With A Dynamic Teacher, a Great Course and Access to Lincoln Center, A PhD Student Follows the Movement of Dance’s Past


Following a unique opportunity he had to take a special course at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus last Spring, PhD student Jason McDonald wrote to use to tell us his fascinating work on the history of set building and choreography. The project was such a success that an essay resulting from it was catalogued at the Metropolitan Opera Archive.  Read on to hear Jason’s story about the course, his experiences at the Met, and the project that arose from them.

Jason writes:

Imagine my excitement when our Graduate Chair, Dr. Nancy Curtin, announced that URST 5090, Lincoln Center Arts, would be open to History Graduate Students! The course description foretold explorations of the intersection between performing and fine arts, architecture and sociology. I was content with the selection of courses offered by the History Department in Spring 2014, but something in this course spoke to me. Raised by two performing artists, my parents run their own theatre in Buffalo New York. I was ecstatic to be able to study Lincoln Center as part of my History PhD studies.

After a brief correspondence with Dr. Rosemary Wakeman, the Director of the Urban Studies program, she put me in touch with Dr. Jonathan Robinson-Appels. Dr. Appels asked me to call him to discuss the course. “I have a cold, so we will speak for ten minutes,” he began. Ninety minutes later, after a discussion about West Side Story, the Joffrey Ballet, Philosophy, History, and Comparative Literature, I was convinced this was the course for me.

The course consisted of viewing art at Lincoln Center, then writing weekly journal entries. Students also had to complete a research paper. Readings consisted of an eclectic mix of biographies, dance histories, philosophies, and even a book on Tai Chi. As the books arrived from Amazon, I was intrigued as to how they would all fit together. Julia Foulkes’s Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey revealed the intriguing role of class and race in the creation of modern dance. Steven Stamas’s Lincoln Center: A Promise Realized traced the sometimes turbulent history of the creation of Lincoln Center. Jacques Derrida’s An Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry and Ash Amin’s Land of Strangers spoke to the philosophy of performing arts, the interaction between artist and audience, and the mathematics that underscore every performance.

Dr. Jonathan Robinson-Appels and the students of URST 5090 at the Met

Dr. Jonathan Robinson-Appels and the students of URST 5090 at the Met

Our first session was to take in a performance of La Bohème, one of the moneymakers for the Metropolitan Opera. At the time I didn’t realize that this opera would become the subject of my first research paper. La Bohème was first produced on February 1, 1896. The class happened to see the 1,250th time the Metropolitan Opera performed Giancomo Puccini’s libretto. The striking sets, the 250 extras in Act II, the snow in Act III made me wonder about the history of set design of La Bohème. I assembled photos of the sets of thirty-seven productions of La Bohème, and attempted to find out as much as I could about each production. John Pennino at the Metropolitan Opera Archives was very generous with his time and resources to support this research, sending me photos of Met productions that were not available online. I arranged the photos from the thirty-seven productions chronologically in a grid that allowed readers to compare the sets from each Act. I was impressed to find so many creative ways to present the same material. Productions, from New York City to London to Gaza to Beijing, have presented lavish and miniscule sets with style and imagination. The Met Archive was so pleased with this investigation that they asked me to submit a copy for their collection.

Enjoying the class so much, I undertook a second research paper on the history of the process that George Balanchine used to pass on his choreography to new generations. I learned that the collaborative process in revivals changed Balanchine’s dances, and as his interpreters aged, his dances would move further and further away from his vision. Film, and later video, was instrumental to preserving Balanchine’s choreography. But motion capture was not enough. Beginning in the 1940s, Balanchine worked with dance annotators to record his choreography using a system called Laba Notation. This system captures the function of the choreography but sometimes lacks the emotion and humanity of the piece. Ultimately, all three – interpreters, film or video, and dance notation – would preserve Balanchine’s legacy.

Throughout the semester, the class would run to find each other during intermissions, and to listen to Prof. Appels deftly deconstruct that night’s performance. Sometimes, we would meet with luminaries such as Don Daniels, Senior Editor of the Ballet Review, or conductors, performers, or choreographers. These quick “classes” would last until the final call to return to your seats. Prof. Appels was incredibly knowledgeable, able to rapidly to switch between diverse topics. His background in comparative literature allowed the class to explore connections such as those between Robert Moses and Bartok as if it was natural to mention them in the same breath.

Besides Opera, Ballet, and the Philharmonic, the class visited Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and attended lectures at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, dedicated as the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center. We also attended recitals performed by Julliard students. We were granted a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lincoln Center Film Society before watching a German film.

URST 5090 may be the most memorable course I’ve taken, both as an undergraduate and as a PhD student. It certainly was the most enjoyable. The course was challenging and broadened my appreciation for the performing arts. I never considered dance to be very interesting, running the other way when friends would suggest going to the ballet. Outside of this class, I now found myself discussing Balanchine, Paul Taylor, and Dance Theater of Harlem with anyone who would listen. I thought about geometry while watching dramatic theater. If students have an opportunity to take a course with Prof. Appels, I recommend it highly.


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