Monthly Archives: December 2020

Notable Dance Books of 2020

It’s been a good year for dance history. Most of these books explore the past, deepening and broadening what we know and how we know it. Each is interesting in a different way. In cases where I didn’t have much to say, I’ve still tried to give a sense of the scope.

This was a big year for me because my own book was published, which you will see if you get to the end of this list.

Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance
By Ntozake Shange
Foreword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Beacon Press

The secret life of the famous playwright Ntozake Shange (1948–2018) was her dance life. When her dance play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976) exploded on Broadway in 1976, it was gritty, witty, and playful. The characters expressed themselves through both words and dance—with the help of choreographer Dianne McIntyre. Shange coined the term choreopoem to describe her equal passions for literature and dance.

As Alexis Pauline Gumbs explains in the foreword, Shange was working on this book while she was trying to recover from two strokes and a degenerative nerve disease. She had explored Black dance, not only as an element in her own productions, but by studying and performing with Dianne McIntyre and Halifu Osumare. As McIntyre says in these pages, Shange was at home in dance class. “In my dreams I can dance,” Shange wrote, even as her body was deteriorating. “Every night I fly.”

When auditioning for McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion in the 1970s, the young, dance-loving poet was asked to improvise for 32 counts. “I was scared to death because that was a long time. But I said, ‘Well hell, I am here.’ And we began. I danced my heart out.” Shange landed an internship with McIntyre—and friendship for life.

Shange tells a funny story about the time when, dressed as a bag lady for a performance choreographed by Osumare, she planned to make her entrance from outside the theater. Her guise was so convincing that an usher barred her from the building and threatened to call the police.

Shange follows her curiosity by interviewing Black dance artists, including McIntyre, Osumare, Eleo Pomare, and two from the younger generation: Camille A. Brown, who choreographed the last staging of colored girls, and Davalois Fearon, a dance artist who was in Stephen Petronio’s company. In these interviews, I found keys that unlock larger ideas:

Osumare: “I think that as we grow as a society, we have to become more literate in being able to read the body.”

Camille A. Brown: “If I’m eating, we’re all eating. If I get a door open, it’s my responsibility to make it wider.”

Osumare again: “Part of what I’ve been doing all my life is receiving ancestral messages and translating them in my art.”

 

Daniel Lewis: A Life in Choreography and the Art of Dance
By Donna H. Krasnow and Daniel E. Lewis
McFarland

So much of our lives happens by chance. For Daniel Lewis, a dance artist as well as a leader in dance training, it was the War in Vietnam that pushed him toward the Juilliard School. His plan was to become a Broadway dancer, but the draft board had other ideas. One of the accompanists at the Martha Graham school told him he could get a deferment by enrolling at Juilliard. There he met José Limón, who needed a male dancer just then, in 1963. At Juilliard he was taken under the wing of Martha Hill, who groomed him as a future dance educator. She sometimes asked him to fill in for Limón. It was Hill who ultimately recommended Danny to be the dean of dance at New World School of the Arts.
One of the dance world’s sunniest, most generous people, Lewis was also a performer who always revealed the humanity behind the role. A tap dancer as a child, he attended the High School of Performing Arts while also dancing in Yiddish theater. His career ride also included American Dance Festival, staging Limón works, directing his own repertory company, and finally Dean of Dance at the New World School of the Arts.

Limón’s dedication and artistry obviously made an impact on Lewis. The younger dancer was thrilled to perform Iago next to Limón’s Othello in The Moor’s Pavane. Perhaps his hardest role was the slave owner in Limón’s The Legend, about a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1830.

The book is chock full of entertaining stories about tours, teaching assignments, re-stagings, with side trips to Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, and Donald McKayle. Occasionally, with so many voices—those of Donna Krasnow, Lewis, and a slew of colleagues giving their memories—the narrative gets confusing.

Just as Lewis learned to be a leader from Martha Hill, Robert Battle learned from Lewis. As a student at New World School of the Arts, Battle, now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, would observe Lewis as director: “Sitting in the office talking with him was like watching a circus act. Danny would be doing multiple things at once—on the phone, solving problems, and making things possible…I call Danny ‘the conductor.’”

 

Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact
By Phil Chan with Michele Chase
Yellow Peril Press

Black Lives Matter has been front and center, rightly so. But Asian lives matter too, and it matters how they are portrayed in the dance world. Final Bow for Yellowface is a project co-founded by Phil Chan and New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, as well as the title of the book. Phil Chan exposes the demeaning stereotypes in classical ballet. Exactly why does the choreography for the Chinese dance in Nutcracker call for head-bobbing, finger-pointing and shuffling? What is the historical basis, and how can these stereotypes be changed?

Taking an activist stance, Chan met with Peter Martins, then the ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, to suggest changes. He convinced Martins to alter certain movements, but he didn’t stop there. He got 31 (and still counting) artistic directors of ballet companies around the world to sign the pledge to eliminate offensive stereotypes of Asians.

With sections titled “Caricature vs. Character” 58 or “Appropriation vs. Appreciation,” Chan provides informed, rich, and nuanced discussions. He asks questions like “Being Asian in America: Do We Belong?” “Who Gets to Decide?” “Did We Do Enough?”

Chan compares old ballets to bonsai trees, saying that in order for them to survive, we “have to give them a little delicate pruning . . . Once we acknowledge this, it becomes a little easier to be less precious with how we preserve dance . . . and more willing to take risks.”

 

Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy
By Victoria Phillips
Oxford University Press

Martha Graham is known as an uncompromising artist, a purist who is sometimes called the Picasso of dance. It was this very individuality that was the selling point for the U. S. State Department to send her abroad. So it’s a bit jarring to see her positioned as a creator of propaganda herself in the title. I find myself half-wishing the title were Martha Graham: A Pawn in the Cold War.

That said, this book thrusts the choreographer onto a larger world stage. Phillips helps us see how the idea of American originality is constructed and marketed. The vacillations of Graham’s career were controlled not only by the quality of her company’s performances and the response of the audience, but also by the dance panel advising the State Department on whom to send where. Along the way we learn that Eleanor Roosevelt’s favoring of Graham did not hurt her, that the Israeli audience responded well to Appalachian Spring because of its “pioneering spirit,” and that Graham cited the eroticism of her 1962 Phaedra to claim relevance well past her heyday.

Issues broached: Was Graham’s work too esoteric? Could people in poor countries enjoy it? When touring Europe, how did her rivalry with Germany’s Mary Wigman play out? How did Martha’s drinking affect her performances?

The revelations of dance history abound. For one, the narrative that modern dance was born in America only emerged after World War II. Between the world wars, it was accepted that Germany (home of Laban, Wigman, Kreutzberg) was the birthplace of modern dance. It was only after Hitler destroyed the arts in German that the idea emerged, via Margaret Lloyd’s 1949 Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, that modern dance originated in the U.S. with Graham. Another revelation is that it was Michio Ito, that shadowy figure who chose to be deported rather than confined to an internment camp, who introduced Graham to her most constant collaborator, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. A third revelation is that, as opposed to the understanding that Graham broke completely from the “orientalist” aesthetics of Denishawn, her first State Department tour of the Orient went to the same countries as the famous Denishawn tour of 1925–26 and she posed in front of some of the same landmarks. She soon broke with the coy exotica of St. Denis as she explored the American experience, but that took time.

 

The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation
By Mark Franko
Oxford University Press

Whenever the name Serge Lifar comes up, someone always says, “You know he was a Fascist, right?” Now, more than just rumor, we have the proof. Mark Franko has delved into the international archives to paint a complex picture of this mercurial dance artist who collaborated with the Nazis. The surrounding history is fascinating.

Lifar was the last favorite of Diaghilev, cultivated by him to shine as a performing and choreographing star. Cyril Beaumont described his movements as “graceful and lithe like those of a wild animal.” And yet he was also seen as an exemplar of classicism. Lifar’s sensibility was seen to fit “the avant-garde interwar art scene and its queer dimension.” Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète, with Lifar in the lead role when it premiered in 1928, was often called the dawning of neo-classicism.

Because of Lifar connection to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had wowed the French elite for twenty years ending with Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the French authorities pinned their hopes on Lifar to resuscitate French ballet. He represented a reversal of sorts, in that Marius Petipa had brought ballet from France to Russia in the nineteenth century, making it thrive while ballet in France languished. So the French were eager to reverse the route and invite a Russian to revitalize the French ballet scene at the expense of Russia. Lifar did in fact bring Paris Opera Ballet into the “golden years,” which were also the war years.

In his voluminous writings, Lifar had espoused concepts that align with the Nazis, for instance, that pure classical ballet was fundamentally Aryan (as opposed to swing dance, which was banned). The Vichy government used the Opera (which then was producing more dance than music) as a public display of collaboration with the Nazi regime. In 1940, in the midst of World War II, Lifar personally showed Hitler around the Opera and had the lights turned on. When he was accused of being Jewish, he defended himself by disassociating himself from Jews and going further: “In my book La Danse (1937), I demonstrated that the Jewish culture is incompatible with omni-Aryan culture, that it has followed a distinctly different and destructive pathway while the omni-Aryan spirit symbolizes creation.” Always the opportunist, Lifar knew when white supremacy would come in handy.

After the war, for hazy reasons, Lifar was not penalized for collaborating with the Nazis as much as other public figures in France. Different factions of Paris Opera Ballet took different sides. The dancers stuck by him, but the theater electricians, who had been part of the Resistance, refused to work with him. They devised a plan to express their displeasure: In the first performance after the war, when Lifar appeared onstage, they plunged the entire theater into darkness!

There are other fun episodes, like the time Lifar challenged Massine to a duel in Central Park. (Massine declined.)

But this is the part that changed history: The general director of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouché, had planned to replace Lifar with Balanchine, who was at the time freelancing in movies and musicals in the U.S. But at the last minute, Rouché bowed to pressure and rehired Lifar. This was right before New York City Center offered to make Balanchine and Kirstein’s fledgling group a resident company, thus giving birth to New York City Ballet in 1948. It’s unreal to think how close we came to not having NYCB!

 

Corner
Douglas Dunn, Gibson + Recoder
Photographs by Paula Court, text by Douglas Dunn and Brice Brown, film stills by Gibson + Recoder, Design by Grenfell Press and
MAB Books

Douglas Dunn is an existential figure in post-modern dance. During 46 years of making dances, he has produced events wayyy outside the box. With photographs by Paula Court, this book documents Corner (1972), in which Dunn, dressed in black, creates shapes with a crisp outline against a freestanding white-walled corner. The individual as loner, as object, as part of the architecture, as a visitor from another planet.

But that’s only half the book. The other half, if you turn the book over and start from the flip side, shows images of these same positions, now burnished bronze, obliterating the contrast of the original photos. Like a ghost crawling among the pages, the hazy figures disperse into the grainy background. This haunting effect, taking minimalism into a dream world, is accomplished by visual artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder.

Included also is an essay by Dunn about the time he made Corner. His prose, like his dancing, is eloquent yet at times blunt. He aims “to emphasize the artificiality of delivering the body as art.” The surprise is that the further artificiality of the visual treatment brings these images into primal, almost animalistic territory.

 

The Legat Legacy
Ed. Mindy Aloff
Introduction by Robert Greskovic
Illustrations: Caricatures by Nicolas Legat
University Press of Florida

Master teacher and choreographer Nicolas Legat (1869–1937) was the link between Petipa and many of the Russians whose names we know; Pavlova, Fokine, Massine, Nijinsky, and Balanchine had all been his students. This book, which comprises Legat’s memoirs; testimonials from dancers like André Eglevsky, Alexandra Danilova, and Alicia Markova; and detailed lesson plans, brings the early twentieth-century Russian ballet alive for us.
Petipa is a giant in our eyes, but in Legat’s eyes, Christian Johanssen, was equally huge. Legat regarded these two men as deities. His writings show us that Russian ballet was an international blend, with influences from the French Petipa, the Swedish Johanssen (a disciple of Bournonville), and the Italian Cecchetti, who excelled in training for multiple pirouettes.

It was from Johanssen that Legat learned to be an exacting, demanding, and inventive teacher. Like Johanssen, he gave new combinations every class and tailored his corrections to individual bodies. He also learned to come five minutes early and water the floor himself before class. (In later years, a student or underling did the watering—with a garden-type watering can—the purpose being to provide friction, the result being constantly splintering wood planks.)

From Petipa, Legat learned about choreographing—but only for women. Apparently Petipa’s movement imagination did not extend to men. But Johanssen’s did. So Legat learned from him, although he felt Johanssen’s forte was in teaching rather than creating ballets.

Although Legat was sometimes open to new styles—for instance, he inserted a tap dance into Fairy Doll in 1903—he opposed the reforms of Fokine. While Fokine pushed for the story of a ballet to be danced rather than indicated through mime, Legat loved passing down Petipa’s pantomime passages to his students. These differences led to open conflicts between Legat and Fokine.

So many of the great Russian dancers—Pavlova, Karsavina, Massine—trusted Legat that Diaghilev hired him as ballet master for the Ballets Russes in 1925. But conflicts ensued, so Legat left to teach in Paris and then re-settled in London.

As Robert Greskovic writes in the introduction, Legat’s contribution as a teacher outweighed his output as a choreographer. None of his ballets since Fairy Doll in 1903, which he co-choreographed with his younger brother, has endured. In any case, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Russian-style ballet training.

 

Futures of Dance Studies
Edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross, and Rebecca Schneider
The University of Wisconsin Press

This book comprises 28 essays on a wide variety of subjects. It puts its faith in younger dance scholars to sustain the field of dance studies. The articles are divided into sub-sections: Archives, Desires, Sites, Politics, Economics, Virtuosities, and Circulations. I will summarize only two essays: the first, by Joanna Dee Das, in the Archives section; and the second, by Clare Croft, under Desires.

In “Dancing Dahomey at the World’s Fair: Revising the Archive of African Dance,” Joanna Dee Das makes the case that the exposition of the Dahomey Village (Dahomey is now the Republic of Benin) in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair spurred the later popularity of African dance in the U. S. The early Vaudeville team of George Walker and Bert Williams, also performing at the fair, watched the West African dancers and borrowed from them when they created In Dahomey, the 1902 hit that turned the Cakewalk into a national craze. It was also the inspiration for a Dahomean number in Ziegfeld’s groundbreaking 1927 musical Showboat. Bert Williams, the soulful blackface performer, was an inspiration to the first superstar tapper, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The World’s Fair was steeped in white supremacy, so it’s not surprising that journalists called the Dahomean dancers “savage,” describing them as both lazy and aggressive, “grinning” while swinging weapons. Dee Das looks to the 1930s films of Melville Herskovits for a more accurate version of the Dahomeans’ dances. She identifies a long-held duality: “The tension between black performance as object of an oppressive white gaze and black performance as a means of liberation.”

In “Lesbian Echoes in Activism and Writing: Jill Johnston’s Interventions,” Clare Croft applies a scholarly lens to Johnston’s wild ride as a dance critic turned lesbian chronicler. Johnston, who died in 2010, actually anticipated the ground-breaking Judson Dance Theater with her own explosive, raunchy, scarily insightful, convention-shattering prose. As Croft writes, “Johnson celebrates messiness, collision, and the dissolving of boundaries,” qualities that later apply to her writing as a lesbian feminist activist as well.

Croft quotes a magnificently prescient gender-diverse, Gertrude Stein–inflected statement by Johnston at the end of a review of a 1968 Lotte Goslar performance: “A queen is a queen is a boy is girl is a ballerina is a boy is a dyke is a fag is a butch is a boy is a girl is just a kinky son of a gun like the rest of us. Hello all you sexes. We’re too good to be true.”

After describing Johnston’s notorious public behavior (including a make-out session captured in the Pennebaker film Town Bloody Hall), Croft concludes the essay with gratitude: “She is here in our history to remind us again and again that there many ways to be a woman. To be a lesbian is to be a woman, with a body, with a mind—loud, brash, funny, and full of desire spilling forth.”

 

Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange
By Anne Searcy
Oxford University Press

In 1959, the Bolshoi dancers burst onto the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House, stoking excitement with their heroic leaps and hurling partnering. When they returned in September of 1962, they had two assets that promised to outdo their first triumph: the fierce ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and a new heroic Spartacus. Plisetskaya dazzled with every step, but Leonid Yacobson’s Spartacus—which expressed the Soviet Union’s revolutionary politics in grand manner, one-handed lifts and all—fell flat. Even worse, it was ridiculed. Critics compared it to kitschy Hollywood epics of the 1920s. It was called tasteless by New York critics, a charge that fit America’s disdain for Soviet “backwardness” while also marveling at the dancers’ virtuosity.

I was among the many American teenagers chosen to be supers in the production. In fact, author Anne Searcy quotes my blog entry My Spartacus as one of the people saying the ballet “did not cater to good taste.” It was only later, looking back, guessing why the eight scheduled performances were suddenly cut down to less, that I came up with that explanation. I adored the Khachaturian music, and being onstage with Plisetskaya, Rhyzhenko, and Vasiliev, was a thrill. Actually, I think the lore and lure of the Bolshoi was untouched by the charge of bad taste. Americans from Sascha Radetsky and Gabe Stone Shayer have studied there, and of course there was David Hallberg’s stint as a principle in the Bolshoi Ballet.

OK, enough of my opinion. Searcy recounts the reverse part of the exchange during the Cold War. When American Ballet Theatre went over in 1960, they defied common sense by including Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend— both about extremely violent characters (what else makes a ballet American?). These ballets, which violated the alleged idealism of the Communist regime, were not well received.

More successful was New York City Ballet’s tour to the Soviet Union the following month, October 1962, which coincided with the Cuban Missile crisis. Despite the aesthetic differences, Searcy posits that both the Soviet penchant for symphonic ballets and the Balanchine’s neo-classical works embrace the music, and therein lay the common ground. I’m not sure I agree, because the Soviet aesthetic was broader and more literal, and I think they recognized that Balanchine was taking ballet into the future.

 

Finding Balanchine’s Lost Ballets: Exploring the Early Choreography of a Master
By Elizabeth Kattner
University Press of Florida

In 2018, Elizabeth Kattner, an associate professor at Oakland University in Michigan, dared to reconstruct Balanchine’s first group ballet, which he made as a teenager in St. Petersburg. Performed at the Duma Auditorium on the Nevsky Prospect, Funeral March premiered in 1923, the year before Balanchine left the Soviet Union for Europe. At the time he was the head of a group called the Young Ballet.

Influenced by the splendid work that Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have done to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring and other Diaghilev-era ballets, Kattner restored (she uses the word “envision” rather than reconstruct) Balanchine’s eight-minute Funeral March for Grand Rapids Ballet. She feels that Funeral March foreshadows his later renowned works like Apollo, Prodigal Son and Serenade.

Inhabiting her double identity of dance artist and scholar, Kattner gathered the “remnants,” or traces of the work, and put them together like a puzzle. 46 She concludes that much of Balanchine’s genius was formed early on, in the cauldron of artistic influences of revolutionary Russia. These influences include sculptor Naom Gabo’s cubist ideas (Balanchine intended Funeral March to be seen from all four sides), the constructivist theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and experimental choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, who placed the action on different-leveled platforms.

An additional influence that we rarely hear about was Fokine’s Chopiniana. Balanchine loved the Chopin so much that he would imitate the different roles, so it’s no surprise that he chose the Polish composer’s music for this work.

Although Funeral March is the only ballet Kattner reconstructed, her Appendix lists nine other Balanchine ballets from 1920 to 1924 for which she supplies verbal “remnants.”

 

Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance
By Sharon Skeel
Oxford University Press

Before New York City Ballet, before American Ballet Theatre, there was the Catherine Littlefield Ballet Company, later the Philadelphia Ballet. Though it only lasted from 1934 to 1942, it produced the first full-scale Sleeping Beauty in the United States; toured Europe in 1937; and became resident company of the Chicago Civic Opera. Littlefield’s students joined the early groups of both George Balanchine and Mikhail Mordkin, whose company morphed into ABT.

Catherine Littlefield (1905–1951) performed in local musicals, in her own ballets, and in the Ziegfeld Follies, working with choreographers Ned Wayburn and Michel Fokine. (Sounds like Fokine make an Isadora Duncan–type piece with flowing tunics for the Ziegfeld girls.) She studied ballet seriously with Luigi Albertieri, a protégé of Cecchetti. She was friends with Zelda Fitzgerald, supplied numbers for TV shows, and she choreographed Sonja Henie’s ice-skating routines.

Catherine and her sister Dorothie Littlefield met Balanchine at the studio of Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska in Paris. Both sisters continued a friendship with Balanchine and sent their students to study with him to help him start his company. Among them were Todd Bolender, who later took over Kansas City Ballet, and Barbara Weisberger, who started Pennsylvania Ballet. Another Littlefield dancer, Holly Howard, was considered by some to be Balanchine’s first American muse.

This extensively researched book fills in the knowledge gap about America’s first independent ballet company (i.e. not affiliated with an opera house), which helped lay the groundwork for ballet to flourish in this country.

 

Moving and Being Moved
By Yvonne Rainer
Roma Publications

The last line of Yvonne Rainer’s infamous No manifesto of 1965 is “No to moving or being moved.” In “A Manifesto Reconsidered” (2008), she comments on that line with one word: “Unavoidable.” Thus, in some way, the essays in this collection issue forth from Rainer’s ability to change her mind.

The fluidity of her thinking makes this book stimulating to read. But the book also includes the flip side of that: the constancy of some of her ideas. In “Doing Nothing/Nothin’ Doin’: Revisiting a Minimal Approach to Performance,” she talks about doing nothing as a component in her piece The Concept of Dust or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? (2015): “My unattainable ideal (but aren’t all ideals unattainable?) of doing nothing is part of a continuum, an ongoing project in part aimed to upset the applecart of expectations of high energy virtuosic dancing . . . but with a twist: the acknowledgment that everyday movement can only be made intelligible dialectically, in relation to what it is not.” To show the “ongoing” aspect, the “revisiting,” she includes a photo of her Terrain (1963) in which William Davis and Steve Paxton are standing around, doing nothing except watching someone else.

With Rainer, every seed of an idea spreads out and deepens as she goes. In “What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins” while acknowledging various responses to a particular joke, she realizes, “One person’s funny bone is another’s yawn.” It’s not just laughter she’s interested in, but the cause of it: the absurdity of life—and death. The confounding enormity of her brother’s lifeless body descending into a hole in the ground makes her wonder, “Does one laugh to sidestep grief? Or do I laugh to circumvent my anger at the frustrating dancing around death that pervades our culture?”

For anyone interested in Judson Dance Theater, a highpoint in “What’s So Funny” is her memory of Alex Hay’s absurdist Prairie (1963), which he made in response to Charles Ross’s trapezoidal structure of metal pipes. Hay took two pillows high up on the pipe and tried to fall asleep up there while an audiotape of his own voice asked if he was comfortable.

Moving and Being Moved also contains contributions from three other writers including the late art critic/curator Douglas Crimp. Crimp’s 2012 essay “Pedagogical Vaudevillian” takes an astute look at the sources and issues of Rainer’s choreography over the years.

Rainer not only uses language in all her recent dances but seems to have a compulsion to write about the discoveries during the making of each dance. Lucky for us. These writings are companion pieces to Rainer’s choreography; if you’ve seen any of her works, they give you more to chew on.

 

Fringe: Maria Benitez’s Flamenco Enchantment
By Jaima Chevalier
Atomic City Lights Publishers
On Amazon

Fierce, charismatic Maria Benitez was a force onstage as well as off.  With her Santa Fe–based company, María Benítez Teatro Flamenco, she toured internationally from the ’70s to the ’90s. She was so popular in the Southwest that she held 12-week summer seasons at her own cabaret venue for four decades. She also had eight seasons at The Joyce Theater and choreographed for opera. Of Native American and Puerto Rican heritage, Benitez is one of the few Americans who, after studying in Spain, became a great Flamenco dancer. The Institute for Spanish Arts, which she formed with her husband Cecilio in 1970, kept Hispanic arts alive in Santa Fe for almost five decades.

Fringe is a loving tribute by a lifelong admirer, Jaima Chevalier, written in flowery language that one might call rambling cosmic conjecture. (I wish this book had an index and footnotes to ground the scholarship.) However one learns some basic points, for example that flamenco, like jazz, emerged from a persecuted people and includes improvisation riffing off of a theme.

This lavishly produced book showcases a variety of photographers’ pictures of the great dancer. Ruven Afanador shows Benitez’s drama, glamor, and cheekbones. Beverly Gile focuses her face while she’s performing. Winter Prather shot from the bottom up, emphasizing her statuesque quality. Jack Mitchell, the famed Dance Magazine and celebrity photographer, showed the fierce pride in her arched back. Brian Fishbine caught her in candid moments with musicians and some of the many young dancers who called her Flamenco Madre.

 

Reissues

Yvonne Rainer: Work 1961–1973
Primary Information

Rainer’s writing about the process of making dances has always been galvanizing. I enjoy her conceptual clarity, articulation of ambivalence, and eagerness to experiment. Challenge and defiance are her natural state. The title reminds me that choreographing is not something romantic but is mostly work. Rainer’s witty, blunt prose embraces complexity in a way I find exhilarating. At this point, Work 196-–1973 is kind of a post-modern bible.

 

Conversations with Meredith Monk
New, expanded edition
By Bonnie Marranca
PAJ Publications
Order at Amazon

These interviews reveal the depth and delight of Monk’s boundary-crossing work. “The essence of my philosophy,” says Monk, “is the integration and weaving together of many perceptual forms.” And yet we experience Monk’s performances as more than simply an integration of forms. It’s also a dig down into the unconscious, into dreams and histories. A place where, as Monk says, comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but qualities that infiltrate each other.

Monk says she’s interested in “cycles of time.” Case in point: When she talks about the sick child in Quarry, which is set in World War II, she says, “Her illness becomes a metaphor for the world descending into darkness.” This suddenly seems so apt, with Covid plunging us all into a kind of darkness.

 

Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance
By Marcia B. Siegel
University Press of Florida

From one of our best dance critics comes this 2006 work, detailing Tharp’s dances from her early rehearsals in the basement of Judson Memorial Church to full seasons on Broadway. Along the way are her landmark ballets for the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the movie Hair. The title, Howling Near Heaven, hints at the joining of opposites that Tharp was so good at: the primal and the divine co-exist in her best work. Siegel takes us through Tharp’s hunger to experiment, the staggering range of her output, and her goals for each project. She describes some of the dancers’ experiences and the potential obstacles to completing each work. Tharp’s intelligence sparkles on every page, Siegel’s in-depth treatment of one of America’s greatest choreographers is invigorating to read.

 

Other Books

ChoreoGraphics: Six Studies
Photographs and Interviews by Judith Stuart Boroson
Available at Judith Stuart Photography and Outskirts Press
This slim paperback contains interviews with six current choreographers, each talking about a particular work that has been photographed by Judith Stuart Boroson. Alexandra Beller, wanting to leave the familiar postmodern vocabulary behind, watches her toddlers for clues to something more connected to purpose. Janis Brenner works with people in war-torn Sarajevo to mine their family heritage. In her intense Memoirs of a…Unicorn, Marjani Forté-Saunders attempts to connect the vulnerability of Black men to her own body: “I’m wanting to feel a kind of delirium so that the inside eventually comes out.” Colleen Thomas is engaged in process, how she begins and begins again, opening up to new ideas. Nathan Trice has been working a malleable duet form that uses his method of “hand-body listening.” And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, along with Samantha Speis, created Walking with ’Trane to honor the traditions of exploratory improvisation in jazz music.

Transmissions
By Nick Mauss
Dancing Foxes Press
This is a lavish catalog for a 2018 exhibit at the Whitney Museum that celebrated the intersection of ballet, fashion, and art from the 1930s through the ’50s. With its photographs, flyers and other artifacts, the catalog sets forth a pre-queer, pre-camp sensibility. Painter Paul Cadmus, an associate of Lincoln Kirstein, is one of the central figures as a pre-Stonewall queer artist. The book contains artifacts reflecting work from Bakst and Goncharova to Man Ray, Elie Nadelman, Cadmus, and Pavel Tchelitchew, and glimpses of Ruth Page, Sono Osato, Alicia Markova, and Jacques d’Amboise. Photography was just coming into its own at this time. The homoerotic photos of George Platt Lynes, who was hired by Kirstein to photograph Balanchine’s dancers, seem to foreshadow Mapplethorpe’s sensibility. Carl Van Vechten’s photographic portraits, in their lush beauty with floral backgrounds, include a 1938 diptych of Al Bledger of the American Negro Ballet—one of Van Vechten’s portraits that were sometimes accused of “white naiveté.”

Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia
Edited by Katherine Mezur and Emily Wilcox
University of Michigan Press
One of a new spate of books featuring Asian dance scholarship, this anthology contains 16 chapters by different Asian and American dance scholars. Some of the essays focus on historical figures like Michio Ito, Dai Ailian, or Mei Lanfang. Others have great titles like “The Conflicted Monk” and “Cracking History’s Codes in Crocodile Time.” Half the contributors hail from universities in the U.S., the other half from Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, and Germany.

Moving Bodies, Navigating Conflict: Practicing Bharata Natyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka
By Ahalya Satkunaratnam
Wesleyan University Press
Sri Lanka, called a “hybrid island,” is a mix of religions, races, and languages. The author examines classical Indian dance practice in its capital, Colombo, during the long and violent civil war from 1983 to 2009. Ahalya Satkunaratnam, a dancer herself, traces how women dancers navigate the traumatic conditions of war, including performing bharata natyam on a TV competition show, and ultimately work toward peace.

The Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance
Edited by Vida L. Midgelow
Oxford University Press
With 43 entries by a wide range of improvisers and scholars including Ann Cooper Albright, Kent De Spain, Thomas DeFrantz, Janice Ross, Stephanie Skura, and Sheron Wray.

A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora
By Sarah Morelli
University of Illinois Press
This comprehensive look at the life of Chitresh Das (1944–2015), possibly the most accomplished Kathak dancer in the U. S., is a testament to his influence. He set up schools across the Bay Area and his followers are legion. The book also gives a welcome history of Indian dance in American since the 1880s, when Nautch dancers were deemed less than satisfactory and were replaced by white dancers willing to show more skin — skin that was bronzed in an attempt to look the part.

Lastly, my own book:
The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970–1976
By Wendy Perron
Wesleyan University Press
You probably know by now that I wouldn’t write a book unless I absolutely loved the subject matter. So, just the facts: This leaderless improvisation group, which has been called a “miracle” and “collective genius,” included Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Lincoln Scott and Becky Arnold. Watching them in the 1970s, and again recently via videotape, I marveled at how they retained their vivid, eccentric selves while meshing with the group—or refusing to mesh. I tried to reflect that mercurial reality—or as Dilley has said, surreal quality—while also giving a sense of the environment that made it possible: SoHo, a fledgling artists’ colony. Many readers (and viewers of my public zooming events) have been able to share my pleasure in Grand Union. And now that we are each reinventing ourselves in the pandemic, this radical concept of complete improvisation within a collective takes on new meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ruth Beckford (1925–2019)

Beckford, 1961, Ruth Beckford Papers, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library (AAMLO)

The only dancer to have performed with both Katherine Dunham and Anna Halprin, Ruth Beckford developed a modern dance program for the whole city of Oakland, California. She trained and mentored countless young women in dance and in life, teaching with equal parts discipline and joy. Known as the “Mother of Black Dance” in the Bay Area, or just “The Dance Lady” in the East Bay, she also toured with her own African-Haitian dance company. A lifelong activist, Beckford broken color barriers wherever she went: as a child in dance lessons, in college, and in modern dance companies.

Beckford’s community was a family. Among her “daughters” were Naima Lewis, Deborah Vaughan, and Halifu Osumare. She called Maya Angelou and Anna Halprin her “sisters.” She was named Oakland’s “Mother of the Year” in 2018.

Beckford received many accolades: She was inducted into the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards (Izzies) Hall of Fame in 1985 and was honored by Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a hub of the Black Arts Movement, the year before she died. As a visual tribute, the Alice Street mural in Oakland’s arts district features Beckford as a towering figure overlooking African American arts.

Early life

Ruth, photo courtesy Joyce Gordon Gallery

Born in Oakland, Ruth showed an urge to dance from the beginning. “My mother said that in the crib, if music played, I would start kicking in time with the music.” The youngest of four children, she was taking dance lessons with Florelle Batsford at the age of 3—the only black child there. She studied ballet, tap, and acrobatics — with a flurry of flamenco, hula, baton, toe-tap — for the next 14 years. To pay for the lessons her mother would clean the studio, and, as she got older, Ruth would pitch in too.

Comfortable in a split, Joyce Gordon Gallery

At 8, Ruth was earning money as an acrobatic dancer with her brother in local vaudeville houses, as well as winning a slew of solo dance competitions. Her father was an entrepreneur who owned his own taxi cab, then a simonizing business, and finally his own miniature golf course. As an active member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, he passed down black pride to his daughter. He would always tell her, “You are a fine young black woman.” This was a source of great security for her: “When you went out into the world with that on your back, nothing bothered you because you knew you could come home to those loving arms.” Ruth felt her integrated neighborhood in West Oakland was harmonious. “There were wonderful Black businesses all up and down Seventh Street,” she has said. (This was before it was gentrified.)

The young acrobat, Joyce Gordon Gallery

At 14, she started teaching in her garage: “For a quarter you could come and get 15 minutes of tap and 15 minutes of ballet.”

Her life coincided with great moments in history. Her sweet 16 birthday was celebrated on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. “We all went to the movie,” she recalled. “We’re sitting in the movie eating milk duds … and on the screen the movie stopped, and it said all military personnel report to your bases, the United States is at war with Japan, and we are getting bombed.” One of the tragedies of the war for her was the loss of some of her friends to internment camps, a shamelessly racist chapter in America’s past. “Our best friends were Japanese kids. Then, when they got evacuated to their camps, we all cried; our friends were gone.”

Ruth, second from left, always loved a party, c. 1940s, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Dancing with Miss Dunham

In Rite de Passage, Katherine Dunham Dance Company, 1943, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Like the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Katherine Dunham would give impromptu auditions while on tour. Egged on by her brothers, 17-year-old Ruth went to see the Dunham troupe in Cabin in the Sky at the San Francisco Curran Theater, where Dunham was co-starring with Ethel Waters. In her memory of that day in 1943, Ruth and her mother went backstage to meet Miss Dunham, who right away—in between the matinee and evening performances—arranged for her to perform for some of her cast members on the stage. “Accompanying myself with round metal discs on my fingers, I performed an acrobatic finger cymbal dance consisting of splits, flips, bends, and stretches, all done in slow motion to show strength, control, and a sense of rhythm.”

She was accepted into the company for its six-week West Coast tour. After obtaining a leave from Oakland Technical High School, Ruth started a three-week immersion:

Each morning I studied Dunham technique and each afternoon repertoire. Since Miss D always traveled with at least three complete shows, the challenge was tremendous. I can remember moving my feet to rehearse a new step while sitting on the “C” Key System train during my daily commute from Oakland.

Because Ruth was so young, Dunham invited Ruth’s mother to go along on this tour, which traveled up the West Coast to Canada and back down to San Francisco. Mrs. Beckford became a kind of den mother for the company. The tour was Ruth’s first time leaving California, first time on a ship, and first time seeing snow—not to mention her first time dancing Dunham’s works. At the end of the tour, Dunham offered the teenager a seven-year contract. It was tempting particularly because the company was on its way to Hollywood to shoot Stormy Weather. However, Ruth’s family valued education, and she finally decided to go to college instead of committing to a life on the road. As she said to Miss Dunham, “If I hurt myself, I’ll just be a dumb ex-dancer.” Dunham respected her decision, and the two women remained friends for life. Beckford even threw a 90th birthday party for her mentor in St. Louis.

Workshop with Dunham dancers, St, Louis, 1993. Clockwise from top left: Albirda Rose, Cleo Parker, Ruth Beckford, Tommy Gomes, and Lucile Ellis, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

A string of firsts

Ruth became the first Black member of UC Berkeley’s chapter of Orchesis, the modern dance society that had branches all over the country. When they would meet in larger gatherings, with other local schools like Stanford and Mills, there could be a hundred girls in a room. “The pressure of being the only black walking into a room with all white girls and all white teachers—if I hadn’t had the kind of support at home where I knew who I was and proud in being black—I  don’t know what I would have done.”

Ruth in 1952, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

UC Berkeley faculty member Carly Cuddeback had attended the Bennington School of the Dance in the summers of 1936 and ’37. She had studied composition with Martha Hill and Bessie Schönberg and had appeared in the premiere of Hanya Holm’s Trend (1937). She was so impressed by Beckford’s talent that she brought her to the Halprin-Lathrop School in San Francisco, where Anna Halprin taught Humphrey-Weidman technique and Welland Lathrop gave Graham-based classes. Halprin and Lathrop invited Beckford into their company, which was a top-tier West Coast modern dance group at the time—before the Civil Rights era. “Everywhere we went,” Beckford said, “people weren’t prepared for a black dancer and they gasped. It was courageous for them to open the doors to an African American dancer back then.”

Beckford kept in touch with Halprin the rest of her life. When Halprin was working on her controversial, inter-racial work Ceremony of Us in 1969, she arranged for the black performers to study with Beckford. When I was working on a different research project in 2018, I was lucky to speak with Beckford on the phone. When I asked about Halrpin, she said, “Anna and I are still like sisters.”

Beckford in center, Merce Cunningham at left, Anna Halprin at right, on Halprin’s deck, Kentfield, CA, 1957 @Ted Shreshinsky for Dance Magazine

The First City-Wide Dance Program

1955, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

After graduating UC Berkeley, Beckford took a job with the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department. She turned that minimal program into the first city-funded dance department in the country: the Oakland Recreation Department’s Division of Modern Dance. She set up classes at community centers all over the city for ages six up through high school. Her mission was less about training girls to be professional dancers and more about teaching to the whole child. As black dance scholar Halifu Osumare has written,

Her primary goal was to create productive, self-respecting young women through dance in social context, following one of Katherine Dunham’s primary philosophical concepts, ‘Socialization through the Arts.’ Here was a community dance teacher who had strict, graduated levels of technique with “dance exams” that had to be passed in order to go from one level to the next.

Beckford had a realistic view of her mission:

Only one will be a dancer out of all these hundreds of girls, but they all have to be women. So life skills I would always slip into the dance classes. The girls learned to stand straight, to have self-confidence, to not curse, not fight, and I tried to expose them to many new things.

First concert at New Century Recreation Center, 1947, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Deborah Vaughan, director of Dimensions Dance Theater, told me in a phone interview how much Beckford’s students admired her:

She had a very infectious personality and was a fantastic dancer. But another thing that was impactful for us young Black girls: she was stunningly beautiful and she was very dark skinned and had a close-cropped natural. For so many young black girls, even today, with the wigs, with getting their hair pressed, often not accepting often who they are . . . We said, ‘Omigod, look at her, she’s beautiful.’

The program was so successful that people from around the country were sent to Oakland to observe the classes. It’s been said that other cities modeled their parks department dance programs on Beckford’s. This is probably true, but the only one I know of is in nearby San Mateo, where the Parks & Recreation Department Dance Program was started by Mary Joyce, who had taught with Beckford in Oakland. The program is still going strong, offering scores of live streaming virtual classes in the pandemic.

Undated photo of girls in the Rec program, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

In 1968, after 21 years at the helm, Beckford hand-picked her successor, Naima Lewis. In fact, she waited until Lewis finished her masters’ degree in dance from Mills College to pass the torch. Lewis, who is now an internationally certified yoga therapist, had come to the Rec program as an 11-year-old and joined her company (see next section) at 15.

Naima Lewis teaches a class at McClimonds High School Gym, 1971, Newsprint photo courtesy Dr. Lewis

When she took over the program, it was the beginning of the Black Power Movement. So she decided to bring African-Haitian dance into the Recreation program, whereas Beckford had taught African-Haitian separately, in private studios. About the period when she inherited the program from Beckford, Lewis told me this:

It was the 1960s, and everybody was turning to Africa. The Oakland Rec Department was wide open for it. Miss B had nurtured in me the strength and the courage to step forward and say, “Now the revolution needs to be shown through black dance.’ It allowed young people to have a sense of ethnic identity. Without being too dogmatic, dance has this way of massaging consciousness into those that are participating. It was an opportunity to expand awareness of your own self and your own history, much like what is occurring now.

At that point the program was serving 350 students a week, from 6-year-olds up. “They could take dance for one dollar a year,” Dr. Lewis recalled. “When I took over, we tripled the staff, with Deborah Vaughan, Shirley Brown, and Elender Barnes.

After Lewis left in 1978, the program was led by the late Raymond Johnson and then Jacqui Birdsong James. By 1988, when Denise Pate took over the program—by then called City-Wide Dance program— it served thousands of children, from kindergarten through high school, in sixty sites, employed eight to ten musicians, and more than twenty dance teachers. But in 1993 the program was split up and the full-time position director position was eliminated. Pate, who is now the city’s Cultural Funding Coordinator, says that the “remnants of the dance program” can be found in a few classes at the Oakland Sports and Aquatics Center and many more classes at the Malonga Casquelourd Arts Center, which is the hub of Oakland’s performing arts community. Deborah Vaughan’s Dimensions Dance Theater, Axis Dance Company (a mixed-ability group), and Diamano Coura West African Dance Company are housed there. (Originally called the Alice Art Center, it was renamed after Congolese dancer/drummer Malonga Casquelourd was killed in a car accident in 2003.)

The Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company

In 1954 Dunham invited Beckford to New York to teach at her famed midtown school. Beckford felt honored to be on the same faculty with Geoffrey Holder, Arthur Mitchell, and Louis Johnson. But the school’s days were numbered because the director,  Syvilla Fort, left to start her own school. So, after two months, Beckford returned to California.

Beckford, second from left, and three dancers in Haitian dress, 1956, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Energized by her experience in New York, Beckford opened her own studios of African Haitian dance—one in Oakland and the other in the Peters Wright studio in San Francisco—while still directing the Rec program. Drawing on her advanced students, she formed a company based on the Dunham model. She went to Haiti to study voodoo, as Dunham had done, and condensed the ritual all-night dances she saw there. Although her company was active for only eight years, some of its members, like Deborah Vaughan and Naima Lewis, went on to distinguish themselves as leaders in dance.

Undated photo, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

“Ruth Beckford was the hub for the serious black dancer,” Osumare wrote, “and those white dancers who felt the call of ‘a different drummer,’ ” She called Beckford the “regional transmitter” of Dunham technique on the West Coast.

Her classes, like Dunham’s, were physically demanding. As you can see from this clip of her teaching in 1968, she is talking about Damballa, the snake god, and her spine undulations are extreme. Osumare, who is actually in this video (tall and slim with an Afro), recalls the technical challenges:

Every one of Miss Beckford classes were strenuous, with a meticulous approach to learning the Dunham technique and Haitian dance, all leading to nothing short of self mastery. The Dunham barre . . . that left one’s thighs screaming, required exact body placement, endurance, flexibility, and musicality.

For Osumare and many in the black cultural district of Oakland, the power of the drums drew them in:

The most revolutionary aspect of Miss B’s classes, for me, was that drummers accompanied them, not a pianist playing Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. The 6/8 and 4/4 rhythms of Afro-Haitian music were riveting, with the battery of drummers often led by Bay Area drummer Butch Haynes. These rhythms began to open an inner cultural ear that I didn’t even know existed. After the dance barre warm-up, we had center-floor isolations — learning to separate the head, shoulders, rib cage, and hips from each other in order to play the drums’ polyrhythms in the body. Never before had I been expected to be so masterful with my center torso. Sure, I had learned to lock my spine in exact placement for ballet, contract it from the pelvis for Graham, and relax it from the waist for Limon swings. But to carry two or three rhythms in the torso at once was definitely a different cultural experience.

UC Berkeley, 1961, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Perhaps because of her vaudeville days as an entertainer, Beckford preferred to tour the college and university circuit. “I had done a great amount of research on our dances, and I thought it would be wasted if it was not in colleges or theater houses where people were accustomed to come and see serious performing. I could’ve gone to Vegas and put on a tassel and made a fortune.”

Beckford at right, undated photo, Ruth Beckford papers, AAMLO

(As an aside, I will add that in one of Beckford’s short bios for program notes, she mentioned that in 1958 she toured with Ruth St. Denis in her Religious Dances.)

Beckford also taught at Mills College, where Trisha Brown and Elendar Barnes, co-founder with Vaughan of Dimensions Dance Theater, were among her students. This video shows her leading a large class at Mills with three drummers in 1974.

Community involvement

In 1968, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, enlisted Beckford’s help to start the Free Breakfasts for Children program. Its first location was St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, where Beckford was a member. (Although she was christened there, she has said that her spiritual practice was more about reading Daily Word at home.) She consulted a nutritionist, helped procure food from local businesses (“Every morning at 6:00 I’d go with my begging bowl and get stuff donated”), recruited parents, and set standards of behavior for the volunteers. Not to mention that she brought in her students to help serve. Vaughan, a teenager at the time, remembers, “She invited us to participate, saying, ‘This is something you all need to know about and be involved in because this is what’s happening in the community.’ So some of us went along to help serve breakfast to kids in the community that didn’t have enough food.”

Beckford knew the program was a success when the first school principal reported the children had become alert and focused. The program grew from a handful of kids at St. Augustine’s to hundreds, then thousands, and quickly expanded to cities across the country. The free breakfasts became a model for the Panthers’ other programs like free health clinics and community ambulances.

(At the time, the Black Panthers were reviled in the white press, which portrayed them as violent radicals. But the aspect of the Panthers that was most threatening to the FBI was the free food program because it was obviously successful. It posed such a national “threat” that the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, ordered it to be destroyed by whatever means necessary. A few years later, the government took a page from the Panthers’ playbook and expanded its own program to provide free food.)

Beckford gave unstintingly to her community in many other ways as well. She helped found the Oakland Dance Association as well as the Cultural Ethnic Affairs Guild. She founded the oral history program at the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, interviewing older black people in the work force. She helped the homeless and gave talks in women’s prisons. (“I tell them, ‘You are special’ because I felt those women did not come from loving homes.”) She worked with victims of the 1989 earthquake and counseled people in job training. In 1997, she created her own awards, the Ruth Beckford Award to Extraordinary People in the Field of Dance. As Vaughan told me, “Whatever she thought, she put into action.”

Life after dance

In 1974 Dunham sent Beckford a letter asking her to write her life story. Beckford’s response: “No, no, no. Let me get my sister friend Maya Angelou to write your book.” But Dunham insisted. Even though Beckford had never written a book, Dunham wanted someone who knew and understood her work to take on this task. (“After the initial shock, I understood the degree of her trust in our friendship. My pride began to swell.”) Beckford ultimately agreed, and she enjoyed spending time with Miss Dunham in East St. Louis and in Haiti interviewing her. Many books about or by Dunham have been written since then, but Katherine Dunham, A Biography, is the first authorized biography. Beckford knew her subject well enough to have a little fun with it. In a chapter titled “True, False and Other Myths,” she asks intimate questions like, Do you ever drink before a performance? And Is it true that you were intimately associated with Haitian presidents?

Dunham as a guest teacher at UC Berkeley, assisted by Backford, 1976, photo Francine Jamison

After publishing her first book, Beckford wrote, starred in, and produced a three-part play, “Tis the Morning of my Life,” about an older woman’s relationship with a younger man, presented by the Oakland Ensemble Theatre Company. Her book Still Groovin’: Affirmations for Women in the Second Half of Life offers spiritual and practical advice for older women. She also wrote two cookbooks and co-wrote The Picture Man, about Bay Area photographer E.F. Joseph.

In addition to her writing life, she appeared in several movies, including My Funny Valentine with Alfre Woodard and Loretta Divine, and two PBS films directed by Maya Angelou.

Beckford in later life, wearing stained glass earrings she made herself

At the opening of “The Ruth Beckford Museum” at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in 2018, she said, “I choreographed my life. Step by step, year by year.” Sounds very orderly. But there was another part of her personality too:

I’m a risk taker: If it don’t work, it’s OK. I say you should never die and not having done your secret ambition. If you have to go sneak off into the mountains and do it, accomplish your secret ambition.

Hers was to be a lounge singer. She took up voice lessons at a community college and, well past her retirement from dancing, sang as part of the class recital at the end of the semester. Her song was “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” and she had a ball doing it.

She was bursting with energy till the end. Perhaps Vaughan said it best: “Miss Beckford rode life until the wheels came off.”

Legacy

Although Beckford moved away from dance in her later life, her influence has been continually felt. Vaughan has said, “Miss Beckford broke the ceiling for black dance artists in the Bay Area.” Osumare points out that the profusion of African diaspora groups included local groups like Vaughan’s own group, Dimensions Dance Theater (the oldest  oldest African American dance company on the West Coast), and Nontzisi Cayou and her Wajumbe Performance Ensemble. as well as performers emigrating from Ghana (C. K. Ladzekpo), Congo (Malonga Casquelourd), and Senegal (Zak Diouf and the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company).

In 2014, a visual tribute to Beckford appeared as a part of the famous Alice Street mural, titled “Universal Language,” in which she was featured as a towering joy-spreading figure.

Alice Street mural with Beckford as the central figure

But after a battle with gentrification, that mural was obscured. In a compromise solution, a new mural, called “AscenDance,” rose up last summer during Covid. Although Beckford is no longer as large and central a figure as she was in the first mural, she is visible off to the left, still wearing her signature white Haitian dress.

When the late Congolese dancer Malonga Casquelourd was presented with the Ruth Beckford Award in 1997, he spoke for many: “She made the ground fertile for us to land here!”

For all these reasons, last year the African American Museum & Library at Oakland of Oakland Public Library mounted an exhibit called “Ruth Beckford: Visionary Woman,” which has supplied many of the photos here.

 

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Special thanks to Deborah Vaughan, Dr. Naima Lewis, Dr. Halifu Osumare, Denise Pate, Tamara Sparkles and the Izzies team; Joyce Gordon and Eric Murphy of the Joyce Gordon Gallery; Sean Dickerson, archivist at the African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library; Risa Jaroslow, Ann Murphy, Joanna Harris, and Liam O’Donoghue.

 

Other Sources

Library collection

Finding AID for Ruth Beckford Papers at Online Archive of California

Books

Katherine Dunham: A Biography
By Ruth Beckford

Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir
By Halifu Osumare

Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1915-1965
By Joanna Gewertz Harris

Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance
By Janice Ross

Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities
Eds. Kariamu Welsh, Esailama G. A. Diouf, and Yvonne Daniel

Articles

“Dimensions Dance Theater: For Decades Strong”
By Latanya Tigner

“Obituary: Ruth Beckford, legendary dancer, choreographer”
By Brenda Payton, East Bay Times, May 9, 2019

“Forthcoming Documentary Fights Cultural Erasure in Oakland”
By Arielle Swedback
June 16, 2016

“How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government”
By Erin Blakemore
Feb. 6, 2018

“Ruth Beckford, 93”
By Brenda Payton Jones
May 10, 2019

“From Guns to Butter: Ruth Beckford-Smith”
By Joshua Bloom and Martin E. Waldo
March 18, 2017

Video interviews
Interview for African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library
2007

The Woman’s Connection
2011

Audio interviews
“I enjoyed every day”: A Tribute to Ruth Beckford
East Bay Yesterday
2019

Films of dance classes
African/Haitian Dance with Ruth Beckford, 1968, available for viewing in the Archive Collection at Medgar Evers College

Black dance in action, Ruth Beckford workshop at Mills College,1974 (African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Ruth Beckford Papers

 

 

 

 

 

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