Portrait of an Artist: Christine Bennett

Choreographer Christine Bennett discusses high-risk dance installations and art at Harvard.

Assistant Dance Director Christine Bennett has served as the visionary behind large-scale dance installations and pieces that incorporated dancing on stilts, maneuvering through water, and climbing on ropes. In 1996, she founded the Bennett Dance Company in Boston, which she directed until 2007.

Bennett holds an M.F.A. in dance from Smith College and a B.F.A. in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has also worked to combine dance with advocacy for causes including breast cancer support and art in public spaces. Last Wednesday, she was the first speaker in the Dance Department’s Practice Is Performance discussion series.

The Harvard Crimson: What led you to the world of dance?

Christine Bennett: I have a pretty common experience in that I started taking classes as a three-year-old. It was as a high school student that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a lot of dance, even though I was from the midwest and had to travel three hours to Chicago. But I saw Bill T. Jones and “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land.” I also saw Twyla Tharp perform “In the Upper Room.” Seeing these works solidified for me my interest not only in dance as an art form but also in choreography and the greater form of seeing dance onstage. I learned to look at dance by pulling back and looking at the whole, sculpted experience.

THC: What were some of the ways in which you tackled large-scale installations?

CB: There was always something in the [studio] space that was larger than us. That might have been climbing up eight feet in the air on rope nets. The question was always: how close can we get to the other elements in the space with us?... For me, the work itself represented always trying to take on a larger-than-life element—not necessarily that we’re mastering this thing, but that the beauty would lie within the effort. It’s the push/pull of, ‘What does it feel like, taste like, smell like? Does it attract? Does it repel? Physically, what does it do for you? How do I get closer to the materials?’ For instance, we used stilts to become taller in relationship to 30-[foot tall] columns. What does this do to inform our bodies as dancers? We ended up transitioning from being earthbound to being bound by something much higher.

THC: What can students gain from dancing? What are the drawbacks to engaging in this opportunity?

CB: You’re here and have so many different extracurricular opportunities. But for a lot of people who have been very focused on the academic pursuit or some other art forms or some other personal commitments—I have a sense that Harvard students are wholly committed to these things. But there’s an opportunity: if you haven’t studied dance, there are several classes that have no barrier to entry. There are many people who are in the same position where they want to try something new…. Do it because it’s fun and because there’s a sense of community…. I think the toughest part of the co-curricular classes is that when it comes time for midterms and finals, the class size can become smaller. When the class size becomes smaller, it’s harder to draw the group’s energy and fully experience it.

THC: How would you describe the arts community here at Harvard?

CB: Highly collaborative. I’ve been amazed by what people can pull off in a large scale. The concert I attended [during] Arts First last year, when the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and Holden Choirs joined forces, was incredible. We as a dance program, especially with [Dance Director] Jill [Johnson], with her dual position in the Music Department as a Senior Lecturer, are keen on seeing collaborations happen.

THC: Any advice for dancers here at Harvard and beyond?

CB: Don’t limit yourself to what you currently have studied [up] to this point. Try to come into the studio every single day and ask yourself what you don’t know. Harvard time doesn’t work for dance. On time is late. Get there, and get there early. Let yourself drop into the room and ask yourself, “What are you looking for today in this class?” When you’re traveling through that class, whether it’s your first one, or if you’re at your 10,000th-hour point, ask yourself, ‘What does it feel like, look like, taste like? How thick is the air as I execute this movement? What is the point of initiation as I move my body?’ There are endless questions and answers to be found as a mover. You should walk in with your shell cracked wide open and falling off of your body. It’s a true gift to be among people who are asking the same questions as you.

—Staff writer Soyoung Kim can be reached at soyoungkim@college.harvard.edu.

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