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Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Dance Concert Dedicated to Program Trailblazer

Florence Cobb advocated for dance as a university academic program.

2013-12-06
Tanner Kent, Mankato Free Press, 12-5-2013

Mankato, Minn. -- When Florence Cobb arrived at Mankato State College in 1968, dance didn’t exist. (Note: Cobb is pictured at right in a 1968 university photo. Below is an early photo of dance in the Centennial Student Union ballroom.)

At least not in the form of a college major. Or minor. Or course elective. As far as academics were concerned, dance was nowhere to be found.

But Cobb was a “trailblazer, an activist and an advocate,” in the words of current Minnesota State University, Mankato dance instructor Julie Kerr-Berry. She began to teach dance classes in the college’s physical education program and advised the college’s already established dance ensemble. She led students on a dance trip to Europe and hosted a number of guests artists.

Her attempts to elevate the art form eventually led to the formation of the dance education minor in 1976.

“The new program is supportive of the trend toward greater consumption of the arts in our society,” Cobb said in a press release issued that year, “and will provide an opportunity for students to develop their creative potential.”

Today, the Minnesota State Mankato dance program has been moved from physical education (now called human performance) to the Department of Theatre and Dance. One of the most robust programs in the state, Minnesota State Mankato’s is unique in its offering of a highly selective bachelor of fine arts degree in addition to less rigorous bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees. Next fall, Minnesota State Mankato will also be offering a trio of career track options for dance students.

Kerr-Berry said much of the credit for the evolution of the program belongs to Cobb, a leader whose legacy she still imprints on students.

“She is so near and dear to my heart,” said Kerr-Berry of the woman who received a special citation at the 2013 SAGE awards in October and still regularly attends Minnesota State Mankato productions. “I’m so glad we can celebrate her legacy this way.”

With the program’s annual fall concert dedicated to the pioneer, it’s only fitting that the nearly every piece in the production will be enjoying its public premier. One exception is an homage to Afro-Cuban dance choreographed by Minnesota State Mankato dance instructor Daniel Stark.

Stark stumbled into the obscure dance tradition during a trip to Cuba during his graduate studies. Drawn to its “amazingly rich traditions” and its network of complex rhythms and movements, Stark has obtained special government permission to travel to the communist country several times during his professional career. He’s also studied the dance in California and Canada (which doesn’t share the United States’ travel restrictions).

The dance was pieced together during a semesterlong course on the Afro-Cuban style, which Stark said is the first time most students have ever witnessed the form.

“I always ask on the first day if anyone has taken an Afro-Cuban class,” said Stark, who choreographed two additional dances for the concert. “More often than not, the students who raise their hands took their class with me. ... These students have been in class all semester long, learning the steps and rhythms.”

Kerr-Berry choreographed two dances for the concert, an abstract collage of war-related vignettes inspired by Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and an exploration of terra cotta pots and their potential to inspire sound and movement.

The latter piece, Kerr-Berry said, was inspired by a shopping trip with her musician husband, who started drumming on a pair of pots and was drawn to the rich timbre they produced. He created a musical score which Kerr-Berry’s students play on top of as they move and interact with the vessels. With metaphorical suggestions of women as vessels of creation, Kerr-Berry said the work is intended to be reverent and reflective.

“War Torn” is a nonlinear collage of war images with no specific time or place. Kerr-Berry characterized the piece as more visceral than graphic, and she pointed to “combative, forceful partnering” sequences as places where she attempted to preserve Picasso’s representation of disfigured, fragmented human forms.

“It’s highly physical,” Kerry-Berry said, “and really hard to perform.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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