Gesel Mason is Preserving the Legacy of Black Dance Online
James Fosberg, courtesy Mason
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about how this project came to life and why she sees it as a necessity.
It started with an injury
"I ruptured my Achilles in July 2018. Something that became really apparent is that I can't do this forever. So how do we continue to share important works with a wide audience?"
What it's like to take on foreign challenges
"I'm getting into the nitty-gritty of bringing a digital dance platform to life, from data management and website design to copyright issues. I'm in new territory. It's exciting, talking to librarians and data management people, archivists, performance study theorists and scholars."
Mason in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Bent
Her goal is to make it as close to the live experience as possible
"I want to keep the body and live performance a major part of the archive. I also want scholarly articles, pictures and drawings from rehearsals, dance films, gallery visits and even holograms! What would it be like to walk into the space and be in rehearsal with me and Rennie Harris, or see an interview with Donald McKayle?"
Why her focus is on black choreographers
"I'm fascinated by articles that discuss why oppressed folks need space for themselves. The necessity keeps showing up. People are ready to try something new. It showed up in the recent midterm elections with so many firsts, from age and cultural background to gender.
"Now I'm brewing a new dance project that centers on African-American women, dancers, musicians and video designers. What happens when you don't have to be in a constant state of code switching?
"It's important to think about the impact of the work we're making, the bodies that we're using and the audiences it is for.No Boundaries re-centers conversations around African-American choreographers, so instead of saying, 'Please include this in the dance canon,' it's like, 'No, shift the whole thing.' What happens when we look at these choreographers for the impact that they're making on the field?"
She believes dance artists can do so much more
"Artists are used to making something out of nothing. We have a lot to offer in this moment, in boardrooms, academic spaces and our communities. I'm listening to all of these things."
James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?