Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

First Up

First Up

By Sarah Achenbach

They arrived four years ago, excited to be the first students in the Conservatory’s two newest degree programs: Dance and Music for New Media. Now, on the cusp of graduation, the students featured here look back on what they’ve learned — and ahead to where their newfound knowledge and experience will take them. 

Three dancers leap up in the air at once
(Left to right) Rebecca Lee, Aren Cedric, and Elizabeth Chaillé

Dance: Class of '22


Aren Cedric dreams of having a musical theater career. As one of the first graduates of Peabody’s BFA in Dance program, his dream is stronger than ever. 

“I knew that I needed dancing training to be a well-rounded performer,” says the southern California transplant of his decision to enroll in fall 2018. He had just completed his Acting and Theatre AA degree at Santa Barbara City College, where danah bella, professor, chair, and founder of Peabody’s program, was teaching. She encouraged him to enroll in Peabody’s fledgling program, so he moved to Baltimore, ready for new possibilities.

“It was very intimidating coming to an all-dance program,” Cedric admits. “I started dancing at 14, not at 3. A lot of programs can be judgmental but not here. We are all learning and growing. It’s very welcoming.”

He lauds ballet lecturer Kristen Stevenson for taking him under her wing. “She invested so much time in me and in my growth and future as a dancer,” says Cedric, who has been invited to perform this summer with Chicago’s Deeply Rooted dance company. He’s worked with several guest artists and performed with classmates in Philadelphia, the American College Dance Association festival in Maryland, and at other festivals. But it’s been Peabody’s cross-disciplinary collaborations that have pushed him as a dancer, performer, and creator, he says.

Early on, the Class of ’22 dancers began networking with Peabody musicians. While dancing in his Baltimore living room for remote classes during the early months of the pandemic, he immersed himself in dance films, an interest sparked by his pre-pandemic Dance for Film class. 

Last fall, Cedric re-connected with Robert Gemmell, a Music for New Media senior and his sophomore-year collaborator for the Peabody Links concert. Gemmell is scoring Cedric’s capstone project, which is an original dance film exploring the conscious and subconscious during dreams — a fitting subject for a performer whose dreams have expanded at Peabody. 

(Left to right) Claire Naughton and Aren Cedric danced in the Peabody Dance! Festival in February.


As a Las Vegas native, Rebecca Lee knows a smart gamble. When bella held Peabody auditions at Lee’s performing arts high school in 2018, Lee leapt at the chance to audition.

“It was a big risk to go to a program that didn’t yet exist,” recalls Lee, who’s been dancing since she was a toddler. “I had to fight the doubt of others, but it’s been worth it.”

Lee loves the small classes, the tight-knit bond with classmates, and the personal attention from professors. “danah was the first person who saw me as a human being and not just a number,” Lee says. 

She says that even the months she spent learning remotely during COVID-19 yielded valuable critique and strengthened her resilience. 

“That time helped me realize that I really love what I am doing enough to dance in my living room for a year,” says Lee, who is now auditioning for post-graduation positions in contemporary dance companies in the U.S. and abroad. 

Last July, Lee and her roommates and fellow seniors Julia Asher and Claire Naughton performed at b12 summer, a contemporary dance and performance art festival in Berlin, Germany. Lee has choreographed for the Peabody Dance! Festival, performed with Peabody in the Palm Springs Dance Festival, and mined Peabody’s collaborative riches. “We’ve had amazing opportunities to choreograph work with live musicians and to dance to original music by Composition and Music for New Media students,” she says. 

Lee has also used dance to help others find resilience. As a junior, she was a volunteer teacher, choreographer, and performer with Ballet After Dark, a Baltimore nonprofit that uses dance in its holistic healing program for survivors of physical and sexual assault. “I love how dance can intertwine with the community we live in and help people,” she says. 


During her first year at Peabody, Elizabeth Chaillé choreographed a movement-based exploration of child abuse. Titled “Victim,” it was inspired by David Pelzer’s memoir, A Child Called “It.” danah bella suggested that Chaillé might want to expand it for her eventual senior-year capstone project. 

“I thought this piece was a one-and-done type of thing,” Chaillé says. But she wasn’t through thinking about “Victim.” “I kept coming back to the topic of child abuse and realized there’s so much more I would like do with it.” 

A native of Salt Lake City, Chaillé’ studied ballet and jazz at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts and was sold on Peabody after auditioning with bella. “Not only are we training to be performers, but we have been encouraged to choreograph every year, starting freshman year,” Chaillé says. “We’re encouraged to work with musicians and composers to create collaborative projects. We take classes in filmmaking and I’ve grown to love dance film. We’ve learned how to be dance educators and dance advocates. Peabody does a really good job keeping each person true to being an artist.” 

Chaillé eventually expanded “Victim” into a five-part dance film involving Peabody peers and dance friends from home for her capstone project. Chaillé researched child abuse more deeply, worked with dancers over Zoom to embody phases of abuse — psychological abuse, self-destructive behavior, physical abuse, trauma/PTSD, and neglect — and asked Anthony Peña, a senior in the Computer Music program and another Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts alum, to compose the music. 

Though the film project is done, Chaillé isn’t finished exploring child abuse in movement. She envisions a performance installation in the future. 

“I didn’t know that you could take dance as a career in life,” she says, adding that she’s currently finishing a short documentary about her graduating class. “Dance isn’t just about being a dancer. You can be an educator. You can be a filmmaker. You can be somebody who directs a company. And we all have so many skills because of the education that danah and the department provided.” 


Peabody’s four-year Dance program is a progressive program that prepares dancers to become innovative arts leaders, performers, choreographers, teachers, and researchers. The program’s distinctive, interdisciplinary curriculum includes choreographic and critical historical and theoretical exploration alongside classes in Modern dance, West African, Jazz, Ballet, and screendance; a student dance company; national and international performance opportunities; and a renowned Dance faculty and guest artist residencies. With a focus on developing each artist personally and professionally, the program embraces a wide range of creative collaborations offered by founding a dance program in one of the world’s premiere music conservatories and research institutions. Like the Music for New Media program, the Capstone Dance Project provides infinite possibilities for students to create a creative, independent research project, culminating in a self-produced performance/screening, panel discussion or lecture demonstration. 

danah bella
danah bella is the chair of Dance BFA program at Peabody.
A dancer on the left crawls on the stage floor with their right leg extended behind them while three dancers on the right lean forward onto each others' backs
A scene from Clare Naughton's Dance BFA capstone project.
(Left to right) Robert Gemmel, Jolene Shao, and Dmytro Nebesh



Dmytro Nebesh is all about the relationship between music and the listener. Or more precisely, the video game player. “I love the way that the music in a game interacts with the players,” says Nebesh, who combined his passion for rock and classical music composition and gaming while pursuing his degree in Peabody’s new Music for New Media program.

“At Peabody, I’ve discovered how to get really fantastic sounds out of my computer,” says Nebesh, who commutes from Columbia, Maryland. “I still write for real instruments, but I’ve learned how to combine them with technology, synthesizers, and electronics.” With a Launch grant through Peabody’s LAUNCHPad program, Nebesh, who plays piano, drums, and guitar, founded Hybrid Ensemble for string and electronic music players to perform their original music. 

He says that a course in Interactive Music was a creative turning point. “I was able to learn how to implement audio into games faster because of my background in programming,” says Nebesh, who minored in music theory. During quarantine, he leveled up with “Game Jams,” networking events with programmers around the world who work together to create a new game during a single weekend. In January 2020, Nebesh attended an in-person Global Game Jam in Baltimore. 

Nebesh also interned for a local gaming company, and he and fellow Music for New Media classmate Andy Li are creating music for a game about endangered species for SapXStudios, a game studio start-up co-founded by classmates at Johns Hopkins/Peabody and Haverford College.

For Nebesh’s capstone project, he’s leading a team (video game animator, historian, and programmer) to modify the game Civilization 6 and celebrate his Ukrainian heritage. (“Modding” is when a game’s fans create a modification to a game that is available by download on the cloud-based gaming library, Steam.) Nebesh is composing traditional Ukrainian music on the guitar-like bandura, the piccolo-like sopilka, and the fiddle for the game and creating a 3D model of a Ukrainian leader. 

A lifetime of gaming has taught Nebesh to be prepared for numerous possibilities, so he’s applying to screen scoring MA programs and for sound designer jobs with gaming companies. “My professors [at Peabody] are great, and I’ve been taught every audio program there is,” he adds. “I look at the small game developer jobs and think, ‘I can do that.’” 

The Music for New Media lab gives Peabody students access to the tools they need to create music for films, TV, and video games.


Robert Gemmell’s hometown of Atlanta has been dubbed “hip-hop’s center of gravity” by The New York Times — and it certainly lived up to its billing for him. As a high schooler, he produced tracks for up-and-coming rappers, composed his own beats, and garnered his first commission — for MTV no less.

When it came to looking at colleges, though, Gemmell sought out Peabody and the Music for New Media program. “I wanted to be in an environment of serious classically trained musicians,” says Gemmell, who records under the name abstrkt. “I knew that it would broaden my knowledge and help me develop my own voice and sound.”

He singles out one-on-one sessions with faculty artists Thomas Dolby and Chris Kennedy as his favorite classes. (Upperclassmen receive weekly, individual sessions with faculty.) Last summer, Gemmell used his skills at Republic Records in Los Angeles, where he engineered recording sessions and produced music for rising rapper Ka$hdami and other artists.

But it’s last fall’s Mixing Sound for Picture course that crystalized his creative path. “That class really honed my audio mixing and sound design skills,” says Gemmell, who loves the freedom of scoring for film. This semester, he’s scoring dance films for BFA Dance student Aren Cedric.

Gemmell is hoping for a job in New York City or Los Angeles as a mixing engineer for rap and hip-hop artists or as a video game sound designer. He’s gaining chops as the lead sound designer for the student start-up gaming company, SapXStudio, where he is helping to develop a 2D game with classmates at Johns Hopkins/Peabody and Haverford College.

“Making sound effects is a different creative process,” Gemmell says. “There are no rules, and there are so many ways to push the tools and the media. Peabody has allowed me to explore and figure out what I like.” 


Jolene Shao is spending her last semester in the Music for New Media program bridging centuries of Chinese culture with virtual reality. With a $5,000 Peabody Launch grant, Shao is developing an original virtual reality video game based upon a famous 17th-century, panoramic painting, Along the River During the QingMing Festival, from her hometown of Suzhou, China.

The video game, “[is] both art and historical evidence, through which players will be able to walk and explore,” explains Shao, who is writing the music and creating all the sounds for the painting’s hundreds of characters. She’s hired two game developers in the Netherlands to digitize the painting for the game that will be available on Steam, the cloud-based gaming library.

Shao began studying voice and piano as a young girl, adding composing, sound mixing, and scoring when she went to boarding school in the United States. Her VR video game capstone project, she says, perfectly encapsulates her Peabody experience. “Peabody has pushed me to become a musician and learn more about sound design and engineering,” Shao explains. “I can keep my options open and dig into my potential.

In summer 2021, Shao worked at YiQi Pictures in China writing additional music for their film soundtracks, work she’s continued remotely. Last spring, Thomas Dolby connected her with a virtual reality game developer, which inspired her capstone project. 

She’s also found community with Johns Hopkins film students. Shao is the audio/music supervisor for Return 0,a Johns Hopkins-funded sci-fi film by Brian Song, an applied math and statistics major and film and media studies minor at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. And she formed M-House, Peabody’s first-ever pop songwriting and music production club that performs new music each semester. 

“Collaboration is the core of the Peabody program, and people in the Music for New Media programare the new blood,” says Shao, who is applying to graduate school for audio-related programs and dreams of scoring Hollywood blockbusters. “Peabody pushes us to make connections. It’s really helped me to be job ready.” 


The four-year Music for New Media program focuses on music composition and sound design needs of films and TV, video games, and nonlinear entertainment platforms. Once a niche in the music world, new media is mainstream and expanding rapidly in today’s digital landscape. Peabody’s unique approach combines its traditions — theory, composition, sight-reading and arrangement, performances, and creative collaboration — with programming, working with leading-edge software and sound engineering tools, and an emphasis on real-world connections. Faculty artists — new media trailblazers and icons like Professor Thomas Dolby — work one-on-one with juniors and seniors in weekly sessions to hone their craft and aspirations. A final, yearlong capstone project matches seniors with their passion project, a collaborative endeavor embracing new media opportunities within and beyond Peabody and Johns Hopkins.

Thomas Dolby leads the Music for New Media program.