About Dr. Oliver
Cynthia Oliver joined the Dance at Illinois faculty in August 2000. She is a former dancer with numerous companies, including the David Gordon Pick Up Co., the Bebe Miller Company, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, and Tere O’Connor Dance. A woman of Caribbean descent, Cynthia creates work that is a mélange of dance theatre and the spoken word, incorporating textures of Caribbean performance with African and American sensibilities. Early in her career, she won a New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award and was named Outstanding Young Choreographer by the German magazine Ballet Tanz (2002). Since then, her work has gained greater national and international attention. Her most recent evening-length production, entitled Virago-Man Dem (with U of I alums Niall Noel Jones and Duane Cyrus, along with Jonathan Gonzalez and Ni’Ja Whitson), examined the nuances and complexities of contemporary black masculinities. Virago-Man Dem premiered at the 2017 Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and later toured the country.
Cynthia has received numerous awards from national arts foundations to support her work, including Creative Capital (2002), Illinois Arts Council Choreography Fellowships (2004, 2014, 2017), the Rockefeller Foundation’s MAP Fund (2007, 2015), the New England Foundation’s National Dance Project (2009, 2017, 2019), awards from the National Performance Network’s Creation Fund (2009, 2012, 2017), a prestigious nomination for the Alpert Award in the Arts for dance (2009), a 2015 nomination for the Doris Duke Impact Award, and a Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography Mellon Fellowship (2016-17). In 2011, she was selected for a nomination-only University Scholar award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for her research and performance work. She holds a PhD in performance studies, and her scholarly work focuses on performance in the Anglophone Caribbean, particularly in the US Virgin Islands. She has published works in anthologies, exhibition booklets, the Movement Research Journal, and Women and Performance. Her single-authored book, Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2009. She teaches dancing techniques, composition, performance, post-colonial and feminist theory, and courses emphasizing the African-American and African-Caribbean influences in American performance. In 2017, she was appointed to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation as an Associate Vice Chancellor for Research in the Humanities, Arts, and Related Fields. In 2020 she was named Center for Advanced Studies Professor, the highest award for faculty at Illinois. She was recently named a 2021 United States Artist Fellow.
- Adelphi University; BFA. (cum laude); Dance Major, Political Science Minor; 1982
- New York University; M.A. Gallatin School. Specializing in Literature, Performance and Culture in the Caribbean; 1996
- New York University; Ph.D.; Performance Studies. Focus: Performance in the Anglophone Caribbean; 2003
Research and publications
Ongoing and upcoming research
I am a dance artist/scholar. I create performance works that bridge the distance between dance and theatre and have followed an historical trajectory that reflects both the black avant garde and experimental/contemporary dance traditions. Since the 1990s I have been interested in creating dance theatre works that envelope and engage with my scholarly research. They are my vehicle to examine popular culture and its relevance to historical and contemporary trajectories in black life and its resonances in other artistic and expressive modalities. The intersectionality of women’s worlds with cultural, social and political developments in the Caribbean in particular, and the Black Atlantic in general, is where I have focused twenty years of my professional energies. Where I have historically examined the performance of black womanhood in the Caribbean in my single authored book, Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean (2009 University Press of Mississippi) and in evening-length performance productions like SHEMAD, AfroSocialiteLifeDiva, Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso and BOOM!, I have more recently, been interested in the performance of masculinities. From day to day experiences to the more formal performances of manhood in Caribbean communities that have been something distinct and oppositional to what is commonly understood in North America as black male identity, my most recent evening-length work, Virago-Man Dem, navigated the complexities of black masculinities. The work troubled the term “Virago”’s reference to characteristically male behaviors and female cultural transgressions. Virago-Man Dem was a nuanced study in masculinities, capturing them through movement, spoken language and visual design and exploring the expressions particular to Caribbean and African American black masculinities as they are performed and expressed by men, staged on male identified (if not biological) bodies, but designed and interpreted by a woman — me. The work was based in the lives of the four performers and extrapolated from those experiences to broader cultural trajectories. Since closing that production, I have returned to black womanhood, with a shorter work entitled Tether, that used double dutch as a metaphor for life lessons in black communities and Afrofuturist visuals to imagine how we propel this rhythmic cultural practice and its transformative power into the future. I am currently percolating new ideas that will continue my thickly grooved path of mining black cultural production as a rich and complex conceptual field for performance, thought, and choreographic method.
- Monograph: Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean. University Press of Mississippi. August 2009
- Essay, Winin’ Yo’ Wais’: The Changing Tastes of Dance in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. In Caribbean Dance From Abakua to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity. Susanna Sloat, Ed. Publ. 2002, pp. 199-220. This book received the Bueno Award administered by the Society of Dance History Scholars.
- Essay, Rigidigidim De Bamba De: A Calypso Journey from Start to… In Making Caribbean Dance: Continuity and Creativity in Island Cultures. Susanna Sloat, Ed. University Press of Florida. 2009
- Lyric essay, Epiphanic Moments: Dance and Politics In Edited Volume Dance and Politics, Oxford University Press. (Eds. Randy Martin, Rebekah Kowal & Gerald Siegmund), 2017.
- A short essay on my creative process for the Brooklyn Rail: “They Say It Is Heaven” https://brooklynrail.org/2018/03/criticspage/They-Say-it-is-Heaven (2018).
- Institute for Contemporary Art, Essay for publication: “Virago-Man Dem: In process showings.” (in a book on ICA’s participation in Endless Shout – an exhibition extension of the historic “Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music 1965- Now” originally at MCA Chicago).
- In Conversation with Autumn Knight + Cynthia Oliver. In Rehearsal - Autumn Knight. Krannert Art Museum with Project Row Houses. 2019.
- Essay, “My Voice My Practice: Choreographing Black Personhood” 10th Anniversary edition for publication Serendipity, UK.
Teaching and advising
- Feminist Choreographies (graduate)
- African-American Dance in American Culture (undergrad)
- Moving Across Cultures: Transnationalism and the Dancing Body (graduate)
- Meaning in the Body: Abstraction, Narrative and the Choreographic Impulse (graduate)
- Citizenship, Attachment, and the Public Sphere (graduate)
- Citizenship, Fugitivity and Performance (graduate)
- Trauma, Modernity, and Performance (graduate)
- Memoir, Structure and the Solo Form (graduate)
- Contemporary Directions (mixed – grads and undergrads)
- Advanced Modern Technique (mixed – grads and undergrads)
- Intermediate technique (mixed but primarily undergrad)
- Dancing Black Popular Culture (undergraduate)
- Dance History Seminar (undergrads)
- Beginning and Intermediate Contemporary Dance of the African Diaspora (undergrad)
- Dance in Performance (undergrad)
- Introduction to Contemporary Dance (mixed – undergrads and non-majors)