RepEtude History

Preservation and Access in the Face of a Cultural Crisis

In the early 1990s the dance field was in crisis. There was a confluence of the deaths of many dance pioneers in tandem with the demise of a young generation of dancers who fell victim to the AIDS epidemic. Concurrently, with a drastic shift in funding for the arts, many fine companies folded or restructured, most with works undocumented. Decreased touring limited the exposure for dance, and audiences were dwindling. It was in this climate that the Goals 2000: Educate America Act emerged, carrying with it a mandate that the arts be included as part of the academic curriculum in every public school in the United States.

The dance field began to respond to this crisis by articulating concerns about preservation, kindergarten–university arts education, and audience development. It became increasingly clear to Adams and Strandberg that dance was the only art form seeking to perpetuate its legacy and educate the next generation without providing practitioners and the public with ongoing access to repertory or materials.

Repertory Etudes: A New Tool for Dance Literacy

Adams, believing that her artistic growth over 17 years with Paul Taylor was the result of long-term access to superior repertory, wanted to ensure that all dancers would have ongoing contact with seminal dance works. Strandberg recognized this need from her perspective as a dance educator and director of repertory companies. From a series of ensuing workshops, think tanks, and residencies over a four-year period with colleagues Ruth Andrien, Danny Grossman, and Donald McKayle, Adams conceived the Repertory Etude.

Adams’ concept for the Repertory Etude was to commission short dances distilled from signature works of significant American choreographers. Dancers would be able to perform important repertory by historical and contemporary choreographers, discover value in diverse styles and sources, and develop a kinesthetic understanding of America’s rich heritage.

With these elements in mind, Adams and Strandberg launched the groundbreaking Repertory Etudes Collection. From 1995-96, they commissioned, produced, and disseminated the first RepEtude, choreographed by Donald McKayle based on his 1959 classic, Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder.

While hundreds of dancers learned and performed the Rainbow Etude, it became clear that the lack of access to repertory was not just an issue for dancers and dance students. Without access to dance resources, the field of dance education was incapable of adequately serving K–12 settings. Responding to this need, in 1996 Adams and Strandberg edited and published Dancing Through the Curriculum, a guide to dance videotapes curated and designed to enrich the school curriculum.

Amidst the development of these revolutionary materials, Adams and Strandberg established the American Dance Legacy Institute (name changed to Initiative in 2011) at Brown University to house, promote, and expand their efforts to sustain and provide access to great works of American dance.

Legacy in Action: A New Voice for American Culture

Since their introduction in 1996, Repertory Etudes have allowed dancers to hone their skills on great works, while offering an entry point to dance for such purposes as dance education, historical and cultural studies, and inter-disciplinary studies. Repertory Etudes have provided independent dancers with repertory to enhance concert programming, choreographers with source/research material for generating new work, and students with quality audition pieces. Further, ADLI has engaged diverse populations in the creation of Repertory Etudes, calling upon the people who will use the RepEtudes to participate in their design.

Utilized in this range of settings, Repertory Etudes provided the equivalent of what science teachers have always taken for granted in laboratories: kinesthetic material for hands-on exploration. Most adults, even those who have not pursued the sciences, can still remember the feel and odor of the lab as they weighed and dissected. A comparably deep, tactile experience was now a reality in dance for students, teachers, practitioners, and the general public, building new stakeholders in the art form regardless of previous training or levels of exposure.

As the Repertory Etudes Collection evolves and spans a range of choreographic periods and styles, people will enjoy unprecedented, intimate access to dance works by historical and contemporary American choreographers.