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Doris Duke Artist Awards

Cynthia Oliver

Choreographer and Dancer
Urbana, IL 

Cynthia Oliver, a 2021 Doris Duke Artist in the dance category, is an award-winning dancemaker, performer and scholar whose work incorporates performance with African and American aesthetic sensibilities. Born in the Bronx, NY, raised in Virgin Islands and significantly influenced by the Black avant-garde, Oliver is known for creating performance collages that move from dance to word and then to sound and back again toward an eclectic and provocative dance theater.  

One of her most recent evening-length performance works, “Virago-Man Dem,” uses movement, spoken word and visual design to explore the expressions particular to Caribbean and African American masculinities. The piece premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 2017 and then toured the country. Oliver has also toured the globe as a featured dancer with contemporary dance companies such as David Gordon Pick Up Co., Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, Bebe Miller Company and Tere O’Connor Dance. Early in her career, she also received a Bessie Award for her evening-length dance theatre work “Death’s Door.”    

Oliver holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University. Her scholarly work, like her choreographic work, has focused on performance in the Anglophone Caribbean. She has taught at New York University’s Department of Drama, Tisch School of the Arts, The Newcomb Summer Dance Intensive at Tulane University, Florida State University and the University of Utah. She is currently serving in her fifth year of a five-year term as Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation in the Humanities, Arts and Related Fields at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is a professor in the dance department with affiliations in African American studies and gender and women’s studies. Oliver is also a widely published author with articles in a variety of journals and edited volumes. Her nonfiction book, “Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean,” was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2009.  

Oliver has received funding from the Franklin Furnace, The Puffin Foundation, The Jerome Foundation, Edward and Sally Van Lier Fund for Minority Artists, New York State Council on the Arts, the National Performance Network, Creative Capital, MAP Fund, New England Foundation for the Arts, the Pew Charitable Trust, The University of Illinois Research Board and the Illinois Arts Council. She has received commissions from numerous presenting institutions including the 92nd St Y Harkness Center for Dance, Performance Space 122, Dance Theater Workshop/New York Live Arts, Vermont Performance Lab, Abrons Art Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music/Next Wave Festival. Oliver was a 2016 Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography Mellon Fellow and is currently a 2021 United States Artist Fellow. 


Meet the Other 2021 Doris Duke Artists