History

History of Dance at IllinoisWe trace our beginnings to the campus May Day festivities in 1898—more than 100 years of dance making. Ione Johnson began a program in modern dance in 1929 and formed the first student performance group. Under the resourceful leadership of Margaret Erlanger, dance was transformed from a collection of classes categorized under women's physical education to a model program of national prominence. Today Dance at Illinois is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance and is consistently ranked among the top dance programs in the nation.

A Personal Note

—Jan Erkert, Head

It is June 2006. I open the door to my new office. Enter. A board of photographs hangs on one wall.

My eye is drawn to a black and white photograph of Ming-Shen Ku (MFA 1987) and Pina Bausch—the German postmodern choreographer who has revolutionized our relationship to theatre and dance. They are caught in an exchange suspended above the Hong Kong skyline. Their arms are folded in similar fashion and their heads are turned to each other. A smile, a knowing look on their faces.

I see Bill T. Jones—a man who has changed our thinking about the who of who is dancing. He is leaning on crutches, an injured foot below. Arnie Zane (his partner) hovers above him. They stare forward with deeply critical eyes at what I imagine to be our students crashing through the space. They are hard taskmasters, or perhaps Bill's foot is just hurting, but I know from that look that they will demand the best from those flying bodies. Nothing will escape.

Ernestine Stodele is teaching Linda Lehovec—our current BFA director—Doris Humphery's Two Ecstatic Themes. I imagine cartoon captions above their heads. Linda is saying, "You want me to do what?" Ernestine's caption says, "She'll do it before she leaves rehearsal today."

Merce Cunningham and John CageMy eye traverses photographs of our students surrounding pillars of the dance scene such as Mark Morris, Elizabeth Streb, Joe Goode, and Ralph Lemon. After intense sessions together their bodies are soft, receptive, flushed with red blood. I see Liz Lerman, Susan Marshall, Ron Brown, Lynn Simonson, Stephen Koester, Fabrice Lemire, Rennie Harris, Lar Lubovitch, Karen Graham, Chris Aiken, Stephan Koplowitz—they are just a few of the artists who have landed here, spreading their energy and changing our landscape. Trisha Brown stands side-by-side with her company members Ming Lung Yang (MFA 1993) and Kathleen Fisher (BFA 1992). Their repeating linked arms tell me they are a team that has worked out the puzzles over a long period of time.

And then I see Cunningham and Cage, who traveled in a station wagon to the Midwest in the early days. Cage is holding a clock. Cunningham is laughing with those big, open, twinkling eyes. How will he challenge us next? A photo hangs below of Katherine Dunham receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Illinois. Two are now gone.

My eye finally lands on a photo of Margaret Erlanger—founder of the department. She is clasping the hand of a thick, worn, older woman in a sign of respect. There is a note at the bottom of the photo from Pat Knowles, fiery guardian of the department from 1976 to 2001, to Sara Hook, one of our own extraordinary faculty. Sara took on the tough job of interim chair from Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, another loving caretaker of the department, until I was ready to arrive. Pat identifies the frail woman in the photo as Mary Wigman. Need I say more?