Dance professor receives performing arts award of $275,000 


Photo courtesy of LaTosha Pointer/Cynthia Oliver Co.

Cynthia Oliver, professor of CAS, Gender and Women’s, and African American studies, poses for a photo. Oliver received the Doris Duke Artist Award, given to extraordinary artists in contemporary dance, jazz, and theater.

By Ashley Gilbert, Staff Writer

Professor Cynthia Oliver was one of seven artists nationwide recently awarded the peer-nominated Doris Duke Artist Awards and received $275,000. The award is given to “exemplary” artists of contemporary dance, jazz and theater. 

Oliver is the associate vice chancellor for Research and Innovation — Humanities, Arts and Related Fields at the University and teaches both graduate and undergraduate students. 

Oliver danced as a hobby in high school and that led to her earning a dancing scholarship for college, and she has not stopped dancing since. She has a doctorate in Performance Studies from New York University.   

Oliver has experience in a wide range of dance which includes ballet, improvisation, Afro Caribbean and other kinds of Africanist forms. The root of much of her scholarly and choreographic work is in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Oliver has made the study and research of dance her life’s work. She inspires and teaches students about ideas that are rooted in creativity and intellect. Her peers took notice of the impact her work and teachings were having and decided to nominate her for the Doris Duke Artist Awards.  

The Doris Duke Artist Awards is given to artists whose peers and colleagues believe that their work is meaningful and influential. After that, a panel of judges from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation reviews what was submitted and chooses the winners. 

Oliver was unaware of her nomination and was incredibly surprised and honored when she received the message that she had been chosen. 

“I was surprised,” Oliver said. “I didn’t know I was nominated. I didn’t know I was voted in. I didn’t know any of this was happening, and for that reason, it is that much more valuable. I am grateful to my peers — actually I am stunned.” 

The artists who are chosen are not to use the award money solely for occupational purposes. This award is meant to support artists in their artistic endeavors and in their daily lives.

Artists oftentimes struggle with getting benefits that will help in retirement such as a 401k, so $25,000 of this award is allocated for the retirement of the artist. The rest is unrestricted, and the artist can use it for whatever they need. 

Oliver already has plans to use some of the funds to work on her next project, which will take her back to the Virgin Islands and New York. She will write a book about artists of color in the avant garde movement of dance as well as tying in the social political environment. 

In the past, Oliver has worked on a lot of long term projects both in and out of the University. She worked on a “Woman’s World” project which was composed of topics around native Caribbean music and dance as well as madness with its association to women’s power. She also did a project on “Black Men’s World.”

“I think of the work I do here as a mini laboratory for the professional work I do outside of here,” Oliver said. “I will often experiment on something with the students who are willing and eager to be a part of an artist’s process and inform me a lot about what I am thinking in terms of the theory and concepts behind some of the projects.” 

Since 2012, 129 artists have been awarded more than $35.4 million in funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

“While it’s from a foundation, it’s about your peers,” Oliver said. “Your peers have nominated you. Your peers have selected you, and for that reason, it is that much more weighted to me because it acknowledges that my peers think the work that I do is of value.”

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