Student Spotlight: University of Iowa MFA dance student selected for banner campaign

Ellen Oliver is pursuing her MFA in choreography in the Dance Department at the University of Iowa, and was recently selected for the 2022 Dare to Discover Downtown Banner Campaign.


Isabella Cervantes

Ellen Oliver, an MFA dance student at the University of Iowa, poses for a portrait on a green screen rock climbing wall in the Old Art Museum on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Ellen’s research explores the intersections of rock climbing and dancing with digital arts. “My goals are to deepen my relationship with rock climbing and to learn how my rock climbing body can inform by dancing performing body,” said Oliver. Ellen hopes to create a touring dance performance in rock gyms within the future.

Vaishnavi Kolluru, Arts Reporter

Ellen Oliver is pursuing an MFA in Dance at the University of Iowa and the only student in the UI Dance Department to be selected for the 2022 Dare to Discover downtown banner campaign.

The annual campaign is sponsored by the Office of the Vice President of University of Iowa and will promote the research of 60 UI undergraduate and graduate students this year by displaying banners of them throughout campus from January to mid-March 2023.

Oliver started her academic career studying ballet and contemporary dance and working on interdisciplinary independent projects for four years at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Then, she studied performance and choreography at Hampshire College for another four years.

She also worked for five years at various companies across New England as a dance performer and a choreography teacher and creator. In Fall 2021, Oliver joined the choreography MFA in the Dance Department at the UI and noted that she found the community inspiring.

“There’s just a lot more I want to learn,” Oliver said. “I think being in an MFA environment challenges me to take risks with my art-making and to become more versatile as an artist …Also, there’s a lot I was excited to learn at Iowa with digital arts, and the crossover between dance and digital art-making.”

Oliver has been the recipient of multiple grants as an MFA student at the UI like the Iowa Arts Fellowship from the Graduate College, and the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Summer Fellowship from the UI Libraries Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio.

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The research that got Oliver selected is unique and exciting and spans across a variety of artistic disciplines.

In addition to being a dancer, Oliver is a passionate rock climber. She said she has considered buying a van and becoming a rock climber full time as a potential career — however, the artistry of rock climbing is currently just one of the focuses of her research. She is interested in the differences and translation between indoor and outdoor rock climbing.

“I think it’s interesting that climbing spaces are designed to help train the body in a way to access boulders in large groups outside — even in the materials such as plastic handholds on the wall that are designed oftentimes to mimic certain types of rock outside,” Oliver said.

While choreography and rock climbing might appear unrelated to many, Oliver sees a plethora of ties between the two. Oliver studies the way climbers design indoor climbing routes; the relationships between falling and climbing, gravity and climbing, gravity and dance, and climbing materials and postures; and the meaning of risk in movement.

“[The choreography of climbing] is a meeting place between the climber as a performer and the climber as an interpreter of this designed route,” Oliver said.

Oliver also studies sculpting and sketching in conjunction with dance and rock climbing.

“I’m also looking at the use of chalk in climbing as a residual mapping of movement on the rock,” Oliver said. “And I’m also interested in using climbing materials in sculpture making.”

Throughout her career, to Oliver, the most important lesson has been to persist in being adventurous.

“I guess my message would be to keep playing and taking risks in art making,” Oliver said. “And recognize the value of collaboration and interdisciplinary work within dance.”