Research Magazine 2009

Everything Preserved

“All history is modern history,” writes Wallace Stevens in his collection of aphorisms, Adagia. The stories we invent and the stories we inherit—through forms ranging from stage and screen to sheet music and the printed word—play a vital role in understanding who we are as individuals and members of a society. Faculty in the arts and letters at BU are examining the rich history of performance in plays, music, film, and dance to illuminate the past and inform the present.

Going Solo

Solo performances played a key role in reshaping modern ideas about feminism, identity, and gendered subjectivity, claims Carrie J. Preston, an assistant professor of English whose forthcoming book, Solo Performance: Gender, Genre, Modernism, centers on modern dancer Isadora Duncan and the way she “redefined femininity for her period, redefined the relationship between the body and the soul.”

Isadora Duncan

Dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan in statue pose, a system of expression that she would incorporate into her work, paving the way for modern dance.

Photo by Paul Berger from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts/Jerome Robbins Dance Division

Throughout history, body and soul had been considered separate entities, and women’s bodies were often considered profane. Duncan sought to make the body sacred. “Through her performances, she was saying that dance is the movement of a soul,” says Preston.

She traces the roots of solo performance to the monodrama, created in the 18th century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and statue posing, which became popular in the 19th century. In monodramas, a woman would recite poetic lines, and then those lines would be gestured to music. In statue posing, a person, usually a woman, would imitate a famous statue.

French acting teacher François Delsarte developed these statue poses into a new acting theory that connected emotion with particular poses of the body. Delsartism became an international phenomenon and was later co-opted by other forms. “Those 19th-century solo performances were passed into modernism and changed,” says Preston. “The statue pose became a part of modern dance choreography, and part of the acting method for silent film.”

Carrie J. Preston

Carrie J. Preston

Among those who trained in Delsarte’s method was Duncan—a fact that calls into question the generally accepted theory that modern dance originated as a rejection of ballet, says Preston. “Duncan used Delsarte’s teachings as a way of redefining dance. And that led to the creation of modern dance. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, who were of the generation of dancers that followed Duncan, also trained in Delsartism.”

So did actors working for the American director D. W. Griffith and the Russian director Lev Kuleshov. “It makes sense,” says Preston, “because gesture is the language of silent film.” Kuleshov introduced the montage, which uses editing to change the viewer’s interpretation of images. And Griffith made extensive use of the close-up, an innovation of silent film. “The close-up was the first time that we got that close to the face of a complete stranger, an actor. So film theorists have talked about the close-up technique as a way of digging into subjectivity. The close-up was also a way to see the minute features of a gesture, the way a hand is turned or tipped. Again, it’s about presenting subjectivity, and presenting an individual in a different way.”

Preston hopes that her book will change the way that modernism is viewed as a movement. “Dance has long been marginalized,” she says. “But modern artists saw dance as a new form that would reinvigorate all of the other art forms. So putting dance at the center of modernism is one of my goals, and showing how, if you consider dance as a crucial part of aesthetic modernism, other art forms look different.”

Dramatic License

When Lydia R. Diamond’s play Stick Fly was running in Los Angeles earlier this year, she received an extraordinary letter of appreciation from a stranger. It read, in part, “You turn the face of history with such magical and remarkable force.”

Lydia R. Diamond

Lydia R. Diamond

The letter went on to acknowledge that the play—a family dramedy that explores issues of race and class inside and outside the black community—was a liberating experience. “So often African Americans are presented only in a historical context onstage,” says Diamond, an assistant professor of playwriting and theatre arts. “When I spoke about writing in the past, I would talk about trying to tell contemporary stories of blacks who interact in a world that looks like the world I live in.” Stick Fly, which will be performed in Boston during the 2009–2010 season by the Huntington Theatre Company, where Diamond is a playwriting fellow, is such a piece.

In play after play, Diamond has emerged as a political writer. Last year, Boston University presented the premiere of Lizzie Stranton, a re-imagining of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which women go on a sex strike in order to stop a war. Set in 2035, the protagonist is an African American first lady, “not necessarily Michelle.”

“I don’t write with a political agenda,” she says. “But my plays are always political. You can’t write about the personal stories of black people in America without having some of it be political. But I’m just telling stories and exploring things that fascinate and confuse and entertain me.”

Two other recent works by Diamond delve into the inevitable overlap between the personal and the political. Voyeurs de Venus moves back and forth between the early 19th century and the present day to examine the short, heartbreaking life of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who became a sideshow attraction in London and Paris, where she was known as the Hottentot Venus. Harriet Jacobs, which is being staged by Underground Railway Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the 2009–2010 season, is based on events from Jacobs’s narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

“I don’t write with a political agenda. But my plays are always political. I’m just telling stories and exploring things that fascinate and confuse and entertain me.”

“Playwrights, to the despair of historians, are sometimes a little loosey-goosey with history,” says Diamond, whose great-grandfather was a slave. “In writing about Harriet Jacobs, it was important to keep the facts accurate. But the accounting of the story, the words I put into her mouth, are all historical fiction.”

Harriet Jacobs was commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater for its Young Adults program, and premiered there in 2008. One of the great joys for Diamond was knowing she had both affected and educated teenaged audiences. “Nothing makes you feel like a good writer more than getting them,” she says. “And I got them. They were exposed to slavery in a way that they hadn’t been in school. These kids were so touched and blown away. It was very affirming.”

Photos from Lizzie Stranton

No Peace = No Sex See photos from the BU premiere of Lizzie Stranton, Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Lysistrata, at www.bu.edu/cfa/esprit.

Aria Greca

Greek sheet music cover

Newly recorded songs from Penelope Bitzas’s personal collection of sheet music are offering American audiences a window into 20th-century Greek life and culture.

Image courtesy of Penelope Bitzas

“I think it started with the chest full of music that was in my house when I was growing up,” says Penelope Bitzas, a mezzo-soprano and associate professor of voice and music who recently recorded a selection of 20th-century Greek art songs for her first solo album. At the age of 15, Bitzas visited Greece for the first time and bought the sheet music of a song by Manolis Kalomiris, the father of Greek art music and one of the country’s most important composers. She has been amassing Greek music ever since.

This collection became the springboard for her album, which she plans to release later this year. “I chose a big cross-section of music,” she says, “because it was important to show the diversity of the repertoire.” Many Greek art songs were influenced by European lieder and French melodies, and don’t sound particularly Greek. “That changed when Kalomiris started a national school of Greek music, and composers began to draw more on folk songs, traditional tunes, and Greek themes.”

Penelope Bitzas

Penelope Bitzas

Very few of the songs, which offer a window into 20th-century Greek life, have been recorded before. “Except for about three songs, all the music was new to me,” says Bitzas, who is accompanied on the album by Shiela Kibbe, assistant professor and chair of the collaborative piano department. “They express the sentiments of the Greek people, and say something about their lives, their culture, and frequently their politics.”

Bitzas’s mission to draw attention to Greek music in this country is beginning to make inroads. When she performed Nikolaos Mantzaros’s “Aria Greca” at a concert at BU in January, she says, “I think it was the first time that anyone on this side of the ocean had heard that aria.” This fall she gives another recital at the University of Michigan. “And we’re generating pockets of interest in large universities that have Hellenic studies programs,” says Bitzas, laying the foundation for a national network of composers and performers interested in Greek music. “That’s what I hoped would happen. I want this music to be better known.”