Maura Keefe Invigorates Dance History and Theory at Jacob’s Pillow and University of Maryland

Keefe leading a graduate seminar at SUNY Brockport. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Keefe

Most of Maura Keefe's students enter her dance history class with trepidation and the expectation that it will be boring. But for the associate director of the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at University of Maryland, that's a welcome challenge. "I'm so passionate about it, so I want them to become interested in something," she says. To help students figure out what that something is, she lets them research and write about whatever dance topic they want. "I don't care what they write about, because I'm interested in all of it," she says.

Keefe's passion is a special gift that has enabled her to build a remarkable career as a dance historian. Through her classes at University of Maryland and work as scholar-in-residence at the renowned Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, Keefe demonstrates how critical discourse and knowledge of history are key components of dance advocacy.

The Road Less Traveled

Dance history wasn't something Keefe initially considered as a career path. After earning undergraduate degrees in English and dance from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, she worked as a political organizer. But she missed the dance world, so she went back to school at Smith College for an MFA in choreography and performance.

It was a card tacked to a library bulletin board, requesting oral histories from people dying of AIDS, that first sparked her interest in studying history. “I think I had always thought of history as something in the past," she says. “This call to history had a sense of urgency that I had not felt until that moment. The realization that history was also the present—the idea of documenting what was going on right now—was fascinating."

That inspiration led her to the University of California, Riverside, where she earned a PhD in dance history and theory in 2001. She landed a job as assistant professor at Ohio University in Athens right out of school. She taught there for four years before moving to Rochester to teach at SUNY Brockport, where she taught for 11 years, including two stints as dance department chair. Today, at University of Maryland, she teaches choreography, dance history and critical dance studies to undergraduate and graduate students, and she choreographs for department concerts. And every summer, she serves as Jacob's Pillow's scholar-in-residence.

Inside Her Classroom

Rather than teaching facts and figures, Keefe focuses on the historical context and cultural, social and political implications of dance works. “Any person with a smartphone can figure out what year Martha Graham made Lamentation," she says. “To help them understand that Lamentation was set within the context of the 1930s and what was going on at that time is much more important to me than the date of the premiere."

Keefe helps students understand the significance of early artists by making connections to current work and pop culture. "I have found that people aren't necessarily that interested in the 1930s. They'd much rather think about Beyoncé," she says. "In an undergraduate dance history class, I'd pair a dance by Ruth St. Denis with a dance that was made today."

She also resists the urge to include movement activities in her syllabus, which is now common in many college dance history courses. Instead, she takes an approach more aligned with the study of art history. “In most art history classes, you don't sit down and learn how to be a painter," she says. “You can look at the work of artists and understand the content, the culture of when it was made and the politics behind it, without having to have an embodied experience." Her method is deeply rooted in her desire to advocate for dance as a serious academic pursuit. “Dance at the university has been less respected because of a lack of understanding regarding the intelligence of the moving body," says Keefe. “So it's kind of a political agenda for me that if you take my dance history class, it's going to be a discussion-based seminar." Over the course of a semester, students become confident verbalizing their ideas.

During a PillowTalk with choreographer Camille A. Brown. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Keefe

At Jacob's Pillow

Keefe began working as scholar-in-residence at Jacob's Pillow in 1997 while working on her PhD. The position was newly created as part of a three-year pilot program to improve audience engagement. Nineteen years later, Keefe still spends 10 weeks each summer in Becket as one of two scholars, educating audiences about the Pillow's programming. She writes program essays called Pillow Notes, gives pre-performance lectures for each show, moderates postperformance discussions (which later get uploaded to YouTube) and conducts PillowTalks with the artists.

Her role is to help audience members better understand the work they're seeing at the Pillow. “How can we help them have a point of entry into the work?" asks Keefe. “There's no one right way to do it. It's about what things I think are important or useful to talk about. Sometimes it's a few things to look for in the movement or maybe something about the religious practices that led to this stylized form. I'm never interested in talking about, 'This is what this dance means to me.' Who cares about that?" Over the years, she's researched and interviewed hundreds of significant artists, including Yvonne Rainer, Lucy Guerin and Mark Morris.

For Keefe, history and theory are an essential part of dance advocacy. “Thinking critically about what we do is essential to our work as artists and writers—in every aspect of the field," she says. “That's why dance history is important. We have to be able to articulate why what we do matters."

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