Special Topics Conference – Society of Dance History Scholars.
I often sit outside of dance studies, yet on occasion I transverse into this vast area of study that can include performance studies, choreographic practice, dance theory, dance history, dance criticism, and many other topoi. My latest adventure into dance studies was a conference on contemporary ballet sponsored by the Society of Dance History Scholars. The organizers, Jill Nunes Jensen, and Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel, aimed for the conference to continue conversations about the “efficacy of [contemporary] ballet, its history, locality, and relevancy” by including practitioners, scholars, critics and “those who work across those categories as well as in-between.” To their credit, the conference did include a variety of perspectives on contemporary ballet culture, curating, making, and writing.
Over the course of the two days I participated in and listened to different conversations around the field and practice of contemporary ballet. Not surprisingly, these conversations seemed constrained by institutional frameworks and linear thinking, and I noticed a striving to locate alternative narratives and discourses. Whether I was listening to dance history scholars, dance program directors, choreographers, or researchers in other fields, I felt an urgency not just to mark or name the field of contemporary ballet but to claim it as if it might be in danger of slipping away.
The first plenary, “Contemporary Ballet, Women, and Institutions,” put three academic directors in conversation – Emily Coates (Director of Dance Studies at Yale University), Jodie Gates (Director and Vice Dean USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance), Jill Johnson (Dance Director at Harvard University. What struck me about their conversation was a clear turn toward the discursive and yes, rhetorical. In the varied context of their respective institutions, contemporary ballet emerged as a particular kind of discursive space and way of thinking. There was a lot of talk about dance practice, but also a lot of talk about the risk-taking “entrapunerial spirit” of dance. I saw this as a persuasive move, to make ballet (and dance in general) more universal and tangible, less ephemeral. Can ballet and dance survive and be relevant in academic institutions that are increasingly shifting away from the humanities and civic arts?
The second and last day of the conference was a mix of various scholars and practitioners, and looking back on my notes it was hard to call out anything specific that stood out to me. The large field of dance studies seems to enjoy talking with and about itself (maybe most academic disciplines do). Thomas DeFrantz made this point clear at the beginning of his presentation, “The race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanists Aesthetics.” He claimed that ballet already knows itself or at least it thinks it does. He might be right, and I could feel it at this conference. If ballet already knows itself, then why do scholars and practioners feel the need to keep arguing for its history or for marking its (varied) territory?
If ballet can provoke us to consider the challenges of our present condition (gender, race, inequality, etc.), then maybe it can start to unknow itself a bit more. Maybe ballet can start to reconsider its search for “the next” balletic genius. Maybe ballet can start to communicate more about why it matters to others. There was no closing session, which seemed a missed opportunity for such a small conference. Without such, it was hard to tell what was gained collectively or how the conversations might be continued.