Day 14: Completion of First “Work Module,” Followed by First Breakthrough

I’ve actually accomplished a surprising amount in the last two weeks.  I told myself I couldn’t write this blog post until I finished the ‘module’ of work I created for myself, so that I could coherently synthesize my thoughts on a range of related items, but I probably shouldn’t have waited this long.  Lesson learned.  Here’s a bunch of stuff.  The first 2/3rds is an in-depth rundown of my thoughts after the first “work module” I assigned myself, but that’s skippable if you’re more interested in the first major breakthrough that followed it.

One of the things my committee suggested during my defense is that I stop cleaving so desperately to the “postwar” era specifically and consider expanding my periodization to “mid-century” in order to give myself a bit more flexibility in my history-telling.  I immediately agreed with this idea in theory, but realized that in practice one of my weakest areas of historical knowledge between, say, the industrial revolution and the present, is the 1940s.  That late interwar period, those years leading up to WWII and even during it…I don’t have the most thorough grasp of exactly what the key social, political, and economic dynamics were, to say nothing of how they related to dance cultures or screen cultures of the time.  So I decided, by way of introduction, to take a look at a few 1940s texts that I suspect will be key for me and read my way around them, as it were:

  • I watched Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943), both all-black-cast musicals starring Lena Horne and adapted from previous material (a Broadway musical in the former case [whose choreography was incidentally collaboratively created by George Balanchine & Katherine Dunham] and a story + song + Bill Robinson’s life in the latter).
  • I read Shane Vogel’s article “Performing ‘Stormy Weather’: Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham”
  • I re-read the introduction and third chapter (“In the Shadow of War”) of Susan Manning’s Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion.  

The central figure through all of this, for me, anyway, is clearly black dancer & choreographer Katherine Dunham.  She’s also sort of the through-line for old versions of my dissertation, as she had a working relationship with both Maya Deren and Ruth Page, each of whom had chapters devoted to them once-upon-a-prospectus.

Dunham and her dancers in the 'abstract' dance scene of Stormy Weather.

Dunham and her dancers in the ‘abstract’ dance scene of Stormy Weather.

So, what were my thoughts? Because my chair is an expert in sound and music cultures, and because he strongly encouraged me to look for potential scholarly models in the existing work on music cultures’ mixture with screen cultures, I developed a habit while reading for exams: I’m always on the lookout for killer sentences in the music literature where I could simply replace the musical terms with dance terms and the sentence would be totally spot-on for my own argument.  I found one in the Vogel article:

[Interracial] collaborations made popular songs dance a rich sites for the sonic visual articulation and negotiation of dynamic social processes inaugurated by migration, immigration, and urbanization. (95)

Now, maybe this wasn’t true of all dance at the time, but definitely in the Broadway version of Cabin in the Sky.  Excellent.  Also, I have a feeling this isn’t unlike John Perpener’s position in African-American Concert Dance (2001), which I clearly need to read. I also found Vogel’s general reading of the film version of Stormy Weather compelling.  After including a nice little archival treat—an illustration of “the very public dispute between the studio and black classical composer William Grant Still” re: the stereotypical music to be used in the film, c/o The Chicago Defender, a primarily black paper—he offers up his own argument:

I want to suggest that Stormy Weather was more than just a nostalgic backward glance at a rapidly vanishing era of black performance. While it was this, some of the performances in the film manage to articulate a critique of the film’s conditions of aesthetic possibility and can be seen as a reflection on the fraught historical trajectory of black American performance and white spectatorship. (105)
This makes a lot of sense to me, and helps to explain why the 1940s represented a bit of a gap in my brain.  If minstrelsy started disappearing from live stages in the ’20s, and was relegated mainly to cartoons and musicals in the ’30s, something had to be happening onscreen in the 1940s, in the absence of actual minstrelsy, that was a prelude to the phenomenon of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley in the ’50s (Krin Gabbard argues that Brando “may have been the first American actor to practice minstrelsy in whiteface”).  Maybe that ‘something’ of the ’40s was a moment of black critical performance. Vogel’s main vehicle for this argument is—surprise!—Katherine Dunham.  Some key quotes around that:
Dunham’s performance marks a choreographic contradiction within the film between the history of stereotyped minstrel dance and the emergence of modern Negro dance. (107)
Dunham’s kinesthetic rewriting of “Stormy Weather” situates the song and its racial inscription within a diasporic rather than a national horizon. (107)
This abstract representation of stormy weather undoes the suffocating aesthetics of literalism that governed black performance, made all the more totalizing in the age of cinema. (106)
Then, on the more technical side (note to self: good surface-level movement analysis):
As Dunham’s formal modern ballet softens gradually by the end of “Stormy Weather” into more fluent movements centered on the pelvis and a relaxed upper body, we see—as homage, as critique, as citation—traces of vernacular black dance. (108)
Some dancers, arms raised and bent at the elbow, do a stylized version of the shimmy, transforming for the concert stage the upper-body movement that Ethel Waters was known for doing on the saloon stage. What was imagined as a stereotypical association of physicality and naturalness in black performance is revealed instead by Dunham’s choreography to be the product of technical precision and put into syncretic conversation with European dance traditions. (108-109)
And finally, driving it home:
In short, Dunham and her troupe, occupying the role originally held by the Cotton Club’s chorus girls, offered a modernist revision of the racial aesthetic of the black nightclub tradition and restaged the history of black performance. (109)
Ah, Shane Vogel, you never disappoint.  So, as I was reading this, of course nodding a vigorous “yes” at his arguments, I remembered that there’s a very detailed analysis of this very period of Dunham’s stage work in Manning’s book.  So, I ran off to re-read that.  There’s a great deal going on there, and it’s not concerned with the screens at all, but it was a very useful re-read with some new take-aways:
  • In her introduction, Manning keeps mentioning “divided historiography,” which is a nice, clean moniker for a certain tendency in dance history before the 1990s to write histories of African-American concert dance and modern (+ postmodern) dance separately.  But, perhaps more importantly, the recent “more inclusive histories obscure the extent to which modern dance and Negro dance remained conceptually distinct, yet mutually constitutive, categories at midcentury” (xxiii).  Manning’s point here, which is a pretty brilliant one, is not simply that all American dance is a complex intertwining of cultural influences and we should acknowledge it as such, which plenty of smart scholars have now illustrated in various ways; it’s that “spectators at midcentury could not perceive the intercultural fusions that now seem so apparent,” particularly in “modern dance” and “Negro dance” of the period (xxiv).  One of the key questions her book interrogates is why.  She illustrates the cultural landscape & dance spectatorship backdrop over the course of the book, but I think this is going to be a key question for me, in relation to dance on screen spectatorship, as well.  I wonder how my answer will differ from Manning’s.
  • What’s ‘new’ about Katherine Dunham is that she choreographs and performs a newly diasporic understanding of African-American experience.  A lot of this is due to her education in anthropology.  She wasn’t the only one to deal with diaspora, of course—Pearl Primus did so as well, but Manning characterized her approach as a “more fragmented vision of African-American life, juxtaposing African dances with dances of social protest and dances set to spirituals, blues, jazz, and experimental music” (172).  Primus, for example, had a famous piece called “Strange Fruit,” whereas Dunham’s works were more concerned with what Paul Gilroy would call the Black Atlantic.  This, along with a clear preference for the abstract expressivity of “modern dance,” may have something to do with why a dance critic like John Martin seemed to see Primus as more of a “modern” dancer than Dunham. (See Manning’s analysis on 167)
  • This is more of a note to self than a take-home point, but there are numerous mentions in Manning’s third chapter of the activist approach Dunham would take when touring her company around the U.S.  More than once, her reception (especially in the South) was troubling.  It would be interesting for me to compare this live reception with her film’s reception, if Stormy Weather was even played in southern white theaters.  I could compare the reception of Stormy Weather with Dunham’s touring in Louisville, for example, in 1944.  (See Manning 125)

The final thing that happened while I worked my way through my module was the reminder that there’s always more to view, more to read.  I think this will become commonplace in my blog posts—I am now going to list (mainly for myself) the items I discovered which future me is going to want to examine.

FilmsCarnival of Rhythm (1941) [I think it’s based on a suite of dances performed at the Windsor Theatre in 1940 called Island Songs, which starred Dunham, Talley Beatty, and Archie Savage, apparently like the film]; Star Spangled Rhythm (1943)

Archived Periodicals: Dance Observer; Dance Magazine; American Dance[r]; Dance; [The Nation & The New Republic?]

Secondary Sources: John O. Perpener’s African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond; Julia L. Foulkes’s Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey; VèVè Clark’s Kaiso!: Writings by and about Katherine Dunham

And now, the breakthrough. It all started with a conversation with my mom, as so many great breakthroughs do for me.  I’d been doing some work on Ruth Page for the Chicago Film Archives and was commenting, especially in light of my committee’s recommendation that I remove that chapter from my DOS-D, that someone really should write an academic book about Page because her career represents a fascinating story of risk-taking, success, experimenting, and firsts.  “First” feminist ballet, (one of the) “first” times Nureyev danced in the US post-defection, “first” person to conduct ethnographic dance study (using film!) abroad for the purposes of adapting it here in the U.S., “first” and probably only big-name choreographer to see that most of her repertoire be recorded on film, etc. etc.  Discussing it with Mumzot (why she puts up with that nickname I don’t know) helped me realize something: I should be the one to write it.  It would be a book not just about Page and her function as this rich hub in American dance that for some reason has slipped largely under the radar, but also about women and technology and useful cinema and the dance company film.

And then I thought: Oh my gods, this would be a great second book.  Which then helped me figure out what my first book (read: DOS-D) should be about: masculinity.  Funnily enough, I already had a document sitting on my desktop entitled “SECOND BOOK,” and in it was the (very) rough outline of this very book about masculinity, race, and dance on screen at midcentury.  So then I said to myself: “Shit, Pam, this isn’t your second book at all; this is your dissertation!”  Ta-daaaaa!

SO.  The breakthrough is a lovely scholarly progression to be made.  DOS-D/first book = masculinity, race, dance on the commercial screen.  Second book = feminist ballet, women & cinematic technologies, dance on the non-commercial screen.  And there we have it.  Much excitement!

Next questions, then: Which dudes? What periodization? Structured how? Current list of possible dudes to be included:

Fred Astaire
Bill Robinson
Gene Kelly
The Nicholas Brothers
Elvis Presley

Donald McKayle
Talley Beatty
Merce Cunningham?

I feel like Cunningham is more properly saved for later.  (Maybe my third book can be on Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, and their dance/screen combos…hahahaha that’s a good 15 years away, Pam).  And Beatty, while interesting, doesn’t have that much of a screen presence, really…  That leaves 6.  Still too many; better think on it.

Well, reader, that concludes today’s epic blog post.  Obviously I need to post more often to prevent behemoths such as this.  Congratulations if you made it all the way to the end.  Until next time~


On Lost Days

I’ve heard a lot about Lost Days (not to be confused with LOST days, which should probably understood as a very specific subset of Lost Days) from colleagues–when you’re dissertating, there are a certain number of days during which you achieve nothing in relation to your dissertation.  We’re talking no reading, no viewing, no archival discovery, not even any direct critical thought about your project.  And the way I see it, there are three kinds of Lost Days:

  1. Days during which you earnestly attempt to work on the diss for most of the day, but you’re in a terrible state of writer’s block, or your archival digging produces nothing of value to your work.  I’m going to call this the False Lost Day, because even in the absence of tangible, material progress, things are going on in the back of your mind during these (painful, frustrating) processes.  I’m sure I’ll experience plenty of these, but I’m not there yet.
  2. Days during which you have life to attend to, and it’s more important than an increment of dissertation work.  This is a Practical Lost Day.  Examples include but are not limited to: birthdays, weddings, moving days, family emergencies, out-of-town visitors, catching up with old friends, long-awaited mini (or if you’re lucky, not so mini) vacations, days where you’ve gotta knock out ALLOFTHE errands, days when you have about 8 loads of laundry that you absolutely MUST get through because the mess is ruining your zen, etc.  In my estimation, most reasonable humans probably experience these somewhere between twice a month and once a week, whether they’re grad students or not.  ‘To lose a day is human,’ or something like that.  I had one yesterday, and it was planned, so I didn’t feel guilty about it.
  3. Days during which, in the parlance of my fellow millenials, you just can’t (even) (right now).  Friends, mentors, and therapists have advocated for these my whole life and it took me awhile to finally understand how they work.  I am speaking, here, of the Mental Health Lost Day.  Maybe it means spending time with family, maybe it means binge-watching movies or television all day, maybe it means cooking or baking all day, maybe it means alphabetizing your book collection and your DVD collection and your comic book collection and your CD collection.  But generally, this is not conventionally understood as an “important” day, unlike the Practical version above, and it often also involves not showering and/or not changing out of your pajamas and/or ordering take-out and/or drinking an entire bottle of something and/or….you get the idea.  I had one of these days today.

But here’s the thing about Lost Days: they’re all necessary, all 3 kinds.  And we shouldn’t feel bad about any of them, unless we get in a pattern where we have more than about 7 of any one kind in a row–then it might be time to re-assess.  It’s honestly taken a very long time for me to fully comprehend this; when I discovered binge-watching television my senior year of college (yeah, I was a late bloomer when it comes to media-obsession), in the middle of spring break when I was struggling with writing two honors theses (yeah, that pattern of behavior is probably what got in the way of media-bingeing for so long), I felt so guilty for Mental Health Lost Days, even Lost half-Days.

Now, however, with the benefit of having finished a season of Battlestar Galactica and nearly a decade of hindsight, to say nothing of 3 grueling years of graduate education, I can say that these days are good for me.

This counts as DOS research, right?

This counts as DOS research, right?

I expend minimal physical and mental energy on these days (as opposed to the first 2 categories of Lost Days, which tend to expend a great deal of mental energy in the first case, and physical energy in the second), which is probably sorely needed.  The dissertation, in particular, is one of the most difficult genres of writing, especially given the pressures the current academic job market (in the humanities, anyway).  Plus, I only just defended my quals & prospectus a few weeks ago, so my body & mind are still reeling from that (and a cross-country move).  So you know what, I harbor no guilt about my use of today.*  I will now embark on Season 2 and microwave some leftovers for dinner.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a field trip to the Getty, where I’m excited to catch the Yvonne Rainer exhibit just before it ends.  Rainer is definitely outside the scope of my DOS-D, given the time period in which her experiments with screens occurred, but I haven’t discounted the 60s-80s as a potential periodization for my second book, especially since most scholarship on Rainer conceptualizes her career as split into the dance period and the film period, which just seems so silly to me….

* I must confess that I did do one very productive thing today, though it relates only indirectly to my DOS-D: I completed and submitted an application for conference travel funding.  I’ll be presenting on diss material at one of the two conferences I’m attending this spring in Montreal.

Day 1: Greetings, Introductions, Beginnings

Hello Reader, and welcome to DOS-D.

This blog is in fact not about a heretofore unknown Disk Operating System from the ’90s, nor is it about the Department of Supernatural Defense–though you would perhaps have found those more interesting.  This blog is going to track my dissertation writing process, from its murky beginnings (now) to its very definitive end (a later time, in the future, at some point).  There will be videos and images, so that should be fun, and this should prove an interesting peek into the life of a young academic (especially for friends and family who remain a little mystified by my job description as a newly minted “PhD Candidate”).  There will also be a generous helping of my potentially crazy and probably contradictory thoughts as I try to process my research & writing–this will be less fun for you but hopefully helpful for me when I need to reflect on my choices.

Depending on how you came upon this blog, you may or may not know much about me and my project.  (Pretty sure there’s a widget or two in the righthand sidebar to help you out with the former).  In either case, you’ve no doubt gathered from the blog’s title that my work is concerned with dance on screen.  For the purposes of my dissertation, I am focusing specifically on the intersection of dance cultures with film and television cultures in the US during the middle decades of the 20th century.

A few weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation prospectus, but my sage committee found it to be more like “a proposal for an entire career,” and suggested that I narrow down my focus.  So, after moving to a new city and attempting to clear my mind, I am launching into my first year of dissertation work in a confused state; I had a very clear plan before, but now I must reformulate it into something a little less ambitious, and I’m uncertain how I want this new version to look.

It’s a common adage in the humanities fields of academia that your dissertation is your plea for a tenure-track professorship (and thus has to be easily converted into an enticing first book manuscript), but I’ve also frequently been warned that I should be ready to “live with” my dissertation for at least a decade.  That is to say, between the research, the writing, the revising, the defending, the RE-revising, the book proposal, the job applications, the book manuscript, and the first several stand-alone courses taught, I’m going to be spending a whole lot of time with this topic for the next 10 years.  The prospectus I defended before my committee in September bore all this in mind; I worked on it for 4 months and felt confident, upon submission, that I could indeed live with that proposed baby for the next decade.  Now I have about a month to come up with a more streamlined, and thus more attractive, baby that I can love just as much.  And then I have 2-3 years to, uh, produce said baby.

So I sat down today and decided that I have no better way of figuring out the basic contours of my new DOS-D than launching myself into a few weeks of research.  I’ve gotta look at (some of) what there is–watch and re-watch old films and TV clips, read archival materials, re-visit key academic works on surrounding topics–in order to figure out how to structure what I have to say about it all.  I started with a clip of Gene Kelly being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on a December 1958 episode of Person to Person, just days before Kelly’s Omnibus Christmas special “Dancing, A Man’s Game” aired on NBC.  A friend and colleague of mine recently happened upon a microfilm containing the transcript of the episode and generously sent it my way just this morning.

One thing that struck me about the interview was Kelly’s emphasis that the hardest part of the TV special for him was the fact of its TV-ness.  He says, while looking at his floorplans for the episode, “This is a new way to create dances for me because in this strange world of television–and it is strange to me having five or six cameras and one can’t get in the way of the other–but putting on a dance and talking about it is really the same thing.”  So, if we translate this into evidence of a mindset, Kelly is clearly used to working with a single camera for his Hollywood musicals (or none at all while on Broadway) and the only thing putting him at ease while juggling these many TV cameras is his professional knowledge of “putting on dances” because this knowledge, he supposes, will make it easy for him to talk his way through dance and present his argument that it’s not ‘sissy’ stuff, but “a man’s game.”

kelly person to person

A grainy copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of Kelly with his floorplans for “Dancing, A Man’s Game”

Then I decided to dive into some of the archival materials I’ve collected from eBay.  Several times during the 1950s and ’60s, Films in Review (the periodical released by The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures since 1950) cover images are stills from dance films, indicating that these films were found to be (at least visually) important at the time.  Reviews echoed Kelly’s concerns in the Person to Person interview in noting technological difficulties.  A 1956 review of Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance complains that, when Kelly dances with animated figures, the “difficult cinematic problems of trick photography and laboratory work…were not too smoothly solved” and that, as a result, “the combination of live and animated action is neither successful technically nor rewarding esthetically.”  A 1960 review of Can-Can makes immediate note that the “interesting things occur on the Todd-AO widescreen during the course of Can-Can‘s 120 minutes” (emphasis mine).


Dance, dance, dance!

Early drafts of my prospectus harped considerably on the role of dance in pushing the boundaries of technology, or highlighting recent innovations, or problematizing standard practices in film and television cultures.  By the final draft, this argument got watered down, and during my defense my committee and I focused almost exclusively on race and gender questions…..but I wonder if perhaps I should bring the technology angle back, if for no other reason than it certainly seemed to be a strong concern in dance on screen during the period in question.

Wellp, that concludes today’s thoughts.  Sorry this first post has been so long; now that introductions are out of the way, reading will probably be more manageable going forward.