Even More on Mariah Steele (part 3)

Photo Credit: Jim Coleman
by karen Krolak

In the final post of our three part interview with Mariah Steele, we delve into the intersection of anthropology and choreography.

kK: Ok, so when did you start choreographing?
MS: December of fifth grade.  My first dance was to Judy Collins' version of “Tis a Gift to be Simple.”  Every year, Steffi Nossen had a Holiday Party where parents watched the class and celebrated with the students afterwards.  Any student who wanted to was invited to choreograph a short dance and perform it at the party.  I did this every year.  I would move the furniture out of my room, shut the door and choreograph on my pink wall-to-wall carpet, with very limited space.  I scoured my parents' music collection, coming up with Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Indigo Girls, Mariam Makebo, and Maurice Ravel among others. Soon, one performance a year wasn't enough, and I would move the furniture quite frequently, make a dance, and then perform the piece for my parents in the living room or in middle school talent shows.  In high school, I had some wonderful academic teachers who periodically encouraged me to choreograph and perform dances instead of writing papers; for example, I made  pieces about the Crusades, Othello and environmental activism/the writings of Annie Dillard.  To this day, many of my dances have begun in the cramped space of my bedroom or living room – when the choreographing spirit calls, you have to follow it!

kK: Again, I am totally envious. I love that your teachers encouraged you to combine your academics with dance at such an early age. How do you feel your background in anthropology influences your choreography?
MS: That's a great question.  Anthropology was my actual major at Princeton (though for all intents and purposes I doubled majored in dance, except that they only offer a minor) and is at the very heart of how I see the world and how I approach a choreographic problem.  I am fascinated by different cultures and how people can be both so alike and so different.  Anthropology as a field is also interested in revealing the connections between aspects of life or culture that may not at first seem connected – it is a truly cross-disciplinary field, which is an intellectual experience and worldview that I love. Many of my dances have started with anthropological questions such as “What happens when two cultures meet?”  “What is the experience of female immigrants who come to America because of arranged marriages?” “What is the essence of humans' creative drive to build things that has produced the Egyptian pyramids, the great cathedrals and today's skyscrapers?” There is a wonderful overlap between dance and anthropology because they both deal often in metaphors, experience and feeling.  And at its heart, anthropology is all about people: what they think and dream and how they make meaning out of the world.  That is exactly what my dances try to explore and convey as well. 

kK: Can you give an example of how your anthropological studies were affected by your dance training?

MS:  Indeed, I studied traditional Kandyan dance in Sri Lanka for two months in order to write my anthropology thesis at Princeton. The experience of analyzing the cultural context in which a dance tradition is embedded gave me a whole new frame of reference for thinking about modern dance in our own society, too.  Besides which, learning a technique that is so different from any I had studied before was a first-rate physical challenge!

kK: So what brought you to Boston?
MS: My husband. He started a PhD program in plasma physics at MIT...so we will be here for awhile....but actually, I was born at Mt. Auburn hospital and lived in Lexington until I was 5 years old before moving to New York, so in some sense the move was “coming home.”  Only, I didn't realize until I got here how different the culture is from New York! And I must admit that now when people ask me where I am from, I say New York. 

kK: Well, I am just delighted that you have landed in Boston again and I am really looking forward to seeing more of your work.

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