “BelReso Curvus.”

“I remember when Phil walked into my class,” Professor Woodson recalled, “with little previous dance experience but…a wonderful appetite for learning. He took to movement improvisation and composition like a duck to water and has been a fantastic swimmer ever since.”

Dupont had seen it coming. “I wanted to reinvent myself,” he commented on the end of his high school career. He enjoyed his high school days, but he felt the urge to get out and embrace a different experience (he applied to five liberal arts colleges in New England and chose Amherst for its generous financial aid package). Recognizing that he would start over in a new place with new people, he expected change to happen, and he was ready.

Distracted by Thought

Despite his rapid growth in college, Dupont was cautious about the notion of a new life at Amherst. Though he did not seriously sit down to think about the way his journey had shaped him until a month before Commencement, he was adamant about the continuity of personal history and that the significant events in his life did not break it into segments. “I absolutely continued living since being 18 years old,” he said, enunciating each syllable in “absolutely” with slow, deliberate attention. For a while, his memory dwelled on Daniel Pinkwater, a children’s books author he liked in high school. Pinkwater fascinated him, but it was not until college that the sensibilities, juxtaposition and absurdist narratives in Pinkwater’s works entered Dupont’s awareness and informed him of his own artistry and even himself.

Describing how curiosity immerses Phil in deep thoughts, Bigé called Dupont’s occasional wandering attention “an elegant form of A.D.D.” Watching Phil parsing his memory of Pinkwater, I agreed with Bigé’s interpretation: for a brief moment I witnessed Dupont’s mind drift into his inner world, and then return.

“I’m obsessed to know how my mind is working,” he explained.

Looking Ahead: Not What, But Where

He would in a few days prove this self-evaluation accurate, delving into his “queer” identity and its conceptualization for half an hour at Amherst Coffee, with a similarly sincere eagerness that he carries toward his every other endeavor, however big or small. I was surprised, therefore, when I asked him about his future plans.

“I am not interested too much in planning out the future, sometimes to my detriment,” Dupont answered. He cares more about where he will be than what he will do, because for him, with locations comes a plethora of possibilities. Vermont, Montreal and Hawaii were mentioned. “It could have been anything in the end,” he previously said of “BelReso Curvus,” a statement that now seemed especially appropriate. After five classes and four shows together (including each other’s senior project), Grace Booth ’12 believes that Dupont is “willing to entertain, or even try, crazy ideas.” “‘Why not go?’ That’s Phil for me.”

For the next year, however, Dupont will be working with the Copeland Colloquium, which plans to bring to campus guest artists from five continents and aims to invigorate our cultural scene. Dupont accepted the invitation to be a part of the organizing team after attending the planning meetings and interviewing local artists as part of his Special Topics class with Professor Woodson this spring. Always interested in the mechanics and what goes on behind the scenes, Dupont is excited to witness how the colloquium will be constructed. “I think my overall strategy in life is to do things that give me joy.”

No doubt, art has met that criterion.