It could be said that the course of Henry Daniel’s life changed when he failed to get the lead in a high school play. Growing up in Trinidad in the 1970s, he dreamt of attending London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but when he was relegated to a secondary role in The Emperor Jones, one that required movement and dance, something sparked inside the future SFU professor.
Soon after, he was undergoing rigorous modern dance training at the Boston Conservatory of Music and at The Juilliard School, followed by professional jobs with highly regarded performing companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Jose Limon Dance Company. He later moved to Europe where he continued dancing while simultaneously danced and developed his choreographic skills as artistic director and choreographer of two ‘pick-up’ companies: Henry Daniel and Dancers and Full Performing Bodies.
Talking about his achievements during this period, Daniel says, “I felt I had come a very long way but I wanted a great deal more.” He had become interested in exploring the deeper questions of dance and movement, such as the role of the human body in performance and where the drive to perform comes from, and he again switched gears to pursue a masters in Dance Studies and later a PhD in Dance, Performance Studies, and New Technology.
In 2000, Daniel joined SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts as an associate professor and researcher. Using practice-based approaches, he works to uncover new understandings of how performers use their bodies to express knowledge that is drawn from personal or witnessed experience. He is also interested in the use of new digital technologies in the performing arts, particularly in the context of transdisciplinary research. His varied projects while at the University have included several major performances, documentary films, video installations, book chapters, and conference presentations.
From 2003 to 2005, he was focused on founding and leading the international Transdisciplinary Research Network for Performance and Technology for the purpose of exploring computer-based technologies for use in the arts and academia. Artists, scholars, performers, educators, scientists, engineers and community activists came together virtually to generate ideas and the project serves as a case study for how Practice as Research can contribute to Canada’s knowledge-based society. “This collaboration led us to some insights about how disciplinarity can inadvertently lead us away from a deeper understanding of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world,” says Daniel.
The development of his transdisciplinary framework continued with the Touched Project (2007-2010), an initiative that investigated the larger notion of theatrical “presence” within the context of telepresence technologies (these are technologies that allow the user to feel as if they are experiencing a different locale) in the performing arts. Between 2011 to 2014, Daniel was principal investigator on Project Barca: New Architectures of Memory and Identity, a project that shifted his performance research lens onto the socio-cultural and historical origins of identity formation. Specifically, he examined the consequences of Columbus’ first trans-Atlantic voyage for those who made the journey–willingly and unwillingly–and those they discovered upon landing.
Today, Daniel remains busy with multiple projects. He will soon launch a new research project titled Contemporary Nomads which will draw comparisons between today’s refugee crises and the colonialist expansionist agenda begun by Spain in the late 15th century. He is also writing a book that will synthesize more than a decade of his artistic production and scholarly writings, as well as demonstrate his findings on how the arts and sciences complement each other to produce a fuller understanding of our human condition. Says Daniel, “I think this book will surprise quite a lot of people by its scope.”
Dr. Henry Daniel is a professor of dance and performance studies at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. His research concentrates on strengthening notions of Practice-as-Research, Arts-based-Research, and Research/Creation in Canada. He has a professional background in dance, theatre, and new media with a career that started in his native Trinidad and continued in the USA, Germany, the UK, and Canada. He has published refereed contributions in practice-based research, as well as in research that draws on postmodern philosophical, socio-cultural and aesthetic theories. Many of his projects have been made possible with the help of SSHRC funding.
Q & A with Henry Daniel
If you could sum up the value of university research in one word, what would it be?
What motivates you as a researcher?
Seeing the potential to make a change.
How is your research making an impact on lives?
By stimulating others to be more creative.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
It is multinational, multicultural, and transdisciplinary.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?
A more holistic approach. By that I mean looking at the larger picture and really acting on it.