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SELMA ODOM - DANCE HISTORIAN OF THE MONTH, JUNE 2009

 

OdomWelcome to DCD's newest online addition, “Dance Historian of the Month”. For the next twelve months, a brief interview with one of Canada's dance writers/historians will be posted here, in question and answer format.

The hope is to illuminate something about the person, their craft, the field, and to provide a peek into what inspires those uncovering and rediscovering our dance pasts. The interview is accompanied by a photo, giving a face to the names seen in the bylines. Often hunkered down in front of computer screens, surrounded by the papers, photos and ephemera that, hopefully, hold the answers to their questions, or sitting in the darkness at a performance, historians and writers are an anonymous force buried beneath their writing. Here is your chance to meet them.

This month's inaugural column features a mentor to many in the dance writing and history field, Selma Landen Odom. She is a guru, with a breadth of knowledge – not only in dance but also in music – that is astounding. After thirty-seven years on faculty in the Department of Dance at York University, Selma is retiring. It is the end of an era for certain, but as her list of current projects reveals, it is also the beginning of another.

In May, the keynote address at Selma's retirement dinner was given by Grant Strate, founder of the York Dance Department, with further commentary by a former student of Selma's, DCD's Director of Research Amy Bowring. These speeches are added to Selma's interview for our first Dance Historian of the Month posting.

We hope you are as excited as we are about “Dance Historian of the Month”. The final question I have asked of each person is: If you could travel anywhere into the dance past, where would it be?” I am looking forward to the answers and still trying to decide where I would go. If you know your chosen destination, share it with us on our Facebook page. We'd love to hear from you.

Enjoy the interview.

Seika Boye

AN INTERVIEW WITH SELMA LANDEN ODOM

Name: Selma Landen Odom
Date of birth: August 4, 1943
Place of birth: Peoria, Illinois
Occupation: Professor Emerita, Department of Dance, York University
Teaching: University of Michigan 1970-72; York University 1972-2009; Continues to teach graduate level seminar courses

SB: What was your path to becoming a dance historian?

SO: I took a dance history course with Selma Jeanne Cohen at the American Dance Festival, then at Connecticut College in New London when I was nineteen. She directed us to what little there was to read, and I remember going to the library and thinking how tiny dance was in print compared to the literature and history I was reading as an undergraduate English major at the time, 1963. What impressed me most positively was writing she herself had published and the creative work she had embarked on as editor of Dance Perspectives. I began to imagine the possibility of a career in dance research.

She introduced me, in person, to the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library when I was an MA student in theatre history at Tufts University. Through her, I attended the first CORD (Congress on Research in Dance) conference in 1967, an experience which opened doors to many dimensions of dance research beyond history - movement analysis, ethnology and anthropology, therapy, science and education. It was exhilarating to meet a large network of people passionate about their work. Selma Jeanne somehow convinced Lydia Joel that I would be capable of doing a report for Dance Magazine since I was, by then, reviewing in Boston; so at the age of twenty-three, I did a report. Looking back, it amazes me that she had so much confidence in the young people she was encouraging.

We kept in touch, and I invited her to do a guest lecture on women in eighteenth-century dance at the University of Michigan, where I first taught. Soon after that I'm certain it was her recommendation that helped me move to York University in 1972 where Grant Strate was also willing to place faith in the inexperienced.

SB: What are you reading right now?

SO: I do a lot of reading online looking for research and teaching-related articles. Reading online is a tedious reality. I keep up with:

Arts Journal and Ballet UK to have a big picture of what is happening in dance - mainly in England and North America. Arts Journal is divided into different categories by artistic discipline with three or four links to newspaper articles from around the world every day in each field - I read music, dance and media; The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star for general information; various post-secondary school, archive and library websites to track things for personal research, teaching and my students; websites for companies and events that are in the current news, for example: The Canada Dance Festival, The Cunningham Foundation or The Banff Centre; certain writers from The New York Times, Deborah Jowitt of the The Village Voice, Marcia Siegel of the Boston Phoenix, Toronto writers such as Paula Citron, Michael Crabb or Susan Walker and various British critics. I enter name searches about once a month on their newspaper websites to catch up on their writing.

I keep up with Dance Research Journal, The Dance Current, The Dance Current website, Dance Collection Danse Magazine and several other dance publications through subscriptions, but I read quite a few others at the library.

I'm usually revisiting about twenty to thirty books in some depth. I don't read them consecutively, but consult them for research and teaching by reading chapters at a time. For a sample, this is what is on my work table right now:

  • Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman by Fredrika Blair (1986). I am dealing with Isadora Duncan in a graduate level Dance and Modernism course.
  • Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America by Ann Daly (1995) which I am re-reading for the third or even fourth time.
  • Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman by Susan Manning (2nd Edition 2006). This is the second edition that has a new introduction and title that is very interesting. Manning took out the focus in her original title on Feminism and Nationalism and she explains why. This is also for my Modernism course.
  • Motion Arrested: Dance Reviews by H.T. Parker (1982), a Boston-based critic writing in the first half of the twentieth century. He covered the Ballets Russes years, 1909-1929. This was a lead from an exhibition and symposium I just attended at the Harvard Theatre Collection about the Ballets Russes. This is the 100th anniversary of their big debut in Paris in May 1909.
  • Wagner and the Art of the Theatre by Patrick Carnegy (2006). Two people in my Modernism course are pursuing work that relates to Wagner's connections to dance. It also connects with my interest in Adolphe Appia, the designer for the Dalcroze production of Gluck's Orpheus in 1913, a re-creation I was involved in a few years ago.
  • Dancing in Utopia: Dartington Hall and its Dancers by Larraine Nicholas (2007). Dartington Hall is a place where Rudolf Laban did a lot of his work. Dartington has an interesting story that is parallel to my work on Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and his school at Hellerau (Dresden, Germany) before World War I. Dancers Mary Wigman and Suzanne Perrottet studied with both of these men. This book also overlaps with the Modernism course.
  • Embodied Texts: Symbolist Playwright-Dancer Collaboration by Mary Fleischer (2007). This too is relevant to my Modernism course and covers the time period between the 1890s and 1930s.
  • The St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters: Stage and State in Revolutionary Russia, 1900-1920 by Murray Frame (2000) is a fascinating institutional history, and I'm also reading Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s by Elizabeth Souritz (1990).
  • Passing It On by Marie McCarthy (1999) deals with the transmission of music in Irish culture by considering education and nationalism. It interests me as a model for my research.
  • Balanchine Variations by Nancy Goldner (2008) sheds light on seventeen or eighteen Balanchine ballets. I began reading this wonderful small book when I was working on the Peter Quanz article for The Dance Current because Peter was reading it. Nancy has been an inspiring colleague for over thirty years, and I was a bit overdue in ordering my own copy.
  • Dogs Behaving Badly by Dr. Nicholas Dodman (2000). (We have a new puppy named Stella.)

SB: Do you know how many volumes you have in your own collection?

SO: Have I counted them? No, but I should do that sometime. I recently donated half of my Ballet Review magazine collection to the Ryerson University Library. Ballet Review began publishing in 1965 and I have a full set. I am looking for replacements for a few gaps in the second half which I will also donate. I need to make plans for donating gifts so that other things I have will get to where they will be used in the future. I don't want to sell books and journals if they can go into libraries.

SB: When do you do all of this reading?

SO: I read constantly. It is what I spend most of my time doing. I get so into things on the subway that I forget to get off at the right station.

SB: Where do you read?

SO: It depends on the kind of reading I am doing. If it is student writing, I need to be at a table with light where I can read carefully. Academic writing requires a certain kind of attention, not only to the content but to the framework and methodology of what I am reading. I save biography and other easier reading for bed. I have a secret spot at a favourite library where the light and ventilation is good and it is quiet. I've done a great deal of writing there.

SB: Do you mark your books?

SO: Sometimes I use little Post-its. If I am reading something that is photocopied I may make a few notes on the pages. I like to write my notes in longhand on old-fashioned notebook paper. That's how I began long ago and it's how I make connections. My notes are a combination of my own thoughts and the writer's words. It is an active way of reading.

A couple of years ago I was given a tour of the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) by a friend who teaches there. I was pleased to see that in addition to the most modern technologies they still have blackboards in the lecture halls. My friend explained that many professors insist on teaching with blackboards because they are convinced that the time it takes to write out information by hand is equal to the time it takes students to absorb how to solve an equation or work out a concept.

SB: What are you working on right now?

In the next few weeks I will be presenting two different papers. The first is a talk I'll give at the University of Michigan's 100 Years of Dance Celebration. My title is “The Dance Knowledge Expansion: Generations of Research and Teaching”. I will survey the growth of dance as a discipline in the last fifty years. I started my career at the University of Michigan in 1970, so I'll reflect on what it was like to be teaching then. The second is a paper for the Society of Dance History Scholars conference “Topographies: Sites, Bodies, Technologies” at Stanford University in Palo Alto. My presentation is on Deborah Hay's 2008 work which premiered in the restored Hellerau Festspielhaus building in Dresden, Germany.

I'm currently working on my book on people and practices connected with Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a music education method which incorporates body movement. It builds on dozens of articles I've written over a long period of time.

I'm also in the midst of writing or researching several articles on topics in Canadian dance. My profile of choreographer Peter Quanz was in the March issue of The Dance Current. An interview and additional writing are online about the making of In Colour, his new ballet for the National Ballet of Canada. I'm trying to wrap up an article co-written with Johanna Householder on 15 Dance Lab. It is a collective memory of people who were there as audience members and performers. The article will be a chapter in a book being edited by Allana Lindgren and Kaija Pepper.

SB: If you could travel to an era of the dance past where would you go?

SO: I'm glad I became involved in dance writing in the 1960s. There was a lot of dance available to be seen, great ballet and modern dancers, and they were undoubtedly the reason I felt compelled to stay in the field. There's the early 20th century too, but it probably wouldn't be interesting to do what I do if I had lived then. I have built a career at the same time as the expansion of dance studies. I still remember what it was like to work in the 1960s. It was you and only a few books. Now it's a much richer and more complicated scene, and people from other disciplines are more interested in dance. There is so much more to read!

I don't know if I would do all of this now if I were young and just beginning. Computers have made other paths available to people who aren't math geniuses or neuroscientists. For me, humanities and the arts seemed the safest place to go. It was not as clear when I was starting out that you could make a career as a young woman going into the world of science or even social science. I feel glad I did what I did, but perhaps I had certain potentials that were ignored because I didn't follow those paths.

It seems strange to me to know so little about my ancestors. How would I have fit in? My parents were the first generation in their families to go for graduate degrees. I don't come from a long line of musicians or university graduates. It might not have been possible to do the things I've been very curious to do if I had lived long ago.

BEGINNINGS

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MIRIAM AND LAWRENCE ADAMS

In 1983, under the banner ENCORE! ENCORE!, research was begun into choreographies created by Canadian dance artists working in the 1940s and 1950s for the purposes of preserving their works through reconstruction, notation, videotape and photography. (READ MORE)

PERSONNEL

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THE DCD TEAM

Get to know the dynamic individuals who are dedicated to caring for Canada's rich dance heritage and sharing its dance story with the world. From collections to programming and education to marketing and admin, our productive team packs a lot into a year. (READ MORE)

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