Austin-based choreographer and dancer scholar Gesel Mason has been awarded a grant for just under $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her ongoing project to archive the work of Black choreographers.
Mason is Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Texas.
“Through my ‘No Boundaries’ solo and archive project of Black choreographers, I’ve become aware of how the live, performing body can simultaneously hold the past, present and future histories — and the impact on legacy and representation in regard to where and how the body, particularly the Black dancing body, appears (and disappears) in the digital space,” Mason said in a press statement.
Mason and co-project director Rebecca Salzer, associate professor of dance and director of the Collaborative Arts Research Initiative at the University of Alabama, received one of the NEH’s Digital Humanities Advancement grants for their project “Prototyping an Extensible Framework for Access to Dance Knowledge.”
Mason’s started “No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers” in 2007 as way to preserve to the work of Black dancemakers. Her method was to ask choreographers to create a dance for her, taping her performance of them but also preserving them in the muscle memory of her body.
To date Mason has captured the work of Kyle Abraham, Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Dianne McIntyre, Donald McKayle, Bebe Miller, David Rousséve, Reggie Wilson, Andrea E. Woods Valdéz and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.
But the realities of continually performing her intense solo project soon led Mason to seek a way to capture the dancework digitally and begin her archiving project. “It felt like a way to hold on to the legacy and also bring it forward,” she told Sightlines in 2018.
To carry out their NEH project, Mason and Salzer have partnered with the open-source software CollectiveAccess and Dancing Digital, a working group of dance artists, educators, scholars, archivists and legal and systems design specialists led by Salzer. The NEH grant will support the creation of an online resource to increase accessibility to recordings of works by Black choreographers, along with tools that improve searchability to make it easier to study dance and make connections across collections.
Mason joined UT in 2018 and has since received the university’s Distinguished Research Award from the College of Fine Arts for her creative research. Recently, she was also one of five inaugural artists selected for a new artist residency program created by Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox Festival.
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