Norton Owen, director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow, recently used a provocative image to capture the importance of dance heritage: in Avatar, there are characters who receive nourishment from a Tree of Souls which is fed by their ancestors. It is a magical, glowing place which director James Cameron says was inspired by bioluminescence that he encountered during night diving. Why is it important to dance? Dance draws it power and creativity from human interaction: this legacy continually nurtures and motivates artists, students, and audiences around the world. Awareness of our Tree of Souls is essential not only for dancers, archivists, and scholars but also for students and our next generation of choreographers.
I thought of this a couple days ago as I was having lunch with a friend who was recently promoted to the role of Projects Manager for Liz Lerman Dance Exchange – Ellen Chenoweth. She is a colleague I admire for her curiosity, her exploration of ways of expanding awareness for dance, and her ability to promote events and ideas that call for recognition and support.
When we met we got on the topic of broader perspectives. She shared a story about Sarah Gamblin, Associate Professor of Dance at Texas Women’s University, who was a member of Bebe Miller Company from 1993-2000. What Ellen recalled was the way that Sarah’s long-time association with Bebe Miller gave her a point of view on creative process and research that enriched the community of artists in Texas – people who may never have encountered Bebe Miller’s performances.
We had been talking about how much of the dance we see fits into a rather small vocabulary of shapes and ways of choreographing. When a college or university brings in people who have had rich experiences with choreographers, company directors and artists, the students’ learning is expanded, their perspectives broadened. When I think of the dance history gathered in the faculty of the School of Dance at GMU, I see how vital - and generative - it is for departments to bring in faculty who have learned from, performed, and worked with accomplished artists, choreographers, and company directors.
There are many dance departments staffed by faculty who, after getting an undergraduate degree and then an MFA, are best known for directing their own companies and have little exposure to other choreographers or ways of working. This ends up limiting possibilities for the students who then become choreographers without encountering the diversity of approaches and methodology that broaden dance as an art form.
It reminds me of this passage by Michael Stone about human development: “…awakening is always set against the backdrop of our culture in which we are participating because culture cannot be erased from our day-to-day life… Awakening refers to the inherent, interconnected matrix that is life, of which we are only playing one part without supreme importance. Awakening refers to waking up from self-centered reality to a world much greater than self-reference."
Students who graduate from GMU have heard stories from their teachers about working personally with Mark Morris or Jerome Robbins or Doug Varone, and these moments enrich both their training and choreography.
To give a sense of dance legacies gathered at Mason: Dan Joyce worked with Mark Morris for ten years, Susan Shields worked closely with Lar Lubovitch and Mikhail Baryshnikov among others, Connie Dinapoli worked closely with Paul Taylor, Karen Reedy worked with Benjamin Harkarvy and Robert Battle, Christopher d’Amboise worked with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins – plus has a father who is one of the greatest spokesmen for dance as an art form that brings intelligence, fulfillment and richness to all our interactions.