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Excerpt from Reflections on 40 Years of Dance at Princeton
by Ze'eva Cohen, April, 2010

Princeton Dances
A Photographic Memoir
1969 - 2009 

Video (08:39)

Dance officially came to Princeton in 1969, when the University opened its gates to undergraduate women. Dance was one of the “special needs” anticipated by the administration for the incoming women, along with shorter beds, kitchen facilities, and secure locks on dormitory doors.

Dance event (1971).
Photograph by E.J. Szathmary.

What sort of dance? Princeton decided to take a comprehensive approach, introducing students to the creative and theoretical aspects of modern dance, as well as the physical and mental discipline of dance technique and performance. I was the first teacher, leading the dance program and its development for the next 40 years.

Student response was enthusiastic, and 50 of the 60 in my first class who enrolled were men. Clearly, both female and male students had a hunger for physical expression in an artistic context and a desire to develop self-awareness through movement. The first annual out-of-doors dance demonstration, “To Dance is to Live, #1,” took place on Poe Field one glorious Sunday in April, 1970. A group of long-haired, bare-chested, body-painted men and a few women performed to the accompaniment of conga drums and a rock ‘n roll band before a large crowd. They presented a twenty-minute assemblage of work prepared in class throughout the year—a bold, proud performance that gave expression to their youthful exuberance and their conflicts, particularly their feelings of anger and fear about the Vietnam War.  

(1988) Choreographed by Ze’eva Cohen.

Since that modest beginning, dance at Princeton has flourished, with many milestones along the way. In 1975, dance became part of the academic Program in Theater and Dance. In 1985, the opening of Richardson Auditorium in a refurbished Alexander Hall gave us a venue where dance could begin to be presented in a manner approaching professional standards. In 1986, the creation of the Patricia and Ward Hagan ’48 Dance Studio at 185 Nassau Street provided a fully equipped dance studio, as well as a facility for informal showings by students, faculty and guest artists. In 2003, the opening of the Roger S. Berlind Theatre made it possible for student dancers to present collaborations, such as Prokofiev’s “Pas d’Acier” and Nijinsky’s “L’Après-midi d’un faune,” that have brought national attention to Princeton.

Most recently, President Shirley M. Tilghman has enlarged the University’s mission to include “Princeton in the Service of the Imagination,” a phrase coined by poet Paul Muldoon. She understands how the arts foster creative habits of thought appropriate to any field of study, and improve the quality of life for practitioners and viewers alike. The Lewis Center for the Arts, inaugurated in 2007 and now chaired by Muldoon, has emphatically affirmed the central role of the arts at Princeton.

Princeton’s is one of very few university dance programs in which active professional artists offer a comprehensive approach to the art form — and not just to dance concentrators, but to all students.  Program students, who include physicists, engineers, and social scientists as well as concentrators in the humanities, are encouraged to integrate their dance studies with their academic disciplines in rich and meaningful ways. Many have written junior papers and senior theses connecting their knowledge of dance to their major fields of study. By drawing on kinetic, spatial, visual, and musical intelligence as well as verbal and mathematical intelligence, students involved in dance can bring special insight to their subject matter. A psychology major, for instance, studied nonverbal communication and body language; an architecture major related the set designs of Isamu Noguchi to the concept of space in the choreography of Martha Graham.

Photograph by M. Teresa Simao.

Some enhance their written theses with dance presentations, often involving large casts of student dancers and collaborations with other students in music or visual arts. Choreographic theses have addressed topics as varied as the body and the machine, the involvement of turn-of-the-century working class women in prostitution, and concepts of the feminine in the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. One student in Near Eastern studies translated a Persian story-poem and choreographed a long work inspired by this poem, performed with a décor of scrolls painted by a student in visual arts.

Princeton now offers a model for the integration of performing and creative arts with high-level academic studies. In a world that relies increasingly on simulated experience delivered via video screen, the tactile whole-body experience of dance and other arts is rare and valuable. Learning to shape the flow of stimuli and information traveling between mind and body into work whose meaning can be shared with others is a worthy goal of a liberal arts education.

In fall 2009, after a long and creative partnership with theater, dance became an autonomous program, with its own voice and its own director. Courses now range from “Introduction to Movement and Dance” to “Contemporary” and “World” Dance, as well as “Dance History and Criticism”.  There are also upper-level classes in which students learn works by well-known choreographers such as Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp, courses in performance workshops, visits by guest choreographers, and a daily ballet class.

Spring Dance Festival (2003)
Photograph by Denise Applewhite.

As I leave Princeton after 40 years, I am gratified to see dance thriving both in the curriculum and in the 16 different student dance companies that span a diverse cultural spectrum. I am profoundly grateful to President Tilghman, to Roger S. Berlind ’52, and to Peter B. Lewis ’55 for their steadfast and generous support.

I am thankful to Paul Muldoon for his committed and courageous leadership as the first chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, and to my former colleague, Carol Rigolot, Executive Director of the Humanities Council, who was a close advisor for three decades, and to Michael Cadden, now Director of the Program in Theater but formerly the Director of the Program in Theater and Dance, with whom I worked very closely for 15 years. I am also deeply indebted to the talented and dedicated dance faculty who helped foster our dreams throughout the years. I wish Susan Marshall, our first Director of Dance, success and fulfillment as she continues to build the Program in Dance at Princeton.

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