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Research in London Highlights Alumna Bonnie Bird

The trail of the rediscovery of prominent alumna and head of dance Bonnie Bird '27-30 leads to the institution to which she dedicated the last portion of her career, Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London. Trinity Laban houses the Bonnie Bird Theatre and its archive is the home of the Bonnie Bird Collection.

by Maximilian Bocek

It is the world's largest purpose-built contemporary dance center and dance science facility, housing no fewer than 13 studios and the largest dance library in the United Kingdom. It is the Laban Dance Centre of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London. The main theater of this shimmering, Pritzker Award-winning marvel of a building bears the name of a Cornish alumna and former head of dance we are all reacquainting ourselves with: Bonnie Bird.

Just a bit over two weeks ago, I traveled to Creekside in the London borough of Greenwich to visit Laban for continuing research on Bird; the school is the repository of the Bonnie Bird Collection. Trinity Laban Archivist Jane Fowler met me in the huge main hall of the Laban Building and took me up the ramped floor through the glass-walled library to the archive. Unbelievably, she'd laid out all the boxes in the collection on four tables for me to go through. For the next four hours, Jane allowed me unprecedented access to these materials, which covered most of Bird's life and work. Not only that, I left with a personal copy of a 200-page research manuscript she had copied for me—invaluable material—the transcriptions of hours of taped interviews with Bird at Laban. It's hard to imagine a more generous introduction to Trinity Laban.

Bonnie Bird, of course, is best known as the discoverer-teacher of Merce Cunningham and the colleague of John Cage as head of the Cornish Dance Department from 1937-1940. This was added to an already illustrious career dancing with Martha Graham and assisting her for several years. Just as Graham did with Cunningham in 1939, Bird was poached out of the Cornish program after her third year, in 1930.

Those things are amazing and special, but they are not what earned Bonnie Bird a nameplate on the main theater of a great dance center. When Laban's Marion North asked her to come over to England in the '70s, Bird had already made a name for herself helping found the American Dance Guild, the Dance Notation Bureau, and the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD), as well as for her work with youth dance education and special dance education for disabled children. In England, Bird and North created a new dance curriculum around the notion that dance is a subject worthy of serious academic study. Together they launched the first degree programs in dance in the UK—bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctorates—and reworked the curriculum of Laban to reflect professional practice. In recognition of this work, Bonnie Bird was awarded a Doctor of Arts degree by the institution charged with bringing degrees in the UK up to date, the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). 

The Bonnie Bird Theatre displays this dedication: "this theatre space celebrates bonnie bird; pioneer, educator and dancer whose spirit animates the commitment to developing dance artists of the future." Bird is as well the subject of a biography published in England, Frontiers: The Life and Times of Bonnie Bird by Karen Bell-Kanner.

Trinity Laban, whose director of dance is Mirella Bartrip, has been a destination for Cornish graduates seeking advanced degrees. 

Maximilian Mark Bocek is a media specialist in the Communications Department at Cornish.