NEA Arts Magazine

Dance: The Next Generation

NEA's American Masterpieces Dance-College Component

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Four dancers in hunched postures moving across the stage, dressed in full-body leotards and heads hooded with similar material and covered with mirrors

Dance students from the University of Hawaii-Manoa don hoods designed by Robert Rauschenberg to perform Paul Taylor's 3 Epitaphs. The university received an American Masterpieces Dance-College Component grant to present the work at its 2008 annual dance concert. Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii-Manoa

When Rachel Berman was a student at the State University of New York at Purchase, a few members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company visited campus to teach Cloven Kingdom, a 1976 work by the legendary modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor. Berman was studying ballet at the time, yet she felt an instant affinity for the unusual dance. The experience stuck with Berman, and within five years, she began her own decade-long career dancing with Taylor's company.

Since retiring from performing in 1999, Berman has often visited colleges to teach Taylor dances. None of those visits has been more fulfilling than when she traveled home to Hawaii to stage Taylor's 3 Epitaphs for students at the University of Hawaii-Manoa (UH-M). In March 2008, the university used a $10,000 American Masterpieces Dance-College Component (AMDCC) grant to include 3 Epitaphs in its 2008 Annual Dance Concert. Administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts and Dance/USA, AMDCC serves a vital role in preserving the art form's rich history, which is traditionally passed down from dancer to dancer rather than through systematic notation. UH-M is one of 61 American colleges that have received grants to support the restaging, performance, and documentation of significant dance works. Betsy Fisher, a dance professor at UH-M, chose 3 Epitaphs for two reasons: it was a small-scale Taylor work that her students could master during the grant-funded residency, and she knew Berman was just the dancer to come teach her students.

Now a professor of dance at Mills College in California, Berman said going home to teach at UH-M was a lovely staging experience. Artist residencies are often prohibitively expensive on the islands, given the cost of hotel rooms and airfare. To stretch the project budget, Berman borrowed 3 Epitaphs costumes from a California company and stayed with relatives in Hawaii. In addition to covering Berman's salary and travel expenses, the NEA grant helped pay to license the dance and offset other production costs.

The oldest work in the company's active repertoire, 3 Epitaphs was created by Taylor in 1956. 3 Epitaphs is not a difficult work, but it is unusual. The costumes, designed by Robert Rauschenberg, require the dancers to don hoods embedded with tiny mirrors. As they move, slivers of light ricochet off the dancers' heads. As Berman taught them the steps, the UH-M students learned to like lumbering around onstage, like bayou swamp creatures dancing to the rhythms of New Orleans funeral dirges.

"With that piece, it's really all about history," Berman said. "The students really embraced it, and they had a lot of fun together. It was 2008, [although] it was 1956 when the piece premiered, and yet we are still giggling in all the right parts."