NEH grant to support digital archive of Black choreographers' work

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NEH grant to support digital archive of Black choreographers' work
Professor Mason has been working for a number of years to archive the work of Black choreographers.

AUSTIN, TX.- In December, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded just under $100,000 for a project spearheaded by University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Dance Gesel Mason to support her ongoing project to archive the work of Black choreographers.

Mason and co-project director Rebecca Salzer, associate professor of dance and director of the Collaborative Arts Research Initiative at the University of Alabama, received an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant for their project “Prototyping an Extensible Framework for Access to Dance Knowledge.”

“Through my ‘No Boundaries’ solo and archive project of Black choreographers, I’ve become aware of how the live, performing body can simultaneously hold the past, present and future histories—and the impact on legacy and representation in regard to where and how the body, particularly the Black dancing body, appears (and disappears) in the digital space,” Mason said.

To carry out the project, Mason and Salzer have partnered with the open-source software CollectiveAccess and Dancing Digital, a working group oof dance artists, educators, scholars, archivists and legal and systems design specialists led by Salzer. The grant will support the creation of an online resource to increase accessibility to recordings of works by Black choreographers, along with tools that improve searchability to make it easier to study dance and make connections across collections.

The project builds on Mason’s “No Boundaries” project, created in 2001 to honor and celebrate the depth and diversity of style and vision in the field of modern dance. For more than 15 years, “No Boundaries” primarily existed as an evolving archive of original and established solos choreographed by African American choreographers that Mason performed in one evening. The performance project featured several of the nation’s leading contemporary African American choreographers, including Dianne McIntyre, Robert Battle, Bebe Miller, Donald McKayle, Reggie Wilson, Andrea Woods, David Roussève, Rennie Harris and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who choreographed original and historic works for the solo performance.

With documentary footage of interviews with the choreographers interspersed between dances that span from the 1940s to the present, “No Boundaries” delivered snapshots of, and created discussion around, the idea of Black dance over seven decades.

After collecting more than seven decades of choreographic vision in her body, Mason has worked to transform “No Boundaries” into a digital archive to fit the growing need for an archive of prominent African American choreographers. Part archival database and part community engagement, the platform will preserve these artists legacies, choreography and stories. Since “No Boundaries” represents the shifting dance field, the online resource will be designed to include the addition of Black choreographers and young emerging artists. To ignite discussion and conversation, the online resource will include participation formats for user-generated content so that users can contribute, communicate, share and learn.

Mason is a choreographer, performer, educator and arts facilitator. She is the artistic director of Gesel Mason Performance, and she was a member of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Ralph Lemon/Cross Performance Projects. She has also performed with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Repertory Dance Theatre of Utah, and under the direction of Chuck Davis, Jacek Łumiński (Silesian Dance Theatre), Murray Louis and Victoria Marks.

Mason joined the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Since then, she has received the Distinguished Research Award from the College of Fine Arts for her creative research, and she has been awarded artist residencies from the Rauschenberg Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation and the Alan M. Kriegsman Creative Residency at Dance Place. She was also one of five inaugural artists selected for a new artist residency program created by Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox Festival.

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