Gestural Economies and Production Pedagogies in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening

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In Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, embodied gestures expose and challenge representational and infrastructural norms that drive commercial musical theatre. The company’s blend of ASL and spoken text extends the overarching message about failed sociocultural ideals to the realm of deaf culture. Micro-practical actions and interactions function tacitly to denaturalize audio-centric standards that guide theatrical reception, internal cueing, and technical production.





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Wilbur, Sarah (2016). Gestural Economies and Production Pedagogies in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. TDR/The Drama Review, 60(2). pp. 145–153. 10.1162/DRAM_a_00553 Retrieved from

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Sarah Wilbur

Associate Professor of the Practice of Dance

Sarah Wilbur is an Associate Professor of the Practice in Dance with a secondary appointment in Theater Studies.  She is a cross-sector dance artist and infrastructure builder who also researches arts labor, economics, and institutional policies as fundamentally embodied phenomena. An artist-scholar, Sarah's scholarly contributions focus on how economic policies and instiutional incentives shape and constrain artists lives and work worlds. Her research, teaching, and creative endeavors together highlight the relationship between art that is performed and dimensions of artmaking that remain hidden, suppressed, or ignored. It is her primary goal to credit arts labor and laborers in all aspects of her professional work.

Her first book, entitled: Funding Bodies: Five Decades of Dance Making at the National Endowment for the Arts (2021), is the first historical account of the shaping influence of US federal arts funding policies on the aesthetic and organizational practices of dance artists and organizers. Sarah also publishes cultural labor studies of local dance and arts workplaces. Her ethnographic accounts of arts labor appear in the Journal of Emerging Dance ScholarshipPerformance ResearchTDR/The Drama Review, and the Futures of Dance Studies edited collection. At present, Sarah is at work on her second book, a multi-sited ethnographic account of the shaping influence of the US healthcare industry on the working lives of dance artists.

Sarah's academic teaching is strongly informed by her ongoing work as a dance artist and collaborator working across the disparate contexts of concert dance, theatre, musical theater, opera, K-12 education, social services, health care and veterans’ affairs. Her graduate and undergraduate courses that center the body/embodied knowledge as a powerful force that both reflects and shapes communities, cultures, and institutional contexts. Hybrid (seminar/practice) course offerings include Theories of Corporeality (G), Movement in Question: Introduction to Dance Studies (UG), Art as Work: Valuing Labor in the Arts (UG/G), Artists in Healthcare: Collaborations and Complexities (UG-Service Learning designation), Research Methods in Dance (G), Capstone Seminar: Research Methods in Dance Studies and Choreographic Performance (UG), Pedagogies of Dance (UG/G), MFA Proseminar: Professional Practices (G); Sarah's creative practice/production courses include: Critique (G), Interdisciplinary Performance (UG/G), Improvisation (UG), and Modern Dance (UG). Sarah's pedagogical approach invites students to puzzle the irreconcilable gaps that exist between textuality/language and embodiment; students succeed when they depart with a honed understanding of the embodied dimensions of knowledge production and with a more profound sense of awareness about their own embodied choice making. 

Sarah's service to the allied fields of dance, theater, culture, and performance is also intentionally focused on crediting labor in arts organizing across communities and production/institutional contexts. In 2021, Sarah founded the Equitable Arts Infrastructures Working (now Research) Group with fellow US arts labor and funding researchers from theatre, dance, music, and live performance across seven US university campuses. She continues to facilitate participatory dance programs in community health contexts, and currently serves as the Arts Sector Lead for Dementia Inclusive, Inc., a multi-sector organization committed to expanding lifelong lifelines to cultural expression for Durham-area adults living with or at risk of cognitive decline. She recently completed two terms (six years) as a Director of the Dance Studies Association, where she continues to serve on the Finance & Development Committee.

At Duke, Sarah serves on the Trinity Curriculum Development Committee and the Faculty Advisory Board currently developing a Health Humanities Minor. She is also an affiliated faculty for the ReImagining Medicine (ReMed) program at the Kenan Institute of Ethics. In Dance, Sarah currently serves as the Director of Graduate Studies for the Duke MFA: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis, the only a terminal, practice-based graduate degree program in dance within the so-called "Ivy-Plus" universities in the United States. 

Research Interests:

1. Dance, theater, performance, and cultural studies
2. Histories of US policy, funding, patronage, and philanthropic initiatives that shape the arts
3. Workplace ethnography/cultural labor studies
4. Institutional ethnography
5. Theories of institutionality and corporeality
6. Arts and health, health humanities, critical medical humanities

Sarah also sweats more than most humans.

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