A Rich Past by Patricia Knowles, Head of the Department 1976 – 2001

A letter from Patricia Knowles

In the Beginning . . .

The long and luminous history of Dance at Illinois dates back to 1898, with the beginning of the annual May Day festivities. These public performances began just 31 years after the university opened its doors as a Land Grant College Act Institution called the Illinois Industrial University. The first 15 years of the May Fêtes were under the direction of women physical education teachers who taught dance classes. The winding of the maypole by maidens in white dresses was a festival highlight, as was the crowning of the May Queen and the Illinois Salute. Titles of dances from the 1910 program indicate the nature of the works performed and reflect the emphasis on folk and social dances taught in the physical education curriculum: Sweet Pea Waltz, Shepherdess Dance, Dance of the Corn Maidens, and dances of different nations, such as the Tarantella, Highland Fling, Spanish Dance, and Dutch Dance. By 1920, four credit courses were offered in “interpretative” and “natural” dance.

The May Fête era came to a close in the mid-1930s. In 1929, Ione Johnson was hired to begin a program in modern dance. Under her guidance, the student dance group Orchesis was formed and began giving public performances in 1930.

The Legacy of Margaret Erlanger

The developing dance program gained momentum in 1948 with the hiring of Margaret Erlanger, a graduate of the dance program at the University of Wisconsin program under Margaret H’Doubler, the first pioneer of dance in higher education. Erlanger, the daughter of Nobel Prize recipient in physiology Joseph Erlanger, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and zoology from Wellesley College and a master’s degree in physiology from the University of Rochester before pursuing graduate dance studies at Wisconsin. A visionary and resourceful leader, Erlanger transformed the existing handful of dance classes in the Physical Education Department for Women into a dance degree program of national prominence. She directed the program for 20 years and then assumed the responsibility of graduate program advisor beginning in 1969.

One year after her arrival on campus, Erlanger implemented a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education with a dance specialization, a degree that prepared dance teachers for public schools, colleges, and universities. In 1959, the Master of Arts in dance was offered as an interdisciplinary degree in physical education, art, speech and music. The Bachelor of Arts degree with emphasis on dance as a performing art was added in 1962. With the completion of construction on Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in 1968, Erlanger’s dream of establishing an autonomous Department of Dance within the structure of the College of Fine and Applied Arts was realized; however, because of conflicts between Erlanger and university administrators, faculty member Jan Stockman Simonds was appointed acting head, and through her efforts the degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance was implemented shortly after the move to FAA.

There are four hallmarks of Margaret Erlanger’s legacy that continue to shape the University of Illinois dance program: a core faculty of artists/teachers/scholars augmented by artists-in-residence, cross-disciplinary coursework and collaborative experiences, a broad-based curriculum that includes movement science, and cross-cultural connections.

Erlanger believed that dance students must be inspired by models of artistic excellence, and to this end she was a pioneer in the hiring of professional artists as faculty and guests. She began to build her faculty with the hiring of three artists/teachers from distinctively different backgrounds. In 1958, Willis Ward came to the program after dancing professionally with Barbara Mettler and Anna Halprin. Ward was the first male to have a tenure-track position in the Physical Education Department for Women. A prolific choreographer, he enlivened the department for 28 years with his creative output and was legendary for his freewheeling improvisation classes. Three years later, Jan Stockman Simonds, a member of José Limón’s company and a graduate of the Wisconsin program, joined the faculty and contributed artistically and administratively to its growing reputation for 10 years.

Joan Skinner, formerly of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, taught for several years while pursuing a master’s degree and came to the program at the same time as Jan Stockman. The fourth faculty member who was part of the first generation of dance faculty was a composer-conductor from the School of Music, Alan Thomas, who taught Musical Composition for Dance and Theory and Philosophy of Dance. This appointment marked the beginning of a close and continuing collaborative association with the School of Music that later included composers Ben Johnston, Sal Martirano, Scott Wyatt, Toby Twining, and John Cage, who was frequently in residence on campus.

When Joan Skinner left the program in 1967 to teach at the University of Washington, she was replaced by Beverly Blossom, who was performing with Alwin Nikolais’ company and producing her own unique work in experimental dance and theatre in New York. Blossom intended to stay for one year, but when she was offered a tenure-track position in 1968, she was lured into staying for 23 years “because of the many collaborative projects happening involving music, dance, and theatre.”

In 1959, Erlanger invited Merce Cunningham as the first dancer-in-residence to teach, restage his work, perform, and present lecture-demonstration programs open to the entire university. This pioneering four-month residency marks the first time in the history of dance in higher education that dance students performed professional repertory—a two-part work, Collage, which included a solo for himself. Collage was performed at the university’s nationally acclaimed biennial Festival of Contemporary Arts. Cunningham and his company returned frequently to campus for residencies and performances, the most recent being in 2007. Merce was awarded an honorary doctorate from the university in 1972—the first dance artist to be so honored.

Students were exposed to another approach to movement when Erlanger extended a visiting artist invitation to Katherine Litz in the early 1960s. Litz, a former Humphrey-Weidman dancer known for her satiric portraits and mime-infused dance, created an evening-long work, Continuum, during 1965. Performers included Litz, dance students, and a trio of professional trampoline gymnasts.

The dance program was also nurtured by the stimulus of the university’s Contemporary Arts Festivals from 1954 to 1967. This collaborative venture was organized by various programs, including Architecture, Music, Literature, Painting, Sculpture, Film, Dance, Theatre, Photography, Radio and Television, and Home Economics. The university hosted visitors and major artists from all parts of the country, and the festivals provided Erlanger with the opportunity to invite prominent dance makers and their companies to campus. In addition to Cunningham/Cage and Katherine Litz, dance luminaries participating in the festivals included such artists as Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, Alwin Nikolais (who, with Murray Louis, staged the university-commissioned work The Bewitched by composer Harry Partch), and the New York City Ballet. These festival experiences facilitated the implementation of collaborative work between Dance and other campus units—especially Architecture and Music. In 1964, Margaret Erlanger invited her friend and colleague on the Architecture faculty, Jack Baker, to design a Japanese-style home with a studio—the site of many chamber performances—where she frequently hosted students and faculty. The Erlanger House continues to be used for Dance Department and university functions and as a residence for guest faculty in Architecture and Dance.

The breadth of Erlanger’s vision was reflected in the program of studies she developed for dance majors. In 1966, the BA curriculum included daily technique classes, improvisation and composition, music theory for dancers, pedagogy, creative dance for children, dance history, theory and philosophy, and dance-related courses in kinesiology, zoology, theatre, and art. The department has since developed its own coursework in body science and somatic practices with a special focus on the Alexander Technique. Several leaders in the early development of the somatics field were affiliated with the department in the 1960s and early 1970s, including Joan Skinner, Nancy Topf, John Rolland, and Marsha Paludan.

Erlanger’s cross-cultural experiences included a Fulbright lectureship at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1953 and a 1961 sabbatical in Japan for study at Tokyo’s Waseda University. In New Zealand, she introduced concepts of American dance education and brought back to the university her observations of dance and social/human values in Maori culture. In Japan, she explored various forms of Japanese theatre, meeting Japanese dancer and sculptor Shozo Sato in the process and bringing him to campus in 1964. Later as artist-in-residence at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Sato initiated a series of courses in the art and culture of Japan (which continue to be taught) and produced kabuki versions of Shakespeare’s plays. The Dance Department has continued to promote cross-cultural understanding through the teaching of cultural dance forms, international faculty residencies, and the recruitment of a diverse international student body. Margaret Erlanger retired in 1974; she died two years later.

Sustaining the Legacy

Jan Stockman Simonds, who in her seventh year in the program was appointed acting head and then head of the Department of Dance (1968-1971), guided the program through a difficult transitional period from Physical Education to Fine and Applied Arts and its home in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The new resources and support of the College of Fine and Applied Arts coupled with Jan’s vision and energy revitalized the program. In three years’ time, she succeeded in increasing the faculty from five to twelve full- and part-time members—all from the professional world—added ballet to the curriculum, increased enrollment, expanded the facilities, and instituted a plan to bring stellar, cutting-edge artists from New York for Krannert Center performances and semester-long residencies in the department. Dance at Illinois had now gained parity with all of the arts on campus as it continued its leadership role in higher education.

Oliver Kostock, who had been Hanya Holm’s assistant, was hired as the successor to Jan Stockman Simonds and led the department from 1971 to 1976. Patricia Knowles, who came to the university in 1973, was appointed acting department head in 1976 and department head in 1978.

Charged with downsizing and streamlining the program for dance majors and developing the general education component for non-dance majors, Knowles focused on strengthening the performance-oriented degrees. The BFA degree was revised in 1977, and an MFA degree was implemented in 1981. The general education program in dance was expanded to include eleven course offerings for non-dance majors. She established a floating artist-in-residence position, expanded the faculty and staff, and initiated residency activities between Krannert Center artists and the department. The department’s performance component was developed into a significant cultural resource for the community, producing works by resident faculty and guest choreographers and reconstructions of dance classics. Some highlights included the Midwestern premieres of Nijinsky’s original choreography for L’après-midi d’un faune, the reconstruction of Martha Graham’s Panorama, David Parson’s The Envelope, Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, Twyla Tharp’s The Fugue, Susan Marshall’s Arms, Alwin Nikolais’ Tensile Involvement, José Limón’s The Unsung, and Talley Beatty’s Mourners’ Bench.

Knowles planned and acquired two dance facilities for the program and initiated ties with dance programs in Taiwan and Australia. Under her leadership, the department became an accredited institutional charter member of the National Association of Schools of Dance and participated annually in regional and national festivals of the American College Dance Festival Association, hosting three festivals during her tenure. During this period, two honorary doctorates were awarded to dance artists by the university: Alwin Nikolais (1985) and Katherine Dunham (1994). In 2005, Knowles was honored by the Council of Dance Administrators as the recipient of the Alma Hawkins Award for Excellence in Dance Education.

Since the retirement of Patricia Knowles in 2001, the department has continued to expand and evolve while sustaining Margaret Erlanger’s legacy. Two faculty members have admirably served as interim department heads while the search for a new leader was underway: Rebecca Nettl-Fiol (2001-2005) and Sara Hook (2005-2006). The search came to fruition with the hiring in 2006 of Jan Erkert, who has ushered in a whole new era for Dance at Illinois, ensuring its continuing leadership role in the evolution of dance in higher education.

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