University of Illinois: Dance professor Cynthia Oliver receives Doris Duke Artist Award

Dance professor Cynthia Oliver has been named a 2021 Doris Duke Artist.

Designed to invest in the creative potential of dedicated artists, the honor comes with an award of $275,000 that is both an investment in and a recognition of the contributions of artists in the fields of contemporary dance, jazz and theater. Among the seven 2021 Doris Duke Artists, Oliver is one of two in the field of contemporary dance.

Oliver is an award-winning choreographer and performer who received a 2021 United States Artist Fellowship earlier this year. She danced with several professional companies before joining the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign dance department in 2000, and she has continued to perform on select projects since. She also is an associate vice chancellor for research and innovation in humanities, arts and related fields. She is a Center for Advanced Study professor and a 2011 University Scholar. In the dance world, she has been awarded a New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Award for choreography and a 2016 Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography Mellon fellowship.

Oliver was raised in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and her work incorporates Caribbean, African and American influences. Her most recent evening-length performance, “Virago-Man Dem,” considered the concept of masculinity in Caribbean and African American cultures. It premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2017 Next Wave festival and toured the country, including a performance at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. She also is the author of “Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean” (2009).

The Doris Duke Artist Award consists of $250,000 in unrestricted funding and another $25,000 that is dedicated to encouraging retirement savings and requires the artist to contribute matching funds. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation states that it “aims to empower Doris Duke Artists to take creative risks, explore new ideas and pay for important professional and personal needs not typically funded by the project-related grants that dominate arts funding.”

Artists are nominated by an anonymous body of peers. A separate group of peers goes through a rigorous panel review process and recommends finalists for the award.

“I’m honored that my peers think me worthy of this award and attention, and I’m grateful to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I stand on some amazing shoulders. My mom was denied the opportunity to do her art because of her race,” Oliver said.

She said she plans to write a second book about the involvement of Black artists in avant-garde and postmodern dance and experimental work. The award is coming at a time when she has finished two years of work and one year of touring for “Virago-Man Dem,” and when she is in her fifth year of a five-year term as an associate vice chancellor.

“What this award is affording me is a minute to reconsider what I want to do in the next chapter of my life,” Oliver said.

She said she plans to write, spend time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and return to the U.S. Virgin Islands for an extended stay to reconnect with her home.

One other Illinois dance professor has received a Doris Duke Artist Award – Tere O’Connor in 2013. Jennifer Monson, also an Illinois dance professor, received a Doris Duke Impact Award in 2014.

The mission of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is to improve the quality of people’s lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and child well-being. Since 2012, it has awarded nearly $35.4 million to 129 noteworthy artists through the Doris Duke Artist Awards.

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