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IU Contemporary Dance Program to give interpretive performances of Indiana's history

Classroom and courtroom will be transformed into stages when the Indiana University Contemporary Dance Program, in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, performs in IU Bloomington's Woodburn 100 lecture hall and the Monroe County Courthouse atrium on Feb. 23 and 26.

ArtsWeek Contemporary Dance

The Monroe County Courthouse atrium as art.

Print-Quality Photo

The performances are collectively entitled "The Body Politic: Dance Performances In Sites That Shape Our Lives," and will take place as a part of ArtsWeek, the annual Indiana University Bloomington community winter arts festival.

The performances in Woodburn Hall will draw inspiration from the controversial Thomas Hart Benton murals, which give a stark depiction of the highlights and downfalls of Indiana's history, and will also explore Woodburn's history and modern day use. The Monroe County Courthouse will hold another performance that will reflect the history and daily use of the building, as well as the symbols of justice and civic rights the building embodies.

Three performances will take place in each building, and each performance will be unique as the dancers will have small bursts of improvisation within each piece. Live at IU sat down with Selene Carter, a dance historian in the Department of Kinesiology, to ask about the Contemporary Dance Program's upcoming performances:

Live at IU: How did you go about transforming the Thomas Benton murals from visual art into physical movement? How does history and architecture come out in dance?
Carter: The murals are so much like a dance. Hart Benton remarked that he saw history as a 'continuous flow of time' and that is the essence of dance. Also dance and architecture have a lot in common; they are both about creating shapes in space. The murals themselves have so much movement in them. There are the human figures who are engaged in various activities, and movement sources like the printing press, fire, water, coal processing, electricity, cars and highways. All these images provide cues to the dancers to create personal movements.

LIU: The dance is inspired from visual art and abstract concepts, and will feature live music. Was the music composed after the dance, or how did you mesh the composition of the music and choreography?
Carter: Joe Galvin is faculty in the Contemporary Dance Program. He joined us as we created the dance in the space. As the dancers responded to the space with movement and created the various sections, Joe responded with sound. He is working with various sound sources from the murals (type-writers, telephones, air planes, etc). One of my favorite sections of the piece is when the dancers are working with the architecture of the room and Joe is literally 'playing the room'! He is creating sound from the chairs, the chalk board, anything in the room that can create sound. This project has been a collaboration between the dancers and four lead artists (myself, Laura Poole-dance, Joe and Amy Burrell-visual design) it has been a democratic process, which echoes the themes of the sites we chose.

LIU: For the untrained observer, can you describe one moment we should especially look for in the dance that is particularly powerful and what it will symbolize?
Carter: It would be difficult for me to choose one moment because the power of site-specific performance is that each person may see something different. In many ways, it is a lot more like seeing visual art in a gallery. There are multiple focal points. One viewer may notice a duet between dancers developing, while someone else in that same moment might discover an architectural detail in the room. The dance is designed to reveal the history and use of the space to the viewer in new ways. What I love about the Woodburn Hall piece is that it plays with the function of the room and the various roles that you take on in that room. Are you the student, the teacher? How does that space dictate those roles?

When I create a site specific dance, I always start with the question, 'How do everyday people move in this space, what is the inherent choreography of the space, determined by its architectural design?' The dance we created for the Monroe County Courthouse explores this as well.

LIU: Are you using IU students in the performance? How have they been? What role did students have in scripting this performance?
Carter: The students are all dance majors in the IU Contemporary Dance Program and they have been the primary collaborators. The students choreographed the entire dance, and in some sections they are doing structured improvisation; following set rules that correlate with the space. This means that each time the piece is performed, it will be slightly different. They have all been outstanding. Their focus and creativity is what carries the piece.

LIU: Could you describe what it is to be a dance historian? What do you look for? Broad changes in dance, or do you specialize in a particular type?
Carter: A dance historian is just like an art historian. We study and research the arc of dance history. We use dance as a lens to understand culture. During the time that Hart Benton was creating the murals, modern dance was becoming established as a distinctly American art form. Hart Benton and modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Lester Horton and Pearl Primus all shared the view that it was important to create art that reflected the experiences and values of America. Graham created dances like "Appalachian Spring" and "Frontier," dances about homesteading and the vast, expansive landscape. Horton, a Hoosier by birth who made our state his home until his early 20s, was inspired by the mound building Native American's of Southern Indiana. His technique and style were developed out of his study of Native American dances and artifacts. Primus was creating dances that expressed the challenges of African Americans in the 1930s and '40s. She choreographed "Strange Fruit," a solo about the lynching of a black man, and it was the inspiration for Billie Holliday to record the song.

I value the study of all dance; not just concert dance, but also cultural and social dance. I am personally interested in American modernism, and regionalism in dance history. The field of dance studies is burgeoning academically. There are a lot of dance experts here on campus, like Professors Anya Royce and Iris Rosa. Our reference library hosts Mary Strow, a key figure in dance research internationally. IU is a great place to be for a dance historian. Our program director, Professor Liz Shea, is committed to producing not only cutting-edge contemporary work, but also the reconstructed masterworks of the past century. This way students can have an experience of their historic lineage. It is a 'continuous flow of time' -- we can look back or forward, yet the dance never ends.

To learn more about contemporary dance, and the program at the School of HPER, visit

Performance information:

Admission to the performances is free and on a first come, first serve basis.

  • Woodburn Hall 100, 1100 E. 7th St., Saturday, Feb. 23, three performances in 30-minute cycles at 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 6 pm. Each performance can accommodate 50 people.
  • Monroe County Courthouse atrium, Bloomington town square, Tuesday, Feb. 26, three performances in 30-minute cycles at 11:30 a.m, 12 p.m. and 12:30 pm. Each performance can accommodate 35 people.