Choreographing the Emotions

Modern Dance at Harvard

Life does not have to be interpreted, and the dance is life. It has to be experienced, not taken apart and dissected. Dances affect the body, not just the mind. Dance is not a mirror, but a participation, a voicing of the hidden but common emotions. --Martha Graham, 1937

It is safe to say that Harvard does not emphasize the emotions in its system of rewards. Dance, the essence of stylized human emotions, receives little support here in the way of money, attention or academic credit. Fortunately, these are not the primary ingredients of a healthy dance program. A performing company needs only a group of dancers motivated to spend practically all their time dancing, and a productive director. The Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company, which is preparing for its spring performance April 13-15, has these essential attributes, and it is flourishing.

The spring performance, as it stands now, will consist of eight short, original pieces, each choreographed by a different member of the company. Four of the pieces are by undergraduates.

The company held its first complete dress rehearsal last Sunday night. It was an exciting event, even though the quality of the dancing and the pieces varied considerably. The subject matter ranged from an interpretation of different phases of the night by Liz Wilkerson '78, to a dramatic portrayal of a one-legged incarnate animal spirit by Connie Chin '79, to a mime-like solo by former Radcliffe student Gail Casson of a woman apparently giving birth.

Late at night, after the run-through had ended, the choreographers met quietly with the company's artistic director, Claire Mallardi, to discuss their pieces. After commenting on each of them, Mallardi raised several points I had heard her discuss before. One of them concerned the facial expressions that the dancers had worn on stage.

"I never saw your eyes light up on stage," she said. "I never saw them gleam, yes I can't sense that you're frustrated as dancers. I'm not talking about the frustration that comes with missing dinner, I mean those frustrations that are within you, that come from a tension within yourself. You have to learn to use the real frustrations, to take them and transform them."

Mallardi believes strongly in the ideal of the suffering artist. According to her, no true artist, including the photographer, should expect to make a dime from his or her work. "Every great artist came from poverty," Mallardi told me. "The worst thing was to go home and tell your family. Now the arts are being permeated by the middle class, and the middle class is funding mediocrity."

Earlier, when Mallardi and I were negotiating the price of some photos she wanted to buy, she pointed out that several years ago she had choreographed a long piece, "A Paper Event," and the paper had cost her $2000 for three night. I was moved by her noble ideals to reduce my modest demands to a new low. Mallardi, who studied with Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, is a highly demanding person who can identify what she wants from her associates, and seems to get it.

There was something stirring about watching the choreographers watch Mallardi. All of them hoped to become dancers, or at least to make dance an important part of their lives. They were a small group devoting a huge amount of time and energy to dance and living an aesthetic experience at Harvard, not studying it.

When Claire Mallardi came to Harvard in 1965 to teach courses in dance, she began an annual tradition of holding a spring performance of dances choreographed by her students. The concerts have been steadily growing in size, and this year's will be held on the Loeb Mainstage, following years at the Hasty Pudding Club and the Agassiz Theater.

The increasing size made it desirable to create a dance company, separate from the regular program of dance classes. Last year Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, granted a charter to the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company. The charter, similar to those given to the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra or the Harvard Band, provided for student management of the company in the form of a student board of directors. This is the first year that the board has held regular meetings.

The most important issue facing the company is the definition of Mallardi's role in it. The topic is highly sensitive. On the one hand, the performances grew out of an aspect of Mallardi's overall dance program. On the other, there is a real possibility that the positions of dance instructor and artistic director of the dance company will eventually have to be divided. It is the responsibility of the board to appoint the staff of the company, including the position of artistic director. A test of the board's effectiveness in staffing its organization occurred two weeks ago, when Mallardi asked the board to dismiss Elizabeth Lee '79, business manager, allegedly because she was "too efficient" and their personalities conflicted.

The board reluctantly agreed, principally because it was important to avoid major conflicts in the last few weeks before the performance.

Mallardi's high standards and excellent background have served to increase the interest in performing. In addition, there has been a surge in participation in dance at all levels. According to Myra Mayman, coordinator for the arts at Harvard, the number of Harvard and Radcliffe students enrolling in dance classes has been increasing steadily for the last 20 years.

Both the dance classes and the company are funded directly through the Office for the Arts. The office does not receive its money from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but from roughly equal allotments given by the presidents of Harvard and Radcliffe. "Although the level of funding has remained the same for the last several years," Mayman remarked last week, "we plan to initiate a program to endow the arts as part of the Radcliffe Centennial next year."

It is difficult to see why dance is funded through the Office for the Arts at all. The Music and Visual and Environmental Studies Departments, and the Loeb Drama Center, are funded by the Faculty. Although Mallardi teaches five courses, runs the dance company and conducts an individual tutorial in the history and philosophy of dance, she is hired by the arts office to one-year contracts. Instead of enjoying the ample salary and artistic freedom that tenure supposedly provides to the typical Harvard professor, Claire Mallardi runs her dance program on the principles of sacrifice and devotion to her work.