When she was first asked to reconstruct the dance performance "How Long, Brethren?" Dianne McIntyre had some serious sleuthing to do. Little evidence remained of choreographer Helen Tamiris' powerful depiction of African-American life created for the WPA Federal Theatre Project in 1937. But McIntyre, an internationally acclaimed choreographer herself, was well suited to the assignment from George Mason University, home of the Project's archives. There, in 1991, "How Long, Brethren?" was staged for the first time since its debut.
During a residency this semester at the University of Maryland, College Park, McIntyre set "How Long, Brethren?" on 17 dance students. As part of the Maryland Dance Ensemble Fall Program, they will perform the historic work on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 to its original score, "Negro Songs of Protest" collected in the field by Lawrence Gellert.
IN HER WORDS --Often, dances are redone by people who have worked on that dance previously. Some dancers get together with others who were in that dance and it comes back to life. This dance I was not involved with at all. I had to do quite a bit of research.
IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST --I was very fortunate [to find] several women who had been in the original production. Pauline Tish and Ida Arbeit were extremely helpful. I used photographs and sheet music to jog their memories.
LEAPS OF CREATIVE FAITH --I had no real score or film to go by. I had some photographs and the original dancers remembered movement motifs, but in between, it was creative guessing. They told me if it looked like ballet, to "skip it," because she wouldn't have done that.
DANCING CHALLENGES --The movement itself is pretty foreign to most modern dance bodies of today. A lot of them are trained in modern and ballet technique, and some jazz and other styles. But this style is low to the ground and takes a lot of energy in the thighs. ... Some of the movement takes a lot of tension [to execute.]
ABSORBING HISTORY THROUGH ART --We study the score from each section. ... Students see what the black laborers meant who were doing the singing originally, and then, [ask] what does it mean in the world they see today or in their personal lives. Some of the younger people would not be totally knowledgeable of some of this history of people just a few generations back. Some students called their parents and grandparents to find out about these things. I would say the experience probably helps them look at the world in a new way.
Dance Department at the University of Maryland, College Park will hold a pre-performance discussion of How Long, Brethren at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, in Room 2200 in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Admission is free.
How Long, Brethren will be performed as part of the Maryland Dance Ensemble's fall program 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1, in the Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at UMCP. Tickets are $25; $7 for students. For more information: 301-405-2787 or claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.