In Memoriam: Jessica Berson (1972-2019)
Friday, January 31, 2020
“Dancing, Desiring, Dying: Jessica Berson”
Kirsten Pullen, Professor of Theatre, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Dr. Jessica Claire Berson was born in New York City on May 14, 1972: a true New Yorker and Taurus, she was loyal, resilient, fierce, proud, outspoken, and stubborn. She died of metastatic breast cancer August 11, 2019 at home in Boston, surrounded by friends and family, including her husband Dr. Matthew McDonald and sons Leo and Henry. She is also survived by her mother Robin, father Robert, brother Will and many cousins, nieces and nephews, and other family members.
Dr. Berson received a BA with High Honors in Dance and a BA with Honors in English from Haverford College in 1994. After teaching dance, running a dance troupe, and dancing and choreographing professionally in Seattle, she attended graduate school in Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, receiving an MA in 1999 and PhD in 2005, completed under the supervision of Dr. Sally Banes. She worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Dance at Grinnell College and Wesleyan College, as a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Essex, and as an adjunct professor at Yale, Harvard, and Northeastern Universities.
Dr. Berson had a long association with ASTR. She attended her first conference in 2000 and her final conference in 2017, presenting a moving plenary on disability and desire. In her nearly two decades as a member of ASTR, she participated in several working sessions; received the Selma Jean Cohen Conference Presentation Award, the David Keller Travel Grant, and the Brooks McNamara Publishing Subvention; presented a curated panel; and two plenary sessions. She and I co-convened six consecutive working sessions on dance and sex. Over 60 scholars shared their work in those sessions.
An accomplished dancer and choreographer, Dr. Berson was certified in Laban Movement Analysis and Pilates. She wrote nearly a dozen book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles, and presented over 20 conference papers, primarily at ASTR, the Congress for Research on Dance, and the Society for Dance History Scholars (now Dance Studies Association). She received a Fulbright US Scholar Award to pursue dance and disability research in the UK for a new book and a British Academy Research Grant in support of her first monograph as well as several teaching awards. Her research on disability and performance, popular dance, and of course her brilliant, ASTR-supported and ATHE Best Book-winning The Naked Result: How Stripping Became Big Business, is a significant legacy for dance and performance studies.
Dr. Berson inspired students up and down the Eastern seaboard as the “go-to gal” for dance history, performance theory, and choreographic technique, teaching most regularly at Yale and Harvard. She frequently brought performance artist (and friend) Tim Miller to her students for intensive residencies. At ASTR and in her teaching, she was a fierce and funny mentor, always glad to share a drink or small plate or (in the old days) cigarette along with tough but tender advice on the choices we make.
Despite the awards Dr. Berson won, grants she received, and status as an Ivy League adjunct, she was unable to secure a permanent, full-time academic position after she left England to raise her sons on the same continent as their father. Her academic precarity is another significant legacy for ASTR and for the disciplines of dance and performance studies. That such a brilliant scholar, dedicated teacher, and engaged disciplinary citizen was unable to experience the benefits and security of a tenure-track job is as unfair and illogical as the cancer that took her life. Dr. Jessica Berson loved ASTR, and many of its members loved her back. We’ll be in the plenary halls, in working sessions, receptions, the annual luncheon, and the bar, remembering and missing Jessica for years to come.