Dancing Lives

The lives of dancers are among the most elusive subjects for life-writing. Not only is the art form itself ephemeral, notoriously difficult to capture in notation and on film as an accurate record. Dancers are often reluctant to talk about themselves – “we are what we do” – is the familiar refrain. Historically, the life of the dancer gets lost in the account of the processes of choreography. Sources and records are often difficult to find, especially in the case of pre-twentieth-century subjects, and frequently testimonies left by dancers themselves may be focussed on a particular aspect of self-presentation rather than an emphasis on historical accuracy. Nevertheless, there have been many vibrant, searching accounts written (or ghost written) by dancers themselves, such as Tamara Karsavina’s Theatre Street (1930), which provide insights into the mysterious back-stage daily rigours, emotional highs and lows of the profession.

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This conference brings together a host of experts, dancers, scholars, and critics who have intimate knowledge of the lives of dancers in many different forms, and a host of questions will be discussed, centred on the issue of how do people write about the lives of dancers and choreographers? What distinctions are there in writing about a twentieth-century dancer (as Judith Mackrell has done for Lydia Lopokova), and those who must rely on the archive to piece together accounts of pre-twentieth-century dancers’ lives, or those (like Jane Pritchard) who have unearthed the importance of dancers who are largely unknown and who have gone unrecognised in the historical record.

The question of life-writing also implies the problem of how does dance as a silent form itself represent life stories? In addition to uncovering the sources and methods of scholarship and various genres relating to dancers’ lives, we shall hear from Jennifer Homans, whose work currently focuses on the life of choreographer, George Balanchine, an artist who frequently questioned narrative form.

We will hear from our keynote speaker, Dame Monica Mason, an account of the impact of travel on the lives of dancers, and from other scholars about the diasporic conditions bearing on the lives of dancers from outside Europe.

And we get an opportunity to watch and listen to current dancers from Rambert Dance Company who have collaborated on choreography and considered the “life” of the choreography itself. A combination of practical demonstration, film, biographers, practitioners, discussion and speakers promise to make this a stimulating and enlightening day.

 

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