Harvard is either 100 years ahead of everybody else or 100 years behind. In dance, Harvard is 100 years behind.
--Martha Urann, choreographer with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company
In the last decade, dance in the United States has exploded. What was once an artistic experience limited to the audiences of New York and other major cities has now become a dynamic feature of the entire nation's cultural life. Modern dance has also "found a compatible home" on college campuses, Connie Chin '78-2, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company, said last week.
Hoping to make dance "an integral part of college life," two students started the Dance Company last fall. Tomorrow night the company will give its premiere performance.
Dance is hardly a new phenomenon at the University. Radcliffe has offered courses in dance since the 1940s. Claire Mallardi, a former pupil of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, has headed the program since 1965, supervising the production of one performance each year.
But with 200 students enrolled in the Radcliffe program, one performance per year seemed rather paltry. Myra Mayman, coordinator of the Office for the Arts, said last week the program never seems to offer enough courses to meet student demand. At Mayman's suggestion, the dance company was formed, and she feels the company "really belongs as an adjunct to the dance program."
"A creative outlet is particularly important for students here, who tend to be a thinking lot. This is such a verbal environment, also, and dance has so many non-verbal aspects: space, time, rhythm, music and one's own body," Mayman added.
Karen Druckman '78 and Lise Newcomer '77 co-founded the company, and both plan to make their careers in the dance world. "One of the things I wanted to do was to make dance accepted by the University administration," Druckman said last week. With official recognition from Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, and the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life, funding was obtained from the Office for the Arts, President Horner's discretionary fund, and a personal donation from Thomas J.C. Raymond, professor of Business Administration at the Business School. But money continues to be a problem and the company is currently conducting a fund-raising drive. "We need money so that we're not constantly threatened with extinction," Druckman said. She added that the company eventually hopes "to set up an endowment like the other performing groups. Harvard hasn't given us a penny."
The company is small, with only 15 members, chosen on the basis of "technical strength and stage presence, "Druckman said. Company members do most of the choreography, taking a "very intellectual approach," Chin said. She added "the company tends to an extreme of modern dance--very abstract, almost experimental." But Druckman disagrees: "The different pieces have different feelings--some are more theatrical."
The technique of the talent available ruled out the possibility of offering classical ballet as well as modern dance. "You need a much stronger technique to be presentable in the classical idiom," Druckman explained.
The company's performance this weekend is clearly only a beginning, and many of the problems the company faces--problems inherent in the performing arts at Harvard, but especially acute because of the demanding nature of dance--are far from solution. Newcomer said one of the company's goals is "to make the University more attractive to people who are dancers." But as Druckman pointed out, "most people here who are interested in dance come to Harvard in spite of that, not because of it." The tremendous demands of time and energy that dance involves, coupled with what company members perceive as the University's indifference, are the chief problems. Martha Urann, a company choreographer, said last week that "Harvard doesn't want people to dance--it doesn't bring any money; it's not part of Commencement, like the Glee Club. As an art form, dance gets about as much respect as basketball. The people here who dance do it out of sheer love." Paul Goodman, a student at the Graduate School of Education and a company member, agreed: "The fact that the company's been around with virtually no support from the University is a statement about its energy and commitment," he said last week.
But that does not make it any easier for the students themselves. "The trouble is that dancers at Harvard lead a split life," Chin said. "From my experience, a professional type of dancer's life is not compatible with life as a Harvard student. Conceivably you could be preparing to be a dancer while at Harvard, because dance takes a lot more than dance training, but it's difficult."
Chin added that "getting credit might help," but Mallardi, the company's artistic adviser, does not feel that is a possibility. "Harvard will probably never give credit," she said on Monday. But Mallardi too is resentful. "I don't give a damn whether people get credit for dance," she said, "but when you're in an atmosphere where students are under academic pressure and also love dance, they're blown in the wind. I don't feel there's interest from the administration. It's worth it-the talent is there--but we wear ourselves out trying to make it work instead of enjoying the process of creativity."
Drawing an audience for dance concerts has never been a problem, Mallardi pointed out. She feels that offering credit for courses in the Dance Program in composition and performance production, as well as the hiring of someone to lift the burden of production off the students and off Mallardi herself, who has only a part-time appointment, would go far towards solving the problem. Mallardi also noted that dance at Harvard is in an especially difficult position. "All the other artistic activities are isolated blocks of time. A dance concert, where the original work is done by each student, involves working from the beginning of the year."
But the present situation does provide valuable experience for most members of the company. In some cases the benefits are very personal. "I'm using dance and philosophy together as a learning tool," Howard Fine '78, a company member and Philosophy concentrator, explained last week. "Dance amplifies the present," Fine continued--"like meditation, it is a focusing; the whole point of it is exorcism, catharsis, discovery." An especially important aspect for Fine has been the experience of choreography: "All sorts of sources feed dance, and almost everything has its distinctive way of moving." The solo he has choreographed for himself in the upcoming concert was inspired by the motion of a newspaper blowing down the street.
Mallardi agreed that whatever its status at Harvard, dance provides a vital experience. "Dance can permeate every aspect of living," she said. "The understanding of how the body works and how the psyche works--you can't get that from books. Whatever profession the dancers here choose, they're the richer for having that." And for Newcomer, "The company and this performance have been the most important things at Harvard for me this year."
The company, too, has thrived even in adversity. "It's the only forum for student choreography in the city," Goodman pointed out. Chin has seen a definite process of growth: "People have to learn to work together, to help the choreographer out. There's been a growing cohesiveness." For Fine, the diversity in the dancers' backgrounds has not been a drawback: "I've gotten a sense of how we move together as a company, and everyone has a very specific, individual style. But it's not a hindrance at all--it's probably the company's strength."
The company member hope to build a creative organization which will benefit other students as well as University dancers. "I would like to see it become an established, visible part of the Harvard experience, not only to allow dancers to perform but also to give dance greater exposure on campus," Newcomer said. Chin pointed out that "a lot of people don't really know very much about modern dance," and Druckman, too, foresees an educational role for the Company. "An educated audience does exist for dance, but you don't have to be 'educated' to enjoy a dance performance," she said. "I'm hoping there will be people who come to this performance who've never seen dance before, that we can help to broaden Harvard's cultural offerings." In the short-term future, the Company is planning to hold auditions for new members next fall, and hopes to offer more than one concert next year.
The problems--time, energy, the demands of technical competence, and above all, money--are manifold and obvious. Despite the enthusiasm of its members, the future of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company remains precarious. But that does not mean that the present experience is wasted. As Fine put it, "The Company could easily fold, but that would be okay, because dance is ephemeral--it blossoms, and then it's gone."