Embodying History: Conversation and Reflections

Artists improvise to a Wesley Hymn performed by Ellen Gerdes and Dave Burrell during Germaine Ingram’s Where Heaven’s Dew Divides, a project that grew out of her Discovery Grant. Photo Nathea Lee.

From 2011 to 2013, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage embarked on an interdisciplinary research project between dancers and historians that explored alternative ways of interpreting historic sites. Performance director Bill Bissell and Exhibitions & Public Interpretation director Bill Adair led the project. In the following conversation, conducted at the Center’s office in May 2014, they talk about the project’s origins and outcomes, and how embracing a state of “not-knowing” provides learning opportunities for practitioners and grantmakers alike. Following this conversation, three of the project’s participants reflect on their experience.


You arrive at the Betsy Ross House in Center City Philadelphia. It is Wednesday afternoon. A tour guide whisks you inside and asks you to join four other people who are lying down on their sides in a small room. The room appears to be an orientation gallery. The floor is soft. You are facing a large man’s back, so you roll back to look up at the walls and how they join the low ceiling. From your vantage point you can’t read the wall texts. You hear the breathing of someone who is startlingly close behind you. You smell floor wax.


BILL ADAIR: You approached me about working on this project together. What were your original thoughts?

BILL BISSELL: Well, I remember thinking very pragmatically about how the training provided to dance artists could yield applications in other fields, therefore providing alternative sources of employment for them. I was particularly focused on the experience they have with space and flow.

BA: And I remember being intrigued at the idea of having dancers and choreographers interact with historic sites. The way contemporary visitors move through historic sites is something that public historians think about very little. So right away we started talking about using kinesthetic knowledge for historic site interpretation.

BB: You led us there fairly quickly. I remember you saying, “If you lay on your back alongside the antique chest, what would the room look like? Do we ever explore the physicality of these rooms from different vantage points?”

So we conceived of a project that would bring together dancers, choreographers, curators, educators, and other historic site staff. It wasn’t about incubating actual performances but rather about investigating the tools of performance to re-see space and re-think the past.

BA: From the start, we assumed that communication might be difficult between dancers and historians, and we were right.

BB: Yes, we all had to acknowledge differing levels of consciousness and how consciousness is deployed. For example, for our first group meeting, we visited Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, the oldest extant street in America. The impulse of the dancers was to process the environment as a site for performance. And the historians wanted to learn the stories or understand the context of what was happening—

BA: Verbally.

BB: Yes, verbally. And as the historians talked about the stories and the context, they began to see—as their dance colleagues pointed out—how they were performing language, that the language doesn’t emerge without some sort of affect. Importantly, this understanding became shared and a common reference in our meetings.

BA: I think both of those conditioned defaults—the desire to interpret with words, the desire to perform with bodies—were challenged over time.

BB: Throughout there was so much concern on both sides about not wanting to tread on or engage with what they didn’t know. But that was actually the point of this cross-disciplinary experiment: to embrace what we don’t know, because that is the way in which the experience or research can be extended. The unknown is the place that we need to enter.

Yearly “Deck the Alley” event at Elfreth’s Alley. Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.

BA: Sometimes we can interrogate our practices most effectively when we are exploring what we don’t know—or what we don’t even know how to know, or when we are exploring a new way of knowing.

BB: These different ways of knowing came out so forcefully near the end of the project. The historians were always looking for facts, which seemed almost irrelevant to the dancers. I kept thinking, well, what is a fact? And actually, not-knowing is a fact. We challenged the historic site people: What if you openly acknowledged with your visitors, “We actually don’t know that. What do you think happened?” Or we articulated ways to begin to fill that state of not-knowing-all-the-facts as part of the practice of interpretation.

BA: Of course no one knows what it was like to be in the body of a person who lived in the past. Nobody knows what it felt like to exist in spaces the way that people from the past did. As historians, we can’t be too attached to the notion of historical truth or authenticity because in the end it’s an impossible task. By working with people like dancers and other kinds of artists, we can approach an understanding of history via an imaginative truth—an experiential truth rather than a factual truth or a so-called historical truth.

BB: But one that is based in some manner or another on the materiality of what the evidence is or what the space is or—

BA: —or what the written record is. All those things still matter very much to an understanding of history. Absolutely. But they’re inherently limited.

BB: Well, dancers have their own set of limitations. If a dancer makes a dance about a historic house but only takes as her information the outward aspects of the house, the veneer, without addressing the substance of the house, it can be a lifeless performance.

BA: And that’s where the expertise of the public historians comes into it.

BB: Yes, they look at the deeper scaffolding of the house rather than just the surface.

BA: Who lived there? Who died there, who suffered there? Who had joyous experiences there? All these things are built into the fabric of those spaces, and we historians value them.

BB: But how are these experiences effectively evoked? How do they get called forth in, say, making a dance or on a traditional house tour? One of the big points of this project was to interrogate these questions and look at how different disciplines can enrich what is translated publicly for audiences.

BA: With both sets of practitioners we visited a lot of different kinds of historic sites to consider these questions. In addition to Elfreth’s Alley, which is a street, we visited homes, villages, and spaces that were elite or working class, etc. Do you think these site visits were effective?

BB: I think it is interesting that the dancers more fully entered the workspace of the historians than the historians entered the workspace of the dance artists.

BA: Yes, that’s true, we never asked the historians to do some of their work on a stage. That would have been provocative and probably discomfiting. But the dancers didn’t seem uncomfortable inhabiting historic sites.

BB: Well, some resisted the preciousness of the period rooms and the obsession with preserving everything—

BA: —and what appeared to them to be a certain kind of stasis—that the sites were almost literally trapped in time. I think that changed as they spent more time at the sites. So what do you think the dancers got excited about?

BB: The concern for audiences. This is more present in the historians’ work. Whose voice am I speaking in? Who will be my reader? And I don’t think those questions have been as relevant for the dance artists. One of the takeaways from the project was the dance artists saying, “I have to think of audiences differently in the equation of my own work.” This was coming from site-specific choreographers who are inviting people into sites that are well known, just as a historian works in sites that are well known.

Visitors explore the Betsy Ross House courtyard. Photo by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia.

BA: I think it was one of the motivations behind this project in the first place. Dance companies and history museums are both losing some audiences and are in situations that call for reflection, interrogation, and probably change. In fact, while stories from the past continue to be highly valued in movies, biographies, and TV shows—which are more popular than ever—history museums are less popular than ever. I don’t know how you see that in comparison to dance.

BB: I think we are all challenged by how to find and reach our audiences right now, but I think that’s also a challenge and an opportunity for us to reimagine how we can enliven content. Maybe it’s about a much more porous kind of borrowing and less adherence to rules that we all can easily default to in our disciplines.

BA: And that can only make for more substantive and meaningful interdisciplinary projects. Certainly one of our overall goals for this project was to just learn from the possibilities of bumping up against one another—what I’ve heard referred to as “the adjacent possible”—and to incubate meaningful, interdisciplinary considerations in both directions.

BB: The discursive nature of this process is necessary if we’re going to get to richer thinking about interdisciplinarity. These kinds of conversations need to happen before the good stuff can emerge. Interdisciplinary projects need to be grounded in an engaged dialogue. The practices of other disciplines cannot just be cosmetically grafted onto a project because of a grant deadline, or because it would be cool to have a dance in the ballroom of this house, or something like that.

BA: I think we’d both like to see deeper collaboration between artists and historic sites. We asked the dancers to do an “analysis” of the historic sites and we got really interesting responses.

BB: They talked about architectural rhythm, patterning…

BA: And they saw their bodies in everything, in relationship to everything, scale and contraction and expansion in all of these ways that public historians often don’t even consider: what it’s like to stand in a threshold, what it’s like to move around in a tight working-class home from the 18th century, and how that feels so different from the high-ceilinged rooms of the Victorian mansion.

The feel of geographic distance was another topic that found great traction. For expedience’s sake, we traveled by contemporary means of transportation—in little buses. But of course the original inhabitants of these sites didn’t have that luxury. They experienced distances in such vastly different ways than we do. Maybe next time if we do this, we should only travel on foot.

BB: I hope so. That lesson, that understanding, is very much about our lives today because our habitual patterns breed out of us those ways in which we can perceive what’s lively around us—that, as Philadelphians, we are contemporary human beings engaging with a rich historical space. I think walking around the city would reanimate that.

Leah Stein directs Battle Hymns singers and dancers at Kezar Pavilion in April 2013, set to a libretto based on Civil War texts. Photo by Sidney Chen.

Reflections on the Dance and History Research Project

Justina Barrett
Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Site Manager for its History Houses

Beyond an historian’s analysis of the printed and handwritten manuscripts that give us people’s voices across centuries—beyond the art historian’s interpretation of material objects that reveal their owners’ and creators’ aspirations, identities, and skills, dance artists have the ability to reveal historical narratives to us in new ways, suggesting through a heightened sensitivity to sound and movement what the physical reality may have been like for folks in the past.

I manage a 1760s country house and plantation for the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Mount Pleasant. Art historians describe the house as a colonial masterpiece, and back in 1775, John Adams did not disagree, calling it “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania.” The height of the ceilings, the arrangement of rooms on two floors, and the processional up a wide flight of stairs to an ornate drawing room all speak to a refined and educated lifestyle. It is through its design that we have interpreted the site for visitors since the house opened as a museum in 1926.

Through the Dance and History Research Project, I partnered with performing artist Germaine Ingram to investigate this imagined experience more deeply. Her past work with historical spaces and her own historical research, combined with her kinesthetic knowledge as a performing artist, helped me to counter my own appreciation of the ornate architecture with a desire to know the private worlds that it contained, and to interrogate the grand domestic space with a curiosity about those who lived there but were never its intended audience. For example, did all people in the 18th century have that experience of Mount Pleasant? How did the various family members’ experiences differ from those of the free, indentured, or enslaved men and women who lived on the property? Nowhere in the house’s archival documents does a guest describe feelings of anticipation as he ascends the broad staircase to the decorated second floor; nor does a prospective tenant farmer describe the feeling of being under surveillance as he stands outside looking up at the mansion as he applies for entry. Nothing tells us whether the movements or quarrels of the master and mistress on the upper floors echoed through the floorboards down into the basement kitchen. We don’t know whether the high ceilings and wide hallways left the children, the workers, and the mistress feeling exposed and vulnerable, or whether that was compensated for by the relief these open spaces provide from the heat of the third floor, the kitchen, or the workspaces.

Visitors tour an historic house to experience, appreciate, and capture the essence of the past. There, they find an intimate installation of people’s material objects and documents, to be comprehended intellectually. As a public historian, working with a dancer, I have become aware of another valid interpretive approach: encourage visitors to pay attention to their own physical responses to the home, so that they may imagine their bodies and those of people around them working, living, moving in the space as if in another time.

Mount Pleasant. Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.

Germaine Ingram
Tap dancer, choreographer, performance artist

If, as James Baldwin said, “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that are hidden by the answers,” how then do I engage on equal terms with historians, who seemingly find their authority in exercising control over answers that are supported by historical “fact”? When a well-known public historian says, “historians interpret history; we don’t imagine it,” what space is there for me at the table, with my imaginings (however well-buttressed by research) of the motivations, thoughts, fears, and longings of people whose lives were not considered important enough to probe or document? How do artists and historians together expand a rigid dichotomy into a force field—using the tensions and synergies that reside in the space between our disciplines to energize our respective practices, and approaching our audiences in ever more interesting and risk-taking ways? What questions might constitute this action space: ones of license? Responsibility? Authority? Imagination? Interpretation? Historical reality? Intention? Curiosity?

For historians and artists alike, what gives us authority and license to speak for lives, places, and times not our own? What responsibilities come with authority and license responsibilities to whom and for what? How much imagination is inherent in interpretation, and when does the exercise of imagination begin to undercut authority? When does responsibility for interpreting “historical reality” beg for imagination, as when Toni Morrison says,

My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate.’ The exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or who belongs to any marginalized category, for, historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.

Moving that veil aside requires, therefore, certain things. First of all, I must trust my own recollections. I must also depend on the recollections of others….These ‘memories within’ are the subsoil of my work. But memories and recollections won’t give me total access to the unwritten interior life of these people. Only the act of the imagination can help me. (“The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth, William Zinsser, ed., Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1995.)

Is it any less appropriate for public historians to make curiosity a visible and palpable aim in their exhibitions than it is for me to make the centerpiece of my artistic intention my invitation to audiences to see and feel the intensity of my curiosity about people and eras long gone? What could I learn from historians, and what can they learn from me and other artists, about how to help audiences see beyond the objects of exhibitions and the externalities of performances into the workings of our attempts to understand the object or subject matter? I think often about Carlos Basualdo’s comment on William Kentridge: “In his work, it is not the object that projects the shadow, but the shadow that imagines the object and projects it into our consciousness, shaping it.”

What might it mean for historians to adopt—as I do—the exhortation on the wall of novelist Colum McCann’s writing closet: “Keep yourself away from answers, but alive in the middle of the question”?

Members of the Center’s dance and history interdisciplinary research group gather on a visit to Elfreth’s Alley in Old City, Philadelphia on June 23, 2011. Photo by Jacque Liu.

Laura C. Keim
Curator for the Stenton Museum and Historic Germantown

What happens or can happen when minds and bodies trained in different creative disciplines compare and combine their modes of thinking and moving? As a “history” person, the multiyear series of meetings, site visits, and discussions that constituted the Dance and History Research Project pushed me to think more consciously about my work in performance terms. I already believed that when giving tours, I was a performer, informer, entertainer, and interpreter. However, in working with the dancers and experiencing things through them, such as a “whisper-down-the-lane” activity or simply putting my bare feet in a stream, I began to see how a discipline that is all about movement and corporal/sensory experience of that movement offered a strategy that I could apply to my work at historic sites: to encourage visitors to engage with objects and spaces and “feel” something meaningful. Pushing visitors to think about space and how they interact with it, and how a building unfolds, scene-by-scene, story-by-story, became a more conscious way of thinking about collections exhibitions and how they sit or move in space. I think more consciously now about how I choreograph visitors’ experiences and I work to activate their imaginations regarding the spaces, objects, and layered contexts I curate.

With my close partners, choreographers Leah Stein and Amy Smith, I took part in concrete and theoretical discussions about what art is and what art forms are most meaningful for us. We each see ourselves as creators of vehicles or frames that audiences/visitors employ to see or discover something resonant and meaningful. The primary difference in our approaches seems to be, fundamentally, the burden of the historical discipline, the pressure to get the facts right and to preserve and sustain the objects. Dance feels free to me. In contrast, the dancers could use history as an interesting constraint. We discussed history versus memory. Is memory an interpretation by its very nature?

As a result of my participation in the Dance and History project, I came to realize that there is room for both historical truth and poetic or artistic truth in the interpretation and presentation of a historic space and historical collections. While I can never unburden myself fully from my professional obligation to preserve collections, I am open to the idea that without the audience—people who experience and consider the present-day frame on the historical past—historic places and collections are dead and lifeless. It is up to practitioners to connect with the audience by bringing life, imagination, and movement to the past.


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Grants & Grantees

Bo Bartlett is a painter and a 1993 Pew Fellow.

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Choreographer and dancer Jungwoong Kim was born and raised in South Korea, where he studied traditional Korean dance and martial arts, and now resides in Philadelphia.

Grants & Grantees

In 1995 the Center awarded Pew Fellowships to 16 Philadelphia-based artists, and grants to 23 dance and music organizations in the greater Philadelphia region.

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In Terms of Performance features essays and interviews from more than 50 prominent artists, curators, presenters, and scholars who reflect on common yet contested terms in contemporary cultural practice.