PENELOPE REED DOOB
DANCE HISTORIAN OF THE MONTH
Welcome to DCD’s next online edition of “Dance Historian of the Month”. This series features interviews with Canada’s dance historians. We hope to illuminate aspects of the person, their craft, the field, and provide an opening into what inspires those who interpret our dance pasts. The interview is accompanied by a photo, giving a face to the bylines. Often veiled by computer screens, untouched by stage lights and represented only by their printed words, historians are the intangible forces that spur dance on. Our interview is your introduction to the historian herself.
Penelope Reed Doob is December’s Dance Historian of the Month. Doob is a professor of English, dance and women’s studies at York University. She joined York in 1969, and has taken on key roles at the university such as Associate Vice President (1986-1989) and Dance Department Chair (2001-2006). Professor Doob has also conducted research in immunology; for example, she was a research associate for the Division of Clinical Immunology (HIV Clinic) at the Toronto Western Hospital. Although Professor Doob works primarily with York’s Dance Department, she completed her PhD in medieval studies at Stanford University and she has published highly acclaimed books in the field, including Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Medieval Literature and The Idea of the Labyrinth, both of which include comments on medieval dance. Doob has also done dance reviews for the CBC and The Globe and Mail as well as for U.S. and European dance magazines. Doob has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974-1975) and a National Science Foundation Medical Research Fellowship (1964-1965). She has given a number of lectures and has organized panels in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico on medieval dance.
Professor Doob has published three books and over 400 reviews on dance and she has conducted about 60 interviews for radio and television. Between researching our immune systems, reading artifacts in Medieval Latin and learning stage fighting, Professor Doob evidently has a broad background to contextualize Canadian research in the sciences and the arts.
DCD Metcalf Foundation Intern
Name: Penelope Reed Doob
Place of birth: Rhode Island, USA
CC: What brought you to dance?
PRD: When I was a kid in Rhode Island, we had classical music on in the house all the time. I started dancing when I was two and I never stopped.
CC: Did you take dance classes?
PRD: Yes, ballet and Graham. Later, when I did my undergraduate degree at Harvard University I took class with Robert Cohan. He was a wonderful, if ferocious, modern dance teacher, who later would play a significant role in Canada in the choreographic workshops initiated by Grant Strate. If he had been more like Ninette de Valois and had carried a cane, you wouldn’t have dared enter the studio.
CC: Was your undergraduate degree in dance?
PRD: No, there was no dance program at the time. Dance was not considered to be a serious academic subject. Nonetheless, Harvard hosted regular workshops led by outstanding dancers. I took a master class with Merce Cunningham!
CC: Did Harvard have other performing arts programs?
PRD: Yes, the theatre program was taken very seriously even though the program did not bestow academic credit. When I arrived at the school, Harvard had just opened the Loeb Drama Center, which included two new theatres built for undergraduates to use. It was this incredible facility that drew me to Harvard, as well as Boston’s cultural life. I am also part of a Harvard legacy; my father and grandfather went to Harvard.
CC: Did you study with the Drama Centre?
PRD: Yes, for my first two years at Harvard, theatre was virtually all I did. I worked on almost every production in every capacity. I think it was my first day at Harvard that someone asked me to be the assistant director for Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist, the first show at the Loeb. For other productions, I acted and produced as well as choreographed dance scenes.
CC: Did you ever learn stage fighting?
PRD: I remember hating my theatrical fencing class. I found a friend who was also taking the course, and we agreed to refrain from stabbing each other in the chest, which everyone else seemed to be doing. We didn’t last very long in fencing, but I learned the basics of stage fighting.
CC: Why did you decide to go into medieval studies after your undergraduate degree?
PRD: While I was at Harvard, I took a year off to study classical guitar in Italy. I had a wonderful time in Italy and I fell in love with the Italian Renaissance. When I returned to Harvard I took all the classes I could on the Renaissance and in poetic theory.
At the same time, while I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I managed to publish an article on transplantation immunity in the Journal of the New York Academy of Sciences. I was therefore offered the opportunity to do research at a medical school in New Hampshire for a couple of summers, although I continued at Harvard in the fall. It was wonderful.
At the end of my undergraduate degree, I had the choice of either continuing my medical studies or pursuing my interest in the humanities.
CC: Why did you choose to continue your studies in the humanities?
PRD: It was the harder path, not least because it demanded good Latin. I was offered a fellowship for a PhD in biochemistry and another fellowship for a PhD in literature. I was more interested in medicine than in biochemistry; however, I decided that the humanities would be even more engaging. I accepted Stanford’s fellowship to study the humanities and I eventually joined their medieval studies doctoral program.
CC: Where does the ethic of following the harder path come from?
PRD: I am a many-generation New Englander. For us the most important thing is to provide service to the world. If possible, you should change the world. My work didn’t necessarily benefit anybody, but public service was my motivation. It has been better than sitting in a bar, except, maybe, when one sits in a bar with Sir Frederick Ashton but that is a different story.
CC: It is quite remarkable that you had so many diverse options available to you at the end of your undergraduate degree.
PRD: Well, my work in immunology was very exciting. Doctors were just beginning to do more complicated transplants, and we were studying new concepts that eventually led to the understanding of immunology we have today. If I had been offered a full M.D. scholarship to Dartmouth Medical School I probably would have taken it, but I was excited to pursue my work in the arts.
CC: Can you tell me more about your transition into medieval studies?
PRD: At the time, Stanford was recruiting graduate students to become medievalists. The faculty decided that they wanted me so decided that I did not have to learn Old Norse. I had studied Latin for six years and the faculty decided that Latin was sufficient as an ancient language. When I first studied Latin, I never thought it would be useful to me. However, it turned out to be helpful to my research in medicine and the humanities.
CC: How did you get back into dance writing after your PhD in medieval studies?
PRD: At the end of my PhD, in 1969, I became an Assistant Professor at Glendon College of York University and started travelling to England during the summer to do archival research. The British Library was around the corner from Covent Garden and so I started watching virtually every dance performance there and at Sadler’s Wells. One summer, Nureyev and Fonteyn were both guest artists there and I found it really wonderful to watch them work. By the end of the summer, I decided that I wanted to write about dance. When I came back to North America just before my first sabbatical at York University, I met Selma Odom, who suggested that I write for the York Dance Review. I continued to work in dance criticism while I taught medieval and Renaissance literature.
CC: What kind of writing did you do for the York Dance Review?
PRD: The York Dance Review was a wonderful publication. One of my first articles was on the 1973 choreographic workshop at The National Ballet of Canada. Constantin Patsalas presented one of his choreographies and Karen Kain danced in a few works. The National Ballet liked my writing and asked me to write a few biographies for them. Around that time, I returned to England to conduct more interviews but I was the victim of a pedestrian accident that turned about five inches of my left leg into sawdust. I was in a cast for a year.
CC: I’m sorry to hear that.
PRD: Well, perversely, it helped a lot. At that time, I looked like a professional dancer, hobbling around on crutches, and so everyone was terribly nice to me. People thought that I was an injured dancer from Canada, and they trusted me to do interviews and reviews. In fact, some dancers at the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet became good friends of mine.
CC: I suppose that worked out.
PRD: Yes, I was quite lucky that way. While I was in England I would usually show up at the Royal Ballet studios to watch their morning company class, including the single-sex classes. I had enough sense to take notes, although I wasn’t really thinking of preserving information about what I saw in the long run. However, my notes are a wonderful resource about the company life. While in Canada, I wrote biographies and program notes for The National Ballet of Canada for about five years, and I hope to one day give my notes to Dance Collection Danse.
CC: Although others thought of you as an injured dancer, did you describe yourself as a dance journalist?
PRD: No, I thought of and described myself as an academic. I had been trained as a theatre person and I wrote about dance because I could not dance anymore. My start in dance writing was serendipitous, but I quickly started reviewing for newspapers like The Globe and Mail. People liked my writing because I tended to be positive. Even when I didn’t like a show I would still find something positive to say about it. There is always something to learn from a performance. For example, John Fraser, who was a reviewer for The Globe and Mail, used to say: “Let’s go to Penelope, she will have something nice to say about this horrible thing we have just seen.” And I always did; I felt that I was involved in dance advocacy, and focussing on the positive would encourage people to pay more attention to dance. In addition, since dancers read the reviews, it was important to me to be supportive. I eventually moved away from dance criticism to work more in pure academic research, such as dance ethnography and creativity theory in the performing arts.
CC: You also worked in radio, is that correct?
PRD: Yes, I hosted interviews for The Dance, which aired on the CBC from 1976 to 1979. For this program I interviewed Sir Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Jiří Kylián, Erik Bruhn and many others. About half of the participants were Canadian.
CC: Can you tell me about one of your most memorable interviews?
PRD: Well, I got to know Sir Frederick Ashton while I was in England, and I convinced him to do an interview for radio. He agreed, after I promised him a drink when it was over. Ashton was quite a short man, and he could not sit on the chair and reach the microphone. He therefore did the entire hour-long interview sitting on a telephone book. That is grace; a distinguished man to give me an interview while sitting on a phone book.
CC: Did you mostly interview ballet dancers?
PRD: Yes, contemporary ballet is my preferred aesthetic. I like other forms of dance, but I am one of those rare people who will admit to enjoying beauty on stage.
CC: Did you mostly write critiques about ballet performances?
PRD: Not exclusively. For example, I wrote reviews about various types of dance for The Globe and Mail. I wrote about First Nations dance, flamenco and tango performances. For these shows, I would go to the library and read all that I could find on the dance style. When I wrote the review, I did not pretend to be an expert in the field.
My expertise is in ballet, but I think dancers valued my reviews of other types of dance. For example, I have reviewed Menaka Thakkar’s performances, and I believe she appreciated that I had done extensive research to prepare for the review but I did not pretend to be an authority on classical Indian dance.
CC: Throughout your career you continued reviewing dance while also teaching and pursuing your medical research.
PRD: Yes. By the 1980s several of my close dance friends had died of AIDS. I thought: “How can I continue with dance while everyone I know is dying?” So, I resumed my medical research in immunology, and in 1989 I became a part-time research associate with the HIV clinic at the Toronto Western Hospital.
I designed clinical studies, and I later co-founded a medical research company looking at a new drug. I worked with the company for three years while I was on leave from York University.
CC: You returned to teaching at York University in 1994?
PRD: Yes. I had left York because I wanted to help save lives through medical research. However, I eventually wondered what I was keeping people alive for. I thought that dance was one reason why people should enjoy life. This realization justified my return to dance studies. In addition, York University asked me to resume my work with the university.
CC: It seems that dance was always on your mind, even while you did medical research, medieval studies, or literature.
PRD: Yes, I think so. Especially music, which remained a constant in my work. For example, when I studied lyric poetry, the rhythm of poems was important to me. I think my background in dance made me more sensitive to rhythm.
CC: Does your background in medicine impact your approach to dance research?
PRD: Well, both require a lot of discipline and hard work. Both types of research keep me up late into the night due to my excitement for discovery. I find science satisfying because you can use statistics to find specific answers. I get excited when my data show that a drug was effective. Overall, I loved the excitement of working in different areas and multi-tasking. When there was a lull in dance research there would be something interesting going on in medicine, and vice versa.
CC: Do you think that working in the sciences influenced your methodologies in dance research?
PRD: Possibly, now and then. For instance, in 1975, I wrote an article for the York Dance Review called “Touchstones: Sibley, Park, and Makarova at Convent Garden”. The article describes a method for analyzing dance by contrasting how different dancers perform a specific moment in a choreography, which I called a touchstone. The touchstone provided a point of reference for contrasting dancers and this allowed critics to evaluate more effectively and objectively a dancer’s impact on a performance. The touchstone method is influenced by inductive reasoning used in the scientific method: to generalize conclusions about an event based on observations of specific instances of an event.
CC: Is archival research part of your approach to dance research?
PRD: Yes, particularly for my book-in-progress on medieval dance, which may take about twenty years to complete. I mostly did archival research at Oxford University and at the British Library. Usually, there is no index for many of the medieval resources so you have to imagine what might be relevant. For example, it may surprise you that I found relevant information on dance in medical treatises. The majority of the artifacts are written in Medieval Latin, which doesn’t follow grammatical rules, so they are very difficult to work with.
CC: You have also written about twentieth-century dancers. Can you tell me about the process of writing Karen Kain’s autobiography?
PRD: When Karen asked me to participate in the project, Steven Godfrey had already completed a first draft. Godfrey had been my student many years ago. At first, we thought it would take me only a few months to rework the text, but it actually took a year.
I had known Karen for a long time. I knew about her career, the important people in her life and her personality. I used my imagination to knit together my existing knowledge of Karen and tell her story in a style, a “voice”, she might have used at various ages. I wrote the book as though I was building a character for a play: I tried to get inside her head. At times, I spent so much time imagining who Karen was, that I was no longer quite sure who I was.
I would write a chapter and fax it to Karen. She would let me know what I got right, and what we had to change. Over the summer months, Karen would come over and we would sit and talk. I don’t think I even took notes. It was odd to do the initial writing before I did the interviews. However, I think the process enabled us to get into some rich story telling, and may have resulted in a more interesting read.
CC: What are you working on now?
PRD: I teach and continue my research in dance.
CC: What are your favourite aspects of teaching at York University?
PRD: It varies from time to time. In the beginning I loved research, but now I particularly enjoy working with my graduate students.
CC: What kind of courses do you teach?
PRD: In addition to teaching literature and dance history, I also teach professional dance writing, which prepares students to write grant applications or a curtain speech. Students spend a lot of time doing academic writing, so I enjoy giving them the chance to develop another style. I encourage them to write as though they are writing to a really smart grandmother.
I also teach a course that focusses on creativity. We investigate the theories of Howard Gardner (multiple intelligences), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (flow theory) and Dean Keith Simonton. Simonton’s work, for instance, uses statistics to show at what age people have major accomplishments in certain fields. His work is thought provoking but it does not discuss dance. My course allows students to use these theories to discover what is unique about dance or the other performing arts.
I also encourage students to take on a creative project, which is to journal their process of creating something in a field that you know nothing about. For example, if you have never baked you may decide to invent a muffin recipe. One highly successful project was when a student decided to make a musical instrument out of chicken eggs, and triumphantly played Mary Had a Little Lamb on the new instrument she invented. We have a lot of fun doing these projects, we learn about creative process and students get to engage creatively with theoretical ideas.
CC: Have you also conducted your own research on creativity with students at Canada’s National Ballet School?
PRD: Yes, however, I’ve been so busy that I have not published most of it yet. I believe that there are four major creative roles in dance: choreographing, interpreting, teaching and directing. In contemporary dance there is also the dramaturge but this role is not yet common in ballet. I began my research at the National Ballet School’s choreographic workshop with dancers, who were still students at the time, such as Guillaume Côté, Jason Reilly, Robert Stevens and Laura Bolton. At the time, not many people were talking about creativity with the students and they were excited to discuss their work.
CC: Can you tell me about some of your findings?
PRD: I was interested in studying gender differences between the student choreographers, which at that time seemed quite pronounced. The female students tended to create solo works, while the males would confidently present elaborate extravaganzas for an ensemble of dancers on pointe. Recall that the male dancers, some as young as twelve, had never even danced on pointe! It would be interesting to conduct a longitudinal study on dancers’ creativity – in other words, to conduct a study that would assess creativity over multiple years or across a dancer’s lifespan.
CC: That would be fascinating.
PRD: Yes, however, it is quite complicated to get permission to do an academic study of young people.
CC: Sounds perfect for a scholar who is undaunted by Medieval Latin.
PRD: True, I enjoy taking the hard path. It has been wonderful.
Note: Professor Doob refers to the CBC radio show The Dance and the journal York Dance Review. Transcripts of The Dance and copies of The York Dance Review are available for research at Dance Collection Danse.
- The Idea of the Labyrinth: From Classical Antiquity Through the Middle Ages (Cornell Univ Press; April 1992)
- Karen Kain: Movement Never Lies by Karen Kain (Author), Stephen Godfrey (Author), Penelope Reed Doob (Author) (McClelland & Stewart; 1995)
- Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (Yale University Press 1974)
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