Project’s Background and Goals

Gesel Mason and I first met via Skype in 2018 at the suggestion of one of our Dancing Digital advisors, Sali Ann Kriegsman, dance expert, leader, scholar, and supporter extraordinaire. It was immediately clear to both Gesel and I that our separate projects, No Boundaries and Dancing Digital, shared the overall goal of furthering dance legacy and transmission via online access. However, the way we might join forces was not yet clear. 

Despite our promising virtual conversations, it took meeting in person at the Joyce/NYU American Dance Platform in January 2020 to cement our collaboration on this digital project, an irony which is not lost on me. Perhaps it was not simply the different qualities of interaction that come with meeting in person, but also that Gesel’s section of the presentation flowed seamlessly between a lecture and a performed excerpt from Donald McKayle’s 1948 solo, “Saturday’s Child.” In other words, I was able to experience a tiny bit of Gesel’s No Boundaries project live.  

No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers began in 2001 as a collection of solos choreographed by several generations of African American choreographers and performed by Gesel in one evening. She gathered and commissioned work from an impressive list of the nation’s leading contemporary African American choreographers, including Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller, Donald McKayle, Reggie Wilson, Andrea E. Woods Valdés, David Roussève, Kyle Abraham, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Gesel presciently recorded the rehearsal processes, interviews with the choreographers, and the performances themselves. With choreographic works spanning from 1948 to 2018, the No Boundaries performances delivered snapshots of and created discussion around the trajectory of Black dance over seven decades. While Gesel had granted access to selected recordings and images from No Boundaries on other platforms—including her own website, Google Arts and Culture, and the Fusebox Festival 2020 Virtual Edition—she had not yet found a digital framework for the entire collection that was sustainable, extensible, and honored her priorities as an African American artist and scholar. 

Gesel’s goals for No Boundaries and Dancing Digital’s desire to apply our findings by building an online prototype felt symbiotic. We decided to collaborate. During that disturbing and difficult first pandemic spring and summer, we managed to create a plan and write an NEH grant proposal. (Coincidentally, that summer, I broke a bone in my right foot and Gesel broke a bone in her right leg. So, we also spent some time comparing orthopedic boots and healing processes.)  

Gesel and I could see that No Boundaries would work well as the test case for Dancing Digital’s proposed working prototype. While it is a logically self-contained collection (in that all of the choreographic works included are solos commissioned by Gesel for the No Boundaries performances), it also connects to an expansive array of other concepts and entities within and outside of dance. Some examples of related concepts include: solo performance across time periods and genres, other works by the No Boundaries choreographers, other African American choreographers, African American dance’s influence on American culture, and expressions of resilience in African American and other cultures. Entities with possible related collections include the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the International Association of Blacks in Dance. Together, these layers of relevance and potential interconnections across collections made No Boundaries an ideal seed for an outgrowth of dance content. 

Therefore, our collaboration aims to create a working prototype for an online archive of No Boundaries structured to 

  • model accessibility by providing online access to important full-length recordings of works by African American choreographers; 
  • provide features and supporting materials that enhance the use of the No Boundaries recordings, center the embodied, and enrich dance study; 
  • and, serve both as an archive and a scalable, open-source digital framework. When shared, this framework 
    • can lower the technical hurdles for other artists and organizations seeking to provide access to their collections, 
    • while also creating the possibility of an interconnected field-wide archive.