Bonnie Bird: ‘pioneer, educator and dancer’

In this the 70th anniversary year of the Faculty of Dance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London, we decided to delve into our history using items from the Laban Archive. In this blog post we take a look at the life and work of Bonnie Bird who played a crucial part in the development of what was then the Laban Centre.
Bird was born in Portland, Oregon and was educated at the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle where she studied with Martha Graham. Graham invited her to join the Graham concert group in New York where she performed in many premieres over the period 1933-37. In 1937 she became head of the dance department at the Cornish School where she trained Merce Cunningham among many others, and where John Cage was an accompianist. She was amongst the first members of the dance faculty at the 92nd Street Y in New York and taught there from 1951-1963, establishing the Merry-Go-Rounders, a highly successful company that presented dance for children. She was a founder member and president of the American Dance Guild and the Congress on Research and Dance. In 1974 she began a long association with the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (now the Faculty of Dance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), applying and developing her theories on dance training by helping to institute Britain’s first BA (Hons) degree in Dance Theatre studies, and subsequently Britain’s first MA and PhD degrees in Dance Studies. (TL, 2016)
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Bonnie Bird with participants at the Cage/Cunningham Residency held by the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in the Great Hall at Goldsmiths’ College, July 1980. Photographer: Peter Sayers. [RefNo: LA/D/12/4/1/44, Laban Library and Archive]

Bonnie Bird proposed the foundation of a postgraduate course for dancers who had already completed a minimum of three years full-time professional training and which would entail students becoming members of a professional repertory company  – thus  Transitions Dance Company was born. The name ‘Transitions’ was chosen ‘to indicate the fact that the company is the means by which the dancers bridge the gap between student life and professional dance’. (Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, p. 4)
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Bonnie Bird (centre) with members of the first season of Transitions Dance Company, including Sonia Rafferty (1st on the left) and Anthony Bowne, Administrative Director of the company (6th from the right), 1983-1984. Photographer: Tony Nandi [RefNo: D24/1/J/1, Laban Library and Archive]

Thirty-three years later, Transitions Dance Company is still going strong.
In 1985 Bird set up the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund to encourage new young choreographers. She used her 70th birthday year to tour the world, raising money for the Fund.
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John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Marion North at a celebration for Bonnie Bird’s 70th birthday, in New York, 1984. Photographer unknown [poss. Bonnie Bird]. [RefNo: D5/2007/35/2/49, Laban Library and Archive]

The Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund  (BBCF) has influenced many internationally renowned choreographers including Lea Anderson, Matthew Bourne and Rosemary Lee.
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Bonnie Bird, Matthew Bourne and Gillian Lynne at the Bonnie Bird Choreography Awards, 1989. Matthew Bourne was one of the recipients of the award that year. Photographer: Tony Nandi [RefNo: LA/D/12/1/2, Laban Library and Archive]

The BBCF continues in its work today, with recipients of the 2015 awards being Botis Seva and Yami ‘Rowdy’ Lofvenberg.
 In 1989 Bonnie Bird offically retired and the theatre at the Laban Centre (now the Faculty of Dance, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance) was named after her.
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 Speech for the dedication of the Studio Theatre at the Laban Centre, Laurie Grove, to Bonnie Bird, 1989. (RefNo: D5/2007/35/8, Laban Library and Archive)

 

Bonnie Bird remained Artistic Director at the Centre until her death in 1995. The Bonnie Bird Theatre at the Laban Building, Creekside, London has the following dedication on its wall:
‘this theatre space celebrates bonnie bird; pioneer, educator and dancer whose spirit animates the commitment to developing dance artists of the future’.
Bibliography:
Laban Centre for Movement and Dance. (1993). Transitions Dance Company tenth anniversary year 1983-1993. London, England: Laban Centre for Movement and Dance
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance Faculty of Dance. [TL] (2016, November 3). Bonnie Bird. Retrieved from http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/about-us/our-history/bonnie-bird

 

In memory of Grant Strate

We recently learnt that Grant Strate passed away in February this year. Strate was hugely influential in the evolution of dance in Canada from the 1950s onwards.  Whilst attending the University of Alberta, he began choreographing under the tutelage of Laine Metz, a proponent of Mary Wigman’s ‘German dance’ and soon joined the fledgling National Ballet of Canada for whom he created many new works throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1971 he started the dance programme at York University in Toronto where he masterminded four National Choreographic Seminars. These took place in 1978 at York, in 1980 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and in 1985 and 1991 at Simon Fraser University and involved the gathering together of choreographers, dancers, musicians and composers in intensive creative laboratories, under the guidance of internationally known choreographic mentors like Robert Cohan and Phyllis Lamhut. These events boosted the development of choreography in Canada.

Strate is important to Trinity Laban’s Faculty of Dance (formerly the Laban Centre) as he ran a Residency here in the 1980s and was also one of the guest choreographers with Transitions Dance Company in the 1985-1986 season. He choreographed the work ‘Past Zero’, pictured below, for the Company.

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New archive boxes for Transitions Dance Company Archive

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Sara Manazza, one of our fantastic archive volunteers in the Laban Archive has been very busy lately constructing 105 flat pack archive boxes. She has been transferring the administrative papers of Transitions Dance Company into them, taking out old paper clips and staples and replacing them with brass ones as she goes. All Sara’s work will help to preserve the Transitions Dance Company archive for future students and researchers to use.  If you would like to see what we have in the archive, have a search of the archive catalogue or come and see us. And if you would like to help Sara in the archive, contact us at Archivist@trinitylaban.ac.uk

Transitions Dance Company performance archive goes live!

Genny Steccone, Laban archive volunteer, has spent the past three months uploading VHS and DVD recordings of performances by Transitions Dance Company, Trinity Laban’s in-house dance company, on to the video-streaming site available in the Laban library. Here she describes what she has been doing:

I have been involved in a project focused on the digitisation of all the performances of Transitions Dance Company. The Company was founded in 1982 by Bonnie Bird (1914-1995) who was Artistic Director until her death. The principal aim of the Company was, and continues to be, bringing together well known choreographers with skilled young dancers and bridging the gap between training and the profession of being a dancer.

The first part of my commitment was recording all the performances, avoiding any possible future damage to the format, considering that most of them are on VHS and the more recent ones on DVD. Planet eStream is the software which we worked with. It is fast and easy to use, and indeed after recording the content, the results are immediately available on the Trinity Laban website to students and staff who log in on-site. We have one video for each year from 1983 to 2007. Every video consists of about five or six choreographic works recorded during a performance. The programme of the show includes information about the choreographers, dancers, music, costume designers, lighting designers for every choreographic work and the order of appearance of the works for each performance. However the order on the programme has not always been the same as that on the recording. Therefore the first issue has been to recognize each choreographic work, and verify and find the right order. There are different ways to approach this. The musical score has often been the more intuitive resource, so I have just searched for the tune or the artist mentioned in the programme. However sometimes there is no score or it is not recognisable.

Another useful way to gather information has been through the comparison of the recording with the folders of photographs of Transitions Dance Company, held in the archive. The folders contain pictures of different entities: portraits of dancers, snap-shots from workshops, from journeys in foreign countries, and from the performances themselves, so in some cases I was able to identify the performance from the costumes or choreography. Occasionally we have been able to insert audio or video interviews with the choreographer about the creation of their work. It is an inspirational chance to gain an insight into individual artistic patterns for students and for researchers.

The purposes of this project are to make these resources available, accessible and as user-friendly as possible, to encourage other companies to deposit records about their artistic work at the Laban Archive, and to allow the choreographers and the dancers themselves to review their work.

If you would like to see what Genny has been doing, log on to the video-streaming site available at http://video.trinitylaban.ac.uk and search for Transitions. Access to view Transitions performances is only available in the Laban Library and Archive but some of the interviews with guest choreographers can be viewed online by everyone – just click on the Log-in as guest link. If you spot any information that needs correcting or can identify any works which we haven’t been able to, then do get in touch – we would be glad to hear from you! 

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Photograph of Genny Steccone adding Transitions Dance Company performance recordings to the video-streaming site in the Laban Library and Archive, Creekside, London