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Discovering Dance Lineages Through Oral Histories

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Dean Moss Interview, Excerpt
May 25, 2011

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Next week (on October 24, 26 and 27, 2012) I have the honor of performing at the Museum of Modern Art's Marron Atrium in Voluntaries by choreographer Dean Moss and visual artist, Laylah Ali. These performances are part of MoMA's Some sweet day dance exhibition series. Voluntaries examines the legacy of John Brown, a white abolitionist who attempted an armed slave revolt in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, resulting in his capture and execution. This piece is my first project working as a dancer/performer with Dean, Laylah, and the company. We have been developing this work in rehearsals for over a year, most recently at Baryshnikov Arts Center on a dance residency.

Although I have been a dancer my entire life, my understanding of the richness and complexity of dance history has greatly expanded during the three years I have spent as the Oral History Archive Assistant at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. In dance, as opposed to the visual art represented at MoMA for example, fewer records of the past exist, and the final product — the performance itself — is of course ephemeral. Dance is passed along, on the whole, orally, directly from person to person in a process that creates complex personal networks within (and between) many dance communities. The lineage of today's dance artists are interwoven with the generations of dancers and dance supporters that precede them. Yet sometimes these historical connections can be difficult even for the dance performers themselves to uncover.

Oral histories have the potential to reveal the threads that connect, support and inspire new dance work. For example, in the course of my work at the Oral History Archive, listening to Dean Moss' Oral History Project interview allowed me to further understand the background of his life and the development of his artistic philosophy through his own perspective. I was interested to learn that Dean had been a performer with David Gordon/Pickup Company. Coincidentally, this past summer the Oral History Project taped interviews with both David Gordon, and his wife and creative muse, Valda Setterfield. Dean also spoke in his interview about his time as an artist in residence at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) and his long-time supporter, Marya Warshaw, BAX's Artistic/Executive Director. The Oral History Project also recently taped an interview with Marya, in which she spoke about her pivotal role as a sponsor for dance artists in Brooklyn. Listening to these interviews helped me to contextualize and deepen my understanding of Dean's work, and certainly to enrich my own experience as a dance artist in Voluntaries.

Brief clips from the Moss, Gordon and Setterfield interviews are now available online at the Dance Oral History Channel. The full interviews with Gordon, Setterfield and Warshaw will become available in 2013.

Here is a list of all of the interviews that have been produced by the Oral History Project since it began in 1974. These interviews can be listened to in their entirety on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts. Perhaps there are some that might enrich your own experience as an artist, or as an audience member…

Speaking of, come see us at MoMA!

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