Archiving Black dance: Gesel Mason preserves the work of African American choreographers by dancing it

Filming one solo dance at a time, Mason captures a most fleeting artistic medium.


Dancer and choreographer Gesel Mason never set out to be an archivist, but for the past 20 years, she has embodied an archive.

“Over time I just started collecting these choreographies, so there is a total of ten now that all reside in my body,” says Mason.  “I am literally a living archive.”

The collection, which includes work from renowned artists such as modern dance groundbreaker Donald McKayle, Bebe Miller, Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, forms “No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers,” a solo performance project that first premiered in 2007. Mason has since performed several iterations of the show, each time choosing a handful of the solos to present as an evening-length work, interspersed with interview footage from each of the choreographers.

While successful, the live show has proved to be unsustainable in its entirety. Seven different solos in one evening is no small physical feat, and an archive within the body is not primed for longevity.

Looking toward the future, Mason is now taking “No Boundaries” to the online stage, developing a digital platform and archive that, once complete, could be one of the richest, most in-depth resources of African American dance available.

“I wanted to turn this into something that had a life beyond the live performance, or at least in addition to the live performance, dance being the ephemeral form that it is,” says Mason. “It felt like a way to hold on to the legacy and also bring it forward.”

In addition to videos of the performances, the digital archive will include interviews with the choreographers, biographical information, rehearsal and backstage footage, choreographic notes, and costumes. There are also plans to interview and invite essays from humanities scholars to provide historical and cultural context for the dances. Independent researchers will be able to access a “vault” for full unedited interviews and collection materials.

“Whether or not you’re interested in African American history, or American history, or you’re a dancer, or you just love dancing, there [will be] many portals, and ways to experience the work,” Mason explains.

Moving Parts, Coming Together

This fall, Mason will bring “No Boundaries” to the University of Texas, where she is joining the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance as a new Associate Professor. Mostly recently, she has been on the faculty at University of Colorado—Boulder.

“One of the things that was exciting about coming (to Austin) was the resources that UT has already for things like digital humanities archives,” says Mason.

As Rachel Winston, Black Diaspora Archivist at the UT Libraries puts it, “UT has so many rich archival and cultural resources. Couple that with the amazing information technology resources available and personnel expertise, and it makes sense that so many interesting projects in the digital humanities are happening here.”

Eventually, the idea is to expand the archive beyond the original ten artists, creating a central resource for African American choreography that can be continuously added to. For the time being though, the aim is to have at least the first stages of the site launched by Spring 2019. To complete the initial planning phases, Mason convened an interdisciplinary group from across the country, including performance studies scholars and videographers. The group tackled everything from foundational tasks like inventory and transcription, to more conceptual issues of purpose and function, and how the archive itself should perform.

“I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into,” Mason laughs.

As she settles in at UT, Mason will also be assembling a team of expert partners across campus to address the next steps and the technical process of getting the project up and running online. There is not a singular or simple prescribed model for how such a project should proceed — effectively the team will chart its own course, experimenting, collaborating, and innovating.

“[Mason’s] project, and one’s like it, push those of us working at the intersection of information, technology, and cultural heritage and memory to expand our practices,” Winston says. “What does a performance art based archive look like? How do we build that, and what does it require? What can be made possible by a project like this? All very exciting questions!”

Unbounding Black Dance

As a young dancer, Mason was often steered toward Alvin Ailey or Dance Theatre of Harlem, as if those were the only options available to her.

“I [didn’t] want to be put into this little box, which is actually how the title of “No Boundaries” came up,” Mason recalls.

“I didn’t want to be limited to one specific definition of what folks thought I should do as an African American dancer. I didn’t want to be told what kind of work I should be doing, what it should look like, who I should be dancing with. The choreographers that I was really interested in weren’t necessarily put into this Black dance category.”

She began reaching out to many of these choreographers, asking if they were interested in being part of a project to highlight the work of African Americans in the field, and somewhat to her surprise, many of them agreed. Soon she was raising money and traveling around the country, as each choreographer set a solo on her.

“It was my way of both wanting to learn more about the work of these choreographers and also share it with the African American community [and] the larger dance community,” says Mason.

She interviewed each choreographer as well, about their work, their inspiration, and what it meant to them to be an African American choreographer. Was there even such a thing as Black dance? If so, where did that come from, and did they see themselves as fitting in to that category?

“When I started I was like, ‘oh I don’t do Black dance,’ and it’s because I was buying into this stereotype that was really created by critics,” Mason reflects. Over time though, her perception began to change. “I never stopped being African American, of course [what I do] is Black dance, it just doesn’t have to have this label on it.”

Curtain Call

In 2017, Mason staged what she says was the final live performance of “No Boundaries,” at the Billie Holiday Theatre in New York City. This final show gave her the opportunity to record each solo one more time, specifically with the digital archive in mind. Video technology has significantly improved since the original tapings, and this time Mason was able to do three-camera shoots for each piece, capturing not only the audience viewpoint, but also overhead and close-up shots.

Mason also took this opportunity to re-interview the choreographers, revisiting the work and the initial questions, but also exploring how choreography and the field of dance have progressed over the duration of the project. Combining original and new footage gives the audience a nuanced experience of how bodies, contexts, and conversations change over time.

Choreographer David Roussève, for example, expressed to Mason some initial uncertainty about restaging his solo “Jumping the Broom,” which begins as a slave narrative and evolves into a broader discussion of who has the right to marry. The piece was originally choreographed before the legalization of gay marriage, and Roussève was unsure how it would translate now.

Still, there was a question in the spoken word audio of the dance, “I just wonder how far this hatred can go?” that resonated as clearly now as it did then.

“Now with some of the language that’s being used, not only in politics but in our communities, and we have a president that says grab them by the blank, and we have white nationalists marching,” says Mason, recalling her discussion with Roussève. “He told me that the warning in the dance feels like a warning of our time, and in that way, it’s kind of heartbreaking.”

While the theme and energy of the dances are all different, each piece brings a voice to a complex and critical dialogue. The work asks us to reflect on how “we look at dance as a way to have these larger conversations about humanity’s issues. How can it be the lens through which we interrogate these larger societal questions?”

Gesel Mason, Erinn Liebhard and Mecca Madyun perform Rennie Harris’s “You Are Why”

Molly Roy
Molly Roy
Molly Roy is a dancer, choreographer, and information professional based in Austin. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Performance as Public Practice at the University of Texas.

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