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Release: Oct. 11, 2000


Marshall: Hancher piece helped her win MacArthur 'genius grant'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Choreographer Susan Marshall has become a certified "genius" in the year since the Oct. 8, 1999 world premiere of her "The Descent Beckons" during the Millennium Festival at the University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium, and she says that the Iowa commission shares the credit.

Marshall was honored with a 2000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly known as the "genius grant," and while she was under consideration for the fellowship "The Descent Beckons" was the only piece that her company was performing.

MacArthur Fellows receive $500,000, paid out in equal quarterly installments over 5 years, as "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction."

"The MacArthur Foundation is not looking for good work that follows in the traditions, but something that is very original -- that steps outside tradition and opens new doors." Marshall explains. "'The Descent Beckons' broke a lot of rules, and it was really a breakthrough piece for me."

In "The Descent Beckons" -- which Marshall describes as a "raucous, riotous explosive work, and very theatrical" -- her dancers shared the stage not only with a comic emcee, but also with dozens of life-size inflated dummies, which served as both comic props and ominous symbols of oppression and genocide.

"The audience was laughing and vocal throughout the work; it provoked a lot of discussion," Marshall recalls. "These were new things for me. My previous work was very sculpted and controlled and intricate, and it had much more of a private and soulful connection with audiences.

"It's very liberating to be not what you expect yourself to be, especially after you have been choreographing for 15 years. It's nice to surprise yourself, and do something you don't expect yourself to do."

Because Marshall was breaking new ground in her personal creative history, Hancher's offer of extensive rehearsal and technical time on stage -- the second time that Hancher has midwifed a Marshall premiere -- played a crucial role in the development of the work. "A little bit like the piece itself, we didn't know where we were going with it for a long time," she admits.

"It's almost impossible to come by stage time. It's one of the most precious commodities a choreographer can get. Ninety percent of the time, you load in the day before the premiere. You've done all the work in the studio, and all the technical work has to be done on the spur of the moment. You're stuck with what you can imagine and implement quickly, and you don't always make the best choices. What you need is to play and make discoveries and have time to incorporate what you discover. Because of the stage time in Hancher, there was the opportunity for a process to occur."

The process of refinement continued after the premiere as well, partly in response to the reactions of the Hancher audience. "The premiere in Iowa was eye-opening to us, for what we had, and where it needed to go," Marshall says. "It was still very raw, and it had more evolution to go.

"It really knocked our socks off, that people were laughing: It was the first time we had an audience, and they were responding. But the general feeling was that people were on the edge of their seats, wondering where it was going, and it didn't get there. The comedy was working, but we needed to make the tragedy more tragic."

Marshall heightened the dramatic impact by making the ending a grotesque echo of an earlier, comic scene in which the smiling dummies swayed to the music above a curtain border. "It occurred to us that we could take that and alter it to a tragic outcome," Marshall says. And that tragic outcome involved the dummies being hurled over the border curtain to pile up, deflated and discarded.

"When we had the idea, it was so shocking to us that we almost didn't have the courage to try it," she says. "It was a very scary step to take, but it seemed justified by what came before."

The world premiere in Hancher launched an eight-city tour for "The Descent Beckons," including performances in Los Angeles and New York City, and at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

Beyond the impact that "The Descent Beckons" made on the MacArthur Foundation, the process of creating the production has made a lasting impact on the way that Marshall works. The piece was the result of a much more broadly collaborative process than any in which Marshall had participated before, and now, she says, "I'm addicted to it."

The commission of "The Descent Beckons" was supported by John E. and Clarine C. Tyrrell, and by the National Endowment for the Arts. Other co-commissioners were the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois; the Lied Center for Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and the Joyce Theater; with major support provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. "The Descent Beckons" was also made possible by the Doris Duke Fund for Dance of the National Dance Project, a program administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts with lead funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional touring support provided by the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

The music, composed by UI alumnus David Lang, was commissioned by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust's Live Music for Dance program administered by the American Music Center.

The Hancher Millennium Festival was the most extensive and ambitious performing-arts millennium celebration in the United States. The season-spanning festival featured more than 20 major commissions in music, theater and dance.

In addition to "The Descent Beckons," new works were presented by theater visionary Robert Lepage; choreographers Paul Taylor, UI alumnus Lar Lubovitch, Ushio Amagatsu, Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar; and composers including Richard Danielpour, Michael Daugherty, Paul Schoenfield and UI alumnus David Lang.

Performances of the commissioned works were presented by prominent ensembles including American Ballet Theatre, the Kronos Quartet, Sankai Juku, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Ahn Trio and the Ethos Percussion Group.

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