Theater & dance

Dance Umbrella’s adventurous legacy showcased in Emerson College exhibit

Jeremy Alliger, founder of Dance Umbrella.
Michael Swensen for The Boston Globe
Jeremy Alliger, founder of Dance Umbrella.

From such dance giants as Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Gregory Hines to the first-ever International Festival of Wheelchair Dance, Dance Umbrella once treated New England audiences to some of the most exciting and adventurous contemporary dance around. During a two-decade run, 1980-2000, it brought performances that stretched boundaries, challenged preconceived notions, and affirmed a diverse range of cultural traditions.

This week, Emerson College officially opens “Dance Umbrella: Experience the Unexpected,” a new exhibit celebrating the legacy of the organization, which during its heyday was reportedly the most active year-round presenter of dance in New England.

When Jeremy Alliger founded the organization, he set out to provoke, entertain, inspire, and enlighten, and the organization did just that. A vital component of Dance Umbrella’s mission was also to promote cultural understanding and acceptance, taking dance beyond the footlights and into the community with projects that, as Alliger said, shattered perceptions “about what dance is, about who can be a dancer, and about what a dancer might look like.” Unique initiatives and landmark commissions put the organization on the map nationally and internationally as well.

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Dance Umbrella is an integral part of Emerson College’s project to chronicle the entertainment history of the school’s theaters in Boston. The organization was the first to present a professional production in the Majestic Theatre after the college purchased and restored the building, and it was a frequent presenter thereafter. When Alliger, an Emerson College alumnus, learned his alma mater was cataloguing Dance Umbrella archival material, he pitched in most of his own related materials as well. He says the current exhibit is just a fraction of the trove of Dance Umbrella archives the college is cataloguing. The exhibit and archives will be available to the public by appointment beginning Sept. 27, with archival material accessible through www.emerson.edu/library/archives/special-collections.

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The exhibit is on the fourth floor of the Paramount Center. Right off the elevator, visitors are greeted with photos of some of the most iconic dance figures of the past half-century.

“These are pictures of me with all my heroes,” Alliger says with palpable enthusiasm, pointing to an impressive photo montage. During a walk-through of the exhibit, he eagerly shares stories and memories. He is visibly touched in recalling a moment when Hines looked at his programming for a jazz tap festival uniting some of the genre’s giants and said, “You got it right.”

Though not a dancer, Alliger recalls his enthusiasm for dance igniting after his first experience running the lights for a dance performance. “I fell in love with the passion and dedication and physicality and fragility of the field,” he says. “It’s the one art form that is at once immediate and ethereal and ever-changing.”

Alliger is thrilled to see Dance Umbrella’s legacy showcased, especially noting the organization’s influence and support of burgeoning dance forms. “I am proud of creating opportunities for artists to create [and fostering] unique gatherings of artists that never had the opportunity to gather as a community before,” he reflects. “And I’m proud of developing one of the most diverse audiences in Boston, an audience open and hungry for experimentation and new voices.”

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Robert Fleming, executive director of Emerson’s Iwasaki Library, spearheaded the exhibit with Jennifer Williams, head of the library’s archives and special collections.

“We created the exhibition to publicize Emerson’s acquisition of the Dance Umbrella archives and also to promote the use of this collection by students, faculty, and external researchers,” says Fleming. “We also wanted to celebrate the work that Jeremy and Dance Umbrella did to introduce a wide variety of new dance companies to Boston and to broaden the audience for dance.”

One long wall is adorned with photos of unique artistic gatherings, groundbreaking community outreach, and backstage moments of Dance Umbrella history, which includes the world premiere of White Oak Dance Project (a touring company founded by Baryshnikov and Morris) and the American premieres of “STOMP” and Morris’s landmark “Dido and Aeneas.”

Shelves showcase mementos and artifacts, such as Joan Hill’s vivid tap notation for Savion Glover’s first commission. A video kiosk plays a selection of memorable clips culled from more than 100 hours of archival footage — Bandaloop’s gravity-defying dance down the sides of the Castle at Park Plaza opening the 1999 International Festival of Aerial Dance is thrilling, even on tape. A larger-than-life photo cutout of aerial dance pioneer Joanna Haigood dangles upside down by a rope from the ceiling.

One of the exhibit panels commends the organization’s willingness to take programmatic risks with performances that sparked dialogue about challenging themes — mortality, oppression, and racial and social justice, most notably through early and ongoing support for the works of Jones. Jones’s wall quote from the ’90s sets the exhibit in context: “Dance Umbrella has been the fertile soil on which this most American of art forms depends. Dance Umbrella in its social vision (community based and inclusive) and in its aesthetic (probing and innovative) represents true leadership in our journey toward the millennium.”

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The exhibit omits — perhaps understandably — the cautionary tale of the organization’s sad demise, due in large part to conflicts between artistic vision and fiscal management that put Alliger at odds with his board.

‘I fell in love with the passion and dedication and physicality and fragility of the field. It’s the one art form that is at once immediate and ethereal and ever-changing.’

But it makes clear how great were its gifts to dance lovers. And it’s hard not to feel nostalgic, as a Morris quote reflects: “If there is one producing organization in the world which can be described as ‘inspired,’ it’s Dance Umbrella. You have made Boston a special place for us.”

Dance Umbrella: Experience the Unexpected

At Paramount Center, by appointment, Sept. 27 through December 2022, with ongoing access to archival materials. Appointments can be arranged by calling 617-824-8328 or writing robert_fleming@emerson.edu

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.