Montclair State MFA student Emmanuèle Phuon and dance faculty member Apollinaire Scherr have been named 2019 New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dance Research Fellows. They were chosen from a record number of applicants from around the world, who submitted research proposals that draw on the rich collections of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. Scherr and Phuon are among the researchers whose work will help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the library’s Dance Division – which is the world’s largest and most comprehensive archive devoted to the documentation of dance.
“These highly prestigious, competitive fellowships acknowledge the quality of the University’s nationally recognized dance programs,” says Montclair State Dance Division Director Elizabeth McPherson. “The library has an extensive collection of dance photographs and Scherr will be focusing specifically on photographs of Martha Graham. Phuon will be focusing on Cambodian dance related to spirituality and myth, which dovetails with her MFA thesis project.”
Since 2014, the fellowship program has supported researchers with a $7,500 stipend for 6-month-long projects drawing on the Dance Division’s outstanding archival collections. While the program generally supports six projects, this year, it will support seven projects. Phuon was one of two fellows selected from applicants whose projects focus on the library’s Khmer Dance Project Collection, which she will be using to research and reinterpret traditional Cambodian dances.
“The traditions of Sbek Thom, or shadow puppet theater, and Lakhon Khaol, classical dance also known as the theatre of monkeys, share a common inspiration in the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Indian epic Ramayana,” Phuon explains. “My project would link these two theatrical traditions together and propose a contemporary visual and choreographic approach to an ancient tale.”
The Reamker recounts the story of the quest to rescue Seda, the wife of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, who has been abducted by the demon Reab. “Rama asks the monkey god Hanuman and the monkey king Sugrib to help wage war against the demons,” Phuon says.
For her project, she plans to choreograph “Kumbhakar Swallows a Dead Dog.” “This episode is the pinnacle of a ritual celebrated each year at the monastery of Wat Svay Andet, near Phnom Penh, on the Cambodian New Year, which coincides with the beginning of the rainy season,” she explains.
Phuon’s choreographic work also figures in another 2019 project. Her dance, “Kmeropedies III: Source/Primate,” is the subject of fellow Yale University Director of Dance Studies Emily Coates’ project, which will examine the development of archetypal characters – such as the monkey character – that populate classical Cambodian dance narratives.
Financial Times dance critic Scherr, who teaches a course called Performance Perspectives to Montclair State MFA students, will be comparing the iconic images captured by Barbara Morgan in her celebrated 1941 monograph, Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, with works in the library’s collection of Graham photographs.
“From the little work I’ve done so far, I’m struck by what a particular vision of Graham Morgan offered: there is no blur, no histrionics. The images are crisp and also very contoured and give you a sense of space in all its depth and roundness, which is key to what Graham does with the body,” says Scherr.
“What interested me about the photographs in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division collection by other photographers was how much more chaos they allowed,” she adds. “I think with Graham, precisely because she has such status, it’s hard to remember how unsettling – and unsettlingly vivid – she must have been in 1940.”
The 2019 Dance Research Fellows will present the outcomes of research they will conduct from July through December at a daylong symposium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on January 24, 2020, which will be free and open to the public. “We in the Department of Theatre and Dance look forward with great anticipation to seeing the fruits of both Scherr’s and Phuon’s research,” says McPherson.