Dakin Sounds Off on Harvard Dance Scene

Radcliffe Fellow talks about the divisions among dance groups

One word that Christine W. Dakin’s students, both past and present, use to describe her is “intense.” Petite, with delicate features and clad in a festive red sweater, this adjective seems inappropriate upon a first glance of the famed dancer. But one look into her bright eyes, perceptibly curious and insistently alive, and it is easy to understand their impressions.

Dakin is currently a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and will be performing with the Harvard Contemporary Dance Ensemble this weekend. When asked how she would introduce her solo, a Martha Graham piece entitled “Lamentation,” she responds simply: “I wouldn’t. That’s the whole point of dancing. Nonverbal communication.”

Dakin has been affiliated with Harvard since 2006, when she taught “Dramatic Arts 25: The Artist Revealed: Martha Graham’s Work and Creative Process,” one of Harvard’s first for-credit dance classes. A former principal dancer and artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Dakin brings to the classroom firsthand experience with the iconic modern dancer, to whom she refers with personal familiarity and deep respect. It is also not difficult to see why Harvard might have chosen Graham’s work as an initial bridge between academia and dance.

“There’s an intellectual and a literary aspect to Martha’s work that has always been fascinating to me,” says Dakin.

Dakin herself did not discover dance until college, where she began taking modern dance with Elizabeth Bergmann, the current director of Harvard’s Dance Program. She says she connected with Graham’s work from the start.

“It immediately felt completely normal to me,” she says. “It was an organic, from-the-inside-out way of moving, and because of that, it felt very powerful as a means of expression.”

In 1976, Dakin left Ann Arbor for the Graham Company in New York City, and the years that followed are the stuff of dance legend. Dakin took on Graham’s old roles, had roles created for her, and worked with such distinguished contemporaries as Rudolf Nureyev, Twyla Tharp, and Martha Clarke.

After a period as artistic director of the Graham Company, Dakin’s old friend Bergmann lured her to Harvard’s gates. In her first year on board, Dakin offered the Graham course, which fused lecture with studio time.

Joshua Legg, who currently teaches with the Dance Program, first encountered Dakin as a graduate student at Shenandoah University in 1996. Now, having witnessed Dakin’s interactions with Harvard students, Legg fondly says that she’s still got it.

“Her energy and presence are palpable,” he says.

Teaching dance in a university setting is not without its frustrations, however.

“There’s real dichotomy between dance as practice and dance as academic in a way that doesn’t exist in the other arts,” says Dakin.

And while she is hopeful that the proposed Dramatic Arts Secondary Field and President Faust’s pro-arts attitude will pave the road to positive change, she recognizes that, “In order to find a place for the arts, they have to be couched in academic terms, and as soon as that happens, it is automatically not the same thing.”

Dakin holds students partly responsible for the state of dance at Harvard, and suggests that they could be doing more. With so many student groups competing for rehearsal space, she decries the lack of any “rational, professional, responsible” plan to turn “ad hoc” individual groups into a coherent force for recognition.

“[Dance groups] schedule with no respect for the other groups,” says Dakin. “Quite frankly, the division is extremely detrimental. The basic field is the basic field. It’s a shame that all the dancers don’t share something.”

Nevertheless, she says she does her part, in the classroom and on the stage, to give them all something to think about. Dakin literally embodies history, but with an intensity that makes it impossible to ignore.

Bergmann is enthusiastic when he sums up her qualities: “When she’s on stage, the whole dance makes sense.”