Modern Dance and Modern Media bring Harriet Tubman to Life

Bringing history to life takes many different forms. And bringing the story and legacy of Harriet Tubman to life also occurs in many different media – including contemporary dance and augmented reality. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Jean Johnson Jones  from Surrey University this week and seeing her reconstruction of the suite of dances Negro Spirituals. (Jones was here for an international conference on Labanotation at York University.) Originally choreographed by American modern dancer Helen Tamiris between 1928 and 1942, Negro Spirituals has been mounted in dance programs and performances numerous times over the past 50 years. 


Helen Tamiris’ eight dances were political and dealt with racism in the United States but did not, Jones argues, delve deeply into the historical context of the songs. The lyrics of the songs are deeply religious and include coded messages of the Underground Railroad and freedom from slavery. Harriet Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” for her role as an abolitionist and leader on the Underground Railroad; Go Down Moses was sung by the Jubilee singers in 1872 and is one of the eight dances in Negro Spirituals.

Dr. Jones is mounting the Negro Spirituals on the 20th anniversary of the first time she did and she is working closely with her dancer’s interpretation and her own directorial insights. This occasion also includes a multimedia project with open rehearsals, a documentary film about the process of reconstruction, performance, and development of dance curriculum for e-learning.

A recurring theme in contemporary dance, as in any other field, is the balance or tension between the choreographer’s intent and the director’s interpretation. Jones writes that her interpretation is “based on her vision of the work – its connection to the Negro Spirituals, the Underground Railroad, and Harriet ‘Moses’ Tubman”. When does a piece no longer stand as a mounting of a suite of dances but rather as inspired by or based on those dances? When does the interpretation of archival data become historical fiction rather than history? And how do we as researchers, teachers and performers convey the legacy of this material while allowing for students to interpret the narratives?

Another creative and cutting-edge initiative to communicate the stories of slavery and African Canadians is the augmented reality collaboration between the Tubman Institute and York’s Canada Research Chair Caitlin Fisher. Working with the team on the War of 1812 and Breaking the Chains, Professor Fisher and colleagues created augmented reality  pieces to accompany the narratives. This material can be used in classrooms and by the general public, in art installations and as inspiration for other projects.

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