Whole Body Humanities - American Dance Legacy Initiative Retreat Recap

September 30, 2013

This June, shortly after I graduated, I traveled with American Dance Legacy Initiative (ADLI) to West Palm Beach, Florida to take part in a week-long project studying the works of jazz choreographer Danny Buraczeski. The process gave me a valuable chance to reflect – not only on what business I, an administratively-inclined grad student, had in a jazz dance workshop ten years after my last, never-very-proficient ballet class – but on my work with ADLI and the Center for Public Humanities.

These two years have reshaped my ideas about what scholarship and engagement mean in creative, humanistic, and heritage fields. Coming at the conclusion of my graduate experience, ADLI’s Florida workshop was a chance for me to embody, literally, the philosophy of public-facing scholarship united with artistic practice that has become the cornerstone of how I see myself as a public humanist.

The Florida retreat brought choreographer Danny Buraczeski together with teachers and young dancers from West Palm’s Bak Middle School of the Arts (MSOA) and ADLI collaborators from Brown, Central Falls High School, the University of New Mexico, the Boston Conservatory, and Southern Methodist University. Part teaching residency and part research retreat, the week’s activities were an innovative exploration of dance as a collaborative, creative, and contextual endeavor.

At the heart of ADLI’s approach to dance is this idea: dance must be understood simultaneously as an art form and as a historically situated record of cultural and intellectual influences. Both elements were at play throughout the packed daily schedule for the retreat, which interwove the study of dance by dancing, and the study of dance by discussion or archival research, into both the teaching and research agendas of the project. From 9:00 am to 3:30 pm, we held residency workshops with the young dancers from Bak MSOA: three hours of class with Danny Buraczeski every morning, including learning a study based on his concert works, and several hours of small group rehearsal in other modern repertory in the afternoon. In between, we took a break from dancing with enrichment activities about dance history and scholarship, exploring the “family tree” of modern dance, delving into the Labanotation method of describing dance on paper, and experimenting with ways of expressing our ideas, emotions, and learning through movement.

When the students left in the afternoon, Danny returned to coach his duet Repertory Etude with ADLI members Peter Bennett and Amy Burns. I came to think of these sessions as “annotated rehearsals,” focused not only on teaching the work but unpacking how to teach the work in a way that delivered the choreographer’s authentic movement and intent. Rehearsal then fed into evening sessions of recording informal oral history interviews with Danny and his collaborators about his personal background, choreographic vision and process, and the wide variety of inspirations and ideas that inform his body of work. By the end of the week, based on the material collected from class, rehearsal, and our discussions, we had begun outlining the essential elements of a Buraczeski resource guide to use in future ADLI teaching.

It was clear, over the course of the week, that learning the historical and intellectual background of Buraczeski’s work enriched and enlarged the way the Bak MSOA students, all of them talented young dancers, engaged with their work in the studio. For me, however, the even more important takeaway was a clear understanding of how creative exploration of an art form is just as essential to the work of a scholar as are more “traditional” kinds of study. My physical experience of learning Buraczeski choreography, however creakily, became a central part of my intellectual study of the artist’s work and of the understanding of it that I would hope to convey to an audience as a (non-dancing) interpreter.

As a public humanist, I see my role as helping people experience, connect with, understand, and critique complex material – whether in dance, history, science, or art – in a way that is accessible but also preserves the quality and integrity of the piece. Doing so, as ADLI has constantly shown me, means remembering to break out of my pencil-pushing comfort zone and accept the challenge of meeting a creative work on its own terms.

Taking that personal risk to bridge cultural boundaries and open up to kinship with something different is the essential challenge of public humanities. That can mean joining in a dialogue with people from different backgrounds, encountering an exhibition that juxtaposes exotic artifacts with universally relatable experiences, or taking off your shoes and stepping onto a dance floor with the pros. The important thing, for me, is to recognize that this imperative applies to me as a practitioner just as much as to “the public” my work aims to reach. As my career moves forward, whether I am scheduling meetings or facilitating workshops or coordinating programs, I hope I will always be surrounded by people whose perspectives I have never thought of and works of art that terrify me with their passion and complexity. My task, and my privilege, is to honor their invitations to engagement and to action, and to jump in when they ask me to dance.

You can learn more about ADLI’s week-long Buraczeski retreat by following our tweets on Storify (http://storify.com/ADLIEvents/repetudes-workshop-2013) or viewing our Facebook album (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.687396157942671.1073741830.153153424700283&type=1).

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Guest Blogger, Emily McCartan graduated from the MA in Public Humanities program in 2013.

Emily, Pictured on the far right (standing) with students who participated in the Buraczeski retreat.Emily, Pictured on the far right (standing) with students who participated in the Buraczeski retreat.

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