April 11, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 13

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    ‘Ephemeral Evidence’:Conference will merge movement of dance, words that critique it

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Josephine Baker, La CrČole, 1934.

    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, Film Documentation and Research” hope to break down the barriers between performance and critique.

    “It’ll gently disturb our roles, and I am sure it’ll bring us new insights,” said conference co-organizer Terri Francis, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature.

    “Ephemeral Evidence” will bring together scholars, performers, archivists and critics to talk about “evidence” for the performing arts, specifically dance.

    The conference 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, or different versions may exist in different archives. And while dance, like most art forms, has both primary and secondary research sources, dance films complicate the pursuit of information. “Dance films are both primary and secondary because the filmmaker’s perspective intervenes,” she said.

    During Fall Quarter 2001, Francis met Nell Andrews, an Art History graduate student who had run into similar problems in her work on dance. As well as a lack of evidence, they found a lack of terminology and respect.

    “Dance theory had this seemingly insular 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.”

    At the end of the quarter, Andrews left for Paris to use the dance archives there, and Francis asked Esther Palmer (A.B.,’01), program administrator for Cinema & Media Studies, to step in. As an undergraduate concentrator in General Studies in the Humanities, Palmer focused on dance, film and photography, and in her free time, she performed with a student dance group.

    “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.”

    “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 also 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.

    In one case, the footage was captured in an unconventional way, said Francis. Victor Jessen snuck into a theater repeatedly over several years to film the same performance and then edited the footage together with a soundtrack he also recorded in the theater. “Though it did presumably go against house rules,” Francis added, “Jessen was protected by an usher who discovered him.” Jessen’s 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. Thomas Gunning, Professor in Art History, Cinema & Media Studies and the College, will conclude the conference by leading a roundtable discussion.

    Francis and Palmer hope the conference will help launch an ongoing monthly series, the Chicago Forum on Performance, modeled on the Chicago Film Seminar. Like the “Ephemeral Evidence” conference, Chicago Forum on Performance 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.”

    The conference will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at the Franke Institute for the Humanities, 1100 E. 57th St. For more information, send e-mail to tsfranci@uchicago.edu or empalmer@midway.uchicago.edu.