Dancing My Passion

by | Oct 24, 2007

A Trinidad Theater workshop. Photo by Elizabeth Bergmann.

As a dancer, my mentor and role model was the Mexican-born New York dancer, José Limón. His passion permeated every class he taught and every dance that he choreographed, moving me deeply and encouraging me to put all of my own passion and deep feelings into dancing. Many of his themes were of Latin American origin. Ritmo Jondo, choreographed by his own mentor, Doris Humphrey, with music by Silvestre Revueltas, depicted four couples in Mexican costumes, flirting and dancing at a festival. Humphrey also created Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías for Limón to explore the life of a bullfighter in dance. Limón’s themes, which dealt with the downtrodden and humanity’s deep yearning, have influenced my own work.

After 22 years of teaching, I left my tenured faculty position at the University of Michigan to explore exciting new territory on the West Coast. Through the California Arts Council, I became an Artist-In-Residence at an affluent Southern California high school. Finding myself in a rich community surrounded by migrant workers, I worked with the students to try to increase their awareness of the people who surrounded them and served them. My dance La Revolución was a dance about displacement. I challenged the students to imagine that they would have to leave their home suddenly, never to return, and only to take with them what they could carry. Using the haunting sounds of Peruvian music, I created this dance, pulling out of the students every bit of feeling they could muster, to dance this piece and to understand this situation. It was a very rewarding experience for them and for me, as well as for the audiences.

All of these experiences led me to want to live and work in an environment that was culturally diverse, with art and culture dominating the lives of the people. To that end I became a Fulbright Scholar in Trinidad and Tobago. I wanted to find out if people who lived with art and culture as a central focus experienced their lives differently. Were they happier, more fulfilled, and in greater harmony with themselves and with life in general?

Trinidad’s many ethnic groups are predominantly African and East Indian with sprinklings of English, Spanish, Chinese, Javanese and Syrians. It is a country of many colors and many flavors living fairly comfortably in harmony with each other. Although there are certainly financial inequities, there is peace in the land and a deep respect for the arts. Most everyone paints or dances or plays music. Artists are highly honored in that culture. Every cab driver I met knew of the dancers with whom I was working. I found a culture rich in artistic and cultural traditions, with a population comfortable within themselves and happy to be contributing members of their society.

Trinidadians grow up with Carnival and their lives center around this festival year round. Designers display their new costume designs for the next Carnival soon after the year’s Carnival is finished. People visit the designer’s headquarters to decide who they will be and what they will wear. They order their costumes and prepare for the next year’s festivities. Steel drums, made from the barrels left by the oil companies, were invented in Trinidad. Forty to 150 participants gather nightly to play in open yards as others gather around. Trinidadians tend to be loyal to one band or another as they compete yearly for prizes. Colorful, exotically costumed bands march throughout the towns and as many as 10,000 people can be found parading with one band dancing through the streets of Port of Spain during Carnival.

I went to Trinidad to support the Trinidad Theatre Workshop dancers and help them develop their own choreography. The dancers had served the theatrical productions for more than 20 years and my time with them gave them a chance to focus upon the dance aspect of their art form. All of the dancers held day jobs, so we rehearsed in the evenings. I had a wonderful drummer, Redman, called that because he was an Indian, thus a red man. His drumming and the energy of the Trinidadians rubbed off on me and I found my work being very much influenced by the beat and the passion of this culture. The Trinidad Theatre Workshop was created by Derek Walcott as the theatrical company to produce his Nobel prize-winning plays. I was so taken by Walcott’s poetry that I choreographed a quartet, Love After Love for some of the dancers. Since the dancers were also actors, I featured the spoken text of the poetry throughout the dance. The highly successful dance won one of Trinidad’s coveted arts awards. My first year at Harvard, I brought the dancers from Trinidad to campus to perform Love After Love and to give workshops in Caribbean dance to Harvard students.

This vibrant and passionate country has become a great part of my life. I return as often as possible, creating more choreography for their dancers and teaching them my form of dance. Not only have I brought some of their dancers to the States to perform and teach in America, but I have also facilitated taking young dancers from the United States to perform and study in Trinidad. I continue to seek ways to make connections between the Trinidadian culture and our own. My choreography and my being have been deeply influenced by my Latin American and Caribbean connections. The body, mind and spiritual connections are very present in these cultures. Harvard is a heady place and I feel that my role at Harvard is to encourage the union of the whole being. Creativity evolves by using the whole body, calling upon the senses and felt experiences to inform one’s thinking and one’s choices. I bring those elements into my teaching and into my direction of the Harvard Dance Program, encouraging exploration and experimentation, along with individual expression.

It is my hope that one day I can take some of the Harvard students to Trinidad to dance and to participate in their dances and their culture. I wish for them to experience some of the wonderful ways in which this Caribbean country has opened my eyes and my heart to other peoples and other ways of being in this world, as Jose Limón did for me earlier.

Fall 2007Volume VII, Number 1
Elizabeth Bergmann joined the Office for the Arts at Harvard as Director of Dance following many years as a distinguished choreographer, teacher, performer and administrator. A graduate of the Juilliard School, Bergmann danced professionally and taught in New York City for José Limón. She has chaired the Dance Departments at the University of Michigan, Shenandoah University, California State University Long Beach and Florida International University.

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