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'Speaking of Dance' explores what moves 12 leading choreographers

book cover

Modern dance has undergone a revolution in new forms, ideas and attitudes since the mid-20th century. Joyce Morgenroth, associate professor of dance at Cornell University, has set out to discover the creative processes of the leading innovative figures in that revolution.

In her book "Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on Their Craft" (Routledge, 2004), the artists explain the ideas and motivations that drive them and how they make their work.

Through in-depth interviews and personal conversations, Morgenroth coaxed revelations from such rule-breaking artists as Merce Cunningham (who shattered all traditions that came before him), Mark Morris, John Jasperse, Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown.

"I was interested in getting to know them," Morgenroth says. "It partly had to do with my admiration and awe in response to the work of these choreographers, who are so brilliant, articulate and daring, always breaking new ground and very successful at it."

The book has a short introduction by the author for each artist and a selection of photographs of the choreographers and their dance works. Her subjects also include Anna Halprin, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Elizabeth Streb, Ann Carlson and Eiko Otake.

"Eiko was a surprise. She was very warm, very casual," Morgenroth says. "I sent her a draft, and she eliminated some of the things I loved, quotes about her life and her family. Her work is so austere and serious, but as a person, she was humorous and warm and delightful -- quite irreverent."

Morgenroth also asked all of the artists about working with others. "The process of collaboration forces them to go to places they might not have on their own," she says.

Morgenroth has developed a new course, Movement in Time and Space, based on the insights she gained while researching the book. The first sophomore seminar, in the fall of 2004, featured two physics faculty members, Alan Giambattista and Saul Teukolsky, as guest lecturers.

"I've discovered that people are using this book to teach dance composition, because it provides models for new ways of making dances that are not based on the traditional rules of craftsmanship," Morgenroth says. She also wrote "Dance Improvisations" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), which remains in print as a widely used dance text.

Morgenroth teaches modern dance technique, improvisation, composition, human anatomy and physiology, 20th-century dance history and writing about dance. She has been teaching at Cornell for 28 years and majored in theoretical mathematics here in the late 1960s after training at the School of American Ballet. She also has an M.A. degree in French literature from Johns Hopkins University.

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