Bringing Back Black Mountain College

These days, it's common to hear Columbus described as a vibrant destination for culture and the arts. So when "Leap Before You Look" an exhibition spotlighting Black Mountain College's powerful impact on the arts, made its only stop in the Midwest this fall at the Wexner Center for the Arts, it was a welcome addition to Ohio State’s campus. However, it was  far from the university's first time celebrating its connection to the small North Carolina college that existed from 1933 to 1957.

For the Department of Dance in particular, it was a chance to explore the influence that revered choreographer and Black Mountain College teaching artist Merce Cunningham continues to have upon Ohio State faculty and students.

Two male Black Mountain College performers in midair.Under the direction of faculty members Karen Eliot and Daniel Roberts — both former dancers with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company — undergraduate and graduate students put their skills on display by performing several Black Mountain-era Cunningham pieces in the Wexner Center gallery. At the exhibition's opening, Tommy Batchelor (BFA '17) recreated the solo work Totem Ancestor (1942), and joined fellow dancers Angelica Bell (MFA '18), Tim Bendernagel (BFA ’17), Biag Gaongen (MFA '18), Tess Gilbert (BFA '17), Genevieve Johnson (BFA '19) Joshua Manculich (MFA ’17)  and Mary Chase Pierson (MFA '17) to perform excerpts of Septet (1953), Dime a Dance (1953) and Suite for Five (1956).

Cunningham's choreography is known for its complexity and intensity, but Eliot and Roberts were confident in Ohio State Dance students’ ability to bring the iconic pieces to life for a new audience.

“It’s exciting to have our students help tell the story of Merce’s impact at Black Mountain and throughout the world,” Professor Eliot said. "They’ve been training in the Cunningham technique and vocabulary, and I think their skills shine back on the department and Daniel's coaching."

Roberts also reflected on the impact that Cunningham had upon his and Eliot's development as dancers, and how those lessons are being transmitted to the students they teach.

"Even though we worked with Merce 20 years apart, there are still core truisms that are present in both of our teaching," Roberts said. "One is that you have to have confidence to physically do the work, but also enough humility to look deeper within yourself and grow from rehearsing the material. Another idea we try to pass on to students is that learning and performing this work is not easy and there will be challenges. But you don't just focus on the best parts of your work — every moment is important and an opportunity to learn something about your physicality."