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  • University Project
  • 10.7.09

University Project: Cynthia Oliver, Associate Professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

in conversation with Maura Donohue

Interview 10.06.09

Cynthia Oliver (Associate Professor) joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as Assistant Professor in August 2000. A former dancer with numerous companies including the David Gordon Pick Up Co., Ron K. Brown/Evidence and Bebe Miller, Ms. Oliver is also a Bessie winning choreographer. She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU. She teaches dance technique, composition, performance and postcolonial theory, as well as courses in black expressive performance. Her work Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso will be at Danspace Project from October 15-17.

Maura Donohue: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me during a premiere week. I’m looking forward to seeing the work next week at Danspace Project. How has your process been for Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso?

Cynthia Oliver: It’s been a rich experience making this work, because of the investigation I’ve been in regarding Caribbean expressive forms and to do a piece of work that was generated around calypso music as a clear signifier of “Caribbean-ness.” My research in London and Toronto, how I gathered these artists together, what I’ve shared and learned with them. There’s a lot to say about what we address in the process and my interest in layering material. Depending on one’s subject position, there are levels of subtlety that a lot of Caribbean people will recognize and others may have to work harder to recognize, but it’s important to make a place for this particular experience–the Caribbean Experience.

Maura: And, how is it going in Philadelphia?

Cynthia: It’s going very well. Yes, we’re premiering a new work this week at the Painted Bride Arts Center where we’re supported very nicely. There is a great atmosphere here, especially considering they found additional support to help me make the work. We’ve had a one-week residency last week and have now moved into our performance week. The work was developed in a number of different places. Bebe calls it a virtual company – this new working process of finding money, then finding people and then finding ways to gather and work and create. Our initial residency was at the University. I brought everyone to me thanks to funding through the Multi-Arts Production Fund – a program of Creative Capital, which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and in-kind support from the University. We had three weeks of free studio space during the summer. That was our first intense time and it set the template for other residencies that we did later. I’d been thinking about the work for over three years but I’ve been working with the dancers, in a series of residencies, for about a year and half. Rigidigidim was also funded in part by the NPN, co-commissioned by the Painted Bride and Danspace Project, along with Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas in Seattle, the Dance Place in DC, and Bates Dance Festival in Maine. We were able to develop the work at some of these places.

Maura: Can you speak to the concern that once one joins academia people, here in NYC especially, one suffers from not being physically present enough for presenters to remember?

Cynthia: That is a difficult question. I’ve never been a prolific artist. Even when I was an independent artist in NYC, I only presented every other year. Now, as a wife, a mother, the primary caregiver for my aging mother and a full-time teacher, I do it every three years. Even when I was showing new work every other year, I was concerned with momentum. You know, this notion of gaining momentum in our work. We all have it but I think this perception is a lie. Really, you make work; it comes out in the world; it has a presence; and then, it goes away — some remember you and some forget you, and some can refer to what you’ve done or not. I think that we get very anxious and nervous about that whether in or out of the academy. But, I think that division of working artist and academic is an old one. We have to fight with ourselves, and each other about that. I think we need to break open the perception about that divide – between the “professional field” and the academy. It’s way more porous than we give credit. The well-supported and out-of-touch, enclosed ivory tower is a myth.

Maura: Has working in academia helped you think that way?

Cynthia: It has helped me to think about it and see where we fall short in thinking about it. There is a fundamental flaw in the question. The two are interdependent. There is a relationship back and forth – they are not two discrete entities. If you are a deep thinker, you think in both arenas. The service is both ways. It’s not a one-way trajectory from dance student to dancer, or artist back to academia. The great thing about the academy is that there is deep respect for serious consideration for the materials we work with – for history, politics, contexts of material and bringing that to the fore. The consideration itself is highly valued. I started in graduate school as a professional dancer and it exploded the way I thought about what I was doing, how material is read, and what the influences are. I mean, we are so dependent on the people who write about us and that influences where our art goes. I had already been dancing and hit one of those places we come to in our professional lives where as a young dancer all I thought I wanted was to join a professional company and tour the world. When I’d done that a few times, I asked myself “now what?,” followed my interest, went to grad school and found performance studies.

Maura: What do you teach?

Cynthia: I teach practice – a physical practice that is a combination of contemporary, post-modern dance with Afro-Caribbean and Africanist principles. I’m teaching a graduate theory course on trans-nationalism and the moving body. This spring, I will teach a course I’ve been developing for a few years called Dancing Black Popular Culture. Its home is in the Dance Dept., but it is a general education course that can reach a wider population of students. I’ve sometimes taught composition/creative process, depending on our teaching rotation.

Maura: Have you seen a change in college culture that reflects your presence?

Cynthia: I think from Bebe and [Jawole’s] arrival in programs on down, we’ve all broken down how people in academia think about performing artists. I think visual artists have had that (an established relationship that works in the academy), and writers in Literature and English Departments have as well, but as performing artists we’ve been trying to figure out how we do what we do and have it valued in both places. I think there has been a significant shift in that. We have to figure out: how do we leave to do what we need to do, and what do we bring back? We’ve always had to be entrepreneurs, but in this climate we have to be more resourceful and give young artists that information – how to piece things together. The time for thinking about your training – that you’ll leave school and get into a company and live – is over. Programs are focusing on how you think of yourself as a whole artist with agency and access to all kinds of other individuals and resources. One of the great things about being in an institution is the chance to meet other heavy thinkers and have people to bat ideas around with.

Maura: So, how do you work through getting off campus to create and tour work?

Cynthia: It’s a long process. I’m in constant dialogue with the head of the department and my colleagues in the department. This time we’ve coordinated with a guest artist who is choreographing for a theater production – Millicent Johnnie. She will teach in the dance department to cover my technique courses. My graduate students have a project that they are working on right now. So, everyone is covered, no one loses out, and it’s generative. You have to be in a place where there is a value in making sure people get to continue to practice. I knew the reason the University of Illinois was interested in me was because I was interested in doing both theoretical work and practice, and because of my professional record. At the time, I told Patricia Knowles that it was vital that I keep practicing as an artist and she expressed that it was indeed what they too were interested in and we’d work it out. Of course, I’ve heard those comments that indicate that you walk into the institution and think that your career is over; that The Academy is out of step with the professional field. I’d say it depends on what you are looking at and where you are looking. Trying to figure out how to be away for three weeks was not easy, even highly frustrating at moments, but we worked towards it and made it happen.

Maura: How has your time in academia changed your relationship with your work?

Cynthia: It was interesting making work and being in grad school at the same time. It makes me think more deeply about my subject matter and it makes me take more time with things. I love incorporating the ideas of other folks and other issues. Consider Stuart Hall, one of my favorite theorists. I find the way he thinks about the movement of people and national identities feeds my ideas and my process. Being in the academy has made me a better teacher. Previously, it was a gig. I did it to pay my rent. I didn’t think about what I was teaching. Now, I want for all of us to have a richer experience. I am committed to making connections between practice, theory, history, and context for my students, and I find when I express those connections explicitly with them while investigating it’s so much richer. It’s easy to think “she does this fusion of Afro-Caribbean and African movement and it’s fun” and then go home. But, when I connect, for example, notions of release in Africanist forms and other forms they’re exposed to, they begin to think more deeply about what they’re doing. I think it’s probably not something I would have done in a situation without the time to consider what I do in a different way. Or to consider how these young people will be exposed to what I do and how they can think about integrating it into their practice. It’s an informed practice. I want them to understand that a lot of thought has gone into the work they are participating in, that what they experience in the studio is not an accident.

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