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Dancing as fast as she can: Mary-Jean Cowell helps students discover the pleasure and expressive power of movement
May 13, 1999
The Record

Dancing as fast as she can

Mary-Jean Cowell helps students discover the pleasure and expressive power of movement

By Liam Otten
Mary-Jean Cowell, Ph.D., helps sophomore Karla Polk with her alignment during the class "Introduction to Dance as a Contemporary Art Form."
Mary-Jean Cowell, Ph.D., helps sophomore Karla Polk with her alignment during the class

I honestly can't remember when I began dancing," said Mary-Jean Cowell, Ph.D., director of the Dance Program and associate professor in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts and Sciences. "I've always enjoyed moving around to music; I think my parents put me in lessons out of self-defense."

For Cowell, today a noted performer, choreographer and scholar of modern dance, those early lessons were just the first steps down a path that seems in many ways a case study of the journeyman dancer's often-convoluted career track. It was a path that would lead from rural Washington to New York, Honolulu and Japan, and would include stops for performing, teaching and even choreographing for a cutting-edge Tokyo theater ensemble. And through it all, Cowell kept dancing.

"I've been at Washington University for more than 20 years," noted the now-settled Cowell with a quizzical smile. "And I realized that I've been here longer than I've been anywhere else in my life."

That longevity is most likely the result of a very good fit. "Mary-Jean really personifies the kind of versatility our department strives for," said Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., professor and chair of the PAD, who's known Cowell for more than a decade. "She's a wonderful force -- a superb teacher, a caring mentor, an excellent choreographer and a fine scholar."

Cowell was born in the small town of Snohomish, Wash., and credits Seattle's Cornish Academy for early training in ballet and the Dalcroze training technique. As a teen, she moved with her family to St. Louis and plunged into the rigorous academics of the Principia Academy.

Dance, unfortunately, was not among Principia's strong suits -- the subject was taught by the physical education teacher -- and Cowell soon began ballet lessons with local legend Alexandra Zaharias. Principia, however, did provide Cowell's first exposure to modern dance, inviting a then-virtually unknown choreographer named Merce Cunningham to perform for the student body.

Cowell was instantly entranced and enrolled in a series of modern dance classes at Washington University's University College, where she studied with Annelise Mertz, longtime head of the Dance Program.

"At the time, I literally didn't know what modern dance was," Cowell recalled. "I probably thought it was a form of exercise done to music or something. I had no sense of it as a genre or what distinguished it from ballet. But working with Annelise, I quickly realized that modern dance was where I belonged."

Where she belonged, yes; where she should focus her career, Cowell was not yet so certain. As a freshman at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, she studied history, art history and French, though she continued to dance all she could. She worked under the tutelage of Elizabeth Sherbon, a founding member of the renowned Martha Graham Company, and, with Sherbon's encouragement, attended a summer workshop with legendary figures like Graham, Lucas Hoving and Louis Horst.

Upon graduation, Cowell received a grant to pursue graduate work in art history at the University of Strasbourg, France. As it turned out, she spent the next month wandering the city in search of a modern dance class -- an experience that turned out to be pivotal.

"I found someplace that claimed to teach 'la danse moderne,'" Cowell ruefully recalled. "It turned out to be a chubby Frenchman who offered to teach me 'le twiste.' I realized that I should stop trying to do dance around the edges and make it my main focus."

Cowell returned stateside and accepted a fellowship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduating with a master's degree in 1965. And like many ambitious young dancers, she longed for the big time -- which is to say, she moved to New York, supporting herself by performing with the Katherine Litz Company and teaching at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie.

Asian dance

Though Cowell's main focus continued to be modern dance, while at Illinois she also had taken an interest in Asian Dance -- then a fairly esoteric subject -- and in New York embarked on three years of voracious reading. In 1968, she took a faculty fellowship from Vassar and traveled to the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, where she began learning Japanese while studying dance styles like Noh and Odori. That summer, she traveled to Japan for the first time, staying at the home of her Noh instructor.

Mary-Jean Cowell -- she just has to dance.
Mary-Jean Cowell -- she just has to dance.

Once back in New York, Cowell embarked on a doctorate in East Asian languages and literatures at Columbia University, working with renowned scholar Donald Keene. Though her primary interests remained dance and theater, Cowell also focused on Japanese literature, writing her dissertation on poet Miyoshi Tatsuji.

"I tried to look at what the poet did with time and space and energy -- which, as it happens, are also the basic components of movement," Cowell explained. "It was almost like looking at poetry as choreography, which helped provide a fresh perspective."

All the while, of course, Cowell continued to dance, and before long the various strands of her interests began to intertwine. Things reached a culmination of sorts in 1973 when she choreographed a modern Noh play called "Pining Wind" for New York's Clark Center of the Performing Arts.

"I invited Keene to the opening," Cowell recalled wryly, "even though I thought he'd probably hate it, since it combined Noh with modern dance, film and electronic music."

As it turned out, Keene liked "Pining Wind" quite a bit -- so much, in fact, that he recommended Cowell to Kobo Abe, a leading Japanese author and founder of the Kobo Abe Studio, an experimental theater group. Cowell was hired to train Kobo's actors in modern dance and spent the next year in Japan, teaching daily classes, creating improvisational exercises and, after a short time, choreographing performances.

"It was an extraordinary experience," Cowell added. "I was the only foreigner in a company working six days a week, taking meals together, socializing together in that mixture of family and business so often found in Japan. I was as fascinated by that as by work itself."

Cowell returned to the United States in January of 1976 and within three days found herself teaching at Washington University, thanks to her old instructor, Annelise Mertz.

"It didn't take me long to figure out that I really liked our students," Cowell recalled. "They're the model of students I like to work with -- people who are interested in pursuing intense academic work but who also feel that they just have to dance."

It's a description that applies equally well to Cowell, who, in addition to teaching, has choreographed and performed with local troupes and regularly choreographs for "Washington University Dance Theatre." She also performs in the faculty showcase "Dance Close-Up" -- "sharing our latest research," she quipped -- which she founded. Cowell has presented her work in various national venues, such as the Mid-America Faculty Invitational and the Master Artist Concert of the National Dance Association. Works like her solo "Strata II" and the dance-theater piece "Komachi" reflect her continuing interest in Japanese culture.

In the early 1990s, Cowell was named director of the Dance Program, which, under her stewardship, has reinstituted a dance major and developed strong components in ballet and world dance. New courses have been added and some older courses redesigned to bring the program into compliance with current standards for the bachelor of arts degree, which are set by the National Association of Schools of Dance.

'Real contributions'

"People who major in dance really have to love it; they also have to be brave," Cowell said. "Which, I think, explains why, for such a relatively small number of majors, we've had a lot of people who've made real contributions to the field."

Cowell also continues her scholarly work, publishing papers on Mishima Yukio and Michio Ito, as well as a script for "Komachi." In recent years she has presented a series of conference papers on Ito, with the latest to be given at the National Society of Dance History Scholars in June. "I'm writing a book on Ito one chapter at a time," she joked.

But Cowell's greatest satisfaction comes simply from helping students discover the pleasure and expressive power of movement.

"A lot of people here have considerable training in verbal expression and analysis or quantitative reasoning and so on, but much less in movement and dance," she explained. "I have students from, say, psychology or pre-med courses tell me how much they appreciate the personal and integrative nature of dance. They're not just learning empirically how and why people move, but involving their total selves. Which really makes you feel that you're doing something worth doing."

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