Associate dance professor Gesel Mason received a grant of just under $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities in December, which will support her ongoing project to preserve the works and lives of Black choreographers.
NEH grants are typically given to cultural institutions to preserve and provide access to cultural educational resources. Mason said she is working to ensure Black dancers and their work — from the 1940s to today — are well-documented and not misused.
Mason said she began her solo performance project, “No Boundaries,” in 2001 to highlight and archive the diversity and styles of Black choreographers through workshops and interviews. For more than 15 years, Mason said she held showcases performing six to seven dances she learned for the night while explaining the lives of the artists behind them.
“By going through my body, which had become an archive of 10 choreographies total, you were seeing my journey through their eyes and through their choreographies of the Black dance experience,” Mason said. “When I started, I was just excited to be learning and working with all of these choreographers and sharing those choreographies with new audiences.”
Mason said as she grew older, she had to stop performing her solo project. Instead, she transitioned her project from performance to a digital archive of the dances and backgrounds of the artists that she recorded.
To continue with her project, Mason said she worked with Rebecca Salzer, an associate professor of dance and director of the Collaborative Arts Research Initiative at the University of Alabama, who helped increase access to her archive.
“This next level proposal is about, ‘How do we use all the information that (Salzer) has and combine all of my content?’” Mason said. “How do we create the idea of experimentation, reuse and extensibility? How do we make sure it stays accessible for a long time?”
Mason said the grant will support her and Salzer to work with the open-source software CollectiveAccess to create an online resource prototype to provide access to those interested in the work.
“We want to be sure that it includes access to the New York Public Library or the International Association of Blacks in Dance or the National Dance Education Organization,” Mason said. “We want to be able to link to other archives so that folks have access.”
Mason said it is important to preserve and archive the works of Black dancers to amplify and contextualize their voices when their work has often been appropriated and misrepresented.
“A lot of choreographers have been hesitant to share their work because they're afraid of theft or losing ownership over their work and their ideas,” Mason said. “For me, part of the work is … so that we can see the importance of the work and almost as a text, as a book, as a way of understanding.”
Mason said the dances she preserves carry stories that are often overlooked. One dance she archived tells the story of same-sex marriage in the Black community before it was legalized.
Dance senior Uwazi Zamani said he was first introduced to Mason’s project when he took one of her classes, which he said was empowering as a dance archivist and a Black dancer.
“It’s allowing us this space to really explore the identities of Black choreographers and Black people as a whole,” Zamani said. “For me, it speaks more directly in terms of there’s no limits of what I can do.”