Ann Murphy on the 80th Anniversary of Creating Dance at Mills College


For the past eighty years the dance program at Mills College in Oakland has distinguished itself as a pioneering force in moving beyond artistic conventions. Ann Murphy, Head of the Mills College Dance and Theater Studies Department, talked with's Michael Phelan recently to discuss the dance program's venerable roots, its challenges, and its future.

Ann Murphy. Photo by Jen Gerry
Ann Murphy. Photo by Jen Gerry

In the summer of 1939, 150 dance students gathered at Mills College to explore and experiment the new genre of modern dance. The students included some future famous names in dance, among them Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, and Anna Halprin. The program also attracted experimentalist artists from other fields, including musician John Cage who went on to work with Cunningham. It was the beginning of a long and venerable tradition of dance as a performing art at Mills College.

In the 1939 program Ethel Butler teaches a class in the Greek Theatre that includes Merce Cunningham, top left
In the 1939 program Ethel Butler teaches a class in the Greek Theatre that includes Merce Cunningham, top left

Fast forward eighty years. In honor of this historic occasion, Mills College's Dance and Theater Studies Department will celebrate its 80th anniversary with festivities through the month of November. The celebrations open on November 1st with Footwork, a New Orleans second line parade led by Dimensions Dance Theater. The festivities continue later in the month with a screening and discussion of Meredith Monk's film "Quarry: An Opera in Three Movements", the premiere of Nuance, An Immigration Story by Iranian artist and alumna Aisan Hoss, and the Mills Repertory Dance Company's premiere of a new work by Robert Moses, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Dance. The celebration concludes early next year with an exhibit about the life of Oakland native Ruth Beckford, civil rights activist and the first African American member of the dance companies of Anna Halprin and Welland Lathrop.

The opening event Footwork! Following New Orleans Second Line Parade, is presented in memory of dancer and Mills College alumna Thea Faust Anderson, 1992-2016. The Thea Project brings together many aspects of Anderson's life: dance, service, and an abiding love for all kinds of people. Ann Murphy describes Thea Anderson as, "an amazing alum," who came from "a family of incredibly talented people." Her mother is Consuela Faust Anderson, who co-founded Rhythm and Motion. Her father, Thor Anderson, is an anthropologist and film maker. Thea was also the niece of the avant-garde artist, composer, musician, and film director Laurie Anderson. Inspired by a residency with AXIS Dance, "Thea was so blown away by the encounter with these dancers," explains Murphy, "that she made up her mind she would help children with disabilities learning to dance." Tragically, on her way to the first day of her dream job Thea was killed in a traffic accident.

"So we began doing a project in her honor," says Murphy, "and our first one was with AXIS." Footwork is the second Thea Project, which is bigger and includes more people. "A lot of fragmentary, almost mosaic-like pieces brought it together," explains Murphy. She chose Latanya Tigner, a member of the all-black Dimensions Dance Theater since 1986, as the Dance Department's first artist in residence. "This was a nod to Deborah Vaughn for her sea changing effort to bring African Diaspora dance to the Bay Area," says Murphy, "There's a lineage of people who danced with Ruth Beckford, who was a dancer in Katherine Dunham's company." Dunham was not only a dancer, she did anthropological fieldwork on African culture in the Caribbean under the direction of economic anthropologist Melvin Herskovits. Murphy says that Dunham, "combined African elements with an American dinner theater kind of dance and her ballet training, and created a new form. So Dimensions Dance has a direct lineage from that. Tanya represents a lineage at Mills, represents an unacknowledged population of black dancers."

Tigner worked with Rachel Carrico, who is on the faculty of Theatre and Dance at the University of Florida, to "put together a much more robust event than I could have hoped for," says Murphy. The arrangements include the New Orleans style brass band MJ's Brass Boppers. "Everybody was thrilled," exclaims Murphy, "The only thing we're missing is a truck that can sell gumbo." The dancers working with Tigner on the second line footwork tutorial will help lead the second line procession, which the public is invited to join. The procession will go to the theater for a tutorial with Carrico with a film and a Q & A about New Orleans with dancers of Dimensions who have ties to New Orleans.

Latanya d. Tigner leads members of Dimensions Dance Theater in a second line parade. Photo by Jay Yamada
Latanya d. Tigner leads members of Dimensions Dance Theater in a second line parade. Photo by Jay Yamada

For Murphy the celebration embodies what the Mills' Dance Department is all about. "It's kind of a multi part evening that ranges from the purely performative to the educational dance element to scholarship, and to what I think is a very warm Q & A," she says, "To me that really captures what the Dance Department is. We do try to encompass all that, from the brainy, to the physical, to the pleasurable, to the esoteric. The legacy of Mills is experimental. I wouldn't say this for the whole school, but it's a holistic conception of mind and body. The Dance Department slogan is 'Thinking bodies, moving minds'. We do try to hold to that, that mind and body are indivisible."

Despite its long and prestigious pedigree, the BA program in dance was nearly terminated by the College administrators in 2015 due to a small number of students majoring in dance. "Most parents don't let their daughters major in dance," explains Murphy, "because they see it as a dead end in employment terms. Concert dance is a function we emphasize, but we don't do it exclusively. It took some educating that we were not running a department that's an exclusive place that the bulk of Mills students couldn't enter," she says, referring to what she sees as a stigma that dancers must be of a certain body type and appearance. "But we are busy smashing it," she says defiantly, "We have some very big women in the program who are incredible dancers. We are as inclusive as any program. I believe that everybody should know how to move their bodies in space and time because it's a language that we communicate in whether we want to or not. The more we know about that, the more refined that communication can become. And it's joyful."

Murphy muses on the resulting lemonade of the sour experience of saving the Dance major, "I think there has been for us, for me anyway, that what we do is more visible, and that the faculty be known and incorporated into the goings-on in the college. The College is a social place like any other. If you're isolated, then nobody can know you, and that can happen in the arts. We seem to be at the periphery, physically. It's had a happy ending and we now have considerably more undergrads involved in the program than we had then."

And the tradition of artistic experimentation that began in that summer program eighty years ago carries on. As Murphy explains, "For us at Mills experimentation is sort of the life blood of the past and the future of the College. There's this radicalism in the roots of Mills. There's this legacy that's really vital and Mills is touted as the ground zero of dance scholarship. Vivian Lathrop started it and Marian Van Tuyl took it over for this really broad understanding of what dance is and what is under its umbrella. Van Tuyl is quite a radical dance film maker. There's some extraordinary foundational elements here. But in every era you have to educate people."

But what does Ann Murphy see in store for dance at Mills College in the next eighty years? "Oooh. That's a great question. I think it's going to become much more hybrid with technology. The performative will not go away, but I think there will be a lot more mediation with technology. I think that's already shifted in the last five or so years with dance and technology. Sheldon Smith, who's in the program, uses technology in a really witty and philosophical way, so it has its own presence, a virtual presence that speaks to the material body. I think we'll see many, many more innovations in that way. I think there will also be more collaboration at a distance. As Mills develops technology laboratory theater it will be able to do more experimental things with people from afar."

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