Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Iyun Ashani Harrison

On January 7, 2022, Iyun Ashani Harrison (Associate Professor of the Practice in Dance) gave a talk entitled "On Becoming: A Dance Research Presentation" as part of our tgiFHI series.

Here's an interview with Prof. Harrison on his research interests, method, and practice.

A recording of this talk is available with a Duke NetID.

What are your research interests, and how did they develop?

I am an Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the dance program. I teach ballet technique: intermediate and advanced levels, male technique, male variations, and pas de deux.

I grew up in Jamaica, where dance is an integral part of the culture, and my parents were artists. My father, Stafford Ashani Harrison, worked as a professional actor and videographer, and my mother, Christine Ann Bell, performed part-time on radio, television, and stage, and she was also a business owner. In my early teens, my mother took me to see a performance by a Jamaican dance company, L’Acadco, where I saw an exquisite male dancer suspended from a rope in the rafters. I vividly recall experiencing a sense of awakening, an excitement for performance and dance-making!

I later had an opportunity to join a children’s performing arts group, Little People Teen Player Club, where we studied musical theater. The director, Cathi Levy, recognized my talent for dance and encouraged me to investigate it more closely. Luckily, due to my parents’ expertise in the arts, they knew that ballet training would support my development. I eventually moved to the USA, studying ballet, modern dance, choreography, and music at The Juilliard School.

I would describe myself as a formalist, though not a traditionalist. My choreography is neo-classical-leaning because of my tenure with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but it is better categorized as contemporary ballet. My work is formal at its core - commonly using musical visualization, narrative, and abstraction, trying to push the limits of how neoclassicism might be utilized to convey ideas – not just form.

On dance as a research method:

People tend to think of dance only as practice: training, performing, teaching, and art-making. However, dance has a literary canon like theater, music, visual art, and other artistic disciplines. This literature includes the folks, places, and ideas that provide the dance profession's foundational histories, theories, and criticism. For example, aspects of dance literature align with the social sciences. The dance sciences also ask questions such as, How do we keep dancers safe and healthy? What is the optimal way of working?Dance literature is robust, expansive, and deep, and in this way, it falls into what the academy frames as traditional research.

However, there is also the more ephemeral and slippery space of creative research. This area of dance is not unlike what scientists do; We look at the body of work (the literature) and ask what is missing or needs to be explored more deeply. We start with an idea (hypothesis) and then experiment (rehearsal/investigate) – the final work (the artifact – a performance, video, Etc.) represents our findings. I feel that this approach to creative research is where the interdisciplinary and intersectional nature of dance is best evidenced.

You characterize your work as both “intersectionaland inter-disciplinary.” Do the intersectional, and the interdisciplinary aspects relate?

Intersectionality is critical. My Jamaican Blackness, queerness, and cis-gendered-ness all inform my creative impulse. My work is often in dialogue with queer, gender, Black, and diaspora studies. My sense of self, construction of self, and how I identify inform my interests outside of the dance discipline.

For instance, I am currently creating a ballet adaptation of James Baldwins Giovannis Room. The novel’s liberatory themes parallel my experience moving from Jamaica to the USA. I appreciate how Baldwin captures the idea that traveling to a new place can allow for anonymity, self-exploration, and the rejection of old cultural norms, providing the possibility of redefining oneself. David’s journey in Giovannis Room feels like a mirror of my experience moving from Jamaica to the USA, where I could stand in my queerness and artistic life in more authentic ways than in my nation of birth safely allowed.

My research into this ballet adaptation involves collaborations with Duke colleagues in African & African-American studies, English, Theater and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist studies. I have created a libretto based on our conversations and began choreographing the main scenes and ideas. An interdisciplinary methodology is essential for the ballet translation to make sense as a representation of the novel.

At the core of my creative research is the question of ballet’s relevancy. It is over five hundred years old and losing popularity with younger audiences who cannot relate to the classical and romantic ballet periods' hegemonic, sexist, and heteronormative narratives. In my work, I investigate whose stories are not represented in classical ballet. Whom do I need to bring into the room, so I do not perpetuate ingrained and problematic ideologies taught to me as a child training in this antiquated art form? How do I create authentic work representative of myself and contemporary times? How am I pushing against ballet conventions in my work?

How do you think about audience in relation to your work?

I make work because I have a deep desire to engage with societal problems creatively. I want audiences to see my work and would be happy if they enjoyed it, but if they do not, I still take on the task of wrestling with a problem. There is a part of me that wants my mom or my grandma to be able to understand or grasp something from my work. Even if they do not like it, I want them to have a way of entering the art. In this way, I am committed to making accessible art. As I think of accessibility, it is significant to note that I do not intend to pander to my audience. The work wants to say something complex, and I see my role as giving the viewer ways to enter - asking them to come along with me on this journey.

American culture has a troubling ethos that interpretative or modern dance is the punchline of any joke representing an incomprehensible topic. But in fact, nothing could be more accessible to a human being than a dancing body. If we do not speak the same language, we can still negotiate the significance of a body in space. For example, many people have biases and ways of understanding bodies. Folks have all kinds of opinions about Black, Brown, white, male, female, trans, and able bodies, so when somebody sees a body moving and says they do not understand what they are watching, I do not believe it. What I think the audience member is doing in these moments is avoiding engaging with something complex – something that the body insinuates that brings the viewer discomfort. I believe that when audiences come to a theater and see bodies on stage, they already have all the information they need to draw conclusions.

So, my position towards the audience is to ask them to work harder – I will give you clues, but you should engage. You have much cultural information helping you to understand what you are seeing. Or, if you do not want to approach it intellectually, allow the dance to wash over you. We may not understand the ocean, but we can sit by the water and let the sound, smell, and other sensations wash over us. There is something that it does to us emotionally. We have an understanding even without words.

You can come into dance intellectually, from a cultural perspective, or let the thing wash over you.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

The big takeaway is that there are artists on campus—and our work is significant. It is not just for decoration, entertainment, stress relief, and escapism. We are not here simply to put on charming little performances. Dance is a robust and complex field of inquiry with a literary and artistic canon, and we contribute to the intellectual and cultural capital of the Duke campus in a meaningful way.

If people have more insight into our work, perhaps more significance could be placed on the arts at Duke. For me, it is political. I wanted to demonstrate the depth of my research: yes, it is a dance on stage - it is choreography, but it is informed by profound and intersectional analysis. Like our colleagues in other departments and colleges, artist-educators push the edges of our field.

What are you teaching, and what's on the horizon for you and your work?

Next semester, I will teach advanced ballet and a ballet repertory class. I am also excited to develop and lead a new course - Arts Activism and Everyday Technology. I am working to build a curriculum that students might see as culturally relevant. I desire students to become excited about who made activist art before us, who the creative disruptors are now, and how they can activate to make radical art.

I am also developing two other courses for the coming semesters: 1) Black Dance: Jamaican Context. It focuses on the historical and cultural dances central to the Jamaican theatrical dance lexicon; And. 2) Ballet History: Black Presence investigating the Africanist contribution to the art of ballet.

Regarding my research, I have an upcoming summer choreographic residency at The Ailey School (the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) in New York City. In fall 2023, I will premiere the ballet adaptation of Giovanni's Room. Lastly, in the fall of 2023, Antiracist Ballet Teaching (a Routledge text I am coediting and cowriting with Kate Mattingly) should be published. The text brings together a dialogue between practitioners and theorists in ballet studies on the topic of race in ballet education.

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