Bergmann 'en Pointe'

Dance Director Elizabeth Bergmann, who retired on February 1, tranformed dance at Harvard.

Melissa C. Wong

Elizabeth Bergmann, the director of Harvard’s dance program who retired on February 1, transformed the way dance is choreographed, performed, and studied at Harvard. A look back on her tenure and the effect she had on students.

"I just didn’t think there would be any kind of serious dance at Harvard," says Larissa D. Koch ’08-’09. For much Harvard’s history, these pre-frosh expectations would have been justified. The dance program was only just created in 1964, and its scope was limited until 2000, when Elizabeth Bergmann was hired as the new Dance Director. "It soon became pretty clear that there was a lot for dancers here—and the source of so much of it turned out to be Liz," Koch says. Indeed, Koch found a wealth of dance opportunities as an undergraduate. After having resigned herself to a college career and future life without substantial outlets for dance, Koch now finds herself working as a freelance choreographer, in addition to being the head of her own contemporary dance company. To her own surprise, Koch has decided to send out applications not just to graduate medical schools, but to Master of Fine Arts dance programs as well.

Bergmann, who retired on February 1, had a tremendous influence on the state of dance at Harvard. She oversaw the introduction of dance courses into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences curriculum, the creation of Harvard’s Dance Center, and an increased respect for the study and practice of dance among Harvard faculty. Her greatest accomplishments, however, have been the revitalization of a deep love for dance in students who had given up on the form, and the demonstration to serious aspiring dancers that they may to go to college without hindering their professional goals. Bergmann leaves behind a robust dance community whose development should be credited to her.


Bergmann’s most visible accomplishments are the introduction of dance into Harvard’s academic curriculum and the administrative overhaul of the program. In addition to establishing a range of extracurricular performance classes and bringing in dancers from companies like Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor to teach semester-long courses in the curriculum, Bergmann helped create a class focused on the historical and theoretical study of George Balanchine. She also taught Dramatic Arts 120: "Introduction to Choreography," and increased the quality of the dance program offered by the Office for the Arts (OFA). These educational options played a major role in invigorating the Harvard dance community.

The Dance Center, established in 2007, played an equally important role in facilitating dance at the College, and even helped to convince professional-track artists to attend Harvard. "The dance center was a huge draw," says Elizabeth C. Walker ’11, who took a year off for professional dance before coming to Harvard. Previously, dancers rehearsed at Radcliffe in a gym, a space Bergmann deemed inadequate for the caliber of program she was looking to build. "When I arrived at Harvard, rehearsals and performances were relegated to a very difficult spot. There was no New College Theatre, and the students themselves had to bring in lights and risers for every performance, so improving the space was one of the first orders of business," Bergmann says. Now students have their own space to choreograph, perform ,and rehearse, and the dance program has an important symbol of its growing legitimacy at Harvard.


Bergmann’s tenacity and esteem for her work made a substantial impact on the faculty perception of dance, as evidenced by the full faculty position in the Department of Music being established for the next Dance Director. The opening left by Bergmann, who held a staff position, has not yet been filled. Bergmann, however, had an influence that extended beyond her official title. "When Liz sat on the Committee of Dramatics, she was one of the most active members, invariably the one who would come with new course proposals and ideas. That committee was peopled by professors across the humanities," says Director of the OFA Jack Megan. "She has made dance a legitimate area of study here, not only alongside the curriculum, but [also] within it."

However, Bergmann is the first to admit that there is still much left to be done in improving the dance program. "I would like Harvard to have a dance concentration, for one," she says. "Until dance becomes a real program with more faculty, it will continue to have no substantial voice at the academic table, which I think is the most crucial thing missing. If we had a curriculum, we’d have a full-time faculty, which is what we need … Dance should have the same freedom and rights as theater."


However much has been left to do in terms of improving dance’s status at Harvard, Bergmann succeeded in showing students that it is possible to pursue dance in addition to more conventional academic and career options. Like Koch, Julia Havard ‘11, a student choreographer and member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company, says Bergmann inspired her to consider pursuing the arts in her years after college. "I was always planning to go straight to med school, but now I’m planning on choreographing for a couple of years first. Liz can really get away with saying things like ‘Listen to your heart and do what you feel." Koch found Bergmann similarly inspiring. "[Liz] is proof that you can do something substantive with dance as a career, that you can make a successful life that way," she says.

Bergmann’s influence has had an equally significant role for those who have always considered dance a career path. "The balance that Liz struck with having strong extracurricular dance, in which everyone could participate, as well as great curricular offerings, is incredible," says Walker. Koch also credits Bergmann with a dramatic influx of serious dancers to Harvard in the past few years. "It’s becoming more common for people who can do dance professionally to come here, maybe taking time off sometime during their four years. Once I heard a prefrosh say she wanted to come to Harvard specifically for the dance program, I knew things had really changed," she says. Immensely talented and committed dancers such Madelyn M.L. Ho ‘08, who currently dances with the second company of Paul Taylor, Joanna R. Binney ‘08, who is a company member of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, and Merritt M. Moore ‘11, who has taken time off to dance with Zurich Ballet and Boston Ballet, have decided to attend Harvard during Bergmann’s tenure.


In addition to her efficacy in advocating for dance within Harvard, Bergmann has played an important personal role as a mentor and teacher to individual student dancers. "Liz has an amazing ability to make dancers really excited about what they’re doing. When we went on tour [as the Harvard Contemporary Dance Ensemble] to the American College Dance Festival, and we were the only group there not from a dance conservatory, she still really made us feel like we had a purpose being there," says Walker. "She always referred to us as ‘the company,’ and she really rallied us."

Her influence as a teacher lay primarily in her ability to couple a broad vision for the ultimate impact of a piece with great analytical facility. "Liz is both very critical and very supportive at the same time," says Havard. "The way I choreograph has completely changed at Harvard thanks to her … She taught me to step back and see the whole picture, and to realize that sometimes accidents are when the most creative things happen—and that sometimes moments that weren’t purposeful were the most honest." Koch says Bergmann is uniquely able concretize her technical knowledge in clear, complete thoughts about a piece’s overall effect. "Liz has an impeccable editing ability," she says. "She is always able to put her finger on the crux of what needs to change, or what is good, about a piece of dance. She showed me how to take a couple of steps back, look at a piece objectively and revisit principles that you sometimes forget when you’re wrapped up in what you’re making, and in that way she really changed my choreographic approach."

Many students who worked with Bergmann will cherish their time with her for a long time to come. "The way Liz passed on the benefits of her lifetime of experience to everyone here was incredible," says Koch, "and one of the most important parts of her impact." For Havard, Bergmann’s influence is persistent. "When I choreograph, I still hear her voice in my head," she says. "I will always treasure the time I’ve had with her, and Harvard will certainly not be the same without her."


When reflecting upon the changes Harvard dance has undergone during her time here, Bergmann doesn’t hesitate to recognize the enormous challenges left to whoever becomes her successor. "Harvard students deserve wonderful programs, and shouldn’t be torn between dance and academics. It’s up to the new director to be a strong advocate, to continue building courses, and especially to work with the reality that sometimes, it really is about money, and less about whether we believe in an idea or not but about committing money to it." In particular, she emphasizes the importance of raising the status of dance as a serious field of study. "There are big challenges ahead for all arts, but dance is still the low man on the totem pole since it came so late onto the academic setting at Harvard. There are now lots of singular dance departments at universities across the board, and perhaps we should look to them to learn about how we can improve."

In spite of these remaining obstacles, however, Bergmann feels she has done her part by bringing her particular abilities as a director, administrator, and artist to Harvard, and believes she had a positive impact. "I’ve spent my career building university dance programs, and that was what I wanted to achieve for Harvard. I see myself as more of a builder than a maintainer, so maybe it will be up to someone else to keep dance at Harvard going." As the testimonies of her students show, Bergmann constructed a strong foundation upon which the next Dance Director can build.

Staff Writer Paula I. Ibieta can be reached at


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