April 12, 2002

Dance researches confer

Tomorrow, dancers and academics alike will meet at the University for a day-long event intended to break down traditional barriers between performance and critique. The conference, entitled "Ephemeral Evidence: A Conversation on Dance, Film, and Research," was born out of the desire for interdisciplinary investigation of dance.

"It will gently disturb our roles and bring us new insights," said Terri Francis, a conference co-organizer and Ph.D. candidate in the University's English Department.

The goal of the conference is not just to bring practitioners and theorists of dance together but also to help theorists keep practice in mind. "I am interested in scholarship that pays close attention to actual movement," Francis said. "One of the problems of performance studies is that it ends up relying on people's words more than the object of study."

Francis began formulating the concept for the conference with Nell Andrews, an Art History graduate student who had run into similar problems in her research on dance. Besides a lack of evidence, both ran into a lack of terminology and respect in their research. "Dance theory had this weird vocabulary that we didn't feel was illuminating enough," Francis said. "And dance has been thought of as decoration for intellectual movements, whereas we see dancers as aligned with intellectual movements."

Andrews went to Paris to use the dance archives there, and Francis was left without a co-organizer. She asked Esther Palmer (A.B. '01), a program administrator for the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, to aid her.

During her undergraduate career, Palmer studied dance, film, and photography and performed with the student group UC Dancers. "I always wanted to look at dance more formally," Palmer said. "I'm interested in the way that film and dance are almost the same art form, just in different physical mediums. The central issues of time, space, and movement in dimensions interest me specifically about both mediums."

The day will begin with a dance workshop led by Molly Shanahan, founder and artistic director of the Mad Shak Dance Company. Following the workshop, John Mueller, director of the Dance Films Archive at Ohio State University, will present a series of pre-1940 dance films.

According to Francis, some of the footage to be shown was captured "in weird and illegal ways." In a few instances, a camera was snuck into the theater or a performance was documented for over five years. This process of documentation will be as much a subject of discussion as the films and dances themselves.

In the afternoon, Susan Manning, a professor of English and Theater at Northwestern University, will use photographs, film, drawings, reviews, and other sources to speak on the evidence for historical performance.

The day will conclude with a roundtable discussion led by Thomas Gunning, Professor in Art History, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College.

The conference emerged out of Francis' frustrations while researching her thesis on African-American performer Josephine Baker and the Harlem Renaissance. While films are often one of the most important sources of information about dance, according to Francis, films of early dance remain mysterious. Often credits are missing or incomplete, and different versions exist in different archives.

Dance has both primary and secondary research sources. However, according to Francis, dance films complicate such a model because they involve the perspective of the filmmaker. "Dance films are both primary and secondary because the filmmaker's perspective intervenes," she said.

It is Francis and Palmer's hope that the conference will help to initiate a monthly series, the Chicago Performance Workshop, modeled after the Chicago Film Seminar. "We'd like to put dance on the front page of academic discussions, and create a methodology for the study of dance in general," Palmer said.

"Ephemeral Evidence" will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday at the Franke Institute for the Humanities, located at 1100 E. 57th Street. The conference is free and open to the public.