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The American Dance Festival

Rama Jaima, Class of 2006

Senior Thesis Concentration: Lynching and Its Place in American Culture, Focusing Specifically on the Murder of Emmett Till.

To the History Department Chair, Robert Brigham, and the Evalyn Clark Travel Committee, Modern Dance is the language with which I intend to facilitate historical discussion. Therefore the six weeks that I spent at the American Dance Festival was an exploration in modern dance as a dialectic art form. Due to its short history, Modern dance1 has been distinguished for its expanding vocabulary of shapes and movements inspired by a liberation from codified styles of dance, principally ballet. This means that the vocabulary of modern dance has grown increasingly abstract. Still, the relationships and imagery which modern dance artists reflect invoke the personal tastes of individuals in the audience and have the potential to inspire profound emotion. However, due to the abstract nature of this art, the experience of the audience member is often unique to each individual. Consequently, the discussion surrounding modern dance is fueled by passionate convictions and conflicting interpretations. This driving force for discussion is the unique medium from which I would like to discuss history.

Using the language of modern dance to provoke historical discussion poses two difficulties. First, one must be versed in the different styles of modern dance techniques and choreography. Second, one must be knowledgeable on the historical subject presented. My assignment while at the American Dance Festival was to investigate the former, which is the ways in which modern dance and choreography could be used to communicate coherent ideas.

I began my six weeks at The American Dance Festival with two classes in dance technique. The first class was taught by Brenda Daniels and focused on the technique of modern dance pioneers, Merce Cunningham. Cunningham was a principal dancer in Martha Graham’s dance company from 1939 to 1945. He later branched away from Graham’s technique to design a new style of movement. The vocabulary of Cunningham technique explores and glorifies the human form. In contrast to Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham’s choreography is less interested in narrative and exploring psychological states. The meaning of his vocabulary is imposed by the viewer. My second class, taught by the artistic director of Soul Deep Creations, Ursula Payne, focused on movement analysis and contemporary modern dance notation. Payne’s approach to dance technique is of a post modern era. This means that she draws from a history of modern dance pioneers such as Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, and others to create a diverse vocabulary of shapes which often explore deep psychological emotion. These two classes provided a study in the evolution of modern dance vocabulary.

My second area of research was in the process of choreography. After four days of auditions, I was selected to work with a team of dancers and choreographers. Under the artistic direction of the Argentinian choreographer, Miguel Robles, we worked to create a modern dance which would culminate at end of the six week festival. The project was an experiment in blending different styles of dance to create a cohesive network of images and interactions. Still, each observer drew a unique interpretation from the vocabulary. At the same time, we provided a clear progression of events which began to dictate the audience’s experience. The weekly choreolab was one of the most valuable venues of modern dance research. Every week, the choreolab provided an informal space to submit dances before a critical audience of dancers, choreographers, dance critics, musicians, and others interested in comparing their interpretation of the dance vocabulary. Following the performance would be a question and answer session with the choreographer where a viewer could compare their experience with other audience members as well as the choreographer’s intentions. These discussions also provided a valuable study in the different strategies of analyzing abstract art.

I spent my six weeks at the American Dance Festival investigating the diversity of the modern dance language and the ways in which it could be used to communicate human experiences and ultimately, historical themes. Still, my work is not yet done. Now that I have begun studying the language of modern dance, it is now time to incorporate historical themes into its choreography. Drawing from the tools which I learned at the American Dance Festival, I intend to choreograph a dance for the Vassar community which draws upon lynching and its place in American culture. The performance will be supplemented with a discussion on the ways in which the dance impacted our understanding of history. Thank you for your support.

1 One could ague that the American idea of Modern Dance began in the 1920s, with heroic dance pioneers such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Dennis and Martha Graham.