The University of Chicago News Office
April 5. 2002 Press Contact: Julia Morse
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New dance conference brings together dancers, critics, academics to talk about “evidence” for the performing arts

Not many academic conferences begin with an hour and a half of stretching, bending, spinning, turning, rolling, and pulsing. But the organizers of “Ephemeral Evidence: A Conversation on Dance, Documentation, and Research” hope to break down the barriers between performance and critique. “It will gently disturb our roles and bring us new insights,” said conference co-organizer Terri Francis, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Chicago.

“Ephemeral Evidence” will be held on Saturday, April 13 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Franke Institute for the Humanities, 1100 E. 57th Street (inside the Joseph Regenstein Library). The conference is free and open to the public.

“Ephemeral Evidence” will begin with a dance workshop led by Molly Shanahan, founder and artistic director of the Mad Shak Dance Company. The workshop is intended not only to bring together practitioners and theorists of dance, but to help theorists keep practice in mind. “I’m interested in scholarship that pays close attention to actual movement,” said Francis. “One of the problems of performance studies is that it ends up relying on people’s words more than the object of study.”

After the dance workshop, John Mueller, director of the Dance Films Archive at Ohio State University, will present a program of dance films made before 1940. “In one case, the footage was captured by breaking house rules,” said Francis, by sneaking a camera into the theaterand that documentation process will be a subject of discussion as much as the films and the dances.

In the afternoon, Susan Manning, Professor of English and Theater at Northwestern University, will give a talk on the evidence for historical performance–photographs, film, drawings, reviews, and other sources–as well as vocabulary that can be used to describe performance. The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion led by Thomas Gunning, Professor in Art History, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College.

“Ephemeral Evidence” grew out of Francis’ frustrations while researching her thesis on African-American performer Josephine Baker and the Harlem Renaissance. Films of early dance, while one of the most important sources of information, are “mysterious,” Francis said. The credits may be missing or incomplete; different versions may exist in different archives. And while dance–like most art forms–has both primary and secondary research sources, dance films complicate this model: “Dance films are both primary and secondary because the filmmaker’s perspective intervenes,” she said.

Francis first began formulating the idea for the conference with Nell Andrews, an Art History graduate student who had also run into problems in her research on dance: as well as a lack of evidence, they found a lack of terminology and respect. “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.”

When Andrews left for Paris to use the dance archives there, Francis asked Esther Palmer (A.B.’01), program administrator for the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, to step in. As an undergraduate, Palmer studied dance, film, and photography; in her free time, she performed with the student group UC Dancers. “I always wanted to look at dance more formally,” she 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.”

Francis and Palmer hope that the conference will help launch an ongoing monthly series, the Chicago Forum on Performance (CFP), modeled on the Chicago Film Seminar. Like the “Ephemeral Evidence” conference, CFP is intended to bring together dancers, critics, and academics. “We’d like to put dance on the front page of academic discussions, and create a methodology for the study of dance in general,” said Palmer. “I’m hoping this will grow citywide. I think the Chicago dance community could really benefit from a citywide scholarly conversation.”


Conference schedule

9:30 Coffee

10:00 Welcome

Moving into Theory: Dance Workshop
Molly Shanahan, Founder and Artistic Director, Mad Shak Dance Company
This session is motivated by the following question: How can those of us who are committed to looking at and thinking about dance begin to understand the experience of dance?

Watching Dance Aesthetics/Writing Dance History: A Program of Dance Films
John Mueller, Director, Dance Films Archive at Ohio State University
The Dance Film Archive is a non-profit organization devoted to increasing the availability of valuable dance films. Acquisition or creation of many of these films was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Mueller will screen and discuss 16mm films from his collection.

Performance as History/Method: What is our Evidence? What is our Vocabulary?
Presenter: Susan Manning, Associate Professor of English and Theater, Northwestern University
Respondent: David Levin, Associate Professor, Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

As historians of performance, we must imagine our objects of study often without the benefit of seeing the actual performance. We rely on photographs, film, drawings, reviews, and other mediated sources. How do we analyze an event that has finished and is not to be repeated? How do we deal with a living "text"? What does it mean to refer to texts in studies of the living arts? What are the risks of concretizing the ephemeral?

Possibilities of a Citywide Dialogue on Performance: Roundtable Discussion
Tom Gunning, Professor, Department of Art History and the Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago
What do historians bring to the greater understanding of what dancers do or what actors do? How has this conference performed confluences/conflicts that arise from our desire for interdisciplinary investigation? This discussion welcomes conference participants to comment on the conference's core goal-to create live interdisciplinary conversation among archivists, students, faculty, curators, and performers in the Chicago area.

Additional contact:
Esther Palmer
(773) 834-1077
Last modified at 01:55 PM CST on Friday, September 12, 2003.

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