Jeff Friedman in Conversation with Will Rawls

After ten years on faculty at Rutgers University, Jeff Friedman, Ph.D, is nearing the launch of this research university's first MFA in Dance. Among the first Ph.Ds in dance in the U.S., Friedman talks with Will about his approach to critical pedagogy, the development of a globally literate dance practitioner and how to create the conditions in which intellectual lines of flight, language and embodiment coexist in the classroom.

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November 1st, 2015

Jeff Friedman: You asked a really important question about the field, since it is the broad spectrum that defines, to some degree, what we can do, what we should do for dance in higher education. What I would say about dance and the academy is that dance is still trying, still struggling, to define itself on its own terms. It is important to say that embodied practices in the academy are still generally considered suspect. The history of dance and the academy is that the discipline of dance comes in through physical education, then turns into a sub-program of theater, and then eventually dance becomes its own department. That dance has an embodied practice is essential and also, to whatever degree, that practice has been feminized in our culture. There are many problems with dance being legitimized. Doing it on our terms is really important.

I think the next step in that process is not only to continually legitimize and honor our embodied practice in the academy but also to legitimize the theoretical and methodological ways in which that practice can be further articulated. There are theories of embodiment and there are methods of knowing that come out of that mix.

How do we credential people in that mix of theory and practice, and how are we constrained by the existing framework of higher education to accomplish that goal? What we have are many MFA degree programs and Ph.D programs in various configurations in the U.S., Europe, the U.K. and one in New Zealand.

Will Rawls: What’s the one in New Zealand?

Jeff: The University of Auckland. I spent some time there with the Head of Dance named Ralph Buck. He's great; he's a wonderful guy. And what's interesting about Auckland is that their program has always had a practice-theory connection. They don't focus on creating virtuosic dancers as much as they focus on creating practice-based movement projects that are academically informed. So even their undergraduate work is like that, so it is relatively consistent within the BA degree,  through MA, all the way through the Ph.D degree programs.

Will: So Auckland is requiring, encouraging and facilitating dance students to develop dance as practice as their primary academic achievement.

Jeff: New Zealand is isolated enough that it was able to construct that approach on its own without having any necessarily problematic regulation or accreditation issues. In the UK there are Ph.D programs in dance which do allow practice and theory to mix. Practice as research is a coming thing these days. However, I have been at conferences at which individuals have said, "I was promised that a practice-as-research dissertation in a Ph.D program would be accepted. I made the work—the performance work—and all they wanted to look at was my written work.” And this was a betrayal, to some degree, of that promise. The problems have to do with the fact that there was no precedent for evaluating a practice-as-research doctoral project in dance. What I will say though is that, in the United States at least, there is a very interesting degree called the DMA, for example, the Doctor of Musical Arts at Rutgers and other universities. I'm occasionally present for several of those final reviews for the doctoral students. They have to "sing the lieder”—in other words, they have to have a very good practice—but they also have to have access to the theoretical and methodological frameworks around that practice. So, when you perform your lieder, you're going be asked questions like "What are you doing with the glottal stops in your voice?”, as well as, "What are you doing with the Germanic relationship to Romanticism in regards to opera?" In other words, to know the practice as it relates to the theory. I think this is a wonderful opportunity.

Will: Are there other kind of exigencies around a contemporary representation of those things?

Jeff: Oh, you could do it about anything, really. It's related to praxis—theory and practice integrated together. The DMA is a praxis degree. I like it very much; it's one of the terminal degrees you can get in music. But we don't have that degree right now in dance; we have Ph.D programs at University of California-Riverside, UCLA, and Ohio State; I think those are the three, if I can remember correctly.

Will: This next question comes from my folklore about you, but were you one of the first Ph.Ds in dance in the U.S.?

Jeff Friedman, choreographer and performer, in Muscle Memory (San Francisco, 1994). Photo by Steven Savage
Jeff Friedman, choreographer and performer, in Muscle Memory (San Francisco, 1994). Photo by Steven Savage

Jeff: University of California at Riverside was considered the first Ph.D in Dance History and Theory. It started in 1993 as a doctoral program and there was one student at the time. I remember that the first graduate of the program graduated the year before I entered. I was the only one of my group of 8 to graduate in six years in 2003. So, it was one of the earlier Ph.D degree programs in Dance History and Theory. There are faculty there who have Ph.Ds but they had to do them in American Studies, they had to do them in History, they had to do them in other disciplines. They managed to create the groundwork for generating a faculty that could handle a Ph.D degree specific to dance. So I don't want to say I'm one of the first people with a Ph.D in dance; there were others who were specialists from other disciplines. Our second generation is now sort of sprinkled throughout the United States and abroad in Canada, the U.K. and Europe.

Will: if I were to be pursuing a Ph.D in Dance through anthropology, through biomechanics, or something like that, are there things about those kinds of approaches to dance knowledge that hinder a relationship to embodied practice or aesthetics?

Jeff: Those people who went in through other disciplines had to struggle with advisors who were not necessarily dance-savvy people. Their advisors were historians of great renown, and others may have been biomechanics scholars who were great scientists but they didn't have the dance element. So, in a way, those doctoral students had to invent dance discourse by themselves, to whatever degree someone might have been willing to support it. That was the challenge for them.

I'll back up and say that a Ph.D in dance studies is always interdisciplinary and a student is probably going to be working with literary studies or anthropology or biomechanics or some other discipline in relationship to embodied practice. This means that theories are going to be emerging from other discourses. Say, for example in the late 1990s, when I was taking courses and was required to read anthropologist Clifford Geertz, we were asked to read it by putting the word dance into places where people were talking about music, or people were talking about visual arts—there was always a kind of replacement project happening there. That's challenging because that means you're inserting something that is then having an enduring effect inside the text, that will then change what the text can do. To some degree, we didn't know what it would do, so that was experimental. I would say now we do have people who are recognized as self-creating dance theory from inside the practice. One of the things that is valuable about that is that there is an embodied experience that is now foundational to people working in theory. For example, if you're going to be talking about phenomenology, how we experience ourselves as an embodied practitioner is highly informed by what we can do in phenomenology. The great phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty was not a dancer—so, what is it then, that we, as dancers, add to the theoretical discourse?

Will: Just taking this a little bit further, how do you guide your MFAs in order to put language into their practice? Are there specific questions that you're still looking for?

Jeff: The new MFA in Dance degree at Rutgers is the degree that we can have as a terminal degree in dance. The MFA is generally considered a practice-based terminal degree, so there's a bifurcation there, between the MFA and the theoretically-based Ph.D. The Rutgers MFA, as I'm constructing it right now, is more of a DMA model, more of a praxis—integrated practice and theory—degree. So, with that frame in mind, one of the things I've done is to construct praxis-based coursework that is experienced simultaneously by the students. They're called Praxis of Dance or “POD” courses, where you may have a dance philosophy and aesthetics course that I will teach but at the same time you will be working with improvisational strategies taught by another faculty member. We co-create the course. In a three-hour block you might start with contact improvisation to have the felt experience phenomenologically. There is a trope in phenomenology: when your hand touches your other hand, you feel your hand touching the other hand but you also feel your other hand being touched. So, to have experiences that are viscerally about body first is important. For our students who are not necessarily academics, they're working their way into it—they start with the practice and then to encounter the theory of phenomenology in a way where, “Wait a second, I have a little key, because I just experienced that physically.” And then we have an experience-based ground from which we can trace the reading or discussion. Or if we're going to talk about theorists Deleuze and Guattari, and the question of “lines of flight”—that ideas are not arboreal in the sense of the “tree model” of knowledge in which every idea, everything is emerging from this one branch and then we're branching out again but you can always trace it back to the original trunk. This is very Western perspective on information culture, and we've accepted it. But if you think differently, from Deleuze's perspective, you can have a completely other thought on a line of flight, outside of the arboreal system, and I think, in dance, we do this innately. For example, you might also practice Bill Forsythe’s improvisation technologies. So when you're “knotting,” all of a sudden you're in the midst of this knotting procedure which then lends itself to other improvisational technologies into which you can then sidle off, and start doing another practice, and so on. And that's something that Forsythe related to Deleuze’s “line of flight” theory, in particular. These courses are constructed to help stimulate each other and not privilege reading/writing/word languaging over the movement practice, but instead allowing them to be co-present with each other, and co-informing each other.

Will: And these are taking place in dance studios or lectures?

Jeff: All of our dance studios are smart classrooms, so there's ways to have projection there, to use a Smart Board. In each classroom, there are ways to sit, ways to read and write, and ways to practice movement. Luckily.

We have a really prescient chair of our department, Julia M. Ritter, who insisted on having these classrooms equipped that way for the undergraduate degree. If they’re going to be doing Anatomy and Physiology—locating where your greater trochanter is in your body—you can be in a studio where you can have your yoga mat, use the Smart Board for a diagram reference, and where you can also actually see the trochanter physically with a skeleton in front of you. I wish I could teach my history classes there, so I could make people dance in history class all the time. But I do usually ask for a particular room that has a little extra space so we can move the chairs.

Will: So what kinds of things do people dance in your history class?

Jeff: Last semester we had a student from India in our BFA program and we studied the practices of Indian classical dance, so she got up and showed us six mudras and the students tried it. Or, they have to do a very short version of Trisha Brown's Locus [1975], with the spatial cues of the cube aligned with the different numbers and the alphabet. They had to spell something out. So they experienced the analytic post-modern method that Brown was doing, and then relating that to what they know about this amazing movement sensibility. Or they do a little bit of a Baroque dance to understand how it is deeply invested in the etiquette of the court. Who does the first curtsy, who does the second bow, what's the costume doing to your movement while wearing a whalebone corset. And they have to turn sideways to get their hip panniers in though the door. All the control of the body and what that means for in the political court of Louis XIV. We dance maybe four or five times in the semester, over fifteen weeks.

Will: Do you find that their physicality is becoming more amplified to coexist with their linguistic vocabulary?

Jeff: I would say yes and no. When we do Yvonne Rainer’s "No Manifesto," I always have the students volunteer to read it. Whoever wants to read it has to stand up on their chair. Because that's the only way you can give a manifesto, is to be on a soap box. So they experience that physicality of setting themselves up and then their voices always get loud and they start just yelling, “No, No, No.”

Or, when I say “semiotic theory,” their eyes glaze over. But when they actually have performed a work of Merce Cunninghan’s, where the signifier and the signified are unlocked, they raise their hands and say "Ooh, ooh, ooh; I know what that means because I physically did it.” So, at the level of amplification within a curriculum, we'll have developed that depth of practice informing theory from having Gaga technique classes or having set a Cunningham work; all of that experience in the studio has a way that feeds itself back into the academic part of the curriculum.

Will: So, how is the MFA degree structured, within the 26 months?

Jeff: Going back to your first question about what the field is doing now. The field, at least in the U.S., has been developing graduate MFA terminal degrees in dance  moving in the direction of low-residency and we have several low-residency programs already, at Hollins University, Jacksonville State University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There’s a new one in Northern Colorado. So, for me, the question is what is the role of a low-residency graduate degree program, how does it serve the field? I think that the idea was that these students are working professionals who have had careers as artists and they're thinking about going back to graduate school to credential themselves to move into higher education. Not necessarily to give up the practice of making and the practice of performing but to add a pedagogical element. There are several of us at Rutgers who are practitioners working on the faculty. So, I guess the question has to be, is a graduate program that is low-residency a credential that allows people to say, “Well, now you've done that. Now you can work as faculty of higher education.” Is it sufficient to credential one’s self in a low-residency mode?

I think there's actually a lot of stuff going on in the blogosphere now about why do we even have graduate programs in dance. How can we promise people the jobs? Because you may spend some significant money for a degree in order to do that but that job may not be there in sufficient numbers to give you that chance. This is a question people have been asking.

My answer to that question is, if some low-residency programs are focused on purely credentialing people, moving them through very quickly, I would ask if this experience was necessarily transformative. Can we really justify the outcome of such an education with a faculty position in higher education? Are they sufficiently prepared? Have they been transformed in some way through graduate study, in order to do the work of a faculty member? So, this is the hard question. And I think that there's lots of variables there and I think these programs have thought about it. I think some achieve it, some less so. And I thought to myself, what would be a way I would acknowledge working professionals from the field (for our purposes at Rutgers, the means people who are at least five years out from an undergraduate degree)? How can I configure an MFA degree program that both acknowledges professional field experience, while also configuring a transformative graduate school experience? That's the challenge.

To this end, the MFA in Dance degree structure is organized to be flexible, recognizing that working artists continue their existing careers. We’ve structured coursework over 1.5 years, beginning in the Winter of 2017, continuing through the spring semester and then a 6-week summer session. After summer break, we then continue through the Fall and Spring 2017-2018 academic year, with an additional 6-week summer session. Notably, during weekly coursework, most students will have at least 1.5-2 days off to work in the field.

By the end of 1.5 years, we recommend that all MFA students complete their required and elective coursework and advance to candidacy. Then, MFA candidates have the option for thesis work in- or out-of-residence. So, candidates can be working in New York or Philly or Singapore, for that matter, if they are cultivating an entirely screened dance project. While continuing supervision from their thesis advisor during the next academic year, all candidates will ideally complete their thesis research in the form of a movement-based performance event, in a variety of genres including screen dance. While most theses will be produced at Rutgers-New Brunswick, the faculty is willing to travel within a 50 mile radius to see thesis works produced or exhibited in New York City, Philadelphia or throughout New Jersey.

Will: After five years out of school, I'd assume most people who go to masters programs have weeded out certain academic interests and want to go back to focus on something specific. But, when you're five years out of undergrad and people are coming back in, are those people transformable, as you say? This is also maybe a question that relates to one’s authorial voice as an artist versus your authorial voice as a dancer, and one’s voice as a student. How do these transformations occur, at what levels?

Jeff: What I'm hoping for is that five years minimum out of undergrad means they've consolidated some kind of creative and performance practice. My hope is that they then have another question that they're asking themselves. I was at a panel and one woman was really interested in costume design, but not just as a designer, but as a practitioner of dance; how do those interact? So I asked her about her experiences of looking at Oskar Schlemmer’s work in the Bauhaus. She said, “Let me look at that.” I said, “Well, there's a world: what does the costume do for your creative practice?”

Will: Walter Dundervill is someone I would think about.

Jeff: Oh yes, exactly, this guy's whole environment is an extension of his body through costume/set/props/accessories. It’s amazing. So, I want people to be asking another question. I don't want them to be asking how can I be a better dancer and a better maker, or how can I make more dances because I have the support of a studio that I don’t have to pay for. That’s not enough to be transformed in graduate school. I want people to have other questions. And the question for me that is the most interesting right now is about interdisciplinarity—how do other disciplines engage movement practice in some way? Someone might come to me and say, “I want to look at robotics in the engineering school and its relationship to dance movement.” Okay, let's see if that can happen. Or, “I want to look at cinema as a way of enhancing my practice.” Or “I want to look at women and gender studies as a way of enhancing my practice”. Or Latino politics. I want those questions to be bubbling up for people, and they don't have the answers necessarily now, which is fine, but what I want to do is bring them into an MFA degree program that gives them a chance to explore that question, have a base that allows them to have a conversation between Latino political theory and dance theory. And be able to practice it in the studio.

It’s also important for me that we have to have creatively literate global citizens in dance. We can't just recreate our own historical practices. You know, what is happening in postmodern Māori dance in Auckland where my friend Cat Ruka is performing these amazing works. Why would she put her bare foot on a portrait of the prime minister of New Zealand? Because there's a lot going on there in terms of what that means in Māori value systems, about what they call pakeha value systems—European value systems—how is hat foot position is a political move but in an embodied form. I want people to have that global perspective because, if they could become truly global citizens, they can go to Auckland, they can go to Europe, they can be conversant. So it's not just recreating our own value systems elsewhere. So, there's that interdisciplinary part, there's the global part, and then the third part, which for me is really important, was a deficit in my own training, which was pedagogy.

Catherine Moana Te Rangitanika Ruka Gwynne, choreographer and performer, Playing Savage (Rutgers University, 2010)
Catherine Moana Te Rangitanika Ruka Gwynne, choreographer and performer, Playing Savage (Rutgers University, 2010)

We're very lucky in that we have a Master's Degree in Dance Education, in which our BFA students are getting a five year degree—BFA-EdM, Master's of Education in Dance, an excellent program run by a faculty member with a doctoral degree focusing on critical pedagogy—the ways in which global pedagogy has changed to student-centered and social justice-oriented learning. This program already exists at Rutgers at the graduate level. Why not just borrow some of those courses and support dance pedagogy training?

Will: Now, how easy was it to get other departments at Rutgers and schools outside to come to the table and participate. What was the convincing you had to do?

Jeff: The Dance Education degree is located in our department, but, regarding interdisciplinary practice, it's a matter of going to the other arts programs and saying what courses are you okay about enrolling our dance students. Maybe there'll be one or two MFA dance students in your puppetry course in theater, or one or two students in your electronic music course, or one or two students in whatever it is. So far all I’ve heard pretty much is yes. So, then the question is, does the student have enough chops to go into that course, or is there an introductory course you belong in first? We also have a list of what we call "Special Topics" courses within the dance faculty—vernacular dance, street dance, screen dance. We have Keith Thompson, [a performer with Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange and a choreographer in his own right] and community-based dance. I do documentary-based dance, which is engaged with oral history work. Our chair is getting her Ph.D in immersive dance at Texas Woman's University. We have two specialists in videography/screen dance and we have someone who just came onto our faculty who is a specialist in devising installation projects with lighting design.

Will: And then, 26 months later, you leave and you enter this dance field. I always talk about "the dance field" in quotations, because there are networks within it but, depending on who you talk to, it can be described totally differently, as much as choreography could be described differently by each person who practices it. Could you define the field vis-a-vis your role in it?

Jeff: I brought a little quote with me. It's from a dance that I made in 1984, which is called Topophilia; "topophilia" is a word that was coined by a Chinese geographer named Yi-Fu Tuan. He defines topophilia as the affective bond between people and place. And, as you know, my first undergraduate degree was in architecture. So my lens about spatiality and dance structures has always been very much through that architectural lens. I really wanted to make a work that started to look at dance through the lens of this relationship between people and place, and I found this wonderful artist named Will Insley and I'm just going to quote him:

Though trained as an architect, I realized that whatever it was I was looking for, I would never find it in the practice of architecture. It was necessary for me to first renounce architecture and subsequently renounce art in the normally accepted and separate definitions of both terms, in order for me to actively set my intuitive compass to that precise location arrived at through thinking as an architect and acting as an artist.

He was a visual artist who made these amazing two-dimensional drawings and three-dimensional models of utopian/dystopian cities. I just was always very struck by someone who was thinking already that there's a lens that frames his practice in some way. He was saying, “It's not one or the other, it's this intuitive ‘location between’ that I need to find,” and that's really what I would love for my students to be able to find in the new MFA: whatever that lens would be for them, that they renounce the binary and do a both-and thing, where they find that place over 26 months. Then you have had a transformational experience resulting in a new point of view, and then you go into the field with that point of view, not just: “I'm a really good dancer, I'm a really good maker,” but rather, “I have a transformed point of view about those practices. And that I have a drive towards questions that are arriving as a result of that point of view. There's a friction between my practice and perspective that creates questions.” If you're going into higher education, you have to be able to generate questions, because research is part of that world. And bless the higher education world, they have now actually acknowledged creative research as equal to what we would call scholarship—and again that's an either/or—because both are creative and both are scholarly.

For the new MFA program, they're going to be reading and writing and they're going to actually create a performance event of some sort from a variety of genres, and those two things, writing and performance have to be inextricably connected. I’ve been on four or five faculty search committees and that's what you're looking for in a new faculty member. Someone who has a trajectory, not someone who's just sitting there saying “I'm good at what I do.” That's great and even fundamental, but it's not enough. You actually have to have a research trajectory. And so, to me, that is what the dance field of higher education needs, combined with global literacy and critical pedagogy—not only do I have a question but it's globalized, it's not limited to our own value system. And, when teaching, the diversity of your student body should be acknowledged. When I teach five lectures on Africanist Aesthetics, that means something to everybody in the room, but it also means something in particular to the African American kids in my room. We have kids from Korea, and kids from New Zealand and kids from India, and kids from Nigeria in our program. They have to be seen. And these are opportunities for our students in New Jersey is to broaden their experience.

Will: How do these students who come from Korea and India, presumably from widely varied socioeconomic backgrounds, just like the other students coming to Rutgers from around the U.S., how do you guys account for or facilitate that difference? I'm curious here about the socioeconomic and cultural factors in an embodied practice, i.e., access to certain concepts about movement?

Jeff: Our first undergraduate academic course is called Introduction to Dance Studies and I reconfigured from a Dance Appreciation course that just wasn't cutting it. And I thought, Oh no, they have to actually look at discourses of race, ethnicity, mixed-ability, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic/class position, those issues, in addition to costume design and sound design and all that. We start with that materiality of the dance experience, but then we relate how sound design relates to ethnicity. So they watch "The Stack-Up" from Alvin Ailey’s company repertory and they say, “Wait a second, I think I hear Latino rhythms inside this African-American aesthetic.” So then they develop a new concept of cultural hybridity. But, among many things, what we're also seeing in "The Stack-Up" is street culture in uptown Harlem, and a lot dancers performing roles of people hanging out on the street because maybe their homes aren't in such great shape. There's class difference embedded in "The Stack-Up." At first it looks like, “Okay, you're mad at me because you're trying to get my girl,” but then look at the costumes, look at their jewelry; there are all these clues cleverly given that say there's class difference in here as well.

Will: Is there financial support for MFA students or will there be?

Jeff: There has to be, there has to be. Right now, it's very clear that if we have this strong pedagogy sequence, we have to have graduate student practitioners who are actually working in the classroom with strong supervision. This is critical pedagogy working: how can we improve it, what are your course goals, go back to that, what are your assessments? So there will be a sufficient number of adjunct teaching positions available in our program where we will be able to place many of, if not all of our MFA students, so they're applying pedagogy as they're doing their MFA coursework. Their coursework happens over 18 months where there's essentially three semesters, plus a winter session and two summer sessions—they could be teaching five different sessions across the entire 18 months. In addition, scholarships are available every year based on what the Dean of the School provides for us.

Will: Workstudy?

Jeff: No, adjuncts are unionized, actually. So, the adjuncts, our PTLs—part-time lecturers—actually have a significant amount of control around what it is that they get in terms of pay, work conditions and all of that.

So graduate students will have that work and then, separate from that compensation for teaching, there would be additional scholarship money at different rates. People coming from out of state have out-of-state tuition, and we have to think about, if we really want the student, what can we provide for them to make it doable? New Jersey is not that far away from New York and you might decide you want to do the program and move to Jersey City a year in advance; that may be a smart thing to do. To become a Jersey resident, I think there's a requirement you have to have 12-months of utility bills proving that you're living there already. I think your driver's license has to change. And, if they don't do it for the first year, they can do it for the second year. So, all those variables factor in to the affordability of the program.

Will: Was there a break-through moment for you? Why this all started?

Jeff: I was hired in 2003 at Rutgers to create an MFA degree. I came in with a Ph.D, degree the first Ph.D faculty in the department, and I was seen as someone who potentially could provide an “overview perspective.”  But, in fact, I was very happy that the MFA was delayed because getting tenure is really important and that takes six years. So, my first six years were spent focusing on getting tenured. Then we had to build the critical mass of our own faculty to a minimum of ten full-time educators, in order to really develop the infrastructure for this MFA, to support each student who needs their own advisor for their thesis research. So it took a long time long to do that, and I'm actually really glad it did.

Will: This is sort of getting off topic of the MFA for a little bit, but this question often comes up for me about how to navigate representation and embodiment in choreography. As a reader of dance performance can you speak to this?

Jeff: People at a certain point said, “Wait a second, our modern dance pioneers are dying, Martha Graham just died,' what are we going to do about that? Can we reconstruct these works so that then we have an archive to keep alive? We must generate the best notation systems possible; we must generate the practices of reconstruction so that it's really accurate; how can it be extra accurate?”

And then it became a question of, is that even doable? Is it even a responsible thing to put a lot of this work into that model? People started saying, “Well, no there's a whole set of other worlds, not reconstruction, but restaging. And there's many other "re-" words that had to do with it: not restaging, but re-enactment. This is what interests me most right now, "reenactment." Reenactment is saying, here was a work of dance. We don't have it anymore, it was ephemeral, it was temporal. Those embodied practitioners had those historically-informed bodies, at those times. We can reenact the work, while acknowledging that the gap between what we will do and what they did has some interesting critical questions coming up,. Let’s acknowledge the reality of this temporal disruption and ask about what's inside that disruption that we want to look at. And, to me, this is fascinating, because then you have a practice that is contemporary, but related to the past, but in a critical way. So it's not just restaging it just because you can, it's actually interrogating the gap in between.

I'll give you an example: I work as an advisor with a choreographer from Germany named Paula Rosolen, and she took my oral history workshop, like you did years ago. Born in Argentina originally, she went back to interview a cohort of people around a woman named Renata Schotellius, a very important modern dancer in Buenos Aires. Renata was a Jewish woman who left Germany before WWII and made a significant contribution to dance in Argentina. The dance community has created this perspective on Renata that she brought European modern dance to South America. What Paula found out when she did the interviews is that none of that is really very true at all. Renata was much more entrepreneurial: she came to Boston, she taught at the Boston Conservatory; she brought back American modern and post-modern dance to Buenos Aires. So, what Paula made was an oral history-based (or documentary) performance about Renata, in which the whole dance was about the gap between what we would call the official “archive” and what we would call the “embodied repertoire,” the embodied reality. We know that the body always exceeds what the archive can provide. How can you create a performance work that has a critical perspective on this problem around Argentina, which is a country that's had heavy immigration from Germany, Italy, and other folks in Europe, and therefore they purport themselves as being the most European country in Latin America. Why would they do that? Is there something about race in there? Is there something about class in there? I think so. And it's a deep question and those concerns are elevated in this particular archival mythology about Renata and her so-called Europeanizing of Argentinean modern dance.

So Paula made her dance, beginning with a soloist who comes out to stand behind a period dress that's flattened onto a piece of cardboard. It's obviously from the forties or thirties and the dress hanging right at the level of the audience and that's how you see it. It's flat. But you also see the soloist stand behind it and she tries to make it three-dimensional: the head is trying to be inside the collar that never actually ever fits; her arms are struggling to fit into the cardboard sleeves. There's always a gap between the repertoire of the body and the dress, as an archival document. Paula found this and other choreographic devices that are artistically pointing at this problem that has to do with Argentinean nationalism, that has to do with racism toward existing indigenous populations, generating a kind of South American exceptionalism. And, to me, that kind of representation, that kind of performed reenactment, points to “the gap between”—can the embodied self ever be representational of whatever the referent is? The distance between the body and its referent is a critical thing. What can you do with a critical thing? Point at it, interrogate it. And then you develop a question about the gap, and say this is what my embodied work can do with that gap.


Jeff Friedman, Ph.D, is the Graduate Director of a new MFA in Dance degree at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, in New Brunswick New Jersey. Jeff earned his B.Arch from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D in Dance History and Theory from the University of California-Riverside. He holds CLMA (Laban) certification from the University of Utah’s Integrated Movement Systems program. His research in oral history theory, method and practice as they relate to embodied practices includes an archival collection of oral histories with dance community members with HIV-AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses; book chapters and journal articles for publications in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Spain, Germany, Korea, Australia and New Zealand; and a series of documentary-based choreographies derived from oral history interviews. Jeff conducts oral history workshops on embodied practices in the U.S. and internationally.

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Will Rawls

Will Rawls is a choreographer, performer and writer based in New York City. His work investigates the formal and affective displacements of identity inherent in a non-disciplinary art practice. His pr...
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