Assistant dance professor selected for Harvard’s virtual summer research seminar
Christa Oliver, assistant professor of practice in the Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance, has been selected to participate in The State of the Field, Harvard University’s 2021 Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research seminar, June 1-18.
This year’s summer program will be virtual. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, participants from around the world apply to be part of the workshops, seminars, and lectures provided.
“I applied because the work that I am doing has a lot to do with ‘dance as activism.’ We are using dance as a way to give a voice to the voiceless. A creative response to inequality and race and injustice. That is the piece that I created,” Oliver said. Her dance project is called “If We All Rise Up.”
“After the murder of George Floyd, it brought me back to me a conversation I had with my grandfather. My grandfather was a very dark-skinned black man from Mississippi. He didn’t talk a whole lot. He definitely didn’t reveal a whole lot of information about his past, but he told a story about how he saw his friend lynched and other traumatic stories that he carried with him.
“He talked about how in our community there are things that you don’t talk about, or only reveal it to people we care about so that they are safe. I’ll never forget the look of horror in his eyes,” Oliver said.
An excerpt from IF WE ALL RISE UP
Recalling the conversation with her grandfather following the news of the murder of Floyd, Oliver said it made her think about how many more people are refusing to reveal things because they are fearful. How many people are choosing — or are forced — to forget what happened to them? She began to interview people in the Black community and also reached out to other justice academics around the world.
“It is a creative way to expose the often-challenging things surrounding race and inequality and class and identity,” she said. Oliver incorporates graffiti murals and music, including a song about standing up and taking your people with you.
Oliver said she is “very passionate about telling stories through dance. It touches people in a way that words can’t.” In 2019 she participated in her first Mellon summer program and told the story of the detention of immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border.
This semester Oliver has been teaching musical theatre students and students in the dance division. Her technique classes in dance include ballet, tap, modern, jazz, and hip hop. She is also co-director of the MERGE dance company and teaches community classes for San Marcos ISD and Austin ISD students and master classes at the Poder Learning Center. Since the pandemic these have been virtual classes. Before COVID, the MERGE students would perform for nursing home residents and in schools.
“We’ve had to get very creative,” Oliver said. She has taught from her living room, while students rehearse in a socially distanced way in the studio, which was outfitted with cameras. On the upside, students have been able to work remotely with guest instructors in Mexico, Colorado, and California. And parents who could not make it to campus have been able to see performances recorded at the Patti Strickle Harrison Theatre.
This summer, Oliver will be teaching at NEXUS, the musical theatre’s summer intensive training program and also instructing virtually for Camp Paramount, an Austin summer dance program for children in grades 1 through 8. She has also created a dance piece for Semilla Fest, set for June 25 and 26 at the Outdoor Plaza Park Stage.
Oliver, a native of Ohio, joined Texas State in 2012. She earned a master’s degree in dance performance and a professional diploma in dance studies from the Laban Centre in London. She was dance captain and a soloist with the national tour of The Color Purple and cast as a dancer and actress in the film Avatar.
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