Joseph Houseal: The Untold History of Dance

“The Untold History of Dance from the Dawn of Time until Right Now” by Joseph Houseal

At the Centre for Creative Collaboration, 28 June 2010

Joseph Houseal, Director of Core of Culture Dance Preservation, an organization committed to safeguarding Intangible World Heritage, with an emphasis on ancient dance and endangered movement traditions, presented a wide-ranging talk at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, with slides and DVD examples. Houseal examined the parallel development of dance in Asia and ‘the West’ from pre-historic cave paintings until the renewal of dance culture by Isadora Duncan and Denishawn. He argued that Western culture lost its connection to ancient dance and that the Cartesian split of mind and body and codification of dance as entertainment under Louis XIV resulted in a frivolous, archaic and superficial art form that found its nadir in late 19th century romanticism (e.g., Waltz of the Snowflakes). In contrast, in societies such as Bhutan, where spirituality is embodied, dance is a yoga, a technology of consciousness. Houseal provided the stunning example of trul khor, a tantric discipline practised by Himalayan monks and transmitted in secret until recently. He described this as a form of calisthenics for monks which was pre-Buddhist in origin, though maintained within Buddhism. This he saw as linked to Cham dance, and martial arts disciplines such as archery.  The thinking behind a Himalayan petroglyph, a bounded image of dancers in a mandala-like structure, is still present today. Houseal presented Isadora Duncan as a revolutionary artist who intuited first principles of ancient Greek dance and in so doing created modern dance. Nijinsky, in Rite of Spring, did more than depict a primitive ritual, he created an actual ritual on stage resulting in the conventions of ballet being ‘blown up’ and his own mental stability suffering. Houseal also spoke about and presented film documents of Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn – their work on DW Griffith spectacle Intolerance(1916), which Houseal said featured 2000 dancers and nine dances depicting ancient Babylon, and Shawn’s film footage from Darjeeling and Sri Lanka, possibly influenced by the travelogues of Burton Holmes  but also intended as material to create new dances in Asian styles.  The return to ancient dance brought about a renewal of dance in America through Denishawn-trained modern dancers . Houseal emphasized throughout the talk the need to preserve ancient dances and think about dance practically, rather than being over-reliant on written sources.   (Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen)

About Joseph Houseal
Joseph Houseal is Director of Core of Culture Dance Preservation, an organization committed to safeguarding Intangible World Heritage, with an emphasis on ancient dance and endangered movement traditions. A graduate of St John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, he obtained a Masters in the Philosophy of Dance from the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London, under the late Dr Peter Brinson. Houseal was trained for 7 years in Japanese Noh under Kita Master Matsui Akira. Former Artistic Director of Parnassus Dancetheatre in Kyoto, he has also worked as Artistic Director for soul singer Chaka Khan. An Emmy nominee for he PBS work on a Kabuki dance, “Ancient Elegance”, Houseal has also produced TV pieces on the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s “La Sacre du Printemps” by the Joffrey Ballet. As Director of CoC, Houseal has overseen dance preservation and research projects in Ladakh, from where CoC’s first Buddhist dance restoration DVDs were produced; Pakistan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and the Kingdom of Bhutan, where CoC executed a 5 year project culminating in a touring exhibition of art and dance presented by Honolulu Academy of Arts. The exhibition “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan” opened at the Musee Guimet in Paris in autumn 2009 and toured to other European museums. As Part of “The Many Faces of Buddhism” project of the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, Houseal directed “A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Spring 2009. These performances are now in the form of a set of DVDs available to archives around the world. Houseal has been a regular contributor to Ballet Review, New York since 1984, and is an internationally recognized writer on dance.

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