Della Davidson 1951–2012
Della Davidson was a vital creative force for the Department of Theatre and Dance for over ten years and was a central figure in the Bay Area dance world since the early 1980s. She has been described as one of the West Coast’s most fluent writers for the body, a dance maker of works that ruminate with poignancy and beauty on topics ranging from a woman’s anger to disease, death and the fragility of human existence. Her work echoed with references to the United States tradition in modern dance, and yet her dancers perform with a passionate abandonment of commitment and rage. Over her successful career, she created more than 40 works and received many awards including the Isadora Duncan Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography and the 1990 North American Award for Choreography.
Born in Texas and raised in Michigan, she moved to New York City to start her career in dance in 1972. Ballet-trained since elementary school, she discovered that being over six foot on pointe made classical partnering impossible, but at Michigan State she discovered modern dance, and at the University of Utah she apprenticed as a choreographer. After earning an M.A. in 1983 at the University of Arizona, Tucson, she began co-directing the San Francisco Moving Company with Ellen Bromberg. Dance scholar Janice Ross identified the style of Della Davidson’s work as an invitation to interplay between narrative content and physical form, between physicality and theatre. Davidson once told Ross that she felt “at home” in a mixture of theatre and education with choreography that emphasizes that “we all have our own artistry.”
Davidson arrived at UC Davis to become a professor of dance in 2001 just as the Department of Theatre and Dance became a merged department. At UC Davis she wore many hats, not the least of which was to help articulate what an interdisciplinary M.F.A. in theatre and dance might become. She was the artistic director of the department’s Sideshow Physical Theatre, which she also established. Each piece of choreography usually took years to complete, as she worked interactively with the dancers and other collaborators to develop the work. A survivor of Hodgkin’s disease that she conquered at the age of 28, her gift was to make work darkly-toned yet human, with beautiful movement that faced tragedy with hope. Driven by an urge to get away from the “roles” she and other women had been brought up to inhabit, she often created dance that evoked the raw energy of forceful women, their strength, physicality and sensuality. Heavily ironic, pieces such as “10 P.M. Dream” or “Fierce/Pink/House” displayed gender stereotypes only to expose them as insidious traps, and she was firmly committed to feminism as a challenge to oppression and small-mindedness.
A recipient of the UC Davis Chancellor’s Fellowship here at UC Davis, much of her new work was involved in multidisciplinary choreography. Working again with Ellen Bromberg, the choreographer/dance filmmaker, she co-created “The Weight of Memory” and, with the Keck CAVES institute in the Department of Geology, “Collapse (suddenly falling down).? Della Davidson was working with Bromberg on a new piece for this spring, “and the snow fell softly on all the living and the dead,” which will premiere in May 2012.
Davidson’s bywords were “creativity” and “collaboration,” and one of her greatest gifts was to recognize potential in others and bring out their strengths, whether they were her students, her dancers, her collaborators, her colleagues or her friends.