Like many college-aged students, Diana Stanton wasn’t sure what type of career she wanted to pursue in her early 20s. A competitive gymnast early on, Stanton didn’t know that her brush with modern dance at a community college was her ticket to eventual success in the academic world.
“It was the first time I had ever taken, ever auditioned for or ever been in a modern piece,” Stanton, who is the present day director of Cal Poly’s dance company Orchesis and full-time professor, said. “That meant I had to take modern dance — and I had an epiphany. I thought, this is right. This feels really good.”
Stanton’s early epiphany brought her to two conclusions: she wanted to choreograph and she wanted to teach in the college setting.
So, she headed to University California, Irvine to get her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, and later to the University of Colorado at Boulder for her Master of Fine Arts.
“UC Irvine was very classical — lots of ballet. And Boulder was very alternative,” Stanton said. “I was climbing on rock walls and doing contact improv, throwing people around, writing all these deeply philosophical articles. (It was) technical discipline and creative explosion put together. I really feel lucky that I got such a diverse education.”
After dancing with local companies and doing her own choreography as well as teaching at Cuesta College and the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts at Allan Hancock College, Stanton landed a position as a part-time professor at Cal Poly 11 years ago, and was appointed to a full-time teaching position three years ago.
“It took me 20 years to get this job,” Stanton said. “I started dancing in my early twenties, and when I figured out what I wanted to do, it took me 20 years, but I feel so lucky because it’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Contrary to chasing a professional dance career, Stanton never aspired to be on Broadway. This, she said, is a tough career path to follow, especially at an older age.
“I really wanted to teach,” she said. “And I knew that I had to go to grad school and I knew that I had to have some professional experience to do that. And that’s really what I wanted to do. To become a professional dancer as a performer is very difficult. And by the time people reach college age, they should already be there.”
Today, Stanton is busy juggling her position as director of Orchesis, co-director of Variable Velocity — a local non-profit modern dance company which Stanton co-founded with friend Jude Clark Warnisher — as well as all the accoutrements of being a full-time professor. Stanton said the administrative work sometimes interferes with her original passion to create work.
“It’s really really hard to find the time to make sure that I stay an artist as well,” Stanton said. “Just trying to maintain that balance is a little bit tricky.”
Appointed to the position of Director of Orchesis three years ago, Stanton is putting her stamp on the company both technically and philosophically. Stanton, for one, is trying to shorten the annual show, as it has traditionally been longer. Yet on a more personal level, Stanton is trying to reach her dancers from an academic standpoint rather than a “studio” approach.
“What I’m trying to bring them is an educational aspect of dance — understanding that choreography takes work and a creative process and it’s not just handed to you in a box that you drive up to the window and order,” Stanton said.
Stanton’s dancers are indeed aware of her teaching philosophy. Mechanical engineering junior Aimee Warner, who has been involved with Orchesis for three years, said Stanton incorporates education and thought into her directing.
“The thing about Diana is she really focuses on making our college dance experience an academic college experience,” Warner said.
Warner also said Diana’s original motivation to create comes through in her teaching.
“It’s very evident that it is her passion, and creation is her passion,” Warner said.
Warner, along with three other members of Orchesis, is one of the arts administrative interns, which are the equivalent of officers for a club. Business administration junior Guinevere Chan, is also one of the interns and has been involved with Orchesis for three years.
Chan said Stanton does a good job of letting dancers know they’re not in high school anymore.
“You’re in college,” Chan said. “You’re not just dancing, you’re learning how to move.”
Chan said Stanton wants her dancers to think about dance beyond Orchesis and the studio and incorporate it into their future.
“Something she said recently really stuck with me that kind of describes how she teaches — when you learn how to create dance, not just take it into your body and do it, when you learn to create movement, that’s something that will stick with you for the rest of your life,” Chan said. “So I think she really emphasizes not just dancing but really going through each movement, making it very organic and true to your body.”
Stanton said she hopes the members of Orchesis will learn to find the theoretical and philosophical aspects of dance as well as create art beyond their time in college.
“What happens a lot of times, especially in this university, is people dance — they’ll do Orchesis and then go get a job and never dance again,” Stanton said. “So unless they learn how to create dance — unless they learn what goes into it — they won’t be able to do it for themselves.”
Whether she is experimenting with pieces at Variable Velocity, directing Orchesis or grading papers, Stanton, although busy and admittedly stressed from time to time, is exactly where she wants to be — in the world and career she has created for herself.
“My favorite thing to do is to be in rehearsal, really,” Stanton said. “I just want to make dances.”