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Dancer Preserves The Work Of Black Choreographers, In One Video At A Time

Jul 8, 2018
Originally published on July 8, 2018 6:30 pm

When she was in her 20s, dancer Gesel Mason started emailing black choreographers she admired, asking them to create a solo for her. To her surprise, many of them said yes.

"I did not know I was making my life's work when I started it," she says. "I was just really interested in dancing with some choreographers."

For 15 years, she's performed these solos, calling the combined effort No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers. Mason has performed these dances around the country, sometimes as many as seven in a single show. "Now in my 40s, I can't keep doing this," she says.

As Mason gets older, so do the choreographers. Broadway and modern dance choreographer Donald McKayle taught Mason a dance he created in 1948 called "Saturday's Child," danced to a poem about poverty by Countee Cullen. McKayle died in April at 87.

Mason has now turned her focus to creating a digital archive, highlighting 10 black artists relatively unknown to the general public.

"Folks, when they think of black choreographers of the 20th century or contemporary black choreographers, for mainstream folks, it's Alvin Ailey," says Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, who is helping Mason. "Am I missing somebody? Debbie Allen if they're coming from the Fame generation."

In dance, choreography is typically passed down generation to generation through personal contact. There's also a written notation called Labanotation, but that requires special training. So Mason has turned to video, collecting hours of performance and rehearsal footage. She wants to film these dances from multiple angles, zooming in to catch the tiniest of details.

"You can get close and you can see the fingertips and you can see the sweat," she says.

Mason has also recorded interviews with the choreographers, talking about their lives and what motivates them to create dances.

"Sometimes I do want to make something that's just pretty," contemporary choreographer Kyle Abraham told her. "But more times than not I'm really interested in work that can kind of spark questions, passion, love, empathy, anger — just get people charged in some capacity."

Eventually, Mason would like to add more artists to the project. "We know that this is just a small snapshot of what's going on in regards to black choreographers," she says.

Tina Curran, an expert in dance documentation at the University of Texas at Austin, says Mason's archive is a great example of what she calls "living legacy of dance"; the totality of the project's research, video and interviews makes it invaluable.

"The fact that she's digging down in creating such a rich and diverse archive — it's critical, it's so important to our field," Curran says.

Mason is moving to Austin this summer to take a job at the University of Texas, where she will be working on her archive. She hopes the new site, showcasing material she's collected over the last 15 years, will go up within the next year.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend some time now talking about art and artists. In a few minutes, we're going to give some thought to how we should react when we discover that an artist we love has done something we think is wrong. But first - preserving important works of art. Classical music, of course, is preserved in scores, theater in scripts. But things get more complicated when it comes to preserving dance.

Colorado Public Radio's Stephanie Wolf introduces us to a dancer working to make sure the legacies of nearly a dozen black choreographers are not forgotten.

STEPHANIE WOLF, BYLINE: Dancer Gesel Mason was in her 20s when she began emailing black choreographers she admired asking them to create a solo for her. To her surprise, many of them said yes.

GESEL MASON: I did not know that I was making my life's work when I (laughter) started it. I was just really interested in dancing with some choreographers.

WOLF: For 15 years, she's performed dances like Bebe Miller's "Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

WOLF: She's called the combined effort "No Boundaries: Dancing The Visions Of Contemporary Black Choreographers." She's performed these solos around the country - sometimes as many as seven in a single show.

MASON: Now, in my 40s, I can't keep doing this.

WOLF: As Mason gets older, so do the choreographers. Broadway and modern dance choreographer Donald McKayle died in April at 87. He taught Mason a dance he created in 1948 called "Saturday's Child." It's danced to a poem about poverty.

(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASON: Some are teethed on a silver spoon.

WOLF: That gives urgency to Mason's new focus - a digital archive of these dances. It highlights 10 black choreographers relatively unknown to the general public. Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. She's helping Mason.

AMMA GHARTEY-TAGOE KOOTIN: Folks, when they think of black choreographers of the 20th century or contemporary black choreographers - for mainstream folks, it's Alvin Ailey. Am I missing somebody? Debbie Allen if they're coming from, like, the "Fame" generation.

WOLF: In dance, choreography is typically passed down generation to generation through personal contact. There's also a written notation called Labanotation, but it requires special training to read and write it. Video is another way to preserve choreography. Gesel Mason has collected hours of performance and rehearsal footage. Mason also wants to film these dances from multiple angles and zoom in to catch the tiniest of details. That's less common.

MASON: You can get close, and you can see the fingertips, and you can see the sweat.

WOLF: She's also recorded interviews with each choreographer. They talked about their lives and what motivates them to create dances. Here's a clip from contemporary choreographer Kyle Abraham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE ABRAHAM: Sometimes, I do want to make something that's just pretty. But, more times than not, I'm really interested in work that can kind of spark questions, passion, love, empathy, anger - just get people charged in some capacity.

WOLF: Eventually, Mason would like to add even more artists.

MASON: Because we know that this is just a small snapshot of what's going on in regards to black choreographers.

WOLF: Tina Curran is an expert in dance documentation at the University of Texas at Austin. She says Mason's archive is a great example of what she calls living legacy of dance. The totality of the project's research, video and interviews makes it invaluable.

TINA CURRAN: The fact that she's digging down in creating such a rich and diverse archive - it's critical. It's so important to our field.

WOLF: Mason will actually move from Boulder, Colo., to Austin this summer to take a job at UT. The university has offered her money to build the archive of black choreographers. She hopes to get at least part of this archive online within the next year.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Wolf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.