Sybil Shearer (1912–2005)

The Inheritance, a series of photos of Sybil Shearer by Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

John Martin called her a “remarkably creative maverick.” (Martin, 1963) Ted Shawn wrote that she had “the unmistakable marks of true greatness.” (qtd. in Shearer 2006, 339) Walter Sorell noted her “extraordinary originality.” (Sorell, 213) Walter Terry called her a “weaver of magic.” (Terry 1956).

In the 1940s Sybil Shearer was acknowledged as a leader of the avant-garde along with Merce Cunningham. In fact, Terry wrote that the two “have retained almost exalted positions as the king and queen of the avant-garde—others come and go, but they stay on.” (Terry, 1956)

Shearer certainly wove her magic during her 1941 solo debut concert at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall. So much so that after she left New York for the Midwest, John Martin and other critics traveled to see her whenever she performed in the Chicago area.

[Aside: I saw her dance at Ravinia in 1970 and never forgot her. Though I don’t remember the title of the piece, I remember an intense, riveting figure shaking and shimmering, with light flecks coming off her. One couldn’t look away.]

Shearer eventually faded from view to all but dance lovers in Chicago, where her name is still—or again—golden. One wonders, is a modern dance solo practice enough to secure a place in dance history? Was Shearer’s uniqueness, her otherworldliness, only worthy to the field for a finite period? Can her work, in some form, return to inspire current dancemakers?

Given the consistent raves in the 1940s, it’s remarkable how rarely her name appears in scholarly anthologies of national scope. Like Anna Halprin, Shearer left New York, escaping the orthodoxies of the day. I don’t think her ideas cut through the cloth of dance history the way Halprin’s did, but still, she deserves a place in our awareness.

In the 1990s Shearer became a dance critic, writing for the invaluable journal Ballet Review. Embedded in these reviews are clues to her philosophy of dance and art. Also, her three-volume autobiography, titled Without Wings the Way Is Steep, sheds light on major figures like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Agnes de Mille, John Martin, Hanya Holm, and Louis Horst. (Note: this book, at least the first volume, is more of an annotated compilation of previous letters and other writings than a conventional autobiography.)

Early years
Born in Toronto, Shearer grew up in Nyack, NY, Long Island, and Newark, NY. When her mother played the piano, she danced—“always conscious of unseen forces I called fairies” (Shearer 2006, xx). At 4 she started taking ballroom lessons, but what she remembers most is the terror of beginning to dance—a stage fright that followed her into her professional life.

At home in Long Island c. 1920

At age 10 or 11, Shearer saw Anna Pavlova perform and “became filled with dreams.” She managed to get the great ballerina to sign her program. “I had fallen in love with her, with the dance, with the theatre.” (Shearer 2006, xx) Hearing of Pavlova’s death in 1931, Sybil felt bereft; she referred to the ballerina as a fairy, enshrining her as a representative of those unseen forces. She started taking ballet lessons with Grace Miles, who also taught society ladies like the wives of Alfred Vanderbilt and Florenz Ziegfeld.

As a literature and theater student at Skidmore College, Shearer often wrote letters to herself, sometimes addressing them to “My Dear Unknown” (Shearer 2006, xxii). (That word “unknown” was to surface later, perhaps as an adult version of a fairy.) While still a student, she saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and somehow met the choreographer Léonide Massine. (She had no compunctions about meeting whomever she admired from afar—Agnes de Mille, Katherine Dunham, Sol Hurok.) She didn’t like the dancing or the choreography. It wasn’t until she saw a book in the library called The Modern Dance (1933), by John Martin, that she felt pulled toward this more contemporary form.

The Bennington School of the Dance
After graduating college in 1934, Shearer headed to the first summer of what was to become the cauldron of modern dance, the Bennington School of the Dance. The summer session served two functions: First, to give the “four pioneers” of modern dance—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm—the space to create new works. Second, to grow this larger thing called modern dance and spread the gospel across the country. Many of the students were women who were teaching in physical education departments in high schools or colleges. Very few were destined to become professional dancers; among those few were Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin, Louise Kloepper, and Shearer.

Hanya Holm, 1930s, Bennington College Archive

Shearer liked Doris Humphrey’s class immediately, but she was absolutely rapturous about Hanya Holm. Holm seemed wild and free compared to the restrained Humphrey, and Shearer made no secret of her enthusiasms. In the mornings, as related by Nancy McKnight Hauser, Sybil would wait on Holm’s front step until the choreographer practically tripped over her. (qtd. in McPherson 258)

Although Shearer had studied ballet and ballroom, she was a beginner in modern dance. In a conversation among faculty members looking back, composer Norman Lloyd recalled, “Everyone advised her [Shearer] to drop this idea of dancing…but she just kept on working and working by herself, and eventually she ended up in Doris’ company.” To which Bessie Schönberg added, “Every time you opened any studio door, there was Sybil on the floor working.” (McPherson 231)

Dancing on Commons lawn, ph Thomas Bouchard, Bennington College Archive

The grassy fields on the sprawling Bennington campus beckoned almost as much as the studios. Of her outdoor forays, Shearer reports the following reactions: “Flock by flock the cows, horses and sheep came from their pastures and looked over the fence at me. The cows were the most impressed, because they find it so hard to move quickly.” (Shearer 2006, 21)

She found Louis Horst’s composition class to be “agony in itself but great joy at the same time.” (Shearer 2006, 20) She described Horst as a “major-domo throwing cold water on most choreographic projects.” (Shearer 1984, 198) May O’Donnell, who was Horst’s assistant, “remembers the hours she [O’Donnell] spent comforting Sybil.” (qtd in Horwitz, 26)

Horst & Graham in front of Commons c. 1934, Bennington College Archive

Shearer wasn’t crazy about Horst’s outsized devotion to Martha Graham, which she felt had “an enormous influence on the community.” (McPherson, 34) To a friend, she wrote, “This Graham cult is a marvelous thing. I can’t help admiring it, as one does the Catholic Church for its persistence.” (Shearer 2006, 151) Even though she was wowed by Graham’s presence and by her choreography, she had no desire for further study with the high priestess of modern dance: “Miss Graham treats us as though we are morons,” she wrote. “She talks baby talk to us, and I hate to be told that I look like an ‘anxious female’ when I stick my chin out because another part of my anatomy hurts.” (McPherson, 33)

On the faculty, teaching dance criticism and theory, was the New York Times critic John Martin. During Sybil’s third summer, they were sitting at a table in the dining room (perhaps Doris and Charles were there), and he said to the others, “Well I saw Sybil talking to the trees again today.” She replied, “Mister Martin, you are mistaken. I was simply testing the rebound of various branches.” (Shearer 2006, 323) Her own rebound to his remark impressed him, and they embarked on a friendship that lasted until his death in 1985. She always appreciated his support in both conversation and in print. “I could so easily have been crushed by a less imaginative critic,” she wrote as part of her tribute to him in Ballet Review. (Shearer 2006, 319). She compared him to Diaghilev in his ability to be a catalyst for choreographers. (Shearer 1984, 23) She acknowledged that their friendship was controversial because critics and artists were not supposed to be friends. (These days, if there is any perception of conflict of interest, a critic must either step aside or disclose the relationship within the review.)

Possibly Bessie Schönberg’s class, 1934, Bennington College Archive

Sybil thought about grand moments in dance history, for instance Michel Fokine’s 1914 reforms for ballet and what they meant for her own time. She considered romantic and classic styles not as opposites but as ever present modes that any choreographer could draw upon. She felt that ballet, being classic, was necessary for training the natural body, while modern techniques were a matter of style. She viewed modern dancers as secret romantics because their work was personal and they favored serious issues over the trivial. (Shearer 1984, 24)

Ballet Caravan, 1936: Lew Christensen’s “Encounter,” MP+D

Much as she revered Pavlova and Nijinsky, Shearer had no patience for Ballet Caravan, the company that Lincoln Kirstein brought to the Bennington School of the Dance. In July 1936, reacting to Ballet Caravan’s program of works (probably by Eugene Loring, Ruthanna Boris, and Lew Christensen), she wrote:

I went to the ballet Saturday night, and have felt ill ever since—just plain disgust that grew from indifference on first seeing it. It cannot be called art, and therefore cannot be compared with our dance, but it is really not entertaining either because of its depressing influence. It tried to be so light and gay that it became strained, just as a gushing society butterfly becomes strained as she grows old. (Shearer 2006, 154)

Sybil at Bennington in 1935, ph Sidney Bernstein, Bennington College Archive

The stone canyon
In the fall of 1934 Shearer moved to Manhattan, where she continued studying with Humphrey and Weidman. (She preferred Holm, but her father, who had agreed to pay for a year of classes, felt the Academy of Allied Arts, where Humphrey and Weidman taught, was more “practical.” [Horwitz 29]) She was still at a beginner level, but by late November she was chosen to be in Humphrey’s “demonstration group” (apparently an understudy or workshop group).

She also studied acting with Maria Ouspenskaya and helped form a group called Theatre Dance Company that aimed to integrate acting and dancing. John Martin’s wife, Louise, gave them acting lessons. The group, which comprised about seventeen people including Fe Alf, Eleanor King, Bill Bales, George Bockman (Lloyd 240) and Jack Cole (Shearer 2006, 185), performed demonstrations that sometimes included Sybil’s choreography.

Shearer hated New York. She called it a “stone canyon” (Christiansen) and likened its skyscrapers to “prehistoric monsters.” (Within This Thicket DVD) As her longtime dancer Toby Nicholson told me, “She felt it was hard to be creative in New York and she wanted to get out of there as soon as she could.” She had no use for the left-leaning dancers of the New Dance Group, remarking snidely, “The Russian Revolution seemed to fascinate everyone.” (Within This Thicket DVD)

One of her rare pieces about world events, And Prophesy, was unfortunately never filmed. She describes it as “My vision of dancing on the edge of a cliff in a wild storm as Germany marched into France in World War II. In my memory I was running and falling and sliding on the ground again and again as I beat the wind with my arms.” (More on this solo later.)

Dancing with Humphrey-Weidman
Although Shearer was not technically advanced that fall, she harbored a “wild imagining” that she might someday get into the Humphrey-Weidman company. (Shearer 2006, 28) As others observed, she worked very hard, and by the fall of 1935 she was invited to join the demonstration group. By January of 1936, she became a full-fledged member of the company. She assisted Humphrey in her teaching at Allied Arts as well as at Bennington during the summers of 1936 and ’38. This was a peak period for the Humphrey-Weidman company, and Sybil was in the original casts of their most enduring works: New Dance, With My Red Fires, and Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. (McDonagh 1976)

Dancer and author Stuart Hodes contributes a story about how hard she worked, as told to him by Bill Bales:

…according to Bill Bales, Weidman had said, “Sybil, your dancing needs to be sharper and more clearly defined”…So Sybil went into a studio for six months and came out dancing sharper than anyone had ever danced before. Then Doris said, “Sybil, your dancing needs to be more lyrical,’ so Sybil went into a studio and came out in six months the most lyrical dancer in the company. (Hodes 36)

Doris Humphrey in “Passacaglia,” 1938, Bennington College Archive

Hard work aside, there was also an economic reason Shearer was asked into the understudy group: the Great Depression. Humphrey had found spots for her better dancers in Broadway musicals, with the understanding that they would help support the company with their earnings. (Shearer 2006, 43) But some of them preferred to keep their Broadway gigs rather than return to the poverty of concert dance.

Shearer waffles in her regard for Humphrey. At first she calls the choreographer a genius; she writes, “It has to me all the glamour of the Russian ballet in Nijinksy.” (Shearer 2006, 31) She describes her as “cool, sensitive to philosophical ideas” but that “she had a will of iron.” (Within This Thicket DVD) In an interview with Dawn Lille (Horwitz), she said, “Watching Doris create was very stimulating. But her point of view was extremely narrow.” (Horwitz 1984)

Charles Weidman 1934, Bennington College Archive

Charles Weidman, in addition to being co-director of Humphrey-Weidman, had his own group of less professional male dancers. Among them was one Gerald Davidson, a charming widower from Cleveland with a 6-year-old daughter. He and Sybil fell in love and became engaged. Her flood of letters to “Jerry” are full of passion as well as outpourings about her artistic life; those letters constitute a good chunk of Within This Thicket, Volume 1 of her autobiography. At a certain point, when she realizes the burden that marriage and sudden motherhood would mean to her dance life, she breaks off their relationship. She never again became romantically involved. As her trusty sound engineer James Cunningham said, “She felt she had to devote her life to art to achieve what she wanted to achieve.” (qtd. in Mauro)

Shearer was a standout member of the Humphrey-Weidman company. José Limón, not yet a member of the group, remembers her in the fourth variation of New Dance: “Shearer  exploded brilliantly in all directions like a string of Chinese firecrackers:” (Limón 55)

But Sybil discovered that company life was not for her. “I am one globule in this nebulae called the H-W group,” she wrote. (Shearer 2006, 212) Toward the end of her three-year stint, when she was sick and tired of rehearsing the same dances over and over, she acted out her frustration while performing Humphrey’s New Dance. She recounts an uncharacteristic episode of bad behavior:

I stormed through “New Dance” and variations with such a vengeance that I didn’t care, for the first time in my life, whether I was on or off the beat. I just got there when I could with a violence and a conviction that must have made everyone else look wrong. In the variations I suddenly hated every movement and just improvised wildly. The next morning, when Bill (Bales) said, with his Uncle Dudley air, that I should learn to control my emotions, I picked up a glass of water and dashed its content in his face, feeling sure at the moment that only a physical action would keep him and his dictatorial manner to himself in the future. When he said, wiping himself off furiously, that he didn’t think it a bit funny, I said I didn’t intend to be funny and stalked off. We didn’t speak for two days. (Shearer 2006, 251)

Later in 1938, when Sybil was on leave, she attended a Humphrey-Weidman performance of three works. According to Humphrey’s biographer Marcia B. Siegel, Shearer “electrified everyone by asserting at a company meeting that besides looking shabby and technically uneven, the company lacked conviction.” (Siegel, 180) In a follow-up letter, ostensibly to clarify and to apologize for angering Doris’ protégé, José Limón, she drove her point home, saying that some of the dancers were just putting on a fixed happy face instead of dancing with conviction throughout the whole body. “And conviction is the keynote to the whole thing…You have to love every move you make.” (Shearer 2006, 240-41)

This idea(l) of conviction surfaced later as well. In May 1940 John Martin stated in the New York Times that modern dance, requiring emotional conviction, and ballet, being mainly about aesthetic beauty, were so different that they would never overlap. Shearer strongly disagreed. In a letter to him, she wrote “…it seems to me that only by a combination of these two entities, emotional conviction and esthetic beauty, can we arrive at the real and the highest form of the dance art.” (Shearer 2006, 275)

Working with Agnes de Mille

Agnes de Mille 1932 , ph Paul Tanqueray

To immerse herself in the New York dance world, Shearer attended concerts at Guild Theatre every Sunday (this was before the 92nd Street Y became the bastion of modern dance). One performance that stirred her curiosity was that of budding choreographer Agnes de Mille. Sybil wrote her a letter, Agnes wrote back, and the two became fast friends. They shared a devotion to dance and a wicked sense of humor. (Shearer 1994, 10)

De Mille loved Sybil’s dancing and recognized her “comic genius” (de Mille 245). In her book Dance to the Piper, she described the younger dancer in an almost mystical way:

Physically she presented the asexual aspect of a Renaissance angel, sensitive but not girlish, her face too strong for prettiness, her manner unbroken with the noble ease of an animal or a spirit. She might have stepped from any Botticelli fresco. She had the enigmatic smile, the airy magnificence, the unsexed purity and vigor of his heavenly youths. She was long-waisted and slender, with angelic long arms, hands that played the air like an instrument and the strong printless foot of God’s messengers. She was a visitor in my studio, a visitor in this world, and, serene in dedication, gave herself daily to the beloved work with the absorption and success of a fanatic. (de Mille, 246)

She invited Shearer into her first touring company of only five people. Shearer also served as de Mille’s assistant on two ballets for Ballet Theatre (later ABT): Black Ritual (Obeah), for the opening season in 1940, and Three Virgins and a Devil the following year. For the latter, Sybil helped develop the role of the devil. De Mille writes:

I created the part of the devil on Sybil Shearer, or rather she created it in spite of the laws of nature and contrary to all human experience. Sybil suggested an Hieronymus Bosch animal whirling and scrabbling over the floor. She gave the impression of flapping in midair shoulder height, banging up against the walls like some untidy bat. She could fall over flat, of a piece, like a felled tree, and all the time there was a preoccupation of business in the face, a confused craftiness as if all the wheels of the brain were out of cog and racing separately. She has always had the ability to maintain three or four rhythms in her separate members without regard to what her head was doing. Guests who came to visit us in our den went out stricken and speechless. Sybil could not get up on point which barred her automatically from the company. She was also, of course not male and therefore perhaps not eligible for this role. (De Mille 257)

The role of the Devil eventually went to Eugene Loring and then to Jerome Robbins, who had already gotten noticed in the comedic role of the Youth.

As a dancer, Shearer felt her work with de Mille was more collaborative than with than with Humphrey:

It was much more fun working with her than with Doris and Charles because I, too, was creating, and I admired her attention to detail of expression and meaning as well as her interesting conversation. (Shearer 1994, 11)

Agnes de Mille in “Three Virgins and a Devil,”Ballet Theatre

De Mille liked Shearer’s dancing so much that she wanted her to play “dance Laurey” in Oklahoma! (Nicholson email) (This was the lead dancing role in the famously long—twelve-minute—dream ballet.) But Shearer felt that any immersion in a commercial venture would taint her own work. (Shearer 1994, 11)

Although she admired Shearer’s dancing, de Mille did not think of her as a choreographer. So she was surprised to learn that the younger dancer was planning a solo concert at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall. She asked to see a preview, after which she was stunned. “It became suddenly clear that Sybil had enormous gifts. I sat staring, looking white and, I’m sure, small.” (de Mille, 258)

For her part, Shearer felt that de Mille never came up with original movement but more or less arranged movement in theatrical ways. It was Humphrey whom she looked up to as a choreographer:

When I create I tend to do more what Doris talked about, which is to be oneself. My concept was to experiment with as much abstract movement as possible in order to enlarge my vocabulary, but I also included movement from all walks of life, animal, vegetable, and mineral. (Horwitz, 31)

Some of these explorations produced humorous portrayals. In African Scrontch by Mail, she imagined a housewife learning to jitterbug by correspondence. In In a Vacuum, a factory worker gets so caught up in mechanical actions that she almost becomes a machine. Shearer sees these works as more than just disjointed, limbs-flailing slap-stick. “Actually these satires that I was doing, though funny, were not comedies at all. They were tragicomedies on the human dilemma—Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?” (Shearer 2006, 273)

Making her mark
In 1938 Shearer requested time off from both the Humphrey-Weidman company and the dance theater group to delve into her own choreography. As she wrote to Humphrey, she needed time alone so that “I might gain control over my whole body to the point of being capable of any quality of movement which I would wish to use in the expression of an idea.” She also planned, as John Martin had suggested, to take in music concerts, art exhibits, and literature. (The title of one of her first solos, O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand! is from a poem by William Blake.)

Screen grab from “In a Vacuum,” CFA

For her debut solo concert at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in October 1941, she created a range of moods, from the mystical Nocturne to the explosive And Prophesy to the agitated In a Vacuum.

Walter Terry in the Herald Tribune proclaimed In a Vacuum “one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.” Sybil had actually gotten advance notice of his reaction when Agnes came running backstage, blurting out, “Did you hear that huge guffaw during In a Vacuum? That was the Herald Tribune!”  (Shearer 2006, 297)

Terry also wrote that And Prophesy “was flooded with dynamic energy to the point of explosion.” (Shearer 2006, 334) He was so excited by the whole concert that he devoted his Sunday column, four days later, to it. He compared her concert favorably to Massine’s latest premiere for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which he slammed. (qtd. in Shearer 2006, 336)

Shearer at Jacob’s Pillow 1942, ph John Lindquist © Harvard Theatre Collection

John Martin wrote a positive review, noting some flaws, but saying that And Prophesy “achieves a tinge of creative madness.” He concluded with “Through it all gleams the light of a definite and an original talent.” (qtd. in Shearer 2006, 335)

The good reviews established Shearer as an artist on the rise, and the New York Times named her the season’s best solo debut (John Martin being the sole arbiter of that accolade). She was invited to appear on a program of young dance artists on the first summer of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 1942.

Moving westward
Fortified by good notices, Shearer felt she could leave New York without damaging her currency as a dance maker. Accepting a position at Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University), she moved to the Chicago suburbs in 1942. There she met Helen Balfour Morrison, a noted portrait artist twelve years her senior. Morrison believed in Shearer so much that she became her lighting designer, photographer, publicist, and all around encourager.

Shearer was able to really concentrate on making dances, sometimes getting to the depths of humanity in a way that touched people. Margaret Lloyd, dance critic for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote about her in her 1949 book, The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, the first critical collection about modern dance:

In “No Peace on Earth” (Scriabin), the stooped figure of an old woman wrapped in the gray of sackcloth and ashes, painfully crawls across the stage, her hands clasping and unclasping in commingled agony and prayer. It is very short, and poignant, for it is a concentrate of misery. Sybil can use her hands with Oriental fluency. She can do anything with her body. She can liquify it to the point of dissolution, or coil it taut as a steel spring, only to let go in lashes of energy. She can practically turn herself inside out with convulsive movements, or flow with the placidity of a sunlit stream. From the molecular to the largest muscular areas, every fiber, tendon, and tissue is hers to command. The news should be withheld no longer—she is a remarkable dancer. (Lloyd 236)

Another critic who appreciated Shearer was Jill Johnston—the crazily brilliant writer who championed Judson Dance Theater in the early sixties. In a pre-Judson essay, she paired Shearer with Katherine Litz as two dancers who harked backed to Isadora:

In some sense the style of Shearer and Litz was a return to the romanticism of Isadora Duncan. It was definitely a reaction to the tortured introversion of Graham, and to the broad, open extroversion of Humphrey, and to the techniques of both, which were sharp, angular and dissonant. Yet, unlike Duncan, their romanticism is refined and distilled by its formal containment and by the concentrated internalization of gestures. The art of Shearer and Litz is a solo art. Although they have both choreographed for groups, they were never interested in the massive, symphonic forms that were so popular in the thirties. (Johnston 164)

In Northbrook, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

When asked what she had in common with Isadora Duncan, Shearer pointed to music. Isadora “was music,” she said. She claimed that Dalcroze, who was an influence on Mary Wigman and Marie Rambert (and, I would add, Michio Ito), had been blown away by Duncan’s musicality. Like Duncan, Shearer danced to the classical composers Chopin, Brahms, Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, and Scriabin. But she also sought contemporary composers like Bela Bartok, Henry Brant, Gunther Schuller, Kurt Weill, and Gyorgi Ligeti—and she was one of the first modern dancers to use jazz music. For her Salute to Old Friends suite, she chose recordings by Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, and W. C. Handy. (Note: Another way she was different from Duncan is that she believed in ballet training as a foundation for any kind of dancing.)

Like Isadora too, she reveled in the open air. In this film of Early Northbrook excerpts, she is dancing with the wind. (I suggest going 45 seconds in.) Famous for her elusiveness, she described her efforts to choreograph as wanting to “put my hands around the unknown.” (interview with Walter Terry)

Perhaps the most obvious tribute to the “unknown” is her 1949 solo Mysterium Tremendum, danced to Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.” She moves as though blown by a slow breeze or a quick  wind—or by the prayer within Britten’s music.

Sybil helping to build studio 1952, ph Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

In 1951 she moved to Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago, where she bought land from Morrison. On an acre of tree-studded land, Morrison designed a secluded studio/home for her. At the center of the building was the large, mirror-less studio, with one entire side a window looking out onto the garden. The walls were flexible, and the lighting could be adjusted for rehearsal showings or filmings. Since she refused to be filmed onstage, Shearer, with the help of Morrison, figured out how to record her dancing in this studio with optimal lighting. [Aside: Although the films constitute a terrific archive, to my eye, they do not capture the electric sensation of seeing her onstage.]

Sybil in Northbrook Studio, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

John Martin was of two minds about Shearer’s choice to leave New York. In 1959 he wrote,

She is extremely independent, sometimes infuriatingly so…That she is a mystic, a nature mystic, goes without saying, and this is the core of her power…More honor to Miss Shearer for her sense of values. May she retain her deaf ear to the siren’s song of the Capital of the Dance World.”  (Martin, “The Dance: Forward,” 11/1/59)

Program notes for solo performance at BAM, 1954, BAM Hamm Archives

She gave her last New York performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1954. The dance artist Martha Wittman, then a first-year student at Juilliard, remembers one of the sections of the eleven numbered pieces:

I think it may have been to a Scarlatti piece—a quick section. I remember the movements being swift, darting. She was in darkish blue leotard and tights—not a dress—with small pieces/scraps of white material, featherlike, that floated away from her body in the breezes as she moved so quickly. I believe she was often also perched on half toe. It all reminded me of a bird. (Wittman email)

In 1957 Shearer approached the Dance Panel of the U. S. State Department, which made the decisions on which dance artists and companies to send abroad. The Panel members included Martha Hill, Lincoln Kirstein, Walter Terry, Ann Barzel, and Margaret Lloyd. (Two years earlier, when Lloyd had suggested Merce Cunningham and John Cage, the recorded minutes revealed that “The Panel considers Harry Partch even more contemporary and avant-garde than Cage, and Sybil Shearer better than Merce Cunningham, if we want to send this type of performer.” [Prevots 55]) When Sybil herself applied, the response was not exactly enthusiastic: “Although she is a marvelous dancer, as a performer she is unpredictable. And audiences often do not understand what she is doing.” (Prevots 61)

John Martin expressed this confused feeling of her audience when he wrote that “You go with an open mind, and you come away either sputtering or walking on air.” (Martin 1953)

Another aspect of her unpredictability was recounted by Naomi Jackson, historian of dance at the 92nd Street Y. About Shearer’s performances, she wrote, “If she did not like the ambiance of a particular audience, she would leave the stage and end the performance.” (Jackson 160)

(Her quixotic behavior was repeated in 1967—with an inadvertently historic outcome—when Shearer cancelled her appearance at the Hunter College Playhouse on short notice. Luckily the Playhouse director learned that Anna Halprin was available to fill the spot. [Ross 192] Thus New York was treated to Parades and Changes, momentous as a performance of imagistic postmodernism and notorious for earning Halprin’s company a warrant for their arrest because of the [understated, ritualistic] nudity. Tales of this performance reverberated through the decades so resoundingly that it was celebrated fifty years later.)

Another quality that may have bothered the Dance Panel: Shearer eschewed all presentational niceties. Chicago critic Joseph Houseal wrote, “Sybil was a joyous creature, but she was anti-establishment to the core and social mores were meaningless to her.” (Houseal, 11) Also meaningless to her were the trappings of theatricality: She never wore stage make-up or changed her hair. As Martin noted in 1946, her “costuming as well as her personal grooming tend toward the drab.” (Martin 1946) Jackson’s view was that Shearer was “confrontational in her challenge of the dance world.” (Jackson, 160)

Within this Thicket 1959, Shearer with Masao Yoshimasu and Toby Nicholson, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

In 1958 Shearer started choreographing on her advanced students, possibly because of the critics’ growing negativity toward her solos. Her group works mingled legible gestures with dance movement. The Reflection in the Puddle Is Mine has a whiff of the enigmatic quality of her solos.

In 1962 Shearer was appointed artist-in-residence of the National College of Education  (now National Louis University) in Evanston, Illinois. Her company often held its annual program at the school’s Arnold Theater. She hired a Cecchetti ballet teacher, Lee Wallace, to give the warmups. She liked Cecchetti because she felt it didn’t impose a style onto the steps. (Nicholson email, Aug. 19, 2021) After 1972, when they gave their last performance at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater, Sybil worked with Helen Morrison to make films of her dance pieces. They shot their main film collaboration, A Sheaf of Dreams, outdoors in changing seasons. Ann Barzel, writing in Dance Magazine, called the film “a poem of visual images”:

“A Sheaf of Dreams,” ph Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

Memories are as trivial as plucking a flower in spring, as darkly significant as the volatile dance paralleled by storm clouds, or as elusive as a shadow glimpsed in a pool. There are bits of…beautiful dancing, by Sybil Shearer, at her best in an environment of nature. (Barzel, 16)

Meanwhile, the Sybil Shearer School of Dance expanded to nine branches in cities like Evanston, Lake Forest, Northbrook, and Milwaukee. On Saturdays in Winnetka, she trained teachers for these schools. Every December she produced a program called Christmas Wish, with about 300 children gathered from the various schools. Eventually, in order to concentrate on her company, she put each school in the charge of a teacher she had trained. So, for instance, the Winnetka school became the Toby Nicholson School of Dance.(Nicholson, email Aug. 17)

Shearer teaching at YMCA College of Chicago 1943, Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

A downward slide, critically speaking
Amid the raves of 1941, John Martin had slipped in one caution: “Sentimentality constitutes Miss Shearer’s greatest peril. She creates too much in the over-lyrical vein of the recital dancing of fifteen years ago to be considered a mature artist at the moment.” (qtd. in Shearer 2006, 335) It is perhaps ironic that Shearer herself had already articulated the danger of sentimentality in 1934: “It is a kind of self-expression without form. It is all right…in the private life of an individual, but not all right in public because it is formless and artless.” (qtd in McPherson 38)]

Solo from “Shades Before Mars,” 1953, ph Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

By the mid-40s Martin’s reviews still glowed but also imparted a vague sense that she wasn’t fulfilling her potential, that perhaps the peril he had named had invaded. In 1951, with her suite of fanciful characters, Once Upon a Time, he felt she had fallen “into the realm of pure personal indulgence” and that this was “a sad occasion.” (qtd. in Horwitz, 28. Original quote in  NYT June 19, 1951) (However some critics found it enchanting, and Don McDonagh praised it for its “exceptional gestural elegance.” [McDonagh 1976, 309].)

Her 1949 appearance at Carnegie Hall garnered a bewildered review from Nik Krevitsky in Dance Observer (Louis Horst’s publication). The program had the look of a casual rehearsal. He ended by saying, “There was an arrogance in this studied naivete of the April 24th concert that shows no sign of progress in one of our most distinguished young dancers.” (Krevitsky 83)

Shearer’s contribution to the 1959 edition of American Dance Festival brought her down even lower in the eyes of critics. That summer was a tribute to Doris Humphrey, who had died the previous December, and guest artists included José Limón, Pauline Koner, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Currier, Daniel Nagrin, Helen Tamiris, and Sybil Shearer. (Anderson 74) According to Jack Anderson, many critics were disappointed by Shearer’s dances, which shared a program with Cunningham and Pauline Koner. Even Margaret Lloyd, who had championed Shearer, wrote a stinging review in the Christian Science Monitor:

Noted for range of movement and loftiness of thought, she astonished everybody by descending from her accustomed heights to indulge in sweet and pretty stepping with Dalcroze effects. It was as if some philosopher of reputed profundity (and rather careless in dress) had come out on the lecture platform to chatter about trivialities. (qtd in Anderson 75-76)

In Dance Magazine, Doris Hering contrasted Shearer’s growth to that of Cunningham, adding a special note of condemnation:

Both are mystics. Both move as though as though chosen by the wind. But Miss Shearer’s artistic development has not been nearly so constant as that of Mr. Cunningham—not so cumulative in its sophistication. And at the present time she seems to be out of contact not only with her audience, but with herself.” (qtd in Anderson 76, originally Oct. 1959, 35)

“All is not gold, but almost,” 1961 ph Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

In December of that year, Martin traveled to Winnetka yet again to see her performance and gave a hot and cold review. He deemed the first half, Within This Thicket, to Bartok, to be “intensely personal and yet somehow subcutaneously communicative,” resulting in a work of “tremendous power and beauty.” About the second half, where she resorted to ballet steps, he wrote, “The result is sterile, largely negating her great and individual powers of creative movement.” (Martin 1959)

Don McDonagh, who had proclaimed Shearer to be ahead of her time in her internal, non-linear concerns (McDonagh 1970, 37), now felt that her visits to New York drew a decidedly mixed response: “She began to be regarded as a slightly dotty favorite aunt with a formidable technique who was liable to do anything on stage. She was odd and unpredictable and was held in baffled affection.” (McDonagh 1970, 38)

Still, she kept dancing to her own drum. And in a 1963 review, John Martin seemed to have recovered his good cheer and wrote that “her movement continues to be supremely personal, and her turn of mind incurably inquisitive so that she is forever evolving fresh and evocative material.” (Martin, 1963)

Sybil leaping, ph Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

One example of a fresh approach was reported by Russell Hartley in Dance Magazine. He describes a 1968 performance in Berkeley where she interpreted the styles of famous painters like Picasso and Renoir. Then she asked for the audience to call out names of other painters, and she embodied each style on the spot, with uncanny accuracy, to hear it from Hartley. (Hartley 105-07)

The Neumeier connection

John Neumeier 1961, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

One of Shearer’s dancers was to become a major international figure: John Neumeier. As a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee in the 60s, he commuted to Chicago two or three times a week to study and rehearse with her—for no pay. They shared a passion for dance history. He already knew about Nijinsky as a dancer, but his interest in this icon leapt forward when he met Shearer. “What I remember most was Sybil’s clearly analyzed, lucid explanation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s great importance as a choreographer of the twentieth century.” (Neumeier xi) Neumeier, who has been the choreographer and artistic director of Hamburg Ballet for almost fifty years, has been famously obsessed with Nijinsky. His Foundation John Neumeier now possesses the largest collection of Nijinsky drawings and artifacts in the world.)

More than their shared interest in Nijinsky, Sybil was a model and mentor as a dance artist. In 2013, he called her “my greatest inspiration.” (Smith) In a recent interview with Jenai Cutcher of the Chicago Dance History Project, Neumeier said,

She was a true genius, being so inventive, so special … There were two things: she was the first person who could make me laugh without there being a story. It was through the physicality of her body that she gave us a moment of human understanding of ourselves, a flash of our….stupidity, what is funny about us. And a very modern idea of lyricism— lyricism, not as being fairy light, but the lyricism of the earth. The weight of her movement was unforgettable. (CDHP interview)

John Neumeier, in Hamburg, being interviewed by Chicago Dance History Project, 2020

He later repeated this idea, using the phrase “the heaviness of lyricism” (which, one might say, is the quality of his work that is beloved in Germany). Then he added, “But also a sense of inner concentration…out of which movement comes as opposed to performance.”

But he also recalled how frustrating her rehearsals could be:

One day we’d be doing something that had to do with Brueghel, the next day some kind of Bartok. So we never knew what we were doing or if there was a kind of goal. But because of her palpable genius, it was important to be near her, to watch her. (CDHP)

“Within This Thicket,” with Nicholson at left and Neumeier at right

One day, while rehearsing Time Longs for Eternity from her suite “Fables and Proverbs,” Shearer lost her temper. The provocation was that Neumeier had changed a horizontal arabesque into a more upright, balletic arabesque. “We were in the theater in Winnetka and I was doing this thing and she screamed at me and ran out of the theater. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening.” When she calmed down, she explained to him that, for her, a horizontal line symbolized eternity and he was ruining the symbolism of the ballet. Apparently she cried and embraced him, saying, “John I hope this works.”

Decades later, he wrote that “I was sorry and upset, but also surprised and somehow moved by her showing her emotions so openly.” (Neumeier xiii) Ironically, he ended up using the same imagery—a horizontal line to represent eternity—in his own choreography.

(This clip of a rehearsal of The Reflection in the Puddle Is Mine begins with Neumeier sitting on Nicholson’s back.)

She was writing all along
When Helen Morrison became deathly ill in 1984, she urged Shearer to write about dance. The dancer followed her advice, as usual. She had long ago accepted Morrison as a mentor because she felt “Helen’s concept of wholeness was unique in this departmental world.” (Shearer 2012, 475) Sybil had always written letters, for keeps—meaning, she hand-wrote them into her notebook, then copied them on paper to send to their destinations. So the first draft was in some way already a memoir.

Threaded through her columns in Ballet Review (which sadly folded in 2020) are hints of her artistic ideals. Her critiques were always conscious of “unseen elements.” In an interview with Walter Terry, she said, “I often think that when you look at a dancer, you’re seeing the unseen, and that’s what always interest me, as I look to see…where I can join with them and go somewhere else.” (Terry interview 1980)

The Inheritance, photo series, Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

As the Chicago correspondent for Ballet Review, she reviewed a range of subjects including American Ballet Theatre, Stephen Petronio, Joe Goode, Merce Cunningham, Hubbard Street, Twyla Tharp, the Joffrey Ballet, Baryshnikov’s PastForward, David Dorfman, John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet (of course), and Susanne Linke’s reconstructions of German expressionist dances.

She had startling insights that could sometimes be quite harsh. She wrote that “Mark Morris seems to be a choreographer who cages his dancer, then stands back to see how they react.” (Shearer, Spring 1991, 11) Right after Martha Graham’s death, she wrote, “…this group of dancers, left over after her death, should dedicate themselves to recording her works, then put them in a vault…to be revived after…a hundred and fifty years, for a new audience and new dancers.” (Shearer, Winter, 1991, 10)

When she was drawn to a particular dancer, for instance Sally Rousse, Maria Terezia Balogh, Krista Swenson, or Ginger Gillespie, she described them beautifully, ineffably. Occasionally her description of a dancer sounded a lot like her own dance ideals. About Linda-Denise Evans she wrote this: “She captured what in life is only native to dragonflies and hummingbirds, something beyond the control of muscles and balance, an inner essential understanding of what lies within the atmosphere in which she moved…..” (Shearer, Winter 1991, 9)

The curious Sybil/Merce friendship

Merce Cunningham, Jacob’s Pillow 1955. Photo by John Lindquist © Harvard Theatre Collection

Shearer had befriended Cunningham, who had arrived in New York in 1939. In 1949, she and Morrison organized a series of performances at Winnetka’s North Shore County Day Theatre, and one of their first offerings was Merce Cunningham and John Cage. In Volume II of her autobiography, Sybil wrote, “I got these two to come out to the Midwest from New York by telling Merce I would choreograph a dance for him.” (Shearer 2012, 155) When I read this, I had to remember that Merce and Sybil had both been thrust into the category of leading avant-gardists. When did she make this solo for him? The day before his performance. She wanted to see all his other solos before deciding on movement that would contrast nicely. And then, even more strangely—and possibly unethically—she reviewed the program in Dance News. Although she did say in the review that she choreographed one of the solos, she did not say that she and Morrison produced the program. [Note: She didn’t begin her writing career until 1984, so I’m guessing that she wrote it because she felt it wouldn’t be covered any other way.] Ethical questions aside, she made perceptive comments:

One has to transport oneself into Cunningham’s world as though you were listening to the language of the animals or the insects….”Root of an Unfocus” was a high point emotionally, and I felt chills of repulsion and attraction mounting and tacking until I wanted to get in there and dance too….But in “Mysterious Adventure” we were drawn into the warm hypnotic flow and were carried on and on way past the end of the performance. (Shearer 1949)

The solo she made for him, Scribble Scrabble (or A Woman’s Version of a Man’s World), was never performed again. (Vaughan 49; Shearer 2012, 155) But Merce remained fond of Sybil. According to Bonnie Brooks, a Chicago presenter and longtime friend of Cunningham, “Whenever he came to Chicago, one of the first things Merce would always ask me was ‘Is Sybil coming?’ He had great admiration for her.” (email, Aug. 11, 2021).

In later years, that admiration was no longer mutual. In a 2000 review in Ballet Review, she slammed him. She claimed that his choreography “while suggesting movement, actually put movement to sleep…what emerged seemed to be punctuation without connecting to words…a kind of modern puritanism in leotards…statically stylized…Cunningham now has almost erased movement from his choreography by using dancers who are muscular but static …these performers look like gymnasts who have used machines to train their bodies.” (Shearer 2000, 7) Granted, his dancers became more detached from him as the years went on, and her focus as a critic was more on whether the dancers fully embodied the movement (aka had conviction) than on choreography. But her assessment seems rather harsh.

Getting into Sybil’s skin

Kristina Isabelle with film of Shearer

The most recent person to re-stage some of Shearer’s dances is Kristina Isabelle, who danced with Bebe Miller and Stephen Petronio in New York. Like Shearer, Isabelle left New York and moved to the Midwest. She has recently steeped herself in what she calls “Sybil work.” She left New York in 2001 because, she says, “I wanted to be in nature and I wanted to make my own movement. And I felt those similarities to Sybil.” She used Shearer’s movement vocabulary as a wedge between her own habits and something new. In this video, you can see Isabelle getting attuned to the outdoors around Sybil’s Northbrook studio and working with her dancers on a piece inspired by Shearer’s choreography.

This work took Isabelle further along in her own choreographic process: “I also wanted to mess myself up, to get someone else’s quirks, see if her rhythm patterns would shift my choices and how that could expand my own movement vocabulary.” She used films of Shearer as a ghostly partner in a new work for her company called And the Spirit Moved Me in 2016. “We would improvise a lot on fire, earth, air and water because she is all of those things… Sometimes earth at the bottom and air or fire at the top, it looks like that within her.” (phone interview Aug. 7, 2021)

Joseph Houseal wrote about Isabelle’s reconstruction of Judgment Seeks Its Own Level in Ballet Review: “The movements are … always surprising with the wave-capped revelation of complex composition arising again and again. The composition is delightfully concealed in the madness.” He went on to say that “Isabelle is the next generation catching the spark from artistic intuition.” (Houseal, 10)

Legacy
As Bonnie Brooks put it, Shearer’s legacy is the “curiosity she stirred among other artists, with her dancing and with her writing and in her unwavering sense of direction in following her own path.” (email Aug. 11, 2021) In more measurable terms, Shearer left behind a five-part legacy, most of which was made possible by Helen Morrison.

First: The films and photographs by Helen Morrison. According to scholar Lizzie Leopold, who helped catalog these holdings, there are nearly 900 films of solos, group works, and Shearer just hanging out with her beloved dogs. (Leopold) As of 2020, these have been transferred to Chicago Film Archives, which now holds the rights.

Ella Rosewood in “Eiight Dance MashUp,” ph  Liz Schneider-Cohen, 92 Y

Second: In the last decade, the Morrison-Shearer Foundation has commissioned several re-stagings of Shearer’s works. Jan Bartoszek and Hedwig Dances revived two major ensemble works by Shearer: The Reflection in the Puddle Is Mine and Time Longs for Eternity. Thodos Dance Chicago performed a version of the latter and excerpts of Salute to Old Friends (including the sections on Walter Terry and Agnes De Mille but not the ones on John Martin and Doris Humphrey). In this preview video from 2014, Melissa Thodos and Toby Nicholson, now a trustee of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, explain a bit about these works. In New York, Ella Rosewood, a dance artist who has reconstructed early modern dance works, created a mashup of herself and a film of Shearer in Eighth Dance (Mussorgsky). As mentioned above, Kristina Isabelle is the latest to challenge herself in this way.

Third: The longevity of Neumeier as a choreographic force in Germany, where he has led Hamburg Ballet for almost 50 years. In June 1984, when Hamburg Ballet came to Ravinia, Sybil was thrilled with the choreography, dancing, and spirituality, as reflected in her review. Completely up front about her mentoring relationship to him, she reported her post-performance conversation with him:

Hamburg Ballet in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, 1984, Ravinia Festival/Jacqueline Durand

Later John said to me, “You saw yourself in my work,” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “I did not try to copy you, but the way you thought and constructed choreography became a part of me, and I found that as I began to work you were there with me.” Because he is highly intellectual and a thinking man he could see this, and because he is a highly intuitive artist he could feel this, and because he is highly moral he could acknowledge this. And I feel fulfilled to have progeny who understand me and what I have always wanted for dance.” (Shearer 1984, 40)

 

 

Sybil Shearer Studio at Ragdale (rendering)

Fourth: Looking to the future, the Morrison-Shearer Foundation has partnered with The Ragdale Foundation, an artist residency program, to create a new studio. The Sybil Shearer Studio in Lake Forest will house both a dance studio and a composer’s work space to be part of Ragdale’s residency programs. An echo of the Northbrook studio, the Ragdale studio will have wide windows so dancers can look out onto nature.

Fifth: Her legacy also includes the many probing, questioning, subjective, poetic reviews she wrote in Ballet Review and the three volumes of Without Wings the Way Is Steep. It was Helen Morrison who had encouraged Shearer to write dance criticism and to write her autobiography, which Sybil started at age 82.

I leave you with some choice pearls from her writings:

• “…movement is that force out of which everything has been created. It is a step toward rediscovering spiritual sight, which has been lost for so many centuries in the gradual erosion of the spiritual world.” (Shearer, Summer 2000, 7)

• “A performance for me was a complete emptying out, and after each one I had to have time to recuperate. I needed to withdraw between performances in order that I would have the full amount to give the next time.” (Shearer 2006, xvi)

• “Real freedom is the ability to become the “other,” when seeming opposites merge or when life and death coalesce into love. Then, anything in the universe is possible.” (Shearer, Summer 2000, 10)

• “In dreams there is a logical illogic, which is the usual prerogative of most good art—a discovery of the unknown that emerges and then recedes again.” (Shearer Winter 1998, 5)

“Ondine,” 1953, ph Helen Morrison. Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

• “As far as I am concerned, there are three sides of things: the dramatic, the comic, and the lyric. The lyric is the wholeness; the dramatic and the comic are just subtraction from the whole. The lyricism is everything, it’s the giving and the taking, and that is all of life. It’s a balance — a balance of tension and relaxation, which is the balance between taking and giving.” (Horwitz, 32)

• “Almost everything is a living thing before it becomes inert… A room is simply filled with all the people who were ever in there. And that’s what I feel choreography is: you make a choice from all the movements that are surrounding you.” (qtd. in Horwitz, 32)

• “The arts can be meaningful or decorative, but even decoration has social responsibility.” (Shearer, Spring 1991,12)

• “…purification thru movement (eliminating protest without losing strength), is one of the questions for the future of the dance as an art for all of humanity.” (Shearer, Spring 1997, 17)

Portrait of Sybil by Helen Morrison for the Jan. 1950 issue of Dance Magazine

• “What I believe to be important is not subject matter of the past, nor subject matter of today, nor subject matter of the future, but any material used at any time, romantic or classic, that will reflect the nobility of the spirit and produce a work of art.” (Shearer 1984, 25)

¶¶¶

Special thanks to Scott Lundius and Toby Nicholson of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, Kristina Isabelle, Lizzie Leopold, Bonnie Brooks, Nick Panfil at Ravinia, Norton Owen at Jacob’s Pillow, Meryl Wheeler at the 92nd Street Y, Martha Wittman, Lynn Colburn Shapiro, Hedy Weiss, Michelle Boulé, Sharon Lehner at BAM Archives, and Dean Jeffrey of ADF Archives. Also, thanks to the staff people at Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace Library, the Bennington Digital Archive, and the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at NY Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Sources

Books

Anderson, Jack. The American Dance Festival. Duke University Press, 1987.

De Mille, Agnes. Dance to the Piper. New York Review Books, 1951, 2015.

Jackson, Naomi. Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y. Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Limón, José. An Unfinished Memoir. Lynn Garafola, ed. Wesleyan University Press, 1999.

Lloyd, Margaret. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. “New Leaders: Sybil Shearer,” pp. 232–243.

Martin, John. John Martin’s Book of the Dance. Tudor Publishing Company, 1963.

McDonagh, Don. The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance. Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970.

———. Don McDonagh’s Complete Guide to Modern Dance. Popular Library 1977. Doubleday, 1976.

McPherson, Elizabeth, ed. The Bennington School of the Dance: A History of Writings and Interviews. McFarland, 2013.

Prevots, Naima. Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Ross, Janice. Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance. University of California Press, 2007.

Shearer, Sybil. Without Wings the Way Is Steep, the Autobiography of Sybil Shearer, Volume I: Within This Thicket, Morris-Shearer Foundation, 2006.

———Volume II, The Midwest Inheritance, 2012.

Siegel, Marcia B. Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey. Yale University Press, 1987.

Sorell, Walter. The Dance Through the Ages. Grosset & Dunlap 1967.

Terry, Walter. The Dance in America. Revised edition. Harper Colophon Books 1971. Harper & Rowe, 1956.

 

Articles

Anderson, Jack. “Sybil Shearer, 93, Dancer of the Spiritual and Human, Dies.” New York Times, Nov. 23, 2005.

Barzel, Ann. “News from Chicago.” Dance Magazine, July 1976.

Christiansen, Richard.“Sybil Shearer: An Original in Every Way,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19, 1993.

Hartley, Russell. “San Francisco Bay Area News.” Dance Magazine, March 1968, pp. 105-06.

Houseal, Joseph. Ballet Review, Summer 2017.

Horwitz, Dawn Lille. “A Conversation with Sybil Shearer.” Ballet Review, Fall 1984 pp. 26–35. [Note: This writer is now known simply as Dawn Lille.]

Isaacs, Deanna. “Sybil Shearer Tribute.” The Chicago Reader, Feb. 2, 2006.

Johnston, Jill. “The New American Modern Dance.” Salmagundi, Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 149-174

Krevitsky, Nik. “Reviews of the Month: Sybil Shearer.” Dance Observer, June/July 1949.

Leopold, Lizzie. “Sybil Shearer: An Archive in Motion,” forthcoming in Dancing on the Third Coast: Chicago Dance Histories, eds. Susan Manning and Lizzie Leopold, University of Illinois Press, 2023.

Martin, John, reviews in the New York Times, 1941, 1946, 1949, 1951, 1959, 1963.

———. Feature story: “The Dance: New Ways: Two Artists Show Fruits of Creative Solitude,” New York Times, Nov. 8, 1953.

———. Feature story: “Maverick of the Midwest,” Way off Broadway, New York Times, Nov. 1, 1959.

Mauro, Lucia. “Swan Song.” Chicago Mag, June 25, 2007.

Molzahn, Laura ‘ Chicago Inspired’ from Thodos Dance Chicago, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 22, 2015.

Neumeier, John. “Foreword” to Without Wings the Way Is Steep, Vol. II: The Midwest Inheritance. Morris-Shearer Foundation, 2012.

Shearer, Sybil. Dance News, March, 1949.

———. “Looking Back.” Ballet Review, Fall 1984.

———. “Agnes de Mille.” Ballet Review, Winter 1994.

———. As Chicago correspondent for Ballet Review: Spring 1986, Spring 1989, Summer 1988, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Spring 1997, Summer 1997, Winter 1998, Summer 2000.

Smith, Sid. “Hamburg Ballet brings ‘Nijinsky’ home.” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 25, 2013

Other

Neumeier, John. Video interview with Jenai Cutcher. January 14, 2020. Chicago Dance History Project (CDHP)

Sybil Shearer interviewed by Walter Terry. Chicago Film Archives, 1980.

Phone with Kristina Isabelle, Aug. 7, 2021

The Newberry Archives: Choreography and the Archives: Preservation, Tradition, and Innovation from Sybil Shearer through the Present.

 

 

Like this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 5

Gloria Fokine : Ballet in Havana

Gloria in Les Sylphides, Havana, 1937

Born Gloria González Negreira in Havana, Gloria Fokine (1925–2012) studied ballet in the same school as Alicia Alonso and her sister Cuca Martínez. She saw — and remembered — a remarkable swath of dance history. This included the beginnings of Ballet Nacional de Cuba as well as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and other companies touring there in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1949 she married Leon Fokine, who was teaching classic Russian technique in Havana. They came to the U.S. and taught in Washington, DC for years, and then taught in the early years of Robert Joffrey’s company as well as at the Harkness Ballet. She taught for her sister-in-law, Irine Fokine in Ridgewood, NJ (where I took her classes as a teenager). After Leon died, she had her own school in Brooklyn Heights from 1978–84. She eventually brought her knowledge of ballet to her position as the photo editor for Dance Magazine. For a complete obit click here.

I interviewed Gloria on September 1, 2004, and it was printed in Ballet Review in the Spring 2007 issue.

(WP) Wendy Perron

(GF) Gloria Fokine

 

WP:  What are your earliest memories of seeing dance?

GF:  In Cuba there was an organization called Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, which was formed by some socially prominent ladies for the purpose of bringing culture to Cuba. They built a theater and they proceeded to bring the best concert artists. There I saw [Sergei] Rachmaninoff, [Valdimir] Horowitz, [Yehudi] Menuhin. There was a Russian immigrant, Nicolas Yavorsky, who had studied dance, and when he left Russia during the revolution he joined a Russian opera as a dancer and wound up in Cuba. So the Pro-Arte ladies thought, “Aha, good opportunity,” and they opened the ballet school.  In the beginning they had the classes on the stage, but they built a very nice studio in the top of the theater. Yavorsky, who was a person of exquisite taste, decided to do, for his first production, Sleeping Beauty. It was lavish. I was six years old, and my mother took me to see the performance — my first ballet performance. I remember a little girl as the Bluebird who had a little suit, blue, with lots of jewels in the wings and jumping all the way around the stage, a dark-haired little girl. That was Alicia Alonso. She was Alicia Martínez Del Hoyo at that time, and only 11. I liked it very much. And then when I was 9 years of age my mother took me again to Pro-Arte Musical to see Coppélia, again with a little bit more grown-up Alicia Martínez Del Hoyo. The performances there were not like recitals here. Costumes were very professional; scenery was lavish.

Alicia Alonso in Coppélia

WP:  And the audience was not just the parents?

GF:  Oh, no, no, no, because there were the members. Pro-Arte Musical was by membership. And it was very affordable, with $3 orchestra, $2 first balcony, $1 second balcony. (Before Castro, dollars and pesos were equal.) That gave you the right to two concerts a month plus ballet, drama, or music lessons. It was a terrific organization, founded by women and run by women!

WP:  Did Alicia play Swanilda?

GF: Of course, and her future brother-in-law, Alberto Alonso, was Franz. And that was it for me. I started classes in that summer, 1935, and I loved it. Yavorsky had produced two professional dancers — Alberto Alonso and Delfina Perez Gurri — and he had gone to Europe to take them to Colonel de Basil’s Company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Baronova and Paul Petroff in Aurora’s Wedding*

WP: Was there already a connection between the Cubans and the Russians?

GF:  Yavorsky was a White Russian. He had run away from the Soviets.  In 1936 Pro-Arte Musical brought the Basil company when it was full with Massine, Toumanova, Danilova, Baronova, Riabouchinska. I went to see the performance in May, and it was so hot—of course there is no air conditioning—and you were perspiring and perspiring. But when the overture starts, you don’t feel the heat. And I saw some very fabulous performances: Aurora’s Wedding with Baronova, Three-Cornered Hat with Massine and Toumanova, [the dances from] Prince Igor with Yurek Shabelevsky. And also Les Sylphides with Danilova and Toumanova and Riabouchinska, who was the most ethereal dancer — in person she doesn’t look ethereal at all. How she can transform herself into a will-o-the-wisp, like a feather — it was unbelievable.

Toumanova and Massine in Three Cornered Hat

WP:  And what about Toumanova? What was she like?

GF: I was not tremendously impressed with her in Sylphides. Baronova in Aurora’s Wedding was the personification of the princess: beautiful, gorgeous, but with a strong, solid technique. I saw Toumanova with Massine in his Three-Cornered Hat and she was very beautiful. But then I saw Massine’s Présages, my first symphonic ballet.

WP:  Did they had live music?

GF:  Oh, yes.  And the conductor was Antal Dorati.

WP:  And what was your impression of Présages? 

GF:  I loved it. And then they did Massine’s Beau Danube, danced by Massine. He was the kind of person that he walks on the stage and fills it. He was not a classical dancer; he was more a character dancer, but he was a tremendous personality.

But there was Danilova, my dear. That little can-can she does as the Street Dancer with the very frothy skirt of deep red velvet, lined with white lace ruffles — I memorized the steps, I don’t know how. When Danilova was on the stage you never looked at anybody else. She was unique, unforgettable. Then there’s the romance between the Massine character and the Riabouchinska character, who’s a young girl, and then the Street Dancer tries to come between them. It was a thrilling experience.

In 1937 Yavorsky did Swan Lake with Alicia, and that was her last ballet with Pro-Arte as a student. She had some coaching from Baronova, who was a close friend of Yavorsky. And I made my debut in it when I was 11 or 12. I was a little buffoon, one of six kids (at right). It was Yavorsky’s choreography for the school, it was not the Petipa. We came out all in a line and then jumped.

WP: What other dancers did Pro-Arte bring?

Harald Kreutzberg, 1949

GF: Harald Kreutzberg. That was my first sight of modern dance. The stage was dark and this man, head shaved à la Yul Brynner, long before Yul Brynner, with a big spotlight, controlled the stage in a manner that nobody else does. Then Pro-Arte brought Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, which was again a different kind of ballet. What I liked the best was Filling Station, choreographed by Lew Christensen, which he danced. And the novelty was that his costume was made of transparent plastic.

Lew Christensen in his Filling Station (1937), ph George Platt Lynes

WP:  That’s very early for plastic.

GF: Yes, this was in 1938. It was very American. It was not about fairies or princesses, but about everyday situations. There was a filling station and a father and mother and the kids.

WP:  Were you in other Yavorsky productions?

GF: Yes, he staged a fantastic ballet for the younger ones — The Four Seasons. He had an ability to get the most from each student. He used to yell a lot, but we adored him. “Spring” was in the woods, and the younger ones were flowers. The older ones were butterflies, fireflies. And I was Little Red Riding Hood, and she has an encounter with Peter Pan. “Summer” was a wedding in Eastern Europe and we were peasants. That was my first taste of character dance because I was the groom and had to do all kinds of pas de chat, landing in grand plié. It was very elaborate with beautiful costumes. And then “Fall” was in the castle in Scotland, with hunters. I was one of four Scotsmen, which was fun because we were taught an authentic Scottish dance by one of the older students. I had a bagpipe and a kilt. And then for “Winter” there’s the snowflakes and the wind. The younger ones were Tyrolians; I was an ice skater.

WP:  What other modern dance did you see?

Ted Shawn in Mevlevi Dervish, Jacob’s Pillow Archives

GF:  Ted Shawn arrived in Cuba for a Pro-Arte production. I was already pre-teen, and all I can say is “Wow.” His men were so good-looking. They did one of those pieces that imitate machinery. [You can see a 1938 film of that piece, Mechanized Labor, here.] It was wonderful. What he did himself was a whirling dervish. That I enjoyed very much.

In 1940 Pro-Arte brought the Jooss Ballet. They did some things that were humorous, they did one that was like a fairy tale, with fantastic costumes [A Spring Tale]. And A Ball in Old Vienna and The Big City. And they did The Green Table. That was potent, to say the least. Ernst Uthoff was the Standard Bearer, but anyone who has seen Rudolf Pescht as Death will never forget it. I was sitting at the edge of my seat. It was fantastic. And then the light effects — the spotlight starts getting smaller and smaller, and just the face.

Ted Shawn’s Labor Symphony, 1930s, Jacob’s Pillow Archives

But that was a revelation of what you can do with modern dance. Kreutzberg is one man doing it. With Shawn they were all men and it was exciting to see. But this was a company of men and women. There was so much variety in the company. You have something as powerful as Green Table, and the Big City is very deep, but these nasty things that happen. And then you have the Seven Heroes, which was funny, with cheerful peasants.

WP: Jooss had already fled Germany? Where was he living?

GF: The Jooss Ballet and the Comedie Française came to Cuba because they were running away from the Nazis. Jooss took up residence in England with the company, and they were touring mostly the Americas. Ernst Uthoff, the father of Michael Uthoff, opened a school in Chile. I also saw Ballet Theatre in the mid-40s. They did Agnes de Mille’s Tally Ho. That was a lot of running around. I don’t know who was chasing who, but someone must have been chasing an imaginary fox. And in 1948 Ballet Alicia Alonso came with Coppélia, which Leon had staged for them. They also did Peter and the Wolf [the one choreographed by Adolph Bohm]. Melissa Hayden was a very charming bird; Cynthia Riseley was a sinewy cat, and Dulce Wohner, a product of Pro-Arte Musicale, was a very funny duck. Then unfortunately there were some politics in Pro-Arte and Yavorsky left. They brought in Georges Milenoff, a Bulgarian who had been in Ida Rubinstein’s company. In the meantime de Basil came back with a more extensive repertoire, but Danilova, Toumanova and Massine were not with the company. Baronova came but she danced only two performances. This time they had Coq d’Or, Swan Lake, Petrouchka,and Paganini.

One of the best things they did was Balanchine’s Cotillon. That was beautiful. It’s about the relationship between the young men and the young women at a ball. It had fabulous costumes and scenery by my favorite designer, Christian Bérard. I am kind of sorry that Balanchine never staged it for the New York City Ballet. It has mystery like Ravel’s La Valse. The “Hand of Fate” pas de deux is beautiful and unusual.

But then we had enough time to see a lot of Basil because the company went on a strike, which was considered by some to have been the beginning of its end. [See Vicente Garcia-Marquez’s book The Ballets Russes, p. 272.]. Half the company left Cuba, and the other half stayed with Basil in Havana for four months. They didn’t have money, of course. Yurek Shabelevsky came to join them, and Alberto Alonso and his wife, who had left the de Basil company in 1940, came to help them out. She was Canadian, with fantastic technique. Her name actually was Patricia Denise Meyers, but she was called Alexandra Denisova.

Jasinski in Cuba, 1933

We saw them in class and in rehearsals. It was amusing to see Serge Grigoriev, who had been the regisseur for Diaghilev and for de Basil, demonstrating a dance in the Beau Danube that Danilova had left. (I think it was Olga Morosova who had replaced her.) He was a big man, not very young, and holding up his pants. And there was his wife, Madame Lubov Tchernicheva, who had been with Diaghilev. Another ballet that they did was Schéhérazade, and she was Francesca in Francesca da Rimini by David Lichine. Tatiana Leskova was the girl in pigtails in Lichine’s Graduation Ball and she was wonderful and very funny. And so we had those Russians there for three months.

We became close friends with Roman Jasinski, Yurek Lazowski, and Paul Petroff. I remember Jasinski’s wife, Moussia Larkina (originally Moscelyne Larkin; they later co-founded Tulsa Ballet). She was about 15 years old. She’s American Indian, very round face, two pigtails, dark, a very good dancer. Afterwards she was dancing with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the other Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo [headed by Serge Denham].

WP:  Were you able to take classes when they were in Havana?

GF: I took classes with Paul Petroff. He gave me my first pas de deux class. He taught me the adagio from Swan Lake and the nocturne from Les Sylphides. In the meantime Milenoff started rehearsing Carnaval. I was Columbine. We didn’t have many male dancers so my Harlequin had to be a female Harlequin — who happened to be Alicia’s older sister Cuca.

Baronova in Les Sylphides*

WP:  Did you ever want to dance with Basil’s company?

GF: Oh, I would have loved to, but I was not even in high school and my mother wouldn’t have let me anyway. But Pro-Arte kept bringing the Metropolitan Opera, and I danced with the opera. I was in Aida and the Gioconda. And I danced also in Rigoletto and Carmen.

WP:  And who choreographed these?

GF:  Alberto did one. The “Dance of the Hours,” in Gioconda, I think, was his wife Pat. Aida I think Alicia did, because when Alicia had the eye problem, she couldn’t dance and was staying in Cuba.

WP:  When you finished high school what did you do?

GF:  I stopped dancing.

WP: Why?

GF: There were no other schools outside of Pro-Arte except what I call the twinkle-toes type of school. After that, Milenoff left. Alberto Alonso’s mother had become president of Pro-Arte’s musical group, so Alberto took over the school with his wife Pat. I realized later on that Pat was only about two or three years older than I was. Actually, it blew my mind also when I saw the first Basil company — I was 11— that those dancers that I thought were so sophisticated like Baronova and Toumanova, were only a few years older than I was.

Pat was very young but she was a tremendous technician. She had taken over most of Baronova’s roles. Then they started teaching character classes and pas de deux classes around 1940, maybe ’41, ’42. So the school was taking a different shape. Then we started doing the repertoire: Aurora’s Wedding, Les Sylphides, Petrouchka. Pat had just left the company; she had been one of the principal dancers for several years. She made a big mistake [by marrying Alberto] because that truncated her career as a dancer at only 18 or 19 years old. Tremendously strong technician — she could turn to the right, to the left, she could turn on her toes, she could turn on her head.

WP:  Where was she trained?

GF:  In Canada by a very good teacher, June Roper from Vancouver. Many good dancers came from there. And so it was fun to do Aurora’s Wedding. I was doing the Bluebird but with the original choreography, not the Yavorsky or Milenoff. I was doing the real thing. We danced Les Sylphides — the Fokine Les Sylphides, and it was very exciting. But then Alberto divorced Pat, and there was a big change, so I just didn’t want to continue. That’s when I went to law school.

WP:  In Havana?

GF:  Yes, in the university. One of my classmates was Fidel Castro. We didn’t have high school. We have the European system. It’s five years. Tough. There were no choices. I take two credits of this and one credit of that. It was very difficult.

WP:  What was Fidel Castro like as a classmate?

GF:  I don’t know because he was into politics, and I was into having a good time with my friends. But he was a very good student and was already involved in politics. He was always in this or that organization or going to Santo Domingo to overthrow the president. I was studying diplomatic law. I missed dance, but there was no place to go. Finally I found out that Anna Leontieva, from de Basil’s company, had stayed in Cuba and opened a small school. By the way, that’s really is her name. Beautiful dancer.

I was talking a couple of years ago with Tatiana Leskova, who was one of the dancers stuck in Cuba during the strike, and Lichine. They had to make some money, so Lichine got an engagement to do a show in the Tropicana, which was the biggest nightclub in Havana. (It still exists.) The show was called Conga Pantera — the panther. The panther was Tatiana Leskova, poor thing, and they used to throw her from one tree to the other. But they had to pay the rent. She’s wonderful. She’s the one who staged Présages for us.

WP: And she came up to Jacob’s Pillow to stage Massine’s Les Presages for the Russian-American student program in 1991.

Baranova practicing Choreartium in her dressing room, 1933*

GF: And she did also Choreartium. My favorite of all the symphonic ballets, which is unfortunately lost, is Symphonie Fantastique. Ah, what a beautiful ballet! The Berlioz music is beautiful. Again, costumes and scenery by Christian Bérard. [Unbeknownst to Gloria, there is a 1948 film of it danced the Royal Danish Ballet dancing it.]

WP:  So how did you get back into dancing?

GF: I went to Anya’s studio. Anya [Leontieva] had been trained in Paris Opéra Ballet, but her mother, Genia Klemenskaya, who was in the Diaghilev company, came too. She reminded me of Maria Swoboda, yelling her head off all the time.

I came to New York for the summer. It was during the war, 1944. Alicia had studied with Mme. Alexandra Fedorova, and she used to say to everybody, “If you go to New York, you have to study with Mme. Fedorova.” (Annabelle Lyon had told her about her.) But when I was in New York and I wanted to study with Mme. Fedorova, Mme. Fedorova was in Chicago with Leon Fokine, her son. It’s a twist of fate that I never studied with her, and then she became my mother-in-law. So I studied with her in the dining room!

I wanted to study  with [Anatole] Vilzak, but he was on vacation, so then I went to study with Sviacheslav Swoboda. The main students there were the Tyven girls, Gertrude and Sonja. Gertrude was the principal dancer of Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. That summer I saw that company do Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes with Danilova and Freddie Franklin. I kept going to Anya while still going to Havana University.

Then, in 1948, Ballet Theatre closed for one season because of financial difficulties. So Alicia and her husband Fernando rounded up a bunch of dancers from Ballet Theatre including Igor Youskevitch, Melissa Hayden, and Barbara Fallis, and came to Cuba with the idea of starting a company, with Pro-Arte as headquarters. Pro-Arte gave them the space, the costumes, the scenery, the orchestrations — everything. Alicia asked me to join; she needed a few Cuban dancers for Swan Lake. (Her company was called Ballet Alicia Alonso, and after the revolution it became Ballet Nacional de Cuba.) I said no because I was not in shape. Alberto Alonso left with the company on their tour to South America, so Pro-Arte had to have a new teacher, and they brought Leon Fokine [son of Alexandra Fedorova and Alexander Fokine, Michel’s brother]. So I started taking class to get back in shape. But I never got into the Alonso company because we got married.

WP:  What do you remember about Leon’s classes?

Leon Fokine with Vera Volkova, at the Harkness Ballet, 1964

GF:  They were fantastic. He taught me how to plié. I used to have a tremendous jump, but how to do plié, how to hold the arm, how to hold yourself, how to present yourself — he taught me that. We got married in 1949 and, after a short time in New York, we went to live in Washington, D.C. He was engaged to teach for a big school there that was the competitor of the Washington Ballet. And then the lady who owned the school decided to sell it, and Leon bought it. We were there from 1953 to ’61.

WP:  Did you have any students who later became professional?

GF:  Yes, Lili Cockerille [later Lili Cockerille Livingston, author of American Indian Ballerinas]. Lili was the prettiest little girl, had bright red hair. She was always spotless, with her little leotard, her tights were spotless, her ballet slippers, the hair in a little bun with flowers around it.

WP:  I remember her as an advanced student at SAB, around 1960, when I was there for the summer. I would watch the advanced class, and she was one of my favorites.

GF:  Yes. That’s before she joined the Harkness. Washington is a wonderful city, but the restaurants closed early. Once after a performance Alicia and Igor [Youskevitch] and I went out to have dinner. We wound up in a Whelan Drugstore having grilled cheese sandwiches.

Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch, ph Sedge Leblang, Dance Magazine Archives

WP: Were you in Washington when Castro led his revolution that took power?

GF:  Oh, yes. Almost every summer Leon used to go and teach at Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana, and I took company class. Once I went, I hadn’t been home in three years. The company was going to South America, and Alicia asked me to come with them. But I hadn’t seen my mother in three years, so I said no. Castro was already in power and it was my last trip to Cuba. I had a big class reunion with my friends from school because it was my birthday. It was the last time I ever saw my schoolmates, because then everybody was leaving Cuba and going to different places. It was getting harder for Cuban citizens to leave, and I was still a Cuban citizen. But I was a U.S. resident, however, and so I could leave.

I came back to Washington. One day Fernando Alonso called to say they were going on tour to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and he wanted Leon and me to go with them, Leon as ballet master and me as regisseur.

WP:  This is for Ballet Alicia Alonso?

GF:  No, Castro was already in power so it was Ballet Nacional de Cuba. There are these posters for Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Coppélia, saying “choreography by Leon Fokine.”

WP:  So, did you go with them to Russia?

GF:  Yes. Leon, who hadn’t seen his brother Nicholas in thirty years, was very interested. But we had to find somebody to stay at the school. So finally we came to Havana and started working. They wanted me to dance, but Leon wouldn’t let me. He had a previous relationship with a dancer who was always on tour, and he said, “No, no, no, I want my wife with me.” I agreed to it. What could I do?

We went to Russia but Leon had ulcers. We went to Riga [where Leon had lived and had danced with the Riga Opera, where his mother was ballet director], we went to Moscow, we went to Leningrad. And we went to Poland and Germany. When we got to Berlin, Leon had to have surgery. I stayed with him for a couple of days but then I had to leave to Leipzig. I came back to Berlin and he told me, “I don’t want to go back to Washington.” Hallelujah! Anyway, because of his surgery I had to leave the company, also because the company was going to China and I was not an American citizen. So we came back to New York. I went to Washington to settle the school and Leon was here.

Alexandra Fedorova in 1962

WP:  And then in New York did you take classes with Fedorova?

GF:  Oh, yes, I took many ballet classes with Fedorova. Even when we lived in Washington we’d come to New York and I’d go take class with her and sometimes with Vladimir Dokoudovsky also. He taught at Carnegie Hall.

WP:  So what did Leon do when he came back to New York?

GF:  Looked for a job.

WP:  Did he do Radio City then?

GF:  No, no, no, he was in Radio City before I met him, during the Depression. Rebekah Harkness wanted to take private ballet lessons, and Leon’s friend Jeannot Cerrone, who was manager of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theatre, got him the job. When he lost the job at Harkness, he taught at Irine’s.

WP:  Yes, he taught at Irine Fokine School of Ballet in Ridgewood, New Jersey [where I studied]. I remember him as a strict teacher. So was he part of the beginning of the Harkness Ballet?

GF: Very much so. I was there too. Mrs. Harkness asked Leon to come watch the audition for her new company with Joffrey, and I went with him. When Harkness got together with Joffrey and went to Watch Hill, Rhode Island the summer of 1962, we spent the summer there. As a matter of fact I won a prize in a contest. Rebekah wrote music and Donald Saddler choreographed it, which had the black bottom and every social dance up to the twist. And my partner was Bob [Joffrey], appropriately.

WP: Yes, Bob was small too.

GF: We won second prize — the first prize was won by Mrs. Harkness! We got to perform it two times.

What she wanted was to do the Rebekah Harkness Ballet with Robert Joffrey as the director. But Bob Joffrey worked too damn hard to have his own company, not just to be the director of somebody else’s company!

WP:  So you were on his side.

GF:  Absolutely. Leon went on working with Harkness for several years more. I sympathized with Bob. [Joffrey struggled to remake his company after Rebekah Harkness started a company in her name with his dancers.]

WP: You once told me that what you liked about Leon was something about the arms.

GF:  Yes, because they’re one hundred percent Leningrad, Imperial Ballet — that openness. Leon trained there, and that stays with you.

WP:  So when you got to New York, Leon was teaching at Harkness and you were teaching sometimes at Irine’s school?

GF: I was teaching there from 1961 to ’74.

WP: I understand you studied with Olga Preobrajenska in Paris.

GF: Being a Cuban girl, I lived in the House of Bernarda Alba, a very Spanish family. There’s no such a thing as independence. You’re always dependent on your mother or your father or your grandmother or whoever. When I got married and came to New York for a day, I didn’t dare to leave the house by myself. The Royal Ballet came to Washington and a very dear friend of ours was with them, Svetlana Beriosova, who said, “Oh, you have to come and visit us in London.” So I asked Leon, “Is it okay if I go?” He said “Sure.” And Svetlana said, “Well, if you’re going to London you might as well go to Paris, and if you go to Paris you might as well go to Rome and Venice and Florence.” So the trip mushroomed to be a three-month affair. This was before air flight, and she said, “Of course you have to travel on the Ile de France.” Everything was so exciting and the kids in the studio gave me parties and presents. And then I got cold feet and said, “How the hell am I going to go Europe?” And so I came to New York first. My friends Sally Edwards and Marlene Rizzo—she’s Helgi Tomasson’s wife — took me out to dinner and to the hotel—it was my first time staying at a hotel alone.

WP:  So you made it to Paris and you studied with Preobrajenska.

GF:  I made it to London, I made it to Paris, I loved it. I studied with Preobrajenska for two months.

Preobrajenska

WP:  Tell me what you remember about studying with her.

GF:  She was tiny and very old by then. She always wore a maroon-colored jumper with a little crocheted blouse underneath, wrinkled stockings, and ballet slippers with ribbons. She would try to do entrechat quatre and she couldn’t get off the floor. When she explained how to finish a pirouette, she would open her arms, like saying, “Here I am — how beautiful.” At the end of the adagio, she always had a very dramatic pose, like putting your arm on your forehead like you’re suffering. Oh, but if you point that foot in the back, she’ll kill you. “You’re not dancing now; you’re acting. You don’t point your toes.” She was very persistent! That was one of the most thrilling experiences — just to listen to that woman and see her move.

WP: When did you get the job as the photo archivist at Dance Magazine?

GF:  Leon died in 1973. In 1978 I opened my own school in Brooklyn Heights, and that’s where I met Marilyn Hunt. I was planning with Marilyn to include dance history classes. But then it was 1984 and everybody’s leases were not being renewed. The school was doing fine. I opened with 50 students and in four years I had 125. But my lease was not renewed. I went to teach for Richard Thomas. His studio was in the former School of American Ballet.

WP:  …where there’s now a Barnes & Noble.

Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis in an undated photo

GF:  Yes, and I loved Richard. We knew each other from Cuba because he was in Ballet Alicia Alonso with Barbara Fallis, his wife. (Actually I think his son was born in Cuba. I remember Richard, the son [the actor], in a little buggy as a baby.) But he lost his lease. Dokoudovsky lost his lease. David Howard lost his lease. Finis Jhung. Everybody. There was no place to go. I did not want to leave New York. I’m sorry, but I’m a New Yorker one hundred percent. I didn’t know what to do. One day Marilyn Hunt [a former student of Gloria’s who was an editor at Dance Magazine] and called me up and said, “How would you like to work in Dance Magazine.” I said “Marilyn, I have never worked in an office in my life.” She said, “Well, it’s the photo archives.” That was from 1985 to 1999. After that, Richard Thomas arranged for me to be ballet master at the Universal Ballet Company in Korea. So I spent three months there. They pay very well and treat you like a queen.

WP:  You said that you recently [2004] sat down with Alicia and talked.

GF:  We reminisced about Yavorsky because he was her first teacher, and about our friends at that time.

WP: I’ve heard that she’s on very good terms with Castro.

GF:  Oh, yes. She has government subsidy. If she didn’t have Fidel, she wouldn’t have a company. When I was in Havana University law school, almost every one of my classmates, if there was a ballet performance, used to go to see it.

WP:  So it was more part of the culture than it is here.

GF:  Yes.

WP:  Why do you think Ballet Nacional de Cuba has had such international success?

GF:  Well, it had damn good dancers, trained in the school. Everybody talks about the Cuban school, the Cuban school, but it’s the Russian school! It started with Yavorsky; it was started with Milenoff; it started with Fedorova. Cuba was friendly with the Soviet Union. Do you know how many teachers from the Bolshoi and from the Kirov were in Cuba teaching? Of course it has a different flavor. We’re Latins; we have a different feel for the music than the Russians. But basically it is the Russian school. The only trouble now, they’re losing a lot of dancers.

WP:  Yes, they’re defecting. Why?

GF:  Living conditions in Cuba are terrible, and the dancers don’t get paid well. There’s no water in the city, even if you have any Cuban pesos. It was in the newspaper here that they pay in Cuban pesos, but you cannot buy anything with Cuban pesos in Cuba. Even if they have a million pesos, they cannot eat in a restaurant because you have to pay in American dollars. You buy food with dollars; you buy clothes with dollars. There’s nothing — you cannot buy even a safety pin without dollars.

WP: Where else have you taught?

GF: Tim Wingerd, who had opened a dance conservatory in Albuquerque, invited me to come and teach ballet, and especially character. So I spent a wonderful two months there. He invited me to stay in New Mexico as the head of the ballet department, but unfortunately he passed away.

WP:  When you teach, what do you emphasize?

GF: You have to have technique. But also you have to have feeling, and a good ear for the music. The dancers in the de Basil company, their technique was nothing compared to today, but they danced from here [touches her heart].

WP:  When you were teaching at Irine’s, you set Les Sylphides on us. Whom did you learn Sylphides from?

GF:  In Cuba, from Pat Denisova from the de Basil company, which is the same Sylphides because it was staged by Michel Fokine himself.

WP: Did Leon stage any of the Fokine ballets?

GF:  No, I don’t think he knew the choreography.

WP:  So there’s only Vitale [Michel Fokine’s son] who knows them? And what was the relationship like between the cousins — Vitale and Leon?

GF:  Like brothers. They were both born in December of the same year, in the same house. I think they were even thrown into the same crib. They lived together, Fedorova and her husband, Alexander, and Michel and Vera, in the same house.

WP: What’s the relation between  Chopiniana and Les Sylphides?

GF:  Fokine did two Chopinianas. The first one was completely different from Les Sylphides; it had character numbers. One scene was a Polish wedding. In the first scene, the Nocturne is sort of similar to Symphonie Fantastique, the third movement. There’s the Poet and the Muse and then there’s a tarantella; it’s Chopin music but it’s a tarantella. The only thing that is left from that Chopiniana was the waltz that he choreographed for Pavlova and Oboukhoff — not Anatole Oboukhoff, but the older Oboukhoff, Mikhail.

Les Sylphide with Roman Jasinski 1940

WP:  Anatole Oboukhoff is the one who taught it at SAB [School of American Ballet].

GF:  Yes. That’s not the one. The older one saved it and incorporated it in the second Chopiniana, which is what we know as Les Sylphides.

WP:  What do you think should happen with the Fokine ballets?

GF:  I don’t know. I wish that they would continue. Alicia was very upset. She wanted to do Sylphides at City Center in 2001. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba has a wonderful Sylphides. But she couldn’t do it because a few weeks before, Isabel [Vitale’s daughter, Michel’s granddaughter] signed a contract with Ballet Theatre that gives them the exclusive rights to do Sylphides in New York I think for two years.

WP: What is it about Fokine ballets that are different from other ballets?

GF: Fokine was very Russian; his ballets like Schéhérazade are supposed to be Oriental, but Russian. I was married to a Russian for a long time. Their philosophy is Oriental. They’re not Western in their thinking. Don’t forget the Tartars were there for many years, so their way of thinking is fatalism. His choreography is very Russian. Some of the ballets are dated, like Paganini.

WP:  And what did you think of the way the Joffrey did Petrouchka a few years ago?

GF:  Well, that’s another problem. Petrouchka, Prince Igor — they will never be done right until you get character dancers. With de Basil it was exciting to have all these Polish boys like Shabelevsky and Lazowski and Nicolas Orloff.

WP:  Oh, I studied character with Orloff at Leila Crabtree’s studio around 1960!

GF:  He was the best Drummer Boy that’s ever been in Graduation Ball. Most of the company was character. They had three classical dancers: Paul Petroff, [Roman] Jasinski, and then later Michel Panaieff. Everybody else was character. Shabelevsky, the greatest of them all. And good-looking — oh! Gorgeous. Lazowski, he was teaching character later at ABT’s school. There was Marian Ladré and Narcisse Matouchevsky. They’re all character dancers.

Narcisse Matouchevsy and Yurek Lazowsky on the beach,1932*

When I see the Joffrey Ballet’s Petrouchka, and the Coachmen are dancing, the Nursemaid comes and they start taking off their jackets, you have to tease a little. That doesn’t come through. Prince Igor — I’ve seen it and it’s dead. They do the steps, but they lack the fire of true character dancers, the fire of the Polovstian warriors.

WP:  Thank you, we’ve covered a lot of ground. It’s been a long trip into the past.

GF:  I might not sleep tonight.

≠≠ END ≠≠

Postscript: Sometime after this conversation, I took Gloria to New York City Center to see the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Her eyesight was so bad she was legally blind. In intermission, I brought her over to where Alicia Alonso, who was even more blind, was sitting. The two talked animatedly about dancing in Havana when they were young. Then they joked about not being able to see well because they both would rather see their memories of ballet than whatever was onstage in the present anyway.

* These photos are from the book Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo by Victoria Tennant.

Special thanks to Victoria Tennant, Robert Johnson, Norton Owen, and Ballet Review.

 

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Resisting Forgetfulness Via Eiko

It’s a strange, unsettling thing, but disaster can be visually beautiful. In a monumental new book called A Body in Fukushima, Eiko Otake is photographed in Fukushima, the site of the 2011 tsunami-prompted nuclear meltdown, by William Johnston. These images of a lone figure in irradiated danger zones are imbued with an elegiac quality. Containing 160 color photos, the book traces the long-term collaboration between Eiko, the dancer of Eiko & Koma fame, and Johnston, the photographer who teaches history at Wesleyan. From 2014 to 2019, the two made five trips to Japan, visiting a total of 26 once-populated places in and around Fukushima, some of which are now ghost towns. I am writing now, during the week of commemorating the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to say why this book haunts me.

In these photographs in the evacuation zone, Eiko’s body absorbs the desolation of these places. One can read sadness, fear, loneliness, courage, protectiveness, resistance, or resignation in her face and body.

Eiko in Yamadahama Seawall, all photos by William Johnston

Visually, she is inseparable from the landscape. She blends in with the rocks at Yamadahama. She clutches her waist amidst big plastic bags full of radioactive debris in Namie Town. She kneels, perhaps in prayer, on Shinmaiko Beach. She stands huddled against the wind in front of a shuttered Yamaha store in Namie Town. Among the tangled wires of Tomioka Sanitation Plant, she grabs her red silk cloth (re-sewn by her mother and herself each time it rips from her dancing). She reaches upward for a hanging bell rope at Shiogama Shrine. Each scene opens a window into the possibility of story.

At Shiogama Shrine

The book also contains essays by Eiko that are eloquent, pained, and brilliant in their determination to understand suffering. In a piece called “Movement,” she connects body movement to the movement of a virus to political movements like Black Lives Matter. She’s a thinker/writer/artist who has been studying atomic bomb literature for twenty years.

In Hittachi Benten

The gravitational pull Eiko feels toward Fukushima is explained in a letter to her deceased friend, Kyoko Hayashi, a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing and author of From Trinity to Trinity (translated by Eiko). There is some part of Eiko that seeks to be in sisterhood with Hayashi, to understand what it feels like to be a hibakusha, a survivor of the nuclear holocaust. In Eiko’s dancing for Johnston’s camera, she wants her body to know and remember, and to share that knowing with us.

The aim here is to resist forgetfulness — and you see that in Eiko’s body. You see how her body is weighed down with remembering. In these god-forsaken locations, she exudes a fully alive response to place. And yet, as Eiko said in the recent Poetics of Aging panel, “Part of my work is preparing to die, or at least practicing to die . . . improvising.”

In the “Afterword,” Eiko compares the disaster of the current pandemic to the disaster of Fukushima: “A nuclear plant or a great city—everything humans make is breakable. We are breakable. All are fragile. We know this now more clearly than ever.”

When I used the word “monumental” earlier, I meant it in several ways: A Body in Fukushima, published by Wesleyan University Press, is artistically, emotionally, historically, globally, environmentally huge. It is monumental not only for positing grieving as a source of art, but also for recognizing the colossal recklessness of human civilization. This beautiful book, which is available at an affordable price due to funding from the Duke Foundation, is a warning.

Shinmaiko Beach

Note: To mark the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), Eiko performs a site-specific work, They did not hesitate, in association with the Art Institute of Chicago, on Aug. 7.

 

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Michio Ito (1893 to 1961)

Portrait of Michio Ito, photo Toyo Miyatake Studio

Could it be that one of the pioneers of American modern dance was not American?

Japanese-born choreographer Michio Ito developed a distinctive, modernist vocabulary in the early part of the 20th century. From intimate, poetic solos in New York City to vast spectacles at the Hollywood Bowl, his choreography was grounded in a strong connection between music and movement. His works combined elements of East and West, and he influenced major figures like Martha Graham and Lester Horton.

He was called “one of the modern dance pioneers” by Ted Shawn (Caldwell 1994, 77). Pauline Koner, a prominent modern dancer in the 1940s and ’50s, went further: She called Ito’s work “the first modern dance” (Koner “On Dance”). A true citizen of the world, he inspired poets in London and mobilized the Japanese immigrant community in Los Angeles. In hundreds of works, he balanced East and West in search of a universal art—until he was arrested as an enemy alien after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. He disappeared from American view and disappeared from our dance history. As choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess asks, “How could Michio Ito’s legacy be wiped out so quickly?”

I am not suggesting that Ito choreographed masterpieces that have been tragically lost and should be reconstructed. I suspect his influence was more as a teacher and thinker than as a dance maker. But his short solos and his whole training system were foundational to the development of modern dance. Ito remains a fascinating figure, a lightning rod for current as well as past issues. Thankfully, the research continues to swell, carried out by scholars like Mary-Jean Cowell, Carrie Preston, Yutian Wong, Kevin Riordan, and Tara Rodman.

 

Early Life

Born in Tokyo to an art-loving, Westward-looking family, Ito studied piano and voice when he was young. His father, who studied architecture in the States, was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. The family was among those who were beginning to look upon Japanese and European culture as co-existing rather than warring (Rodman 17). At the age of 18, Ito left for Paris to study opera. But after seeing Nijinsky in Paris and Isadora Duncan in Berlin, he dropped vocal lessons and enrolled in the Dalcroze Institute in Hellerau, outside of Dresden. Just then the school was becoming a center for European modernism. There, as the only Asian out of 300 students, Ito learned Emile Jaques-Dalcroze’s method of integrating music and dance through arm gestures and walking patterns.

Exhibition of Eurhythmic dance, Hellerau Institute

The Dalcroze Institute offered more than a method. It represented a philosophy, a belief, an experimental approach to performance. Solos were emphasized as a mode of self-expression (Preston 9). The Hellerau Festival was the realization of the avant-garde ideas of theater director Adolphe Appia, who had designed for Wagner’s operas (hellerau.org). When Appia oversaw the design of the new theater for the Hellerau Festival, it was regarded, according to the Hellerau website, as “a visionary alternative” to conventional theaters. The Festspielhaus had flexible seating and different levels of platforms, “making it a ‘cathedral of the future’ (Appia) in which the audience and performers were supposed to merge into spiritual and sensory unity” (Hellerau.org).

From Appia, Ito learned about total theater and how both movement and lights could be unifying elements. In the summer of 1913,  a radical performance of Orpheus and Eurydice attracted an audience of 5,000, including well known artists such as George Bernard Shaw, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Reinhardt, Rainer Maria Rilke—and the teenage Michio Ito (Hellerau.org and Cowell email).

A note about Hellerau and modern dance: Mary Wigman, who was to become the German counterpart to Martha Graham, had studied at Hellerau and later taught the Dalcroze Eurythmics in her school in Dresden. Thus Dalcroze was an underpinning for what became the German Expressionist dance, or Ausdruckstanz (Soares 45).

 

London society

When World War I broke out in 1914, the international students fled Germany and Ito went to London. As the story goes, just when he was down and out, he got invited to a soiree at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, where he was asked to dance. Being penniless, he had no proper costume, so the hostess loaned him an elaborate outfit she had on hand— and voilà, he performed so brilliantly that the guests begged him for more.

One might think he improvised, but everything Ito ever performed was planned at least to some degree. For this performance he danced a piece to Chopin that he had composed for his Dalcroze exam (Caldwell 40). As Lady Ottoline recalled about a number of these social events, “He would ask Philip [her pianist husband] to play a tune through, then think about it for a few minutes, and then start his interpretation of it, wild and imaginative, with intense passion and form” (Caldwell 42).

By the time of his debut on May 15 in a shared program at the Coliseum Theatre, an ad heralded, “The Famous Male dancer Michio Itow who has created a furore in Society with his repertoire of Harmonized Europo-Japanese Dances” (sic) (Caldwell 37).

He had mixed feelings about being labeled Japanese, as one can see in this passage:

Because I was billed as ‘The Japanese Dancer’ I had to create a ‘Japanese’ atmosphere. All my dances were original however. I danced a programme based on Shojo [the spirit of wine] and Kitsune [a folk tale about a fox] and sometimes even wore eboshi [formal black hat] and nagabakama [a long, pleated split skirt] as well (Preston 11).

His debut was called “novel and impressive” by The Times of London (Caldwell 37), and the appearance led to other invitations. But the pressure to appear Japanese followed him everywhere. Orientalism had been rampant in London since the 1880s (Sato 28). As Mary-Jean Cowell points out, the perception of Asian people was two-sided: “The image of the Oriental as a being of profound spirituality and artistic refinement coexisted with the devious, lazy and sensual stereotype” (Cowell 2001, 11).

Yamada Tone Poem II 1926

 

Collaborating with Yeats

Ito started frequenting the Café Royal, an international hangout where his lack of English wasn’t a hindrance since he could speak German and French. There he met Ezra Pound and other artists (Caldwell 39). Pound was working on a translation based on Noh theater, and he’d asked the poet William Butler Yeats for help. They drew Ito into their project, even though he had an aversion to Noh, saying, “Noh is the damnedest thing in this world” (Caldwell 44). But he had absorbed enough of his own cultural roots to contribute something authentic. Yeats then decided to write a play in the Noh style—starring Michio Ito.

The story of At the Hawk’s Well is a spiritual search based on an Irish tale about an old man, a young man, and a shape-shifting hawk-like spirit who guards the water. Ito’s role was basically the spirit of a hawk, who utters a woman’s cry sounding from a well, like an oracle. He also choreographed movement for other scenes.

For a backdrop, theater director Gordon Craig designed screens (Preston 21), and artist Edmund Dulac collaborated with Ito on an Egyptian-style mask for the supernatural spirit of the Hawk (Cowell 2001, 12).

Hawk headdress ph Alvin Langdon Coburn, London, 1916

Ito brought two colleagues from Japan into the project because they knew the actual songs of Noh. It was through this play, through the blending of Yeats’s poetry and the songs of Noh, that Ito could appreciate the beauty of Noh for the first time. He saw an affinity between the wholeness of a Noh play and the Dalcrozian integration of dance and music. It was a kind of full circle whereby Ito’s interest in the West brought him to Europe, and it was Western poets whose interest in Asia brought him back to his Japanese roots.

For Yeats, Ito was the inspiration to write the play: “I [saw] him as the tragic image that has stirred my imagination.” Yeats felt he had invented a new form: a play with dance. But it depended on the brilliance and depth of Ito’s performance. Yeats wrote three more such plays, but he always had trouble with the dance component after Ito’s departure (Caldwell 52–54).

 

Coming to New York

The war continued to escalate, and Ito looked toward safety in New York. At that time, Japanese laborers were basically barred from the United States.  But a producer named Oliver Morosco was able to offer Ito a three-year contract under a U.S –Japan arrangement called Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which made exceptions for “a category reserved for students, intellectuals, and other ‘desirable’ professionals” (Wong 146). When Ito arrived in New York in 1916 and realized that Morosco was planning what Ito termed a “sex comedy,” he broke the contract (Caldwell 55).

Mary-Jean Cowell, longtime Ito scholar, describes the artistic environment of the city at the time:

There was no “modern dance” movement in New York when he arrived. Outside of ballet, most dancers who aspired to art rather than revues were music interpreters, aesthetic dancers, barefoot dancers, or exotic dancers, the latter mostly Caucasians in generic Oriental attire (Cowell, Ito Fnd).

In 1917 Ito joined Adolph Bolm’s Ballet Intime for an East Coast tour that would raise money for war charities (Caldwell 61). Bolm had been a star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and this was the first group he assembled after leaving Russia. One can imagine that, because Ito’s sighting of Nijinsky in Paris had ignited his dance desires, he must’ve been happy to dance with another of Diaghilev’s stars.

Ito’s solos fell into two categories: either culturally specific—e.g. Spanish, Javanese, French, Chinese—or his own, more or less abstract, amalgam. The latter were based on his two sets of ten arm gestures (A and B, or masculine and feminine, or sun and moon) and variations of them, not unlike Dalcroze Eurythmics.

Brochure for Ito school in NYC, with Ito family crest

According to Koner’s description, even his non-oriental style had cultural roots: “It had the purity and the clarity of a single brush stroke in a Japanese painting, and at the same time it was like a modern painting influenced by the Japanese style” (Koner 27).

Because these two styles weren’t entirely separate, they seeped into each other. For example, a certain kind of gliding could be used in both styles. In Koner’s words, “He knew how to cover space with the effortless gliding movement of the Oriental, skimming along the floor without the bouncing and shoulder wagging visible in many dancers” (Koner 27).

Ito called his works “dance poems.” He wanted each piece to be concise and focused, yet leave a lingering image, a liminal trail, a shadow. Helen Caldwell, who had studied and performed with him for years, called them “miracles of evocation” in her biography of him (Caldwell 4). She admired his subtlety: “He avoided spectacle . . . and relied upon suggestion rather than elaboration, believing that an idea, including emotion, exerts more power on the imagination when not completely revealed” (Caldwell 34).

In his diaries, Ito observed that “Eastern art is three-fourths spiritual; Western art is three-fourths material.” For him, that presented an imbalance. “True art should be one-half spiritual, one-half material” (Preston 23). His lifelong effort was to find such a balance. As Cowell and Shimazaki have put it, “This blend would be the ultimate universal and eternal art” (Cowell 2001, 13).

 

Michio Ito and Martha Graham

The experience of Hellerau meant he could work in dance or theater or take gigs that straddled the two. From 1918 to 1928 he designed sets or directed movement for a range of productions. Venues and groups include the Neighborhood Playhouse, Washington Players, the Provincetown Players, the American Opera Company, and John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies.

Martha Graham in Ted Shawn’s “Serenata Morisca,” Greenwich Village Follies, 1924, Library of Congress

For the Follies, typically a blend of popular and art dance (Kendall 178-79), he choreographed and designed sets in 1919, and again in 1923. For this last, he “arranged” several numbers, among them an East Indian dance for The Garden of Kama, featuring the 29-year-old Martha Graham. (She also performed Ted Shawn’s Serenata Morisca in the Follies, see photo.) According to at least one historian, her admiration for Ito’s authenticity motivated her to leave the Denishawn company (Reynolds 145).

Ito rented a studio in Carnegie Hall, where it happened that Louis Horst, the pianist for Denishawn who became Graham’s music director and artistic advisor, had the studio upstairs. Eager to bestow a sense of form to the new barefoot dancing, Horst was looking for structures he could lend to Graham and other young dance artists. According to Janet Mansfield Soares, Horst’s biographer,

The pianist carefully observed the way Ito paid particular attention to the underlying dance rhythms in a Bach suite. In his classes in the studio below Louis’s, Ito taught phrases in unison, canon, and with changes of rhythm and talked about symbolism, imagery, and the use of minimal thematic materials — ideas that found their way into Louis’s teaching…As Ito…fed Louis information, he would then share it with Graham (Soares 60-61).

It was through Horst, then, that Ito’s ideas about choreographic structure reached Martha Graham.

Lillian Shapero, in her Enigma, 1936, Courtesy YIVO via Steve Weintraub

Horst not only brought these ideas to Graham, but he also taught dance composition classes at the Bennington School of the Dance (the cradle of modern dance) in the late ’30s and early ’40s, thus instilling his rules and standards to budding modern dancers. (One of them was Lillian Shapero, who studied with Ito, danced with Graham, and choreographed for Yiddish theater [email from Judith Bring Ingber].)

For me, it’s a revelation to know that Horst had absorbed so much about structure from Ito to pass on to the “pioneers” of modern dance. It also explains why it’s been said that Ito “deeply influenced” Graham (Phillips 38).

In addition to their time with the Follies, Ito and Graham both performed in the gala opening of the John Murray Anderson—Robert Milton School of the Theatre and Dance in November 1925, where they would both be teaching (Stodelle 45). They performed together again, this time with Benjamin Zemach in an Irene Lewisohn production called Les Nuages with music by Debussy (Jowitt email).

Noguchi head of Ito

Ito introduced Graham to his friend, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. This was perhaps his greatest gift to her. The Graham-Noguchi collaboration, beginning with Frontier (1935), defined a spare yet sculptural, modernist look. Dating from her friendship with Noguchi, and possible even before that when she met Ito, she always felt an affinity for Asian dancers too. “I am deeply Asian in all of my interests,” she proclaimed (Stodelle 153).

 

Pauline Koner and the Tour to the West Coast

Also frequenting the Carnegie Hall studios was the young Pauline Koner, who later became an international soloist and a guest with the José Limón company. While taking Flamenco lessons on a lower floor, she heard a rumor that a “true Oriental” occupied Room 61 (the craze for Orientalism was as fervid in the U. S. as it was in Europe), and she ventured upstairs. It’s worth relaying her immediate reaction to Ito, as penned in her autobiography:

One of the most extraordinary faces I have ever seen. Shining black hair falling on either side of his oval face framed unusually large, luminous eyes, with a hint of sadness in them. His nose had a slight arch, almost Mayan in its contour, and a full and protruding lower lip lent a sensuous quality tinged with determination. This was not a handsome face, but a torn, and beautiful face. There was an outward calm masking an inner intensity that sent an electric current through me (Koner 23).

She signed up for private lessons and began to learn Ito’s slow, stately Javanese dance. After six half-hour sessions, Ito asked the 15-year-old Pauline to join his small company for a tour. They would be opening in New York and then going across country to the West Coast (Koner, “On Dance”). The other dancers had been with him for a while. But Koner had trained with Michel Fokine, so she brought her ballet lines and legwork to her roles.

The debut of this group took place at the Civic Repertory Theatre in Manhattan in December of 1928. Although Koner reports that the reviews were “encouraging” (Koner 29), a Billboard critic compared the group unfavorably to Doris Humphrey’s group (Rodman 135). Perhaps that’s why Ito then augmented the repertoire with a few more dances. He asked Koner to perform the ebullient Hungarian solo that Fokine had taught her, and he invited Georgia Graham, Martha’s sister, to dance two solos from the Denishawn rep. [Aside: In the 1960s, we all knew her as “Geordie,” the sister who kept attendance records at the Graham school.] These works were not given choreography credit in program notes or press releases, and Koner gives no hint of indignation. (Whether Fokine cared or not is another matter.) Conversely, the “ethnic dancer” La Meri danced took several Ito solos on her tour in the late ’20s without crediting him [Ruyter 34]. This lax attitude is certainly different from today’s policies of giving credit.

He probably didn’t mind La Meri’s “borrowing” his choreography because she’d studied with him, and he was generous to his students. He enjoyed teaching and giving his students opportunities (Caldwell 85; Rodman 146).

In his prime, Ito was a charismatic performer. Koner recalls his onstage presence with her usual descriptive powers:

Ito possessed a magnetism that made all eyes focus on him. The moment he entered, the very air seemed to change. Space seemed infinite, and he could shape it to whatever size he wished —boundlessly open, or minutely pinpointed. In his Albeniz Tango Ito’s body was the entire space, concentrated within the confines of his own limbs, taut, intense, lithe as a puma, ready to pounce, but always held back. In his tightly fitted black trouser, short jacket, and jaunty black-trimmed Spanish hat, he was the essence of a Spanish dancer without doing a single true Spanish step (Koner 29).

Tango, 1926, photo Toyo Miyatake Studio

The small group traveled by Pullman train to Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, El Paso, Seattle, and San Francisco. They typically performed a program of 20+ solos, duets, and trios, with the audience often demanding encores of several pieces (Moore 24). Most of his works, according to Koner, could be done by either a man or a woman (Koner 28).

By her own admission, Koner “worshipped” Ito as both a man and a dance artist. She was hungry to learn from him. On tour, she writes,

We often gathered in Michio’s room, where he sat crosslegged at the head of his bed while I, being the smallest, found room at the foot . . . He talked of emotion and logic controlling life, the need to discover new movement, the importance of contrast, the balance of opposition, and the nuance of shading (elements Doris Humphrey emphasized in later years). The first time I heard the term A-B-A, I was sitting at the foot of Michio’s bed (Koner 36).

Here Koner supports the idea that Ito brought musical structures to his teachings early on.

After their final performance in March, they were stranded. Ito and the dancers were broke; Koner had to wire home for money. She and Hazel Wright, the dancer married to Ito, took the train home to New York. Wright had left their two small sons with relatives (Koner 36-37). Ito stayed in California. It was the Depression and hard to get work everywhere. But he’d done one Hollywood film, and thought he could book more (Cowell email).

 

A Utopian, Socialist, Communal, Impossible Dream

Toward the end of his time in New York, Ito had bemoaned the dearth of space for dance. “Everything from Grand Opera to burlesque has its own building, its own home,” he pointed out, “but dancing has no place!” Frustrated, too, by the constant necessity to earn money to support his choreography, he began to imagine a community of dancers who would share rehearsal and performance space. He came up with a plan: the New York Dance Guild. According to a feature article in The American Dancer by its editor, Ruth Eleanor Howard, in February 1929, the New York Dance Guild would be a home for dancers (Howard 9).

On a rooftop in NYC, 1919

Ito envisioned a new building where dancers would pay a monthly fee toward renting space. He even chose the architect — Hugh Ferris — and the site — on the East River between 54th and 55th Streets. He claimed he had pledges from 136 dance artists who would participate to the tune of $200 rent a month. This, he reasoned, would help defray the cost of construction, for which he would obtain a three-million-dollar loan. The building would have two theaters—a 600-seat and a 1,000-seat—a swimming pool, a library, and a roof garden, as well as plenty of studios for working and apartments for living. According to his math, the building would repay the loan and make a profit within five to seven years. In Howard’s account, Ito said he presented this proposal to some people with money, and within three minutes “these gentlemen” agreed to make the loan. (Howard 22). Exactly who these “these gentlemen” were was not divulged.

It’s kind of an astounding vision, like a year-round Jacob’s Pillow, or like the Ailey hub in midtown Manhattan, but with living space included. Ito’s vision of community was as impractical as it was lofty.

We know from scholars that Ito tended to fabricate stories (Cowell 2001,12; Rodman 83). It’s possible he drummed up interest in the New York dance community, but it’s doubtful he ever presented his proposal to potential donors. (However, Cowell told me in an email that one newspaper reported that he did bring the proposal to someone of financial means.)

Scholar Tara Rodman traces this communal, idealistic notion back to an artists’ retreat in Connecticut that Ito attended with his students in 1921:

Itō hatched his own plan… the major nations involved in the peace talks would each donate the cost of one battleship, and this fund would go towards the founding of an international dance school that Itō analogized to the Red Cross—able to enter any country, it would bring together youth from across the globe in the harmonious study of dance (Rodman 186).

According to a memoir he wrote, Ito went to Washington, DC, and spoke with various ambassadors and President William Harding himself. Although this is probably fantastical, his concluding sentiment is significant: “It would be my life’s work to promote peace through the stage” (Rodman 187).

He transplanted his dream of peace, of bridging communities, to Los Angeles.

 

The Ito-Horton-Ailey Thread

Ito’s first performance in Los Angeles was April 28, 1929, at the Figueroa Theatre. This must’ve been a solo concert since his dancers had returned to New York. Afterwards, he immediately received an offer to teach at the Edith Jane School of Dancing. His stint as her first internationally known guest teacher was announced in the May 1929 issue of The American Dancer, along with the statement that “Mr. Ito’s enthusiasm for the West and its eager young disciples of the dance is unbounded.” (There seems to have been a thin line between news and advertising at that time.) He set up classes for advanced students as well as a weekly community class for non-dancers, with a discount price for those of Japanese descent (Rodman 152).

Poster with drawing by Ito

For five Monday evenings that summer, he brought students to perform at the 300-seat Argus Bowl, where he remounted his production of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well. This time, the role of the Guardian Hawk went to Lester Horton, a talented student in his professional-track class.

Caldwell, who had watched Ito rehearsing Horton for the role, describes the dancing:

The hawklike Guardian, as composed by Michio Ito, was, in fact, a modified Noh dance—tense, continuous movement with suble [sic] variations on its monotony, inducing a trancelike state in both personages and audience —but its increase in tempo was more rapid than in genuine Noh and arm movement was broad and smoothly dramatic, recalling Egyptian representations of the hawk with spread wings and giving a feeling of a great bird’s gliding and wheeling (Caldwell 45).

A Los Angeles Times critic raved about Horton: “Lester Horton, the hawk, surpassed my earlier good impression of his artistic accomplishments. He is rhythmic, poetic, pliable and touched with the spirit of ‘make believe’ (Prevots 185). This mention no doubt helped Horton set up his own company in 1932.

Horton, who became a modern dance pioneer—and mentor to Alvin Ailey— in Los Angeles, was strongly influenced by Ito. Horton’s biographer, Larry Warren, wrote that,

As a performer Ito had an enormous personal dynamic. Horton was able to observe and study the stage projection of a competent artist who could command the attention and interest of his audience by the stateliness of his bearing and the clarity and forcefulness of his projection of gesture. His body spoke eloquently; his facial expression was calm, mask-like. These performance skills were integrated into Horton’s understanding of theater dance and later he was able to refine them and pass them along to his dancers (Warren 31).

The Lester Horton Dance Company is often credited with being the first modern dance company to be racially integrated. It famously included Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey as well as Bella Lewitzky and Joyce Trisler. But Cowell has pointed out that Ito’s integrating of white and non-white dancers came first (Homsey DVD).

 

In Hollywood — In Community

Ito was teaching and rehearsing in Victoria Perry’s studio in Hollywood Hills—where Agnes de Mille and Carmelita Maracci also rented space (Homsey DVD). Ito’s own schools had spread to six sites throughout L.A. (Rodman 154). For at least some of his time in California, he also taught at the Denishawn school. In a 1926 interview, he described his teaching:

My teaching embraces the ballet, which trains the legs; acrobatic dancing, which trains the body; Oriental dancing, which trains the arms; and Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which develops the brain control of all three (Cowell 2001, 13-14).

He drew on his students to populate the next phase of his creativity: large-scale pieces that he called “symphonic choreographies.” Venues like Pasadena’s Rose Bowl and the Hollywood Bowl allowed Ito to produce events he never could have dreamt of in New York.

“New World Symphony,” Pasadena Rose Bowl, 1929, photo Toyo Miyatake Studio

The first of these, in September 1929, was the “Pageant of Lights” to celebrate the new floodlights at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. With a cast of 150 dancers, Ito divided them into groups of 24. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and 200 singers performed music by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Grieg, and Dvorak. His go-to stage set was a gold, folding screen 40-feet high by 125-feet long, reminiscent of Craig’s screen for the Yeats play.

As spectacular as all that was, it was Ito’s signature solo, Pizzicati (sometimes called The Shadow Dance), that brought the house down. This solo, with feet planted wide and arms and head moving in time to the Delibes music while casting a humongous shadow, possessed what Caldwell called a “mystifying power” (Caldwell 79). According to a review in the Pasadena Star News, Pizzicati was the climax of the show: “A slim black figure silhouetted in startling relief against an enormous gold screen,” wrote the reviewer, “dominated the Rose Bowl and held the crowd of five thousand people spellbound and silent” (quoted by Caldwell 88).

Pizzicati (1916), photo Toyo Miyatake Studio, 1929

The stock market crashed the next month, and the “Pageant of Lights” was never to be repeated.

The following summer, however, Ito mounted Borodin’s Prince Igor at the Hollywood Bowl. For this performance, he mobilized groups from the University of Southern California, as well as from the Los Angeles Playground Department and the Japanese-American Women’s Association, to either perform or help build sets and costumes. Prince Igor had a cast of 125 dancers, a 100-person orchestra, and the 200-person Mormon Chorus.

As one can glean from his magnificent costumes and striking drawings, Michio Ito had a visual command as well as a choreographic command. The visual aspects, especially with the various platforms, harked back to his time in Hellerau. Ito’s visual aplomb also had the ability to deflect the eye from the less-than-professional level of some of the dancers (Rodman 156).

Greene reviewed it in Los Angeles Examiner: “The whole spectacle was a triumph of gorgeousness that inspires the hope for others of its kind. Such an artist as Ito is an asset to the community” (Prevots 187).

The American Dancer made much of his contribution to the community. Lewis Barrington, who had traveled with Ito’s touring group as the lighting technician, wrote a piece in the July issue attesting to the “growing momentum” of the “Community Dance movement” in California (Barrington 16). He quoted Bertha McCord Knisely reporting that Ito

believes that the dance is the most natural outlet for human aspiration toward higher activity than the mere utilitarian things of life. He has a vision of community dancing which shall be a step beyond the community singing idea . . . we hope that Michio Ito and his dance have come to stay and to be a part of our striving for those things that nourish man’s ‘divine vitality.’ (qtd in Barrington)

California was ready for Ito. And yet . . .

 

The Dark Side of Orientalism

While the Californians were as enamored of Orientalist exoticism as Europeans, the anti-Asian sentiment was growing, stoked by the media. The “Yellow Peril,” a term coined to indicate the threat that Asian laborers would take away work from whites, led to harassment and beatings. Hollywood depicted Asian characters as conniving, menacing, and barbaric. Various laws prevented Asians on the West Coast from buying land or marrying a white person. (Cowell 1994, 276; also see Mel Wong “Unsung Heroes of Damce History”).

And yet Ito agreed to work on six Hollywood movies, either as a movement director or as an actor. The first was Dawn of the East (1921), in which he played a villainous character. For No, No, Nanette (1929­–30), he contributed a “Japanese ballet.” For the Henry Fonda movie, Spawn of the North (1938), he played a Native American and prepared ceremonial dances. For Sunset Murder Case (1938), he created a gliding dance for a group of women. In Booloo (1938), as the “chief of a savage Sakai,” he wore a ridiculous get-up, representing, as Cowell noted, “an irrational, primitive tribe of “Others,” an image which is an implicit argument for the hegemony of Eurocentric civilization and for white supremacy.”

Ito, at left, as Sakai chief in Booloo (1938)

Noticing that Ito never told stories about these experiences, Cowell writes that it was probably “a painful collision of Ito’s lofty vision of a universal art and contemporaneous socio-political factors” (Cowell 1994, 276). Meaning racism.

 

Pearl Harbor, the FBI, and the Artist as Saboteur

The fact that the U. S. and Japan were at war threw Ito into turmoil. In a post-war memoir, he wrote,

Japan is the land of my birth. America gave me my education and reared me. That these two countries should be at war astounded and confused me. As time passed the seriousness of this situation filled me with a trembling fear. As an artist, my hope was to build a bridge between Japan and America…so that a new and higher civilization could be developed (qtd in Cowell, Ito Fnd)

The FBI began watching Ito in 1939. He was not only Japanese-born, but he had an “artistic temperament,” which marked him as unpredictable, thus capable of sabotage (Riordan 24). Right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the FBI raided Ito’s home and arrested him. He was sent to a series of four Department of Justice camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico (Rodman 188). He had the distinction of being one of only 770 (out of 110,000) who were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” and suspected of espionage (Riordan 67). These Justice Department camps were not the usual internment camps where families could at least stay together. They held Europeans as well as Japanese. As Kevin Riordan quipped, “Even Ito’s internment was international’ (Riordan 85).

Another view of Pizzicati

At the hearing of the Enemy Alien Board in 1942, the first of eighteen “Findings of Fact” was that “Subject is an alien enemy;” the second states that Ito is an “artist of artistic temperament.” Another “finding,” recorded as though it were a joke, was “That the alien also made a statement, the gist of which is that he believes in the ‘world brotherhood of man’ ” (Riordan 80). (Note: in February, President Biden apologized to Japanese Americans for the U. S. government’s racist action of incarcerating their families during World War II.)

Ito felt betrayed by the United States. Before the war, he resisted identifying as Japanese: “In my dancing, it is my desire to bring together the East and the West. My dancing is not Japanese. It is not anything—only myself” (Cowell, Ito Fnd). In the internment camps, he bonded with his fellow prisoners. He started to let go of his individuality as an artist and embrace his Japaneseness. As Rodman writes, “For Itō, imprisoned in a bleak camp, the Japanese Empire seemed to offer the promise of cosmopolitanism that the West had betrayed” (Rodman 191).

In his notebooks during these terrible times, Ito questioned the nature of being human and the nature of civilization, always trying to reconcile the difference between the cultures of East and West.

What is a civilization? I think it is about how we exist together and its culture examines the aesthetics of that existence…. America is a young country and the concern is about an easy existence, whereas in the East, the focus is on the beauty of existence. When the easy existence is solved, the next effort will be to exist beautifully (Homsey, based on Ito’s writings).

In 1943, Ito requested, and was granted, repatriation. He and his second wife, Tsuyako, sailed to Japan as part of a prisoner exchange (Rodman 193).

 

Return to Japan

Self caricature 1937

As he had dreamed up the New York Dance Guild in New York, and an inclusive community in California, Ito now proposed The Greater East Asia Stage Arts Research Institute. He envisioned a series of pageants, street theater, and musicals that would highlight the diversity of cultures in Asia (Rodman 263). Likening these grand notions to Hellerau, Rodman writes that the Institute “recast the internationalism of Hellerau as a Pan-Asian cosmopolitanism” (Rodman 197). After months of planning, the Institute produced only a single performance before the battering of American bombs forced Ito and family—and some students— to flee to the countryside in the spring of 1945 (Rodman 200).

 

Oddly Bridging East and West

It seems like a sharp irony that soon after Ito was labeled an enemy spy by the American government, he was hired by the U. S. Army to produce lavish shows for American G.I.s in Occupied Japan. Clearly, he was no longer suspected of being a spy. In fact, his native-born knowledge of Japan was an asset to the Allied Occupation. And from the other side, the Japanese had bestowed on him the status of “foreign expert” through his articles on etiquette in women’s magazines, for example, showing women how to walk wearing the tight skirts then in fashion in America (Rodman 224-25). This visibility led, in 1953, to Ito starting a training program in a fashion school for “make-up, hair styling, movement, etc. classes in decorum and appreciation for music, art, film and literature” (Cowell, emails).

Sakura Flowers, Ernie Pyle Theatre, Tokyo, 1947

The Ernie Pyle Theatre, named for a heroic American journalist, provided the only entertainment for the 350,000 American personnel stationed in Japan. And Michio Ito was the only person who could have produced the spectacles that would appeal to American G.I.s. — young men desperate for a hit of Americana but needing to learn about the culture they now inhabited. Ito’s experiences in the U. S. prepared him for this responsibility, which was to choose, direct, and choreograph for a cast of mostly Japanese women. Operating from 1947 to 1952, they had titles like Jungle Drums, Sakura Flowers, and Rhapsody in Blue.

Sakura Flowers, Ernie Pyle Theatre

Itō used this knowledge to stage an image of Japan as a land of rich cultural traditions, modern sophistication, and exotic allure. Befitting the Ernie Pyle’s reputation as the Radio City Music Hall of the East, Itō consistently shaped these images through the fantasy of the revue (Rodman 231).

While it seems outrageous to me that the U. S. government would expect this work of Ito after incarcerating him, scholar Tara Rodman has another take:

One gets the sense that although for many Japanese, the Ernie Pyle was a painful symbol of the complicated sense of exclusion and opportunity wrought by the Occupation, for Itō, it offered a sort of return to his adopted home, while remaining in the nation of his birth (Rodman 233).

Ito’s dream to bridge the cultures of the East and the West may have been partly fulfilled.

Ito rehearsing Rhapsody in Blue, 1947

 

Ito’s Last Idealistic Plan

In 1960, the Japanese government chose Ito to produce the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1964 Olympics. They wanted to show that a flourishing new Japan had rejoined the international world. Ito envisioned the torch relay as a pan-Asian journey that would celebrate the different cultures, from Greece to Japan, with dances and music from all regions performed along the way (Rodman 261-62). He was still building bridges, but instead of bridges between East and West, this time it was between all the Asian nations. But in 1961, Ito died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.

His protegée and assistant, Ryuko Maki, took over his studio and kept it running for fifteen years. In 2006, he was recognized with a two-hour documentary produced by Japan’s Public Broadcasting Company, NHK, entitled Michio Ito – an Artist Abroad. The Michio Ito Foundation, which licenses his works, has been overseen by his granddaughter, Michele Ito, in California.

Pizzicati drawing by Ito

Revivals of Ito’s Work

A young student named Satoru Shimazaki attended a performance by Ryuko Maki and was struck by her drama and authenticity. Shimazaki had been disappointed by the techniques of ballet and Graham, so he enrolled in the Ito school, which was then headed by Maki. He became well versed in the Ito method and came to New York in 1971 to study other styles. He started performing his own choreography at venues like The Kitchen, then in SoHo. Realizing how little was known about Ito, he decided to mount reconstructions of his work (Chin). In 1979 he invited Maki to perform and to set her mentor’s works, the result being “A Memorial Festival of the Choreography of Michio Ito,” at Jean Erdman’s space, the Theater of the Open Eye. Ito’s nephew, Teiji Ito, who was then the musical director of Jean Erdman’s company, introduced the evening, and Erdman narrated the lec-dem portion.

As guest artist, Maki danced two of Ito’s signature solos: Pizzicati and The White Peacock. Muna Tseng, a member of Jean Erdman’s company who performed in this evening, described Maki as “a dynamo” in Pizzicati. In the archival video (viewable by appointment with the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts), her musicality is impeccable, with strong accents in the wrist action.

The White Peacock, as Tseng recalled, was “highly Orientalist . . . the costume was amazing, almost like Folies Bergères” (Tseng). When I watched the video , I saw Maki wearing a long trail of tail feathers. There was a stunning moment when, after Maki does something inscrutable with her fingers, the train of feathers suddenly springs up to become a huge disc behind her. (The magic of strings, no doubt.)

Tseng also described being coached by Maki:

It was fascinating, really. I found the technique, the physical moving, quite musical. We would do almost Isadora Duncan-y runs and leaps and little jumps. I remember it was lyrical and very precise with the hand and arm gestures (Tseng).

While coaching, Maki encouraged the dancers to be soft. “I remember one rehearsal [when] Miss Maki kept going, ‘Don’t go up so high in relevé,’ and ‘Don’t get so stretched up’ ” (Tseng).

In an interview in advance of this Memorial Festival, Maki recalled Ito’s stage persona: “He looked like a black tiger in Tango. It was the direction of the eyes, as concentrated as a Japanese samurai” (Dunning).

Shimazaki too was a charismatic performer; like Ito, he had an androgynous look. His rendition of Tango was contained and elegant. The pacing was so measured that the occasional stamp for rhythmic accent created a momentary thrill.

Critics were respectful about Ito’s work but did not claim it to be revelatory. Deborah Jowitt, writing in the Village Voice, wasn’t wowed by these short dances but valued “their simplicity and their ardent clarity.”

To today’s eyes, Ito’s work looks limited in range of motion and dynamics. The music visualization aspect is quite literal, meaning that the motifs are repeated often to match the musical motifs; in the duets and group works, the interaction is minimal. But these are foundational studies at the dawn of modern dance, and they helped move the art forward. As we’ve seen via the experiences of Koner and Horst, Ito’s teaching was perhaps more influential than his choreography.

Burgess in Pizzaccati. ph Mary Noble Ours

In 1996, Shimazaki coached a similar evening, this time with Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company in Washington, DC. This fared better with at least one critic, perhaps because Shimazaki emphasized the drama of Ito’s life. During the Burgess evening, Shimazaki told the audience, “World War II tore out his heart, and his life” (qtd in Kaufman).

Critic Sarah Kaufman enthused about the dances in The Washington Post: “What was truly revelatory was the fact that the passage of time has not dimmed their power or made them mere curiosities from the beginnings of modern dance” (Kaufman).

Burgess, whose company continues to perform and discuss Ito’s work, gives a lecture online about Ito’s work that is full of insights. Whereas some have perceived the figure in Pizzicati to be a puppet or a military leader, Burgess finds a deeper meaning:

His shadow psyche is larger than life . . . a giant shadow expressed his surreal state. Pizzicati is aligned with the growing psychological theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. It exemplified the shadow self, the unconscious influencer of our conscious actions that is hidden in our inner emotional terrain.

Burgess believes Ito’s work includes a moral component. In the lecture he says, “that the shadow resides in all of us and that we must become cognizant and responsible for our actions” (Burgess).

Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City has been performing Ito’s works since 1992. In 2007 they received an American Masterpieces grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the Ito repertoire, especially in educational settings (and create this brief documentary)

En Bateau, performed by Repertory Dance Theatre

Other groups that have restaged Ito’s works include Los Angeles Dance Foundation, Chamber Dance Company at the University of Washington in Seattle, and CityDance in Washington DC.

Current scholars have put forth different opinions as to whether Ito was primarily transnational, or Japanese, or cosmopolitan. As Rodman has pointed out, “early efforts to reclaim his place in the modernist and modern dance canon have shifted to interrogations of how race and ethnicity shaped his career” (Rodman 20).

Is Michio Ito part of the modern dance canon? Should he be part of it? To hell with the canon. We teach what is valuable or nourishing at a particular time. In 1926, Ito graced the cover of The Dance magazine, a precursor to Dance Magazine. The June 1960 issue of Dance Magazine called Ito “Japan’s elder statesman of dance” (Bowers). And the Dance Heritage Coalition has named him one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures. With the deluge of recent scholarship—and more on the way—he will eventually be more recognized and studied.

The Dance Feb. 1926 “Impression of a Chinese Actor,” by Michio Ito, drawing by Carl Link

 

Appendix

Side Trip to Other Ito Fables

Here’s another example of a cockamamie scheme to make money, as told by his friend, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi:

He [Ito] asked me to do some masks for Yeats’ play, “At the Hawk’s Well,” a Noh play, I did these masks. He got me to do them with the idea that he would present it and with that he would make some money and with that money he would buy some motion picture houses in Japan and with the money he would make from the motion picture houses in Japan, he would buy an island in the sea and we were all going to retire there. (JRDD recording)

Noguchi was also under the impression that Ito had danced with Pavlova. Perhaps Ito had told him a variation of the story he told Barbara Perry, a longtime student, who recounted the story in Homsey’s documentary:

They had a big benefit in Paris and Pavlova did Pizzicato Polka and flitted from one side of the stage to the other and then when she took her bows she said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, in the audience is the great dancer Michio Ito. Ito, take a bow.” He stood up and took a bow, and she said, “Dance for us, Ito.” And he said, I have no music . . . Yes.” And he went onto the stage and he said to the musician or musicians, “Play the Pizzicato Polka again.” And he stood in second position and he did the whole dance with his hands (Homsey DVD).

Rodman generously calls these tales an “act of self-invention through narrative registers” (Rodman 96). Perhaps these stories are a result of the necessity of having a fluid identity.

§§

Special thanks to Mary-Jean Cowell, Muna Tseng, Bonnie Oda Homsey, Deborah Jowitt, Linda C. Smith of Repertory Dance Theatre, Michele Ito of the Michio Ito Foundation, Daisy Palmer and Tanisha Jones of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts, and to Steve Weintraub and Dancing Jewish Google Group.

 

Works Cited

Books

Caldwell, Helen. Michio Ito: The Dancer and His Dances. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Pauline Koner. Solitary Song. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989.

Phillips, Victoria. Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers 1915–1937. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987, pp.175–195.

Ruyter, Nancy Lee Chalfa. La Meri and her Life in Dance: Performing the World. Gainesville: U Press of Florida (2019).

Soares, Janet Mansfield. Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

Stodelle, Ernestine. DeepSong: The Dance Story of Martha Graham. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984.

Warren, Larry. Lester Horton: Modern Dance Pioneer. Princeton: Dance Horizons, 1977.

Scholarly Essays and Dissertation

Cowell, Mary-Jean. Research assistant: Satoru Shimazaki. “East and West in the Work of Michio Ito.” Dance Research Journal, Fall, 1994. Accessed March 20, 2021.

Cowell, Mary-Jean. “Michio Ito in Hollywood: Modes and Ironies of Ethnicity.” Dance Chronicle, 2001, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2001), pp. 263-305, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1568133 Accessed March 23, 2021.

Preston, Carrie. “Michio Ito’s Shadow: Searching for the Transnational in Solo Dance.” Onstage Alone: Soloists in the Modern Dance Canon. eds. Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy. University Press of Florida, 2012.

Riordan, Kevin. “Performance in the Wartime Archive: Michio Ito at the Alien Enemy Hearing Board.” American Studies, Vol. 55/56, Vol. 55, No. 4/Vol. 56, No. 1 (2017), pp. 67-89 https://www.jstor.org/stable/44982620, accessed April 5, 2021.

Rodman, Tara. “Altered Belonging: The Transnational Modern Dance of Itō Michio, A Dissertation.” Northwestern University, Field of Theatre and Drama, June 2017.

Sato, Yoko. “At the Hawk’s Well: Yeats’s Dramatic Art of Visions.” Journal of Irish Studies, 2009, Vol. 24 (2009), pp. 27-36. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27759624  Accessed April 14, 2021.

 

Other Articles

The American Dancer, unattributed articles in the June and July, 1928 issues.

Barrington, Lewis. “Community Dancing.” The American Dancer, July 1929.

Bowers, Faubian. “Meanwhile, on Tokyo TV, jazz become popular.” June 1960, Dance Magazine, June 1960, p. 38.

Chin, Gwin, “Can Isadora Duncan Solos Be Danced by a Man?” The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1982, Accessed May 4, 2021.

Cowell, Mary-Jean. Biography for Michio Ito Foundation website.

Jowitt, Deborah. “In Thrall to Meaning,” Village Voice, Oct. 15, 1979, Muna Tseng archive.

Kaufman, Sarah. “The Power of Michio Ito.” The Washington Post, Jan. 22, 1996, Accessed May 29, 2021.

Moore, Rose, “In the Spotlight,” The American Dancer. Feb. 1929, p. 24.

Stoop, Norma McClain. Review. Dance Magazine, Jan. 1980, p. 28.

Traiger, Lisa. “Dance Masters from Coast to Coast.” washingtonpost.com, posted June 3, 2005, Accessed May 11, 2021

 

Other Resources

Anonymous “Dance On” Video, 1984. https://video.alexanderstreet.com/watch/pauline-koner. Accessed May 11, 2021

Interview with Isamu Noguchi, interviewed by Toby Tobias, 1979, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, Dance Oral History Project, NY Public Library for the Performing Arts

From Los Angeles Dance Foundation, 2013
Michio Ito: Pioneering Dancer-Choreographer – Trailer, Directed and executive produced by Bonnie Oda Homsey. The DVD is Available on Amazon

From Repertory Dance Theatre, 2012
Linda C. Smith, Artistic Director:

 

Websites

Michio Ito Foundation

Hellerau, History of

“Appia, Adolphe,” 1862-1928. Ref.: Exhibition of Eurhythmic Dance at the Hellerau Institute. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.13915725. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Like this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 10

Simone Forti: BodyArtNature

Forti with makeshift horn, Vienna, 1978,
ph Robert Fleck via The Box L.A..

Simone Forti is an inventor of forms. In her performances, the elements of movement, sound, and objects commingle into a new hybrid. Her art embodies both the conceptual strength of minimalism and the curiosity of exploratory improvisation, with her own sly wit thrown in to ensure a dose of radical juxtaposition.

Forti’s great gift is simplicity—a divine, earthy simplicity that can touch onlookers to the core. She possesses an intuitive sense of what is artistically essential at each moment of performance. About the 1960s, the decade in which she forged her aesthetic, she has written, “Back then, making a piece was like brushing away all the sand and debris to reveal one stone.”[i]

A singular force in the art of our times, Forti was the bridge that connected Anna Halprin’s nature-based improvising on the West Coast with the chance methods of John Cage via Robert Dunn in Manhattan. It was Dunn’s composition classes at Merce Cunningham’s studio that led to the revolutionary Judson Dance Theater. Forti’s ingenious concepts and daring dancing inspired Judson co-founders Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown to be rigorous in their rule-breaking. She was a major influence, a spirited catalyst, in the formation of Judson Dance Theater, and thus postmodern dance, a role for which she has not been fully recognized.

Forti is known as a master improviser in the dance world. She’s written about what it feels like to be swept up in the “dance state.” By this she means either “that mysterious response to the music”[ii] or “a certain gear…an activation of motor intelligence.”[iii] But from the start she has identified as simply an artist—or a “movement artist”—rather than specifically a dance artist, having no wish to divide the arts into separate categories. In 1961, she mixed disciplines in a way that was natural for her and momentous for the times. Her “dance constructions,” as she called these pieces, merged object and motion in a way that made each essential to the other, thus achieving the desired “one-thingness” of minimalism. In recognition of her achievement in the art world, the Museum of Modern Art recently acquired her dance constructions (more about that later).

Red Illumination drawing, 1972

Yet the source of her decisions, rather than the theoretical reasoning of male minimalists, has always stemmed from her emotional needs. Her subsequent work—the animal studies, the “illuminations” with musician Charlemagne Palestine, the news animations, the garden journals, the drawings, and the two books she has written—continue to elude categories. In today’s cultural climate where many artists, educators, and thinkers try to move beyond binary thinking, Forti’s embrace of holistic process remains a quintessential model.

An Arts Childhood

Born in 1935, Forti counts writers and composers among her extended family. One uncle, an art critic, was a friend of Giorgio De Chirico, and another was a composer who wrote film scores and composed music for the guitarist Andrés Segovia.[iv] But her immediate family were refugees. When she was four, they narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Having fled Mussolini’s Italy to stay in non-aligned Switzerland,[v] the Fortis lived in Bern for six months, during which time Forti’s mother (Milka Forti) fell gravely ill. On the way to visiting her mother in the hospital, Simone remembers going to the zoo and watching the bears. This was the first time of many that watching animals in motion became a source of self-soothing. (The Swiss, Forti points out, regard the bear as a protective animal.)[vi]

She was five when the family finally settled in Los Angeles. At eight or nine, Forti was sent to dance class because she had flat feet. She took lessons in ballet, tap, Mexican folklorico and what was then termed “oriental” dancing, the latter being her favorite because she liked the “snaking arms.” At home, when she and a friend danced to records of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, “We’d whip up a storm.”[vii] In Los Angeles, she again visited the zoo, often drawing the animals she observed.[viii]

At Fairfax High School, when she was given a choice between gym and modern dance, she chose the latter. “The teacher had us creating our own dances with a lot of improvisation, with the records we wanted to bring in. There was the matter of just cutting loose and letting movement come out.”[ix]

Robert Morris and simone Forti,
c. 1957, ph © estate of Warner Jepson 2017. Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco.

She took Saturday art lessons at Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles and grew up surrounded by art books. Her favorite painters were Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, and Francisco Goya.[x] But she also loved surrealist films and often rode her bike to the Coronet movie theater. “My first awareness that you can work with anything that captures your imagination is from films—Cocteau films, early Renoir.”[xi] (The experimental dancer/filmmaker Maya Deren was also on that list.[xii]) Forti not only responded to the moving pictures, but she dug the style flaunted by the sandal-soled denizens who mingled in the lobby. “I was going to be a Bohemian girl,” she pledged to herself.[xiii]

At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she had planned to study biology and sociology, Forti met visual artist Robert Morris. In 1955 they dropped out, moved to San Francisco, and got married.[xiv] (She completed her BFA at Hunter College in New York in 1965.) At the time, Morris was making abstract expressionist paintings that required physical agility to apply paint to canvas. He encouraged his new wife to start painting too; he built a palette table for her and showed her how to stretch canvases.[xv] Typical of Forti’s, shall we say, unorthodox use of the body, she would sometimes “start a painting by taking a nap on a freshly stretched canvas.”[xvi]

Working with Anna Halprin

For Forti, encountering Anna (then Ann) Halprin in 1955 nurtured all her emerging movement and art interests. At first she took classes at the Halprin-Lathrop Studio in San Francisco, which were based on modern dance techniques. But when Halprin’s interests shifted toward improvisation, Forti was thrilled. The moment of that particular awakening occurred in a class taught by a top Halprin student:

One evening, instead of the usual technique class, one of Anna’s senior students, A. A. Leath, taught a dance improvisation class. He had us work with the idea of upwardness. I clearly remember a moment of deep and joyful involvement, lying on the floor, every cell of my body reaching upwards. And from the edge of the room I saw A.A. make a gesture as if to cast a fishing line to reel me in.[xvii]

Forti was invited by Halprin to study at her mountain

Halprin’s Branch dance, Kentfield, CA, c. 1957: Forti, foreground, Halprin & A.A. Leath, ph © estate of Warner Jepson 2017, MPD.

home studio, where sessions on the outdoor deck involved keen observation and concentration. The younger dancer felt it was a “tremendous gift” to be working with her mentor at a time of change.[xviii] “It was all very new,” she said about the work with Halprin. “It was her honeymoon with improvisation.”[xix]

The focused explorations led to specific revelations about the inter-connectedness of the body. “If you pick up something heavy, the work of the legs changes,” Forti noticed. “If you swing an arm, the whole body changes. We’d be improvising around a point of reference, and it would be joyful.”[xx]

She often quipped that improvising was physically like making expressionist paintings minus the baggage of the actual canvas.[xxi] From the beginning, Forti conceived of her body as part of the art.

The somatics practitioner June Ekman, who started studying with Halprin in the summer of 1955, was struck by Forti’s dancing right away. “Her quality was sensuous; it was organic—in a way, fearless.”[xxii] She also observed that Forti had already earned a favored place in the Halprin constellation:

It seemed to me that Simone was quite established. Anna was crazy about her. Anna loved her.…Every time we were on the dance deck, a lot of attention was paid to what Simone was doing. Her quality was sensuous, it was organic—in a way, fearless. Simone was very lyrical and Anna was not. Anna had a strong, attenuated body, wonderful in a Hanya Holm way. She did a lot of arcing and swinging. Simone didn’t have bones; she was very flexible.[xxiii]

Ekman felt that Halprin, while breaking away from modern dance and reaching toward a more functional use of the body, saw in Forti a dance artist who embodied the new path.

For her part, Forti found resonance in the Bauhaus aspects of Halprin’s approach as it reminded her of Saturdays at Jepson Art Academy.[xxiv]

She would have us work with elements like the negative space between two dancers…Or we would explore conceptual elements: momentum, weight, line. She wouldn’t show us movements, but would say, “We’re going to work with fast and slow for an hour, and then we’ll show each other interesting things that we found”…And then Anna might say…“What was interesting about this?” or, “You could go deeper into that.”[xxv]

Halprin immediately trusted Forti. She cast the newcomer alongside the senior members of the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, and she sent her to teach children’s classes. They were on the same wavelength in terms of observing nature—nature as in landscape as well as the nature of the human body. They also shared a willingness to try new things. Words came into their work through John Graham, a longtime Halprin performer who had had theater experience. While experimenting with vocalizing and movement, Forti realized that words could be used not only to illustrate movement but also to oppose it:

Maybe you could be doing very watery movement, very languid, soft undefinable movement. At the same time you could be describing the splinters of glass of a broken window. So we were juxtaposing very different qualities. It was a collage kind of aesthetic. We were working with nonsense and the kind of surprise to the imagination— non-sequiturs—and I think the more something would slightly unhinge our mind, the more delightful it was.[xxvi]

The “surprise to the imagination”—often involving the juxtaposition of two very different things to produce an unknown effect—is basically a Dadaist idea. According to Forti, Halprin also urged “that we should base our work in the experience of sensation. That has some roots in how California absorbed Zen—mainly from Shunryu Suzuki, whom all the beat poets studied with.”[xxvii]

Halprin’s Four Square (1959), 1960: Forti and A. A Leath, MPD

Doris Dennison, a pianist who accompanied classes at the Halprin-Lathrop School, had worked with John Cage at the Cornish School in Seattle. Through that connection, Cage came to know and respect Halprin’s work.[xxviii]

Like Halprin, Cage had interests in both Zen and Dada. In the 1950s, he had attended lectures at Columbia University by D. T. Suzuki (no relation to Shunryu), who was instrumental in introducing Zen Buddhism to the U.S.  Even before that, he’d attended a lecture at Cornish by Nancy Wilson Ross, who had experience in both Dada and Zen. With just a bit of dramatic flair, Kay Larson wrote, “As Ross made the spiritual link between Dada and Zen, Cage’s mind flew out of its nest.”[xxix]

Cage felt Zen was essential to his work as a composer and thinker, but he did not want people to think Zen was responsible for the controversial nature of his ideas. “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen.” At the same time he felt that Dada, as embodied by Duchamp, could leaven Zen. Conversely, he said that Zen had put “a space, an emptiness” into the ideas of Dada.[xxx] In other words, there were ways that the Dadaist sensibility and Zen beliefs meshed well.

In January 1960, Cage urged his student and colleague La Monte Young to contact Halprin. Young, on his way to becoming a major minimalist composer, brought stimulating experiences to Halprin’s workshop. Often they were about listening. Forti was impressed that Young was using “a single mass of sound that didn’t change over time but was very complex within itself.”[xxxi]

During this period Forti was reading her own mix of Zen and Dada: British Zen specialist Alan Watts, surrealist poet and artist Kurt Schwitters, and absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco. All three writers reinforced her interest in the “surprise to the imagination.” While performing in Halprin’s work, Forti and her cohorts would sometimes veer off into nonsense. “We would set up something that seemed to make sense so that we could flip it and have it not make sense.”[xxxii] It might have been exactly this kind of humor that made Forti say later, “We were California kids. It was sort of surfer surrealism.”[xxxiii]

Breaking Away from Halprin, or The Call of Minimalism

Forti was passionately engaged in Halprin’s work as it evolved. What she learned was central to the future development of her own work: “to really trust the body, its intelligence and how it wants to move.”[xxxiv] She loved the freedom of improvisation but found herself waking up in the wee hours and pounding on the floor, perhaps to protest what she felt was an overdose of super-saturated improvisation.[xxxv] Plus, she was also frustrated by the nonsense aspect of the verbal portion. “I began to wish that I could say what I meant. I remember toward the end of my time there one evening shouting out, ‘Say what you mean! Say what you mean!’ ”[xxxvi]

Saburo Murakami, “Passing Through,”1956, ph Osaka City Museum of Modern Art.

In 1958 or 1959, Forti saw an article in a magazine at Halprin’s studio about Japan’s radical postwar collective, the Gutai group. “They were doing single events, body events, jumping off of high places into mud, leaning logs up together and then crashing ’em down.”[xxxvii] One photo that imprinted itself on her mind depicted Saburo Murakami bursting through a series of large, framed paper sheets. His solo performance piece, Passing Through (1956), was a singular action that, even glimpsed in a magazine, made a strong impact. It seemed to be an antidote to what Forti called “a plethora of writhing” in her improvisational practice.[xxxviii] At the same time minimalism, with its demand for a single action, was gaining traction in the United States. Years later Forti wrote, “I prefer to see…some radical change take place in the course of the ‘piece’ rather than to see many varied shiftings.”[xxxix] Murakami’s bold action answered this wish. She experienced the call of minimalism as a response to the too-muchness (of physicality, emotional heft, and gesture) of abstract expressionism as well as to endless improvisation. “I still love abstract expressionism,” she told me recently, “but it was a little bit like when you’re drunk you want to lock your eyes onto something stable.”[xl]

In terms of style, Forti was crystallizing her own aesthetic of “plain beauty,” which did not always jibe with Halprin’s growing wish to produce finished dances. Forti recalled that while working toward a performance, Halprin would bring in a costume designer…“and the whole spirit of it changed. It would become much more theatrical.”[xli] She preferred the stripped down mode of rehearsal wear or street clothes.

For all these reasons, after four years, Forti needed to move on. Her husband, Bob Morris, wanted to go to New York to be around painters like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko[xlii] and she felt she needed a break. Together they moved to New York in 1959 (or perhaps early 1960[xliii]).

During the late summer workshop of 1960, when Forti returned to Halprin’s deck after having moved to New York a few months earlier, Halprin and Forti were observed arguing.[xliv] Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be tension between these two women, both at an early stage of becoming giants in the field. However, looking back on her time with Halprin, Forti said, “I feel that whether or not I had stayed with her vision, I really got a sense of what it is to have a vision.”[xlv]

Arriving in New York: Cunningham, Cage, Dunn

When Forti hit New York she felt alienated from the natural environments she loved. “It was like a maze of concrete mirrors. It was very depressing. I remember how refreshing and consoling it was to know that gravity was still gravity. I tuned into my own weight and bulk as a kind of prayer.”[xlvi]

One day, after a Cunningham technique class that Forti could not (or would not) absorb, Steve Paxton, then a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, noticed her drop to the ground. As he described it, while the other students were leaving the studio, Forti got down on her hands and knees to crawl on the floor, hair hanging in her face. In the context of an upright dance class, that was practically a savage act. But Paxton realized it was what she needed, and it made him curious about her. “Was she returning to basics, the roots of movement?”[xlvii] [Paxton 59]

Forti’s Grizzly Turning Corner, 1968, via The Box, L.A.

Indeed she was returning to the roots of movement, which for her lay in the movement of animals. This pull toward the earth may have reminded her of the comfort she felt at the age of four watching the bears in Bern. It was a touchstone, a reminder of something basic in life. Bears don’t throw words and movement around just to be clever. She could channel a lumbering bear or a hopping frog whenever she needed to.[xlviii]

Although Forti did not cotton to the Cunningham technique, it was at the Cunningham studio that she found out about Robert Dunn’s composition class. A pianist who played for classes at the studio, Dunn had taken John Cage’s famous course in experimental music at The New School for Social Research. The course became an incubator for new modes of performance, and students included future interdisciplinary artists Allan Kaprow and George Brecht; visitors to the class included Jackson Mac Low, Jim Dine, and Yoko Ono.[xlix] Cage himself had taught a composition class at the Cunningham studio in the 1950s; by using methods of indeterminacy he rejected the theme-and-variations format that had been taught by Louis Horst, Martha Graham’s musical director. Not wanting to continue, he asked Dunn to take the reins starting in the fall of 1960.[l] Dunn had played piano for Horst’s composition classes, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned,[li] and he accepted Cage’s challenge.

Forti was among the first five who signed up for Dunn’s class, the others being Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Marni Mahaffay, and Paulus Berensohn. Dunn combined the Bauhaus artists’ focus on the nature of materials with Cage’s embrace of the everyday in art. Cage’s idea that any sound could be music was extended to Any movement could be dance. (That idea remained theoretical for Cunningham. It was Halprin and the Judson dancers who accepted pedestrian and task movement as dance.) His assignments offered structures based on Cage’s concepts of indeterminacy, and his feedback offered curiosity rather than judgment—not unlike Halprin’s feedback. Like Cage, Dunn was influenced by Eastern thought:

From Heidegger, Sartre, Far Eastern Buddhism, and Taoism, in some personal amalgam, I had the notion in teaching of making a “clearing,” a sort of “space for nothing,” in which things could appear and grow in their own nature.[lii]

To this clearing, Forti brought the richness, curiosity, and daring of Halprin’s explorations from the West Coast. And in the cauldron of Dunn’s composition class, she clarified her interests. She was steeped in the nature-based improvisations of Halprin but embraced the rigorous structures of Cage via Dunn. “Anna Halprin’s work and Robert Dunn’s work coming together really set me on my path.”[liii]

One of Dunn’s assignments was to compose a three-minute dance and not work on it more than three minutes. Because choreographing is so time-consuming, Forti quickly realized that the only way to solve the problem was to come up with a strong idea. It was the dawning of Forti’s consciousness of herself as a conceptual artist.

Remy Charlip, at the time a dancer in the Cunningham company, after watching a session of the students’ responses to the Satie assignment (which used the composer’s number structure for Trois Gymnopédies as a score[liv]), said that he was “most impressed with Simone Forti’s solution to the assignment.”[lv]

Forti handled that assignment in a way that forced her to be physical:

I decided that being up in the air was going to be my neutral position for it. I would begin with a jump and had to land with a certain number of points of my body touching the floor. Then I would jump again, and land with a different number of points of my body touching the floor. These numbers were determined, somehow, by the phrasing in the music. It was very awkward to do and wasn’t pretty to see, which I liked.[lvi]

Her pleasure at not being “pretty” was part of her aesthetic of plainness. Forti was such a beautiful woman and luscious mover that the unadorned aesthetic suited her. Her natural sensuality and the awkwardness of such a solution played off each other to produce a beguiling kind of restraint.

But there was also a conscious component to this preference for plainness, which had to do with what she (and Rainer as well) perceived as narcissism. “One aspect of modern dance I saw around me…was a narcissism that didn’t charm me a bit,” she wrote in Oh Tongue. Looking back on her insistence on plainness, she continued, “The interest in looking at movement, just plain generic movement, everyday movement, must partly have been a response to that narcissism.”[lvii]

Later, when Forti got together with Paxton and Brown in independent improvisation sessions, they often worked on what Forti called “rule games.” Brown relished the challenge of a structure that Forti had come up with, one that was similar to the Satie assignment:

This one was awful! Start walking across, enter and exit a rectangular space, but when you crossed it you had to have only one part of your body on the floor. And when you returned you had to have two parts of your body on the floor. Three, four, five…So you end up with everything on the floor actually when you get to ten parts. So that was sort of arduous.[lviii]

Brown considered Forti to be a mentor to both Rainer and herself, especially in the area of improvisation.[lix] She pursued the idea of games that Forti had introduced. In Brown’s Rule Game 5 (1964), the performers walked within demarcated tracks and had to get lower to the ground as they approached the seventh and final aisle. When passing a fellow performer, you had to crouch lower or rise higher depending on where your track was in the room.[lx]

The game structures drew on both Dunn’s interest in chance methods and Forti’s continued passion for observing animals. She watched long enough to discern patterns in the walking of the bears, the sparring of the chimps, the diving of otters….She noticed that some animals, like children, make up games to entertain themselves. She saw bears “whipping their bodies around…sorta like kids do somersaults or twirl or swing on a swing. It’s a free ride. It feels good, it’s fun, it passes the time.”[lxi] Describing polar bears diving into a pool, she wrote, “There remains some element of fun and the practicing of skill, an impeccable measuring and matching of shape and effort…to the length of the pool.”[lxii]

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that she would be captivated by a human being who possessed the same combination of wild fun and impeccable measuring:

The first work I came across in New York that I felt an immediate kinship with was a piece by Bob Whitman called E.G. Part way through it, Whitman took a flying leap directly over the heads of the audience. It looked like he was going to come crashing down into the crowd when, just in the nick of time, he grabbed some bars which he had installed in the ceiling, and swung away out of sight.[lxiii]

She was attracted to the “undomesticated” (animal-like) quality of his actions.[lxiv] And she found a soul mate in Whitman (who had been a student of Kaprow). Forti started performing in his pieces and helping him paint the sets,[lxv] the first one being American Moon at the Reuben Gallery in the fall of 1960.[lxvi] Whitman brought lights, imagery, objects, fabrics, and film projections together in an ingenious and surreal jumble. The look of his works was so chaotic that sometimes they were called Happenings. But they were in no way haphazard.

Robert Whitman’s American Moon, Reuben Gallery, 1960: Lucas Samaras above, ph Robert McElroy, Getty Research Institute.

After a break-up with Morris in 1962 (long in the works), Forti married Whitman. She felt fulfilled working with him, partly because of his ability to mix media while keeping a consistent focus. She likened his theater pieces to “moving sculptures”[lxvii] “In Whitman’s work, it was going towards the central image. There was a central theme that maybe never was spelled out but poetically it was there.”[lxviii]

Some of her later works that used projections, for example Cloths (1967) and Bottom (1973), were influenced by Whitman.[lxix] Her drawings at the time were influenced by Whitman’s use of primary colors. In 1966, she made a series of vibrant “Red Hat” watercolors. “I had a big red hat,” Forti remembered, “and somehow it became the signature for this character, me, running over mountains, sometimes pursued by dark figures.”[lxx] These are striking pictures with saturated color that tread the line between the figurative and the abstract.

Watercolor series, 1966. Clockwise from upper left: Red Hat With Black Background, Red Hat Pursued With Yellow, Red Hat on Bicycle.

Defying Categories

Forti never aspired to become a dancer in the sense of the virtuosic bodies we see on a proscenium stage. She recoiled at any attempt to fit her into that mold. Taking the intensive June course in 1960 at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, she was appalled when told to hold her belly in—a standard correction in almost any dance technique class.[lxxi]

Fascinated with motion rather than dance per se, she would observe natural phenomena for hours. Over a period of days, she watched an onion grow sprouts and topple over; then she wrote a “dance report” about it consisting of two sentences that she recited in Dunn’s class. Why was this a dance? For Forti, observation, time, and change were part of dancing.

Another experience that Forti decided to view as a performance occurred when she was working at a nursery school and taking the children to Central Park:

I remember one day one of the little boys said, “You all sit there and watch me.” He had a tin can on a string, and he climbed up on this rock with it. Then he dropped it, making it bounce against the side of the big rock, almost like a puppet. We were just mesmerized watching this tin can. It made me realize that anything can be interesting. And that’s what Bob Dunn was teaching us also. I think it’s because of Bob that I could see this little event with the tin can as theater, as dance, as working with movement.[lxxii]

Forti was starting to see art in everyday experiences. She believed, as Duchamp did, that art is whatever an artist says it is. In terms of genre, she felt that you could define your own terms. Crossing disciplines was in the air in the 1960s, and she felt supported by the downtown milieu.

I have the feeling that I wasn’t the only one. I did a lot of sound pieces and I felt very free about it, calling them “dances.” I like doing one thing and calling it something else…People were doing things that really crossed lines. Lucinda Childs did a piece where she was walking over sand, leaving her footprints…Sculptors and painters were involving their own bodies…I thought of it as a broken field running… sorta like a rabbit getting across a field safely by dashing this way and then holding still, and then dashing that way so that there’s not this announcement, “I am going to make a dance” and everyone saying, “Yes, yes, it’s a dance.” It’s more like I’m going to bake a cake and then instead… [she looks around, takes an object and tosses it on the floor] There’s your cake![lxxiii]

She was aware of Duchamp’s readymades, Rauschenberg’s collages, and of course, Cage and Cunningham’s use of chance. She was right in tune with the Dada Zen sensibility that was infusing the art scene.

But something even more fundamental was going on. The blending or colliding of different forms was a way to subvert an age-old habit of Western philosophy: binary thinking. In terms of perception, this deconstruction of our tendency to polarize genres and ideas is something that La Monte Young brought into focus. During his days with Halprin, he is quoted as saying, “A person should listen to what he ordinarily just looks at, or look at things he would ordinarily just hear.”[lxxiv]

Just as Young proposed a melding of sound and sight, Forti proposed, in her own moving body, a melding of art and dance:

You are composing when you’re improvising. One of the kinds of improvising I sometimes do is to stream myself around through space. And I think it’s very close to abstract expressionism in painting. To use your body almost as a bunch of wet paint that I can move around the space. In my imagination I almost leave traces.[lxxv]

In a physical, intuitive way, she had already eluded binary thinking. During this period she continued making drawings and watercolors. She felt she was equally a maker of dance and a maker of visual art.

All these experiences of knitting different modes together led up to the moment when she sat on her bed and drew five “ideas” that she decided to call “dance constructions.”

The Dance Constructions — A Landmark in the Arts

Forti’s floor plan for the Dance Constructions

In the spring of 1961, La Monte Young invited Forti to create an evening in the series of interdisciplinary programs he had organized at Yoko Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers Street.[lxxvi] Forti easily came up with ideas that merged the task elements of Halprin with an object or visual situation. She called them dance constructions, and they embodied the non-dualistic thinking that she had been working toward all along. She was still with Morris at the time, so he built the necessary objects from simple materials like wood and ropes. She presented these dance-and-sculpture hybrids in a bare studio. There were no seats and people could mill about, viewing the pieces from any orientation.

What follows is a partial list of the events included in “Dance Constructions & Some Other Things” in May of 1961. I describe most of them in the present tense because these structures exist and can be performed at any time. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art recently acquired the dance constructions—a remarkable development. Just as they would buy a tangible work of art, they have bought Forti’s dance constructions, to be loaned out and performed according to Forti’s stipulations. The acquisition, which has been in the works for several years, is considered “groundbreaking” by the curators at MoMA.[lxxvii] Not to mention that it cements Forti’s reputation as a leading figure in the avant-garde.

Slant Board consists of an 8-foot square ramp with a 45-degree incline to which several knotted ropes are attached. Three or four performers pull themselves across the surface, going under and over each other while holding a rope. The physicality of pulling on the rope as the legs grapple with the incline—a bit like rappelling in a climbing gym—ensures a certain level of difficulty.

Slant Board (1961), Forti at upper right, Stedelijk Museum,1982.

Huddle, later sometimes titled The Mountain, is a moving sculpture of humans. Six to nine people cluster together to form a group that collectively makes a small mound, girding themselves by holding one another, shoulder-to-shoulder, heads lowered. One at a time, each person extricates from the group and climbs up, over, and down the huddle of other bodies, feeling the surfaces with her or his body. The idea is to keep it plain, to focus on the simple task of climbing across the top of the “mountain.”

Forti in Huddle, Stedelijk Museum, 1982

In From Instructions (also called Instructions for a Dance), again, no concrete object, just two people and two conflicting sets of instructions. Forti told Morris to tie his sculptor friend Robert Huot to the pipes jutting from the wall, and she told Huot to lie on the floor no matter what. Not surprisingly, the piece devolved into a wrestling match.[lxxviii]

Platforms consists of two low and long, hollow platforms of slightly different dimensions. A man helps a woman crawl underneath one of the platforms, then takes his place under the other one. From that hidden position, they whistle, responding to each other’s sounds, for a designated period of time. The man then emerges from his cave and, adding a chivalrous touch, he goes to help the woman out and up.

“Accompaniment for La Monte’s 2 Sounds” (1961), MoMA, 2009, ph Yi-Chun Wu

For the most enigmatic piece, Forti used a sound score recorded by Young and fellow minimalist Terry Riley the previous year at Halprin’s studio. For Accompaniment for La Monte’s “2 sounds,” and La Monte’s “2 sounds,” she steps into a hanging rope loop about one foot off the ground. An assistant winds her all the way in one direction, like kids do with a rope swing, and then lets ’er rip. Unlike kids, however, this is done to an almost unbearably harsh combination of two simultaneous sounds. Forti describes them this way: “One sound I think is a glass or a nail on a window, those are the high pitches, and the other one is a wooden mallet rubbing on a gong.”[lxxix]  (The two sounds were actually called “Cans on Window” and “Drumstick on Gong.”[lxxx] This score was later used for Merce Cunningham’s notorious Winterbranch in 1964, and is described slightly differently on the Cunningham Trust’s website.[lxxxi]) As the momentum untwists her, then twists her in the other direction, she adopts a waiting, listening expression on her face. The loud scraping sounds are gloriously god-awful. Says Forti, “I’m listening to it and the audience is listening to the music, and I have some idea that I help them listen.”[lxxxii]

When I saw Forti perform this work at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009, the audience definitely needed help staying calm while being bombarded with Young’s sounds. Watching her slow down to eventual stillness was a beatific thing to witness. Her face, like an Italian Renaissance portrait, has a timeless beauty, and in its listening mode emanated a serenity that coexisted with (or, as indicated in the title, accompanied) the twelve-minute racket. We were in the presence of a poetic—and somehow spiritual—example of stillness and acceptance.

Forti now counts two earlier works as dance constructions as well: Roller Boxes (also called Rollers) and See-Saw. These two were performed in December, 1960 at the Reuben Gallery in a shared program with Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg. See-Saw was a crude see-saw whereby two performers (Morris and Rainer in the first performance) used structured improvisation to experiment with balancing each other out. A noise-making toy emitted a “moo” each time the balance was tipped.

Roller Boxes involved a pair of wooden boxes on swiveling wheels, in which Forti and Patty (Mucha) Oldenburg sat. The idea was that they would both hold a single tone while audience members pulled the boxes by a rope.

Forti recently described what actually happened:

The audience started careening us around…When I was a kid I loved the bumper cars, and this was very much like being in the bumper cars except that they were wooden boxes.…The audience was jumping, running to stay out of the way. Our boxes were banging together, and we were screaming. We were lucky we didn’t get hurt.[lxxxiii]

In subsequent performances, Forti, concerned about safety, asked people she knew, rather than random audience members, to pull the boxes.

Impact on Judson Dance Theater

The dance constructions had a far-reaching impact. These works, and Forti’s approach in general, were a strong influence on four of the groundbreaking Judson pack: Paxton, Morris, Rainer and Brown. Paxton, who performed in Forti’s program and later became another seminal figure in postmodern dance, recognized the dance constructions as a precursor to Judson Dance Theater. He said they were like “a pebble tossed into a large, still, and complacent pond. The ripples radiated.” He wrote that the Judson choreographers “took courage from” her daring hybrids.[lxxxiv] His solo Flat (1964), in which he walked around, removed almost all his clothing one piece at a time, and hung the garments on hooks affixed to his bare skin, seems to echo the unity of body and object of the dance constructions.

But on a more philosophical plane, Paxton ruminated about the divesting of the trained body that was necessary for him to perform in the dance constructions. He sent me this in an email:

Simone demonstrated her movement for the cast. There were no pointed toes, no extremely extended limbs. It is not easy to shed these elements. First with Simone, and later in Judson performances, there was the question about movement not governed by the Western Dance Aesthetic. To that point, Simone said, “I have worked hard on my ideas, and I don’t want other people’s ideas in my work.” And evidently that meant “not the Western world’s” ideas of movement. As one of her dancers I had to honor her wish, and then to confront the system I had before training, admit one existed, try to discover the innate movement I had prior to hours every day trying to change that movement. It was self-shaking, paradoxical, and enlarging…My Modern Dance–made body needed to relax and reform. “I” needed to admit that I was also non-conscious, a more complex entity than I had imagined myself, or could imagine myself.

Simone’s work provoked what I might call a growth of awareness, and that growth seems to be in the form of inhabitable viewpoints, such as seeing an elusive former, preconscious self from the post-training vantage, imagining a post training body from the hope of a pre-training state, my conscious mind trying to discern what my non conscious mind is, etc, a cycling circling twisting attempt to catch oneself in the wild, unaffected by the fact one is watching. The cards are stacked against us, but the struggle makes us stronger, or just makes us us.[lxxxv]

Like Paxton, Morris, who went on to make several performance pieces at Judson, also felt the need to divest. But since he was not a dancer, it wasn’t dance training he was trying to get rid of. It was the disconnect between the making of a work and “the static, finished product.” His stated problem was that the object had no relation to the process that produced it.[lxxxvi] For him, sculpture that extended into time was a solution to what he considered a troubling difference. “I found in the theater a situation where that dichotomy was not the case.”[lxxxvii] (The term “theater” was Cage’s term for aNY time-based art “that engages both the eye and the ear.”[lxxxviii]) In his eyes, his ex-wife was a part of that solution. In fact, he places Forti in the line of other major figures: “A thread runs from Duchamp to Cage to Forti and is part of the larger story of modernism,” Morris wrote in 2012. “All share a common strategy.”[lxxxix] What he is referring to is that all three had broken through convention to discover that the materials one is working with can suggest a single decision that governs the artistic process.

The physical struggle between Morris and Huot triggered by From Instructions may have served as a seed for their collaborative duet War (1963) at Judson. They really went at it—wearing outlandish costumes while yelling loudly and taking whacks at each other—but only for a few seconds. War was one of the more bizarre performances at Judson. Rainer loved it; Paxton hated it.[xc]

Back on Halprin’s dance deck, in response to one of Halprin’s assignments to observe nature, Morris had chosen to focus on a rock. Forti still has a vivid memory of it:

Bob had observed a rock, and he started out lying down. Over a period of three minutes he drew himself together until he was all balled up and balanced on the smallest part of himself as possible, as that rock—which kinda foretold some of the work that he was then going to do.[xci]

Later Forti sometimes performed with the idea of placing herself as a stone in different areas of the performance space.[xcii]

When Judson Dance Theater launched on July 6, 1962, it was a natural outgrowth of the Dunn workshop that Forti was very much part of. But by that time she was involved with Whitman, who was in a different camp, so to speak. Most of her fellow students in the Dunn class—Rainer, Paxton, Brown, Lucinda Childs, Rudy Perez, Elaine Summers—performed as part of the Judson collective, which is widely known as the crucible of postmodern dance. As Sally Banes has written, that first concert “proved to be the beginning of a historic process that changed the shape of dance history.”[xciii]

Possibly the two Judson renegades most influenced by Forti were her friends Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. Needless to say, they both went on to become seminal figures in postmodern dance. Rainer met Forti in New York in 1960 through fellow Bay Area dancer Nancy Meehan.[xciv] That fall, after the Halprin intensive, Rainer was sharing a studio with Forti and Morris in lower Manhattan:

Around this time I saw Simone do an improvisation in our studio that affected me deeply. She scattered bits and pieces of rags and wood around the floor, landscape-like. Then she simply sat in one place for a while, occasionally changed her position or moved to another place. I don’t know what her intent was, but for me what she did brought the god-like image of the dancer down to human scale more effectively than anything I had seen. It was a beautiful alternative to the heroic posturing that I felt continued to dominate my dance training.[xcv]

See-Saw (1960), with Yvonne Rainer above and Robert Morris below, ph Robert McElroy

Forti’s effect on Rainer is even more strongly expressed in this excerpt from Rainer’s diary of September 1961: “I am indebted to Simone for my awakening as a dancer. I can say that my creative life as a dancer began when I met her, shortly before our trip west last year.”[xcvi]

Another artistic revelation for Rainer was working on See-Saw. About that experience, Rainer says of Forti, “She made no effort to connect the events thematically in any way…And one thing followed another….Whenever I am in doubt I think of that. One thing follows another.”[xcvii]

This disjunctiveness—one thing following another even though it may not make obvious thematic sense—is typical of the way Forti works. Perhaps it owes something to the Dada Zen sensibility of Cage as well as to the Halprin tendency to “flip” meaning. Forti had an uncanny ability to commit to each thing as it happened—even when there was no continuity. “My style is more to jump from things to things,” she said. “If I stay with something and see where it evolves to, I’d feel a little bit imprisoned by it. I get a little claustrophobic.”[xcviii]

Forti’s association with Trisha Brown, whom she met that same summer of 1960 at Halprin’s course, continued throughout the Judson years and beyond. Brown was immediately struck by Forti’s inventiveness at the house of Halprin. For years she retained a vivid image of Simone “with a garden hose pointed at her mouth, singing a beautiful Italian aria. It was riveting. I didn’t know what category of behavior that went into.”[xcix]

That happy confusion of categories, of course, became even more pronounced in the dance constructions. One can see their influence on Brown’s equipment pieces. For example, Brown’s Planes (1968) took the incline of Slant Board and made it so steep as to be an almost vertical plane with holes to get one’s feet into—a precursor of the more famous Walking on the Wall (1971).

Trisha Brown’s Lightfall, with Brown and Steve Paxton, sound by Forti, ph Al Giese, 1963.

Forti and Brown shared a sensibility that favored a relaxed body and the freedom to go wild while improvising. They trusted each other artistically, and Forti provided sound for several of Brown’s pieces. When Brown performed her first solo, Trillium (1962), at Maidman Playhouse[c] and later at Judson, the sound score was a recording of a vacuum cleaner with Forti vocalizing tones she heard in the sound of the machine.[ci] And for Brown’s Lightfall (1963) at Judson’s Concert No. 4, Brown and Paxton performed the perching-and-falling duet to a recording of Forti whistling.[cii]

Rainer, Paxton, and Brown were stalwarts in the Judson rebellion who each went on to become a force in contemporary dance (in Rainer’s case, film as well). In recognizing Forti’s influence on them, we recognize her influence on the whole phenomenon of postmodern dance.

 

An Emotional Pull

While many of the male minimalists explained their motivation with mathematical formulas or academic theories, some female artists gave an emotional motivation. For example, Morris has written, “[T]he decision to employ objects came out of considerations of specific problems involving space and time.”[ciii] In Forti’s writing, we see the words “want” and “feel” and “need.” Even her reaction to Cage’s ideas was emotional. Although she threw herself into solving Dunn’s assignments that were based on Cage’s chance methods, what stayed with her was learning about Cage’s own expressed need”

[Robert Dunn] said that John had wanted to be able to hear sound, and that when he listened to music that was in any way traditional, he’d know that after this sound and that sound and that sound, then there could be this or that or that, but it was gonna be one of them.…he always had a double experience of the sound itself and the expectation. And he wanted to be able to just hear sound without any expectation…I felt from that, that if you need something, you can create a structure that will give it to you.[civ]

Ultimately Cage, via Dunn, had given Forti permission to set up whatever framework she needed to satisfy her emotional/artistic needs. And what she needed at that time was physical contact. Ultimately, that need, plus her growing interest in mixing genres, fueled her dance constructions:

I had just left San Francisco, I had just left the trees, I had just left the mountains. I needed to climb, I needed to feel my physical strength.…And it occurred to me that I could make this little mountain, which I call the Huddle… and be part of that structure or climb on it, that I could make something that could give me what I was needing.[cv]

Floating in Water, 1971, via The Box, L.A.

In another interview, while talking about her move to New York, she admits to a level of vulnerability rarely acknowledged by artists, male or female:

I think it hit me especially hard because the marriage [to Robert Morris] wasn’t going so well. I remember feeling that the nature that I’m really part of, that I can really still experience, is my weight—that I take up space and have weight…The work was a way for me to connect to universe. To say, I’m here, I feel confused, bad, and lost, but I’m still attached to the earth.”[cvi]

Forti’s emotional radar was alerted over an ethical issue in 1968 when she was living and working in Rome. She tells this story about Fabio Sargentini’s Rome Festival of Music, Dance, Explosion and Flight, which she had enthusiastically helped to organize. She was horrified by a series of “experimental” explosions engineered by American sculptor David Bradshaw. In fragmentary writing that reflects her state of mind (she was known to sometimes partake of marijuana and acid in the late 1960s), she recounts the incident:

The jolt. The water rising…The fish were coming up dead…I walked over to David Bradshaw and asked him if, in the light of the dying fish, he felt one explosion had been enough. He said…that the death of the fish was not the intention of the piece, and that he would continue. Right. I just squatted beside a tree, my head in my hands. Another jolt, water rising… It is true. I was stoned and I was watching the ants at my feet. They were going crazy. Through their frenetic scrambling I had a vision of their ancient tunnels crumbling. My tears fell among them. And I was miles into the sky. And these tiny forms were people down below, scrambling on the surface of their crumbling survival structure. Radial victims of a linear intent. It is true. I was stoned. I was there, but I was not in Rome. I was with the ants.[cvii]

Forti with her father, Mario Forti, in Florence, c. 1948, via The Box, L. A.

The trauma of that experience left her feeling like the New York art world, of which Bradshaw was a part, was becoming as hawkish as U.S. foreign policy in its disregard for human life.[cviii] This disaffection harks back to the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when Forti felt a sense of protest, but it was more emotional than actively political.

I started going to hootenannies. Getting together with people to sing folk songs and songs of resistance. The feeling state which I picked up from that community was good for me, as was the singing. Opening my throat and singing my heart out.[cix]

A later decision, one that ignited her series of “news animations,” hinged on her feelings about the death of her father, Mario Forti.

My father died in 1983. He was an avid reader of newspapers. I’ve thought that that’s how he knew, before so many others did, that it was time to get out of Europe. When he died I figured I’d better start reading the news. Also, it felt like a way to be close to him. Still does.[cx]

Going back to her early childhood, there may be a residue from the traumatic events of her family’s escape from Europe. Although Forti has never said this, I think there is something about her work—the hunger for touch, the desire to feel the earth under her feet, the distrust of authority—that may be the legacy of being a four-year-old child bewildered by the haste with which her family had to flee their home country.

Traditions Nevertheless

Although she has railed against the conventions of the dance world, Forti also had a respect for lineage in both dance and visual art:

I felt aware that I was in the same tradition with Kurt Schwitters and I felt the tradition wasn’t gonna end with us. The continuance of this tradition like working with Ann Halprin: she also had worked with Margaret H’Doubler, who worked with exploring movement anatomically. Laban had been working with movement, even factory movement, how to lift—how to build machines so the body functions in harmony with them…When a tradition’s been going a period of time, you don’t imagine it’s gonna end with you. You’re gonna have something to do with its going on.[cxi]

She also feels in line with the tradition of another California girl—Isadora Duncan. She calls Duncan “one of the founders and sources of dance improvisation in America”[cxii] and admires how, in the Cagean sense, Duncan created a structure for what she needed.

[Duncan] who stood silently still in the center of her studio waiting for a movement impulse, was working with this very particular problem she had given herself, of clearing the environment and listening for an inner impulse.[cxiii]

Perhaps Forti’s sense of valuing the past was most poignantly expressed in a hand-written letter she wrote to Trisha Brown after seeing her perform Accumulation in Rome in 1972. She wrote that Brown’s solo, in which she returned to the first gesture (extending the thumb outward almost like a hitchhiker would) after each new movement was added, served as a kind of guide for Forti. “I used to stretch both hands to the future,” she continued. “Now I’ve been stretching one hand to the future and one to the past, and my house seems to be building up a lot stronger.”[cxiv]

Forti’s Planet, P. S. 1, 1976

Another way she connected with the past has more of a cultural basis: “In Naples people speak with their dead as much as with their saints. Enlist their help. As a Florentine Jew, I too speak with my dead. I love them, and they help me clear my mind.”[cxv]

She found reinforcement for this kind of communication in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, which is the tome Cage relied on as a guide to chance procedures. This kind of connection with the past has a spiritual element:

In the I Ching they often talk about music and dancing and inviting the ancestors to be present…I do have a sense of the ancestors …being present in this ongoing, redoing and redoing…as our way of making art changes. It is a way of having the antenna to intuitions that are vital to survival as one of its functions. I see myself as a worker in the ongoing format of divination.[cxvi]

Legacy, True and False

Big Room, 1974. ph Robert Alexander, via Fales Special Collections at NYU, and The Box, L.A.

In the years following the dance constructions, Forti has gotten involved in many new and recurring collaborations. Her work with composer Charlemagne Palestine, which began when they met at California Institute of the Arts in 1970, led to the “Illuminations” series, including various ways of performing circles (she was “banking from orbit to orbit”[cxvii]). Her animal studies in the 1970s and 1980s were performed with musician Peter Van Riper. The news animations, ongoing since the 1980s, braid words and movement together in a slyly oblique way. In the late 1980s Forti started feeling that integrating one’s body and mind was not enough. She wanted her art to be aware of the world too. Thus she came up with a way of framing her work that she called “Body, Mind, World.”[cxviii]

Forti has continued to perform in museums, galleries, and festivals in the United States and Europe. A part-time faculty at UCLA from 1997 to 2014, she has given workshops all over the world (except Germany, where she has refused to go[cxix]). About her approach to teaching, she says, “I still teach the workshop process that I learned from Anna.”[cxx]

Her practice of improvisation, now often combining dance and words, is part of her legacy. She aims not only to cross the barrier from dance to art, but from body to mind:

Movement, or improvisation, always involves following impulses while also watching the whole situation…There is always thinking going on while the movement is happening…What I want to impart… is the experience of having the motor centers and the verbal centers of your mind communicating with one another, working together. I want to facilitate that dialogue.”[cxxi]

Forti’s drawings and watercolors have been shown at galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and Zurich. The holographic pieces she made with holography pioneer Lloyd Cross in the ’70s (Striding Crawling and Angel) are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Forti, who has received several lifetime achievement awards,[cxxii] was the subject of a major retrospective the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria, in 2014. As mentioned, she has a permanent relationship with MoMA, which has acquired the Illumination ink drawings that came out of her work with Palestine, as well as her dance constructions, giving her the status of a major visual artist.

Illustrious dance artists who have been influenced by Forti, including Susan Rethorst, David Zambrano, Daniel Lepkoff, and K. J. Holmes, have made her sensibility visible to a new generation of dancers. Her legacy is inextricably entwined with her longevity, allowing several generations to experience her work. Recently Forti reunited with Charlemagne Palestine for a reprisal of their “Illuminations” series. When this was performed at MoMA in 2014, Brian Seibert of The New York Times described her presence as Palestine hummed and made sounds with a glass and a laptop:

Meanwhile, Ms. Forti, in black pants and a white sweater, eyes closed, slowly rolled across the floor. The beauty of her approach, if also its limitations and risks, lies in how she doesn’t put on a show; she just is. At one point, she directed attention to the moon outside by saying “moon.”[cxxiii]

Clearly, she still revels in her aesthetic of plainness and her connection to nature.

But there is also a part of her legacy that has gone beyond actual witnessing to rumor and hearsay. You know that an artist’s reputation has reached the realm of legend when that happens. In the fall of 2014, I attended a performance event in a small loft in SoHo. All of us were standing, packed like vertical sardines, shoulder-to-shoulder, ear-to-ear. I could not help but overhear one young Italian man telling his friends this story with great authority:

When Simone Forti’s relationship with Robert Whitman broke up, she was so unhappy that she had to do something very different. She went to Rome and she did a piece where she got naked and performed in a cage with a bear. A big f—-g bear!

I was impressed. But after a moment I realized there was a chance this story might not be entirely true. So I e-mailed Simone and asked her about it. I received a reply right away.

Hi Wendy,

Well, I really should leave that rumor intact. But as I remember things, I did go to Italy shortly after breaking up with Whitman, and began my zoo studies. Then, years later, I was in Paris to perform with Charlemagne. While walking in the street on a cold day, with a videographer associated with the Sonnabend Gallery, I saw a cage-like mid basement walk-down to an entrance. I don’t know how else to describe it. We decided to shoot me moving down in that pit-like place. After a while of doing my bear studies movement, I took off my clothes, leather jacket and all, and continued naked. There’s a very nice video of that, which was once shown in a mini retrospective of mine at MoMA.

With love from Paris where I just performed with Charlemagne, fully dressed,

Simone

One of Forti’s News Animations, ph Ellen Crane, 2017, via Radical Bodies

[I originally wrote this essay for the exhibit I co-curated titled “Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972.” It originated at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara in 2017, and came to the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. The Radical Bodies exhibition catalog was published by UC Press. Special thanks to The Box L.A. for this posting.]

¶¶¶

Endnotes

[i] Forti, Simone, “Reflections on the Early Days,” Movement Research Performance Journal #14, Spring 1997 (a special edition titled “The Legacy of Robert Ellis Dunn”), 4.

[ii] Simone Forti, Handbook in Motion (1974), (Northampton: Contact Editions, 1997), 129

[iii] Simone Forti, “Full Moves: Thoughts on Dance Behaviors,” Contact Quarterly 9, no. 3 Fall 1984, 8.

[iv] E-mail to the author, October 17, 2015.

[v] In an email to the author January 8, 2016, Forti elaborates: “Here is the narrative I’ve settled on: We crossed the border into Switzerland in December of 1938. There had been Kristallnacht and the way across the border was easy at that moment because many Italians were heading to Switzerland for their ski holidays. The story goes that we put our skis on top of the car and were waved through along with everyone else. Why did we hide our departure? Was Fascist Italy already blocking Jews from leaving? Supposedly, no more passports were being issued to Jews and ours were about to expire.”

[vi] Oral History transcript of Simone Forti, interviewed and recorded by Louise Sunshine, May 8, 1994, Dance Division, NY Public Library of the Performing Arts, 1–3.

[vii] Ibid., 7.

[viii] Forti, “Full Moves,” 7.

[ix] Oral History transcript, 8.

[x] Conversation with the author, June 10, 2014.

[xi] Bennington College Judson Project (1981) dir. Wendy Perron, video interview with Simone Forti conducted by Meg Cottam, in Forti’s Manhattan studio.

[xii] Forti, Oh Tongue (Los Angeles: Beyond Baroque Books, 2003), 125.

[xiii] Oral History transcript, 10.

[xiv] E-mail to the author, Sept. 21, 2015.

[xv] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 32.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Forti, Oh Tongue,131.

[xviii] Ibid., 132.

[xix] Conversation with the author, June 10, 2014.

[xx] Breitwieser, Sabine, “The Workshop Process, In Conversation with Simone Forti,” in Breitwieser, ed. Simone Forti: Thinking with the Body, (Salzburg: Museum der Moderne, 2014), 21. Exh. catalog

[xxi] Conversation with the author, June 10, 2014.

[xxii] Author’s phone conversation with June Ekman, September 7, 2015.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Forti, Oh Tongue, 132.

[xxv] Breitwieser, 21.

[xxvi] Oral History transcript, 24

[xxvii] Breitwieser, 22–23. Note: Shunryu Suzuki, author of the influential book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, founded the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962.

[xxviii] Ross, Janice, Anna Halprin: Experience As Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 80.

[xxix] Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 79.

[xxx] Cage, John, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press 1961, paperback 1973), xi.

[xxxi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[xxxii] Cypis, Dorit, “Between Conceptual and Vibrational,” X-tra, Vol 6 No. 4, Summer 2004, 10.

[xxxiii] Oral History transcript, 25.

[xxxiv] Ross, 151.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Forti, Oh Tongue, 117, and Cypis, 10.

[xxxvii] Bennington College Judson Project.

[xxxviii] Oral History transcript, 32.

[xxxix] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 53.

[xl] Author’s phone conversation with Forti, October 19, 2015.

[xli] Author’s phone conversation with Forti, August 25, 2015.

[xlii] Steffen, Patrick (2012), “Forti on All Fours,” Contact Quarterly Online Journal, https://community.contactquarterly.com/journal/view/onallfours.

[xliii] Gerard Forde has exposed a discrepancy as to when the couple moved east. Forti had said 1959, but Morris dates the relocation as 1960. Forti has told me that Morris has the more dependable memory. Forde, Gerard. “Plus or Minus 1961—A Chronology 1959–1963.” online

[xliv] Ross, 136.

[xlv] Oral History transcript, 22.

[xlvi] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 34.

[xlvii] Paxton, Steve, “The Emergence of Simone Forti,” Simone Forti: Thinking with the Body, 59.

[xlviii] See Forti, Oh Tongue, 135, for Forti’s eloquent description of the “dancers among the captives in the zoo.” She describes, among other actions, “bears running back and forth up a ramp and …reaching and spiraling their noses skyward…the biggest male of a herd of deer doing a terrifying leap straight at but just short of at the newborn fawn.”

[xlix] Banes, Sally, Greenwich Village 1963 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 28, and Biesenbach, Klaus and Cherix, Christophe, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971, New York: MoMA, 2015).

[l] Charlip, Remy, Movement Research Performance Journal #14, Spring 1997, 10. Charlip was a dancer, choreographer, costume designer, and writer and illustrator of children’s books.

[li] Soares, Janet Mansfield, Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 250.

[lii] Dunn, Robert, Movement Research Performance Journal #14, 1997, 1, originally printed in Contact Quarterly, Winter 1989.

[liii] Forti, Simone, video interview in Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary internet series, Artforum.com, 2012.

[liv] Banes, Sally, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983) (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 4.

[lv] Charlip, Movement Research Performance Journal #14, 10.

[lvi] Breitwieser, 24.

[lvii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 117.

[lviii] Brown, Trisha (2004) Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966–1979, DVD Two: A Conversation with Trisha Brown and Klaus Kertess, ArtPix DVD.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Teicher, Hendel, Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue: 1961–2001 (Addison Gallery, distr. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 300.

[lxi] Author’s phone conversation with Forti, August 25, 2015.

[lxii] Forti, “Full Moves,” 7.

[lxiii] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 35.

[lxiv] Forti, Simone (1999), “Animate Dancing: A Practice in Dance Improvisation,” in A. Cooper Albright,  & D. Gere (Eds), Taken By Surprise (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 61.

[lxv] Kaminski, Astrid, “Join the Movement,” Frieze.com, Issue 168, January-February 2015, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/join-the-movement/.

[lxvi] Forde, Gerard

[lxvii] Cypis, 10.

[lxviii] Oral History transcript, 51.

[lxix] Breitwieser, 24.

[lxx] Ibid., 30.

[lxxi] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 34.

[lxxii] Breitwieser, 65.

[lxxiii] Bennington College Judson Project.

[lxxiv] Ross, 145.

[lxxv] Oral History transcript, 67.

[lxxvi] Although most researchers say that Young organized the series at Yoko Ono’s loft, Ono has expressed her feeling that they organized it together. See “A Letter to George Maciunas,” 1971 and subsequent note in 2014, both appeared in Biesenbach, 70-71

[lxxvii] Phone conversation with Ana Janevski, associate curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, Museum of Modern Art, January 20, 2016.

[lxxviii] Oral History transcript, 45.

[lxxix] “In Conversation: Simone Forti with Claudia La Rocco,” Brooklyn Rail, April 2, 2010

[lxxx] Janice Ross, “Atomizing Cause and Effect: Ann Halprin’s 1960s Summer Dance Workshop,” Art Journal, Vol. 68 No. 2, Summer 2009, 75.

[lxxxi] In the Dance Capsules section of the Cunningham Trust website, David Vaughan writes that La Monte Young’s 2 Sounds consisted of “the sound of ashtrays scraped against a mirror, and the other, that of pieces of wood rubbed against a Chinese gong.” http://dancecapsules.mercecunningham.org/overview.cfm?capid=46113

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Taken from unused footage of an interview with Simone Forti conducted for Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, the film by Jack Walsh.

[lxxxiv] Paxton, 61.

[lxxxv] Email to the author, August 27, 2015.

[lxxxvi] Weiss, Jeffrey with Davies, Clare, Robert Morris: Object Sculpture: 1960–1965 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with Castelli Gallery, 2013), 300.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 33.

[lxxxviii] Kirby, Michael, and Schechner, Richard, “An Interview with John Cage,” Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965), 50.

[lxxxix] Morris, Robert, “A Judson P.S.,” Judson at 50, Artforum.com.

[xc] See Rainer’s description of War in Banes Democracy’s Body, 101, and Morris’ explanation of War in “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” Artforum.com, June 8, 2012, http://www.artforum.com/words/id=31187

[xci] Walsh, Jack.

[xcii] Ibid., 69.

[xciii] Banes, Democracy’s Body.

[xciv] Meehan went on to become a great dancer with the Erick Hawkins.

[xcv] Rainer, Yvonne, Feelings Are Facts, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 195–6.

[xcvi] Ibid., 217.

[xcvii] Rainer, Yvonne, Avalanche 5, Summer 1972, page?.

[xcviii] Oral History transcript, 68

[xcix] Brown, Trisha, Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966–1979, ArtPix Videos.

[c] Forde, 23.

[ci] E-mail to the author, September 21, 2015.

[cii] Forde, 41.

[ciii] Morris, Robert, “Notes on Dance,” Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter, 1965 © The MIT Press, 180.

[civ] Forti, Simone, video interview, Artforum.com, “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” August 2012 http://artforum.com/video/id=36989&mode=large

[cv] Ibid.

[cvi] Breitwieser, 27–28.

[cvii] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 100.

[cviii] Ibid., 103, and author phone conversation with Forti, August 15, 2015.

[cix] Forti, Oh Tongue, 125.

[cx] E-mail to the author, September 23, 2015.

[cxi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[cxii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 133.

[cxiii] Forti, “Animate Dancing,” 54–55.

[cxiv] Forti, Letter to Trisha Brown (1972) reprinted in Trisha Brown’s Notebooks, ed. Susan Rosenberg, October Vol. 140, Spring 2012 (MIT).

[cxv] Forti, Oh Tongue, 13.

[cxvi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[cxvii] Breitwieser, 201.

[cxviii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 113 and 122.

[cxix] Ibid., 116.

[cxx] Goldstein, Jennie, (2014), “Simone Forti in Conversation with Jennie Goldstein,” Critical Correspondence blog, posted July 10, 2014, interview June 2, 2014.

[cxxi] Breitwieser, 34–35.

[cxxii] Forti’s lifetime achievement awards include a Bessie (New York Dance and Performance Award) in 1995, a Lester Horton Award in Los Angeles in 2003, and a Yoko Ono Lennon Award for Courage in the Arts in 2011.

[cxxiii] Seibert, Brian, “Italian Touch, With a Taste of Cognac,” The New York Times, April 16, 2014, C3.

 

2 people like this Historical Essays Uncategorized 2

Katherine Dunham: One-Woman Revolution

[I wrote this article for the August, 2000 issue of Dance Magazine. Reprinted with permission.]

All Roads lead to Katherine Dunham. Well, not all. But sometimes it seems to be so. Jazz dance, “fusion” and the search for our cultural heritage all have their antecedents in Dunham’s work as a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. She was the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company, the first black person to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. She created and performed in works for stage, clubs and Hollywood films; she started a school and a technique that continue to flourish; she fought unstintingly for racial justice. She could have had her own TV show called “Dance Roots.”

Rara Tonga (1940)

Dunham, 91, lives in Manhattan, where she is working on an autobiography, Minefield, while undergoing physical therapy for her surgically replaced knees. Surrounded by former dancers, friends and a bright-eyed two-and-a-half-year-old goddaughter, she regales them with stories, songs, and warm-hearted joking.

The young Katherine Dunham studied ballet with Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera and the Russian dancer Ludmilla Speranzeva. When she was only 21, with Turbyfill’s help, she formed the short-lived Ballet Nègre. Soon after, she started the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which was based in Chicago during the early years. Carmencita Romero, who danced with Dunham from 1933 to 1941, said the company performed a mix of cultures even then: “We did Russian folk dances with full skirts, Spanish dances influenced by La Argentinita and Carmen Amaya, and plantation dances like Bre’r Rabbit an’ de Tah Baby.”

In 1935, Dunham, under the aegis of a Rosenwald fellowship, traveled to the Caribbean to research African-based dances. She returned in 1936, having passed rigorous initiation rites to become a mambo—a vaudun priestess. She soon choreographed pieces that reflect Haitian movements, for instance, the Yanvalou, in which the spine undulates like the snake god, Damballa. But more than that, she absorbed the idea of dance as religious ritual. She has said, “In vaudun we sacrifice to the gods, but the top sacrifice is dance.” Shango (1945), which depicts such a sacrifice, hypnotized audiences during the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater’s celebration of Dunham, The Magic of Katherine Dunham, in 1987.

Barrelhouse Blues (1940)

Dunham also focused on American dance forms: “I was running around getting all these exotic things from the Caribbean and Africa when the real development lay in Harlem and black Americans,” she says. “So I developed more things in jazz.” Her revue, “Le Jazz Hot” (1940), included vernacular forms like the shimmy, black bottom, shorty george and the cakewalk. That same year, Dunham worked with George Balanchine on the choreography of the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. She recalls, “He took an Arab song and taught it to me for a belly dance.” About their collaboration, she confesses, “He was a help, but I was pretty adamant about what I wanted to do. We had a wonderful time together.”

One of the few works of hers that was filmed was Carnival of Rhythm (1941). In this clip she is seen dancing with Archie Savage, who had danced with Hemsley Winfield.

In 1943, the international impresario Sol Hurok presented Dunham’s company in “Tropical Revue” at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, adding Dixieland jazz musicians to boost its commercial appeal. The show became a hit, enjoying a six-week run, unusual for such a revue. Dunham was a glamorous performer, and it is rumored that Hurok had insured her legs for a million dollars. In an interview with biographer Ruth Beckford, Dunham demurred, saying the amount was a mere quarter million.

Dunham opened a school in Manhattan in 1945. Dana McBroom-Manno, who was a student there and later danced with Dunham, describes the Dunham technique as modern with an African base. “You use the floor as earth, the pelvis as center, holding torso and legs together. You work for fluidity, moving like a goddess, undulations like water, like the ocean. High leaps for the men. You elongate the muscles, creating a hidden strength. We use both parallel and turned out, so it’s easy to go from Dunham into any other technique. The isolations of the hips, ribs, shoulders that you see in all jazz classes were brought to us from the Caribbean by Miss Dunham. Also, she [talked about] Indian chakra points (in yoga, points of physical or spiritual energy in the body).” Romero, who has taught dance history at The Ailey School emphasizes the spirit. “In Africa, all dance is based on animals, plants, the elements of the universe. The Dunham technique gives you a feeling of release and exhilaration by letting the body go.”

The Dunham school, Eartha Kitt in foreground, James Dean at right

Syvilla Fort correcting James Dean

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dunham school, in the Times Square area, thrived for ten years. Its thirty teachers offered classes in ballet, modern (José Limón was one of the modern teachers), “primitive,” acting, martial arts and more. Among its students were James Dean, Arthur Mitchell, Butterfly McQueen and Doris Duke. Donald Saddler, recently reminiscing, said Marlon Brando would come and play drams. Sometimes jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus would come with a group of his musicians and play for classes.

Out of the school came a student group, directed by the legendary Syvilla Fort, that included Julie Belafonte, Walter Nicks, and Peter Gennaro. This group performed at schools and benefits. Belafonte—who met her husband, Harry, though one of these performances—recalls: “We were taught the rhythms of the movements with drums and with song in other languages; for instance, Portuguese and Haitian patois. In class anyone could break into song at any time.”

The Dunham company was an incubator for many well-known performers, including Eartha Kitt, Talley Beatty, Janet Collins, and Vanoye Aikens. In the 1940s and ’50s, its heaviest touring years, the company visited an astounding fifty-seven countries. Audience response was heady. Dr. Glory Van Scott, who danced with the company in 1959 and 1960, says, “Everywhere we went, audiences went crazy. In Paris, we’d do our show, and then we’d go dancing half the night at the Samba Club. The audience loved us so much, they would follow us there. It was unreal.”

Dunham dancers, 1940s or’50s

But the company encountered racism at home, and Dunham responded with defiance. In 1944, while touring in segregated Lexington, Kentucky, she found a “For Blacks Only” sign on a bus and pinned it to her dress onstage. Afterwards, she declared to the audience that she wouldn’t come back to a place that forbade blacks to sit next to whites.

Southland, with Julie Belafonte at right

In Dunham’s Southland (1951), an impassioned response to the lynchings of blacks, Julie Belafonte played a white woman whose false accusation of rape leads to a black man’s murder. “It was very, very difficult for me,” Belafonte recalls. “I had to transpose my hatred of the character … it was an acting problem. I had to overcome it in myself.” Audience reaction was strong. Says Belafonte, “Everyone in the audience cried when we did it.”

The company premiered Southland in Santiago, Chile, despite warnings from the State Department, which wanted U.S. cultural exports to project only positive images of America. Possibly as a result, Dunham did not win support from the department, which funded tours by Martha Graham, José Limón and Paul Taylor. (In the days before the National Endowment for the Arts, this was the only program that sponsored international dance touring.) But another possible reason is that the State Department’s dance panel called her work “torrid.”

Dunham has lived her credo that “all artists are humanists.” Her home in Haiti, Habitation Leclerc, served as a medical clinic—as well as a tourist attraction, with its nightly drumming and dancing—for many years. Having given injections of vitamin B and penicillin to ailing dancers, she administered first aid for parasites and joint diseases. Once a week, local doctors helped her to diagnose and treat patients in exchange for the medications that she could get them from New York.

Dunham moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, during the racial troubles of the 1960s. Despite death threats and bomb scares, she helped a group of black youths by giving them classes in martial arts, drumming, and dance. During that period, the police were picking up young black men as a matter of course. On one occasion, Dunham railed against this racial profiling, getting herself thrown in jail.

While in her 80s, the choreographer made national headlines by going on a hunger strike to protest the U.S. government’s policy of returning Haitian refugees to face starvation and repression in their native land. She was supported in this effort by comedian Dick Gregory, filmmaker Jonathan Demme and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, along with hundreds of other Americans. It was only at the coaxing of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed and later reinstated president of Haiti, that she ended her fast after forty-seven days.

Asked about her courageous stand, Dunham says simply, “You can’t learn or acquire these things; I think they’re just put in you from the beginning.”

She feels it is an extension of her destiny to teach–“My guiding voices tell me I should teach, and that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.” The Dunham technique is being taught all over the country. McBroom-Manno, who has taught Dunham technique at Adelphi University, The Ailey School, and now at the 92nd Street Y DanceCenter in New York, says, “I teach Dunham technique as a way of life. Nutrition, African-based religions and social conscience are all part of it.” Walter Nicks and Romero keep the Dunham technique alive in Europe, while McBroom-Manno passes it along in the United States.

“Everybody is an anthropologist,” Dunham says.

Dunham, 1940s, (Courtesy Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale)

“My objective is to see that different cultures get to know each other.” McBroom-Manno relates how, as a scholarship student getting free lunch at the school, she was required to learn the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. “We would be squirming and carrying on, but she wanted us to learn the serenity and silence of that tradition.” In preparing for Aida (1963), McBroom-Manno and the rest of the cast, dancers from both Dunham’s group and the Metropolitan Opera ballet company, studied karate at the Dunham school to perfect a processional before the African king.

Dunham’s influence is global. She helped to train the Senegalese National Ballet, and her performances inspired the start of many national groups, such as Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Her numerous awards include a 1968 Dance Magazine Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the American Dance Festival Scripps Award, the Albert Schweitzer Award and, just this spring, the Duke Ellington Award.

She is still concerned about Haiti. During a May 25 interview, she was gratified to hear that very day that Haiti had held free elections without incident.

But her thoughts linger on the art of dance. “Dance has been the stepchild of the arts for a long time. I think now it’s time for it to take its place among the other arts.”

It is also time for Katherine Dunham to be honored as one of the great innovators in the field of dance and one of the great humanitarian artists in history.

Dunham, seated with Melony McGant, and friends, Boule Blanche, Riverside Church, c. 2004. From left: Reginald Yates, me,
Louis Johnson, Mary Hinkson, Terry Carter, Micki Grant, Stanley Strohman, Glory Van Scott, Ruby Streate, Madeline Preston, and Congressman Charles Rangel.

 

Like this Historical Essays 2

Hemsley Winfield (1907–1934)

Photo by Martinus Anderson

Who was the first African American to start a modern dance company? Who was the first Black performer to be cast in a Metropolitan Opera production? And which pioneer of American modern dance died tragically young at 26?

The answer to all three questions is Hemsley Winfield. Starting out as an actor who choreographed for plays, he extended his abilities to directing, producing, teaching, performing, and choreographing. He shone as a dancer, garnering adjectives like “startling” and mesmerizing.” In the last four years of his life he made valiant efforts to sustain a Black modern dance company. This was during the Harlem Renaissance, which celebrated Black literature, visual art, music and theater.

We have very little in the way of photographs or descriptions of Winfield as either a dancer or choreographer. We do know he was tireless in getting gigs for his group, whether it was a theater group or dance group. And we have evidence from reviews that he was promising, courageous, and charismatic.

Winfield was born in Yonkers, New York, and attended public schools. His father co-owned a construction business and his mother was a nurse, educator, and playwright. He was athletic as a child. His parents owned their own home, and he lived with them his whole life, so he was relatively insulated from the poverty that befell many in the Depression.

All God’s Chillun Got Wings, with Paul Robeson and Mary Blair c. 1924

Leadership came naturally to Winfield. Almost as soon as he became an actor, he also became a director. He trained with the National Ethiopian Art Theatre School, which offered classes in Isadora-like “esthetic dancing” (Perpener 30) as well as in acting. At the age of 17, he found himself directing an offshoot group called Mariarden Players that seems to have functioned as a student group (Neal 11-12). That summer, he landed a minor role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about a mixed-race couple starring Paul Robeson, at the Provincetown Playhouse (Perpener 29). A photo of the white actress Mary Blair kissing the hand of Robeson circulated in the press, igniting a prolonged uproar that included a bomb threat (Duberman 58-59), which can’t have been lost on the young Winfield.

At 18 Winfield started directing his own troupe, the Sekondi Players, as part of the “little theatre” movement, analogous to community theater, that took hold around the country. He later incorporated the Sekondi players into his larger group, the New Negro Art Theatre (Neal 31). After directing many productions in small theaters in and around New York City, he was called an “outstanding leader” in the little theatre movement. As Joe Nash said, “Filled with the hype and hope fostered by the proliferation of the “new”—New Masses, New Era, New Science, New Woman—this group of dancers was anxious to wrestle with the negative images popularized by decades of minstrelsy to create a New Negro dance” (Nash, Free to Dance).

But let’s go back.

Lulu Belle
While directing his theater group, Winfield often took acting roles in other productions. When the controversial Lulu Belle, written by white men (Edward Sheldon and Charles MacArthur) and produced by a white man (David Belasco), opened at the Belasco Theater in February 1926, Winfield played the minor character of Joe. In a cast of 115, 100 were black, but the top roles went to whites who wore blackface. The character Lulu Belle was a Black woman who was sexually provocative, wantonly independent, and unfaithful. Like Carmen, she ended up murdered. The third act took place in a fictional gay nightclub where Lulu Belle had a dancing gig. So, although there were no gay characters, Lulu Belle glamorized what was called the Pansy Craze.

A scene from Belasco’s Lulu Belle, probably in Act I.

White critics and Black critics had different reasons for not liking the play: Black critics found it “disturbing” for its appalling portrayal of Harlem, white critics found it immoral. But theater goers—most of them white—came flooding in. As scholar James F. Wilson as written, “Harlem’s appeal for whites was its promise that all regulations of polite society would indeed be broken.” He called Lulu Belle “one of Broadway’s biggest hits of the 1920s” (Wilson 81-82).

Another scene from Lulu Belle. Belasco’s settings were always as realistic as possible.

According to Wilson, the character of Lulu Belle was subversive for more reasons than her loose sexuality:

(T)he hypersexual Lulu Belle is controversial not for her erotic desire, but for her representations of class and race. As responses to the play and drag balls lay bare, the visible homosexual (that is, the cross-dressed man or woman) and the sexually unrestrained black woman, both associated with the working class, were particularly contentious figures to the African American communities in the Harlem Renaissance. They each posed a perilous threat to the advancement of the race because of their “low-class” morality, and mocked the ideals of the middle-class family toward which the communities strove (Wilson 81-82).

The tension between the goals of the elder artists and the wishes of the younger ones continued throughout the Renaissance.

Lulu Belle ran for 461 performances on Broadway, providing Winfield and many other Black performers with thirteen months of work (Playbill).

Salome
Perhaps it was Lulu Belle that gave Winfield a taste for provocative plays written by white men. His next project was to direct Oscar Wilde’s Salome for his own group, the New Negro Art Theatre. At that time Wilde’s play was enjoying coast-to-coast popularity, partly because of the Orientalist fad and partly for the opportunity it afforded female actors. As Black dance scholar John Perpener has pointed out, the role had been played by Ida Rubinstein, Loie Fuller, and Maud Allen (Perpener 34). In fact, Salome had been produced by the original, Chicago-based Ethiopian Art Theatre in 1923. [The New York–based National Ethiopian Art Theatre School, where Winfield trained, started in 1924.]

Winfield first directed his own version at the Philipsburgh Hall in Yonkers in 1926. Two years later, his company performed it at the Alhambra Theater, a major Harlem hot spot, at midnight.

Although the idea of the Harlem Renaissance was to cultivate Black artists, there was also a feeling that a “serious” play meant a play written by a white person (Poueymirou 204). That if Black actors could play roles not designated as Black characters, the play would be deemed more universal (Poueymirou 202). And yet what appealed to the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance artists about Wilde’s play was its sensuousness and decadence. They didn’t want to have to be “high-minded” all the time.

When the production returned to Yonkers, the leading lady took sick and Winfield stepped in to dance Salome himself. He continued to dance the role when, in 1929, the production moved to the Cherry Lane Theatre, located in Greenwich Village, which was, even back then, a haven for gay men. Apparently Winfield wore not much more than a beaded curtain (Perpener 34) and reveled in the movement. One of his dancers, Richard Bruce Nugent, remembers him in that role:

He, for instance, did a show . . . in which he played the role of Salome. And, well, it sounds like a laugh, but it wasn’t a laugh because he was Salome. There was nothing camp about it. He just was Salome. He was absolutely dedicated to what he was doing (Perpener 35).

Nugent became so obsessed with Winfield in the Dance of the Seven Veils that he made a series of drawings depicting Salome dancing.

Nugent’s drawing of Salome dancing, late 1920s

Perpener and others have opined that Winfield’s performing of Salome turned him toward concentrating on dance rather than theater (Perpener 33-34). But something else was happening too.

Run-in with Du Bois
The great civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, the inspiration behind the Harlem Renaissance, published an article in 1926 in The Crisis, the magazine he co-founded and edited. In this article, he laid down what Black theater should be:

The plays of a real Negro theatre must be 1. About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. For us. That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. 4. Near us. The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood and near the mass of ordinary people (Perpener 28).

The Crisis, Jan. 1927 issue, art by Aaron Douglas

Along these lines, Du Bois established his own group, the Krigwa Players, in the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library on 135th Street (later named the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). And there is evidence that the Krigwa Players had actually collaborated with Winfield as an actor and director in a program of one-act plays (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers).

According to correspondence revealed by Winfield biographer Nelson D. Neal, Winfield and Du Bois were planning, starting in January 1927, to share the basement space for rehearsal and performance. Apparently Winfield’s group did perform there in February. Then, in August, the Amsterdam News printed an item announcing that the New Negro Art Theatre, directed by Winfield, would move into the Harlem library basement “permanently.” Du Bois hit the ceiling. He had not extended the space on a permanent basis. When told that the item was in error, he was not assuaged. On September 12, 1927, he sent a letter to the librarian threatening to withdraw the Krigwa Players if they went ahead with (or continued with) housing Winfield’s New Negro Art Theatre (which now contained the Sekondi Players). The reason? “They are not at all up to our standard.”

When you consider Du Bois’ definition of Negro Theatre, it’s easy to see why Winfield didn’t measure up: his choice of playwrights were mostly white: Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill, Ridgely Torrence. At that point, Winfield had not yet done his drag act in Salome, but he had produced Wilde’s play in Yonkers and as a radio play. This may have bothered Du Bois, as he considered the Wildean aesthetic decadent, thus undermining the goals of the Harlem Renaissance (Wirth in Nugent 47).

I suspect that his brush with Du Bois steered Winfield away from theater and toward dance. Perhaps he envisioned greater independence as a dance artist. After all, no one was laying down the rules for Negro dance.

Shunned by Harlem Renaissance Journals
While the Amsterdam News called Winfield’s performance as Salome “startling” and “worth seeing,” the official Harlem Renaissance mouthpieces, i.e. The Crisis and Opportunity (the publication of the National Urban League), ignored it, possibly reflecting Du Bois’ influence. Harlem Renaissance scholar Margaux Poueymirou connects the shunning of Winfield’s Salome with the Renaissance elite’s disdain for the gay culture within Harlem:

Their silence is telling indeed . . . their unwillingness to acknowledge Winfield’s performance was consistent with their reaction to the aesthetic culture that now contained a writer like Wilde and a play like Salome . . . Winfield’s performance of Salome may have suggested the culture surrounding Harlem’s notorious drag balls of the 1920s and early 1930s, spectacles in themselves that drew blacks and non-blacks and gays and straights together . . . But the critical reception of the New Negro Art Theatre’s production of Salome also recalled earlier discourses that wove in and out of “Salomania” where Salome was a thing to be gazed at, a fascination that both reflected and contributed to the period’s interest in Orientalia, above all a trope of otherness which, in Winfield’s case, unfolded in relation to race, gender and sexuality and the idea of the self as always self-fashioned (Poueymirou 215).

Opportunity, Feb. 1926, art by Richard Bruce Nugent

Winfield’s familiarity with queer Harlem likely stemmed from his friendship with Nugent, who later became a celebrated gay writer, his writings collected in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance. In a manuscript for a novel titled Geisha Man, Nugent writes about an all-male party where everyone was drinking: “The men became amorous, and public caresses became more and more frequent. Hemsley was dancing nude in the front room” (Nugent 96).

Tantalizing. Was there any basis in reality or was this pure fiction? Remembering that Nugent admired Winfield’s scantily clad portrayal of Salome to the point of obsession, I find this vision of Winfield to be equally believable as memory or fantasy. Nugent frequently attended drag balls at the Savoy Ballroom and Rockland Palace (Cass) and could have easily been accompanied by Winfield—or could have imagined him being present.

Henry Louis Gates, in his Foreword to Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, writes, “The list of gay and lesbian African Americans is impressive and long, but it is surely headed by Bruce Nugent. Nugent was boldly and proudly gay. He was the most openly homosexual of the Harlem Renaissance writers” (Gates in Nugent, xii).

Playbill for Fast and Furious, Sept. 1932

Another event that suggests Winfield’s familiarity with Harlem’s queer world was his role in “Pansies,” one of the thirty-seven skits in the over-stuffed, ill-fated revue Fast and Furious. With ninety cast members, twenty-four musicians, and nine sketch writers including Zora Neale Hurston and comedian Jackie (later “Moms”) Mabley—both of whom also performed—Fast and Furious lasted only one week at the New Yorker Theatre in September 1931. Winfield danced, acted, and sang, taking part in “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Boomerang,” and “Dance of the Moon,” in which he danced alone, covered in bronze. But the scene that was called the funniest was the Pansies skit (Neal 79), with the song “Pansies on Parade” by Porter Grainger. This no doubt parodied the flamboyant ritual at drag balls where each beauty contestant would strut their stuff before the competition (Wilson 86). Sometimes they’d be named for a flower. In Fast and Furious, the Flowers included Orchid, Violet, Lily, Daffydill [sic], and a quartet of Dancing Pansies. Winfield, however, was not a Flower but was cast as the Young Man (Neal 103–107).

The First Black Modern Dance Company
On March 6, 1931, Winfield debuted his dance group, calling it the Bronze Ballet Plastique. The name was probably influenced by Mikhail Mordkin, with whom he was studying. A former Bolshoi Ballet star whose company made possible the formation of Ballet Theatre, Mordkin often used the word “plastique.” It’s a word that’s been popular in Russia to this day, to describe a sinuous kind of expressiveness. Winfield may have also studied with Helen Tamiris, who taught in Harlem, and he may have seen early performances by the German expressionist dancer Harald Kreutzberg or by Ted Shawn (Perpener 41).

Hemsley Winfield, below center, in his Life and Death 1931 Joe Nash Collection

The Bronze Ballet Plastique gave one performance at the Saunders Trade School in Yonkers as a benefit for the Colored Citizens Unemployment Relief Committee. The program of works choreographed by Winfield included the following, with my shortened versions of Winfield’s own notations (Neal 88–95):

Jungle Wedding with Winfield and Frances Atkins 1931, Joe Nash Collection

Jungle Wedding: a ritual in Africa in which a chief gives his daughter to a prince, tom-toms beating, with authentic African masks and costumes.

Prohibition: a man drinks himself into a stupor. The police enter, beat the man until they, the police, are exhausted. The man rises, discovers his old gin bottle, drinks, and laughs hysterically.

Life and Death: (originally a scene from Wade in de Water, a play produced as a pageant by his mother, Jeroline Hemsley): Life is a solo figure in the center of the stage. Death, a group of fifteen men, swoops down from the four corners of the earth and pours upon Life deadly diseases. Life fights desperately, freeing itself momentarily. Death claws Life in a mass movement, rising in triumph.

St. James Infirmary: Eight figures, one at a time, come downstage in silence to perform one step, e.g., a kick step, a shake, a Charleston. Each time the rhythm starts in the feet and continues through the body to the fingertips, which then stiffen. A girl enters, doing “modernistic” movements. The men place her on a hearse, cover her with a red cloth, and bury her.

Negro: A sole figure dances to slow blues that accelerates to become barbaric and more negro [sic].

Work Song: A chain gang. A guard strikes a worker who is not working fast enough. That worker ends up tugging on the guard’s legs.

From his own notes, these seem like harshly stereotypical depictions.  Even more reason to wonder how Winfield might have evolved as an artist.

After that first performance, he changed the name of the group, re-embracing the New Negro but adding the word “dance,” so it became the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Group (Neal 68). I suspect that the name change also resulted from having second thoughts about including word “ballet.” Winfield was seeing early, as yet unnamed modern dance during that period, and he may have felt more aligned artistically with this new form. Mary Wigman was touring the United States from 1931 to 1933; Harald Kreutzburg was touring, Some of Winfield’s work, certainly the photo of Life and Death, is reminiscent of the group dynamics of German Ausdruckstanz.

Jungle Wedding ph Soichi Sunami

With this new/old name, the company gave the “First Negro Dance Recital in America,” presented by Winfield and Edna Guy, who had studied with Ruth St. Denis for six years. The venue was the “Theatre in the Clouds” on the fiftieth floor of the Chanin Building in midtown. Subtitled “a programme of primitive-modern dances,” it included eighteen dancers, eight singers, and a pianist. Winfield contributed most of the thirteen works, including Ritual, Bronze Study (which had been described by Mary Watkins of the New York Herald Tribune as mere reveling in his fine physique), Black Foundation, Plastique, Camp Meeting (a scene from Wade in de Water), and Life and Death. As a guest artist, Guy performed Ruth St. Denis’ A Figure from Angkor-Wat and her own Spirituals.

Edna Guy in A Figure in Angkor-Wat by Ruth St. Denis, 1931

John Martin, the dance critic of The New York Times, proclaimed the program “the outstanding novelty of the dance season” (Nash, Free to dance; also Neal, 157). Dance writer Charles Isaacson lauded the company, predicting that “within the next five years the biggest development in dancing will come from the Negro.” He was more favorable toward the group’s dancing than the choreography. However, he wrote,

Such numbers as Camp Meeting, Life and Death, [and] Ritual may be looked upon as the beginnings of great and important choreographic creations—compositions which in time will rival the production of the Russian Ballet. Praise is due Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield (Neal, 72-73).

The program was repeated at the slightly larger Mansfield Theatre in midtown in May.

Other Dance Performances
Although a whole evening of the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Group was rare, the company gave their energies to many benefits. Some examples: 1) the “Monster Benefit” for the Dancers’ Club relief and scholarship fund, directed by the unlikely trifecta of Michel Fokine, Ruth St. Denis, and Ned Wayburn which took place at the Mecca Temple (now New York City Center). Among those on a crowded program were Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Charles Weidman, and Fred Astaire. 2) the Pullman Porters Brotherhood at the Lafayette Theatre at midnight in a cast that included Duke Ellington, Ethel Water, and Small’s Paradise Revue. 3) A benefit for the cruelly framed Scottsboro Boys that involved W. C. Handy, the star tappers Buck and Bubbles, and others.

Other venues included the Harlem Academy (Neal 113), Roerich Hall, Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, the Abyssinian Baptist Church (Neal 142), City College, Dunbar Palace (during which Winfield premiered a dance cheekily titled The Sensation of Marihuana [sic]), and outdoors at the Lido Terrace with three Black composers: Duke Ellington, Alston Burleigh, and William Grant Still (Perpener 52).

As part of the Let Freedom Ring spectacular at the Roxy in Feb 1932, headlined by Will Rogers, Winfield and thirty dancers joined with the Hall Johnson singers. The story took the audience from slave ships to the cotton fields to Lincoln the Great Emancipator. The “Hot Cotton” number involved the Roxyettes, precursor to the Radio City Rockettes. One critic commented that “Hall Johnson’s chorus of two hundred and Hemsley Winfield and his New Negro Art Theatre dance group are drawing many curtain calls at the Roxy” (Neal 82-83).

Although Winfield was welcomed as a performer and teacher in many places, he came up against American racism quite close to home. When he tried to open a school in the nearby Dunwoodie section of Yonkers, people protested with sticks and stones and signs saying things like “We want white tenants in our white community.” The residents sent letters to the Yonkers Statesman. One letter read, “The colored people weren’t wanted in Dunwoodie. They’ll be lynched if they try to stay here” (Neal 14). Headlines reported, “Dunwoodie Is Aroused Over Near Race Riot, Threats Make Colored Folk Abandon Plans for Little Theatre: Mob in Demonstration Before Old Church” (Neal, Forgotten Pioneer). Undaunted, Winfield set up a school in Harlem.

Artistic Growth
At a certain point, John Martin of The New York Times noted that Winfield had grown artistically. He wrote that Winfield managed to avoid two traps of Black dance artists of the period: producing stereotypes and imitating white choreographers (Perpener 46-47). (To which Joe Nash responded in a 1976 article, “How quickly we forget the lessons of history. Who did the copying, borrowing, and stealing of dance styles, patterns, and steps in the first place?” [Nash, Drums 8]) Martin admired Winfield’s integrity, saying that the dancer refused to associate himself “with the amusement business of Harlem, where the Negro with his proverbial good nature presents himself as what the white amusement seekers like to think he is” (Martin). Presumably he’s talking about venues like the Cotton Club, where entertainers like the joyful Nicholas Brothers and the sexy Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker—and even Duke Ellington and his “jungle music”—gave white audiences what they expected.

Like Martha Graham, whose company debuted in 1926, Winfield regarded dance as an art that deserved to be put on the concert stage. It’s a sad irony that he was devoted to the larger mission of the Harlem Renaissance to celebrate Black arts, but his particular discipline—dance—was not respected by Du Bois and others (Perron 35). As Perpener has pointed out, the low esteem that Harlem elites had for dance stemmed from their view of vernacular dance as lower class (Perpener 17).

Workers Dance League

A poster showing Edith Segal’s Black and White with Add Bates in foreground.

In Winfield’s last year, the Workers Dance League, a consortium of leftist dance groups, held a series of forums at the 135th Street YWCA. The first one addressed this question: What Direction Shall the Negro Dance Take?” (Some versions say the question was “What Shall the Negro Dance About?”) It was co-led by Augusta Savage, well known Negro sculptress (who had supported Edna Guy’s work in the past), and Winfield (Neal 143).

The performance component comprised Winfield’s Red Lacquer and Jade and Edith Segal’s Black and White (1930). The first was reviewed as showing “a fine feeling for the music” as well as “imagination and fantasy, emotional lucidity and restraint” (Manning 57). Segal’s piece was a short agitprop duet for a white man and a Black man alternating swings of the hammer, suggesting that laborers of different races could work together.

During the discussion Winfield was low-key. His opening statement was measured:

The Negro has primitive African material that he should never lose. The Negro has his work songs of the South which he alone can express. It’s hard for me to say what the Negro should dance about. What has anyone to dance about? (Manning 58).

The dancer Add Bates, who had just performed Segal’s Black and White, spoke up from the audience: “A young Negro should dance about the things that are vital to him. There should be a militant direction there. There should be some fights.” One young woman added,

We have come to a newer type of dance, a dance that has social significance. Since we recognize the Negro as an exploited race, our dance should express the strivings of the new Negro. It should express our struggle for social, economic, and political equality, and our part in the struggle against war (Perpener 53).

Winfield listened to these comments, which seem to be harbingers of the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives Matter. But, from his summarizing statement—“I have heard things tonight that have made me think” (Manning 58)—we don’t know if he was swayed at all. My guess is that, having felt scolded (or scalded) by Du Bois’ written rules for Negro theater, Winfield did not want to subject himself to a new set of rules about Negro dance.

The Emperor Jones
Opportunities to perform kept coming to Winfield and his company. In January 1933, when he was cast as the Congo Witch Doctor in Louis Gruenberg’s operatic version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Winfield became the first African American to be contracted by the Metropolitan Opera. (It’s often said that the singer Marian Anderson was the first, in 1955. But actually, Winfield was, and the second was ballet dancer Janet Collins in 1951 [Cheatham, 172].)

(Note: Another landmark set by Winfield’s appearance at the Metropolitan Opera had to do with dance rather than race: Not since 1910, when Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin took the audience by storm with their first performance in America, did the Met host a dance company.)

As the Witch Doctor, he was the fourth lead in Emperor Jones. The famous baritone Lawrence Tibbett, playing the Emperor in blackface, had insisted that Winfield be chosen for the role and that his company play the natives. He met with resistance from the management, which, according to Joe Nash, had planned to put the Met singer and dancers in blackface, as they had done for Dance in the Place Congo in 1918. Tibbett threatened to quit unless the Winfield group appeared. The Met finally agreed but retaliated by dropping the dancers’ names—and even the name of the group—from the Playbill.

Like Katherine Dunham a few years later, Winfield had traveled to the Caribbean to study African diasporic dance forms there, which probably helped him choreograph his role of the Witch Doctor as well as the ensemble numbers. Mary Watkins’ review in the New York Herald Tribune attests to how transporting his performance was, even within the stereotype of the “primitive” native:

Mr. Winfield was… after Mr. Tibbett, the hero of the occasion . . . his sinister and frantic caperings as the Witch Doctor made even the most sluggish, opera-infected blood run cold. His company, members of the New Negro Art Theatre Group, approached its work in much the same vein, renewing with no apparent difficulty, the racial traces of savagery long sublimated in the elegant sophistication of Harlem . . . The scene as the curtain fell was a vortex of horrid gayety [sic], a bloody revel for which Death beat the intoxicating rhythms. For one miraculous moment Broadway receded from consciousness, leaving the audience stranded in the midst of a too realistic nightmare. That this has been accomplished at the Metropolitan Opera it is a privilege to record, a matter of fair congratulations to whomever was inspired to seek out Mr. Winfield and to make his achievement possible (Neal 118-19).

Bruce Gulden of Dance Culture was equally excited by Winfield. He did not review the production favorably but wrote that,

Hemsley Winfield as the witch-doctor gave a thrilling exhibition of savage dancing. His body swayed, turned and twisted, and with jerky staccato yet rhythmic movements, he swung his arms about full of expression and emotion. His dance became more frantic and violent as the music increased in intensity. He seemed to cast a spell upon the audience. His scene was by far the most magnetic and pulsating scene in the entire work (Neal 119).

Screen grab of Winfield as Witch Doctor, 1933

Winfield’s last performance of Emperor Jones was March 18, 1933. He was scheduled to appear when the opera was reprised in January 1934, but by then he was too sick with pneumonia. His mother said it was brought on by overwork and over worry about his company’s future. From a hospital bed, he designated his dancer Leonard Barros to replace him as the Witch Doctor and to oversee the company. He died January 15, 1934. One hundred and fifty people attended the memorial service that was held three weeks later in his last Harlem dance studio. In tribute, Augusta Savage created a mixed-media art work.

Legacy
For an artist whose life was cut short at 26, Winfield made a remarkable contribution. It’s enticing/agonizing to imagine what he could have accomplished if he’d lived longer. He might have sustained a Black dance company well before Katherine Dunham. He might have become a choreographer for musicals as did George Faison, Donald McKayle, and Geoffrey Holder. He might have choreographed enduring works. He might have expanded his vision of Blacks in dance.

John Martin, looking back, characterized the early Black pioneers as “full of energy and experimentation” and wrote that its leaders, specifically Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy, were “fairly indomitable” (Martin 179).

Perpener has written,

The regularity with which critics had mentioned his leadership, discipline, dedication and blossoming artistry pointed toward a special promise, the promise of continued development of his individual aesthetic, even greater artistic output, and the codification of a dance technique that took into account the cultural roots of black artists (Perpener 54).

In her obituary, Watkins wrote that Winfield “was regarded in dancing circles as the initiator and chief exponent of Negro concert dancing in the Unites States” (Neal 159).

After his death, two of his dancers, Juanita Baker and Leonard Barros, reformed the group into the Modern Negro Dance Group. As Susan Manning points out, it was the only group to use both “Modern” and “Negro” in its title, thus combining two identities that were usually perceived as separate (Manning 64). The Modern Negro Dance Group shared a concert with the Workers Dance League at Brooklyn Academy of Music, reprising Life and Death, and then disbanded. Both Baker and Barros found work in the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, which gave work to artists during the Depression (Manning 65).

Archie Savage

Though his life was tragically short, Winfield planted seeds that continued to grow. Randolph Sawyer went on to dance with Asadata Dafora and in Billy Rose’s Carmen Jones on Broadway, working with the choreographer Eugene Loring (Perpener 72-73). Archie Savage became a leading dancer with Katherine Dunham and had his own group for a while. Olga (Ollie) Burgoyne, a vaudeville performer who met Winfield during Lulu Belle, continued dancing freelance, including in Run Little Chillun, which Doris Humphrey choreographed. Edna Guy continued organizing; it was she who brought Dunham to New York to perform in the “Negro Dance Evening” in 1937.

Richard Nugent was also cast in Run Little Chillun (and was delighted when José Limón replaced Doris Humphrey as his coach); he later danced with Dafora (Wirth in Nugent 31) and Wilson Williams (Wirth 33). Decades later, as co-chair of Harlem Cultural Council, Nugent was instrumental in organizing the DanceMobile, the flatbed truck that brought dance artists like Eleo Pomare and Syvilla Fort to inner city neighborhoods.

Toward the end of his life, Winfield told his dancers, “We’re building a foundation that will make people take black dance seriously” (Nash, Drums 9, and Free to Dance).

Augusta Savage’s mixed media painting

¶¶¶

This essay is dedicated to Joe Nash, an Unsung Hero himself. I wish we could keep talking about all of this.

¶¶¶

Works Cited

Books

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. London: Pan Books, 1989.

Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Face in Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Martin, John. John Martin’s Book of the Dance. New York: Tudor Publishing Company 1963, 1970.

Neal, Nelson. Hemsley Winfield: Pioneer of Modern Dance. Self-published, 2020.

Nugent, Richard Bruce. Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, Ed. and Intro by Thomas H. Wirth, Foreword by Henry Louis Gates. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Perpener, John O, III. African-American Concert Dance : the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Wilson, James F. Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, Accessed as ebook Feb. 15, 2021.

 

Articles and Essays

Gauss, Rebecca G. “O’Neill, Gruenberg, and “The Emperor Jones.” The Eugene O’Neill Review, Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (Spring/Fall 1994), pp. 38–44.

McBreen, Ellen. “Biblical Gender Bending in Harlem: The Queer Performance of Nugent’s Salome.” Art Journal, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 22–28.

Nash, Joe. “Dancing Many Drums.” The Birmingham Times, National Scene Magazine Supplement, September–October, 1976, pp. 1–12.

Perron, Wendy. “Dance in the Harlem Renaissance: Sowing Seeds.” EmBODYing Liberation: The Black Body in American Dance, Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Alison D. Goaler, eds. Forecaast, Vol. 4, 2001, pp. 23–39.

Poueymirou, Margaux. “The Race to Perform: Salome and the Wilde Harlem Renaissance.” Refiguring Oscar Wilde’s Salome, volume ed. Michael Y. Bennett, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 201–209, accessed Feb. 20, 2021.

 

Internet Sources

Playbill

Hemsley Winfield: The Forgotten Pioneer of Modern Dance, by Nelson D. Neal, Ed.D.

Nash, Joe. “Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931–1937,” PBS Free to Dance, Historic Essays.

W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Credo Collection, UMass), accessed Feb. 26, 2021.

Cass, “Harlem’s Drag Ball History,” Harlem World, accessed Feb. 27, 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 2

Golden Advice for Dance Writers

Like many of you, I’m taking the time at home to burrow into boxes of old stuff to see what I can get rid of. One of the treasures I found was a set of handwritten corrections on my first wobbly attempts at writing. In 1971, I was taking a weekly workshop in dance criticism led by two formidable women: Deborah Jowitt and Marcia B. Siegel. At that time Deborah was a dancer/choreographer as well as the dance critic for The Village Voice. Marcia has written for many publications, including the Boston Phoenix for sixteen years. Currently, Deborah has a regular “DanceBeat” on ArtsJournal.com, and Marcia posts on the ArtsFuse.org. Both are brilliant writers, and I’m always interested in what they have to say and how they say it.

Deborah Jowitt c. 1972

Those six-week workshops were given under the auspices of Dance Theater Workshop (which morphed into New York Live Arts in 2011). A small group of us gathered either in Deborah’s living room in Greenwich Village or Rosalind Newman’s loft in Tribeca. Sitting on the floor, we read our reviews aloud and responded to each other’s offerings.

At the time, my main effort was choreography, but I liked the workshop so much that I took three cycles of it. I’ve said that the workshop appealed to me because I just wanted to keep talking about dance. But upon discovering these old papers, I see another reason I kept signing up for the course: I was serious about writing.

In addition to correcting the usual errors like redundancies and verb tenses gone awry, Deborah and Marcia challenged us to be tough on ourselves. Their critiques, sometimes accompanied by biting humor, strengthened my perceptions as well as my prose. They taught me to hear the writing.

Marcia Siegel by Nat Tileston, 1970s

Keep in mind, this was decades before YouTube. Dance reviews were pretty much the only tracings of a performance available to the public at large.

In this entry, I am extending my hand to the past, in gratitude to Deborah and Marcia, while also extending a hand toward future dance writers. According to my colleague Siobhan Burke, who teaches at Barnard, more students than ever before have signed up for her annual course in dance criticism. So, despite the recent evaporation of live performance, maybe this is a good time to help cultivate a new generation of dance critics.

Below are examples from six of my attempts from 1971–72. I tried to give just enough of my own words for you to see the point of my teachers’ comments. I also tried to retain the casual—yet very different from each other—styles of their corrections.

¶¶¶

  • The performance: Two choreographers at the Cunningham Studio, Oct. 1, 1971.

What I wrote: “…along with an expanded sense of space and time.”
Deborah: “a little confusing if you don’t plan to say how they did this pretty soon.”

What I wrote: “After a while of this…”
Deborah: “No! Maybe, After doing this for a while.”

What I wrote: “This led to the poignant question, ‘Do you sense me?’ ”
Deborah: “How is this poignant?”

What I wrote: “The dancer doesn’t use his own impetus.”
Deborah: “What gives this impression? In other words, what do you mean by impetus?”

What I wrote: “…this adds to the effect of cerebralism.”
Deborah: “Do you mean cerebralism? Or just cool, detached, etc?”

What I wrote: “…was presented…were done…was…was…”
Deborah: “Too many blah verbs.”
Marcia’s final comment: “You can make everything stronger by using more specific words & tightening up the conversational diffuseness, e.g. ‘showed the smoothness and casualness with which she moves’ could be ‘moving smoothly and casually.’ Also you may find that consciously pulling it together will sharpen your perceptions. Once you condense or delete “a film…that took a little too long,” you’ll start thinking about what to really say about the film, why it took too long. . . . Especially pay attention to verbs—use descriptive, specific ones instead of plain ones like go, do (I won’t embarrass you by underlining the do’s, but . . .) or the auxiliaries—is, was, etc. This will improve your writing enormously. . . . I find you usually describe things accurately but sometimes miss the point. Try to think beyond the dance’s physicality to its shape or sensibility. Also consider the dynamic qualities more—the best line in your piece is about the Cunningham quality of ‘fast, disconnected movements and unexpected calms.’  These kinds of words carry their own emotional weight & if they’re accurately and carefully chosen can convey the atmosphere of the dance better than how many steps to the right etc.”

  • The Performance: Ritual Acrobats of Persia at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nov. 9–14, 1971 (I wrote this one in my messy penmanship.)

What I wrote: a section on the dancers’ spectacular feats and the audience reactions.
Deborah: “These two paragraphs cut into the middle of another kind of thinking. Surely the paragraph that begins ‘All the group’ and the one that begins ‘A point of interest, for me’ belong together. With a little reworking, they might fit.”

What I wrote: “group unison”
Deborah: “redundant”
Marcia’s final comment: “You saw all the right things but didn’t dig into why they made you react. I think you can avoid some of the rather choppy feeling your writing has by combining ideas. Take the essential facts of this sentence ‘older but more sprightly’ and put them in the next sentence. Also putting two slightly different ideas in one sentence will help you vary your sentence structure, using subordinate clauses (although, however, since, while etc) and other constructions. . . . Pay more attention to the sound of your writing. It gets monotonous, just like music, when every phrase is built the same way, gives the same kind of information, has the same mood. . . . Did you get The Elements of Style?” [the classic book about writing by Strunk and White]
Deborah’s final comment: “I like your observation about the ways the different men execute the various stunts. You saw some things clearly and wrote vigorously about them. . . . The organization of the review is pretty dreadful. A lot of skipping around etc. . . .By the way, you’ve got a splendid catchy lead if you had used it as such: ‘Are they dancers? Soldiers? Circus entertainers? Or monks?’ Then you can explain why you wonder, What makes them a little like all of these and yet not wholly like any of them? And you’re off and running with your remarks about the walk, the few spectacular tricks, the daily chore-look, etc. . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER? UGH!”

  • The performance: A single dancer/choreographer “with friends,” Cunningham Studio, Nov. 19–20, 1971.

What I wrote: “Beautiful dancers don’t necessarily make beautiful dances.”
Marcia: “This would be a good lead for the article you wrote. (Perhaps better than your nice metaphor, since the metaphor is only true partly, i.e. she’s not always enigmatic.)”

What I wrote: “…the sweeping backbends are breath-taking…M is divinely ordained to dance…”
Marcia: “This borders on fan-mag style, but you are specific enough to get away with it.”

What I wrote: “Unfortunately, the exquisiteness of her dancing does not conceal the mediocrity of her choreography.”
Marcia: “Brutally abrupt shift!”

What I wrote: “The bulk of the dance…”
Marcia: “Awkward, sounds like something to do with digestion.”

What I wrote: “Miss M and two cohorts”
Marcia: “Has a slightly different connotation than you mean—more conspiratorial.”
Marcia’s final comment: “As I said in class, the first two graphs is the strongest writing I’ve seen you do. It happens because you really have empathized and have contributed your feelings to the event without obliterating the event. Do it more!”

  • The performance: Three Choreographers at Cunningham Studio, April 30, 1972.

What I wrote: “…was a treat for all of us who have admired…”
Marcia: “In-group sounding”

What I wrote: “It also includes some unnecessary running around:”
Deborah: “to whom?”

What I wrote: “…being punctuated with smiles of guileless guile.”
Deborah: “Agnew-esque” [Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, had a penchant for derogatory alliteration; he later resigned because of corruption.]

What I wrote: “Pure movement invention need not be bolstered by props and lighting.”
Deborah: “Last sentence sounds sort of preachy.”
Marcia’s final comment: “This article presented a real problem — you might have solved it better by not trying to tell what the choreographers are like as dancers, since none of them danced here. Or set up the structure so that you described each dance first & then made some comment on its relation to the choreographer’s own movement style. . . . I feel it was an interesting concert but I wouldn’t have cared about the stuff you spent the most time describing: how the performer & choreographers look & move. It’s a useful observation and sometimes unusually good but doesn’t tell me what I want to know about 3 first choreographies.”

  • The performance: Two choreographers, Minor Latham Playhouse, Dance Uptown, May 12, 1972.

What I wrote: “…walking hurriedly…”
Marcia: “Opportunity to use one terrific verb: rushing? zooming? sprinting?”

What I wrote: “…they seem to get caught up in a whirlwind without changing their steps.”
Marcia: “What make you feel this? acceleration? intensity? space?”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Marcia: “Theme of this article? Then you don’t need to state it, just make the article illustrate it.”
Deborah’s final comment: “Beginning (1st first para) excellent. I like description of how they look. Captured feel of the dance.”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Deborah’s additional final comment: “Stop THESE PRISSY ENDINGS.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Wendy, I really feel like you’re making progress, slow but sure. Please pay more attention to your writing persona. Who are you talking to? yourself? me and Debby? an anonymous reader? the class? Decide, then tell everything that person needs to know. It’s a kind of performance if you like, it has to begin & end, give a complete account of itself. Put the first person singular in place of all the “we” and “you” etc. Say more about how they moved than what they looked like. Be aware that we readers need some continuity — if dance doesn’t have a plot or music etc, what is the structure? The dynamic form? Here you seem to skip around, picking out phrases or images to talk about — are they random choices? Because the dance is random? Why did you happen to think of them? Are they the most important things?”

• The performance: A composer and dancer at The Kitchen, Broadway Central Hotel, May 19, 1972.

What I wrote: “…proved to be equally at home…”
Marcia: “cliché”

What I wrote: “The novelty of the loveliness of her dancing…”
Marcia: “wordy construction”

What I wrote: “It seems unfortunate that so little of this long and dancey dance sticks in my memory. Choreographers must learn not to flood their audiences. If S had edited out parts of the dance, I’m sure the remaining segments would have remembered themselves to me more vividly.”
Deborah: “Ugh! Double ugh. You’ve made your point. Find an ending that doesn’t sound like advice from Your Dance Doctor.”
Deborah’s final comment: “I like the whole review for its reflective, friendly tone, but feel the need for just a few more specific details.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Now that you know something about form, maybe we better start working on syntax. You need to write more tightly, less discursively. Avoid weak verbs — get more directly at the action, e.g. ‘she walks’ is better than ‘it is to walk.’ But ‘she paces,’ ‘she stalks,’ ‘she staggers,’ ‘she marches’ are better than ‘she walks.’ . . . ‘Another was when’ is almost never O.K. . . .I like this best in the beginning when you describe qualities. Later you talk a lot about positions & floor patters & I don’t get any feeling what the dancer was doing.”

  • The performance: A dancer/choreographer whose work I had danced in, May 24, 1972 (Woe is me, cuz this is also handwritten.)

What I wrote: “F is on a things trip.”
Marcia: “good lead”

What I wrote: “One man combs a woman’s breast as though scooping the last of some soup into his spoon.”
Deborah: “very neat”

What I wrote: “I remember the opening of the piece.”
Deborah: “clumsy”

What I wrote: “strange”
Deborah: “If it’s all that strange, tell us about it.”

What I wrote: “…escapes my memory.”
Deborah: “a cliché”

What I wrote: “I felt that too often, an intriguing image like that one was dropped instead of being allowed to evolve.”
Deborah: “roundabout language”

What I wrote: “She marvels at assorted items in her basket and then sings a wilted rendition of ‘Lavender Blues’ to a plastic rose.”
Marcia: “nice”
Deborah: “Your last para, on p. 1, which summed up your opinion, might be better as a close — perhaps with a less equivocal last sentence. Beware of passive verbs. They’re weak. ‘Man holds rope’ better than ‘rope is held.’ Review unbalanced — like dance. What else happened, what did group do? Incomplete article. . . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER?”
Marcia’s final comment: “This is better— yr getting a sense of the color & sound of words! I don’t feel a whole evening, if that’s what it was. The things you choose as unifying factors are fine, but you should also look for what the choreographer thought was keeping it together, and tell us that, even if briefly . . .(Some of the ways you describe the pc. & especially F seem inconsistent with what I know about her style. Could the ‘serenity,’ ‘liquid flowing’ and ‘resilience’ be things you feel because you like her? You have to be very sure of these things when writing about a close friend or colleague.)”

¶¶¶

I realize that I am still learning these lessons. Marcia and Deborah sit on my shoulder, compelling me to pay close attention to my choices. I’ve brought them with me as I edited other writers’ work at Dance Magazine, and now as a teacher, correcting papers.

Marcia and Deborah, Bournonville Festival, Copenhagen, 2005

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Mikhail Mordkin (1880–1944)

Mordkin in his Bacchanale, collection of Val Golovitser

The name has disappeared from view, but it was Mikhail Mordkin who was the lead dancer in Diaghilev’s first season of the Ballets Russes. It was Mordkin whose partnership with Anna Pavlova caused a sensation in her 1910 United States debut. And it was Mordkin, twenty-nine years later, whose modest little company morphed into American Ballet Theatre.

Born into a family of musicians, Mordkin was accepted to the Imperial Ballet School of Moscow.  While still a student, he was so advanced that he was asked to partner top ballerinas like Ekaterina Geltzer. After graduating, he went into the Bolshoi immediately as a soloist—a rare distinction accorded Nureyev and Baryshnikov as well. He was appointed regisseur in 1904 and assistant ballet master the following year.

According to Russian dance historian Elizabeth Souritz,

Mordkin was the romantic hero of the Moscow stage. Of magnificent physique, with a beautiful, refined face and an inspired gaze, he danced in the Bolshoi Theater from 1900 to 1908 . . . . His dancing was passionate and powerful, and his poses and gesture were expressive. The fusion of dance and pantomime, something not all ballet artists can achieve, was his specialty.

Because of these qualities, Mordkin embodied the newly emotional male characterizations of Alexander Gorsky, the Bolshoi Ballet director who was influenced by both Stanislavsky and Isadora Duncan. Gorsky updated the Bolshoi classics by making them more dramatic and less reliant on symmetrical patterns. As a premier danseur, Mordkin originated the lead male roles in Gorsky’s productions of Raymonda, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, and Giselle.

During the Bolshoi’s first trip abroad, at the invitation of Kaiser Wilhelm to Berlin in 1908—predating Diaghilev’s big splash in Paris by a year—Mordkin served as both premier danseur and ballet master.

The Russian dancer/choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov wrote that Mordkin had “a striking dramatic gift . . . .Like no one else, he was able to  fill the huge Bolshoi stage with movements as powerful as a Greek god’s, arousing a storm of applause.” He goes on to say he felt that Diaghilev’s promotion of Nijinsky in Paris robbed Mordkin of the superstar status he deserved.

Le Pavillon d’Armide by Fokine, the opening ballet of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1909, dress rehearsal with Mordkin and Vera Karalli

 

Partnership with Pavlova

The first time Mordkin danced with Pavlova was for a special occasion in 1906 for which Pavlova was invited from St. Petersburg to join him in The Pharaoh’s Daughter. They had both just reached the highest rank, she with the Maryinsky and he with the Bolshoi.

Pavlova and Mordkin in Pharaoh’s Daughter, c. 1906, Astor, Tilden and Lenox Fndns

Three years later they performed starring roles in Diaghilev’s inaugural season of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet, but they did not dance together. After the season was over, however, on July 25, 1909, they performed a duet at a benefit for earthquake victims at the Grand Opera. It was probably their version of Michel Fokine’s Bacchanale, which was described by Pavlova’s biographer, Keith Money, as “a torrid chase [that] ended with Pavlova falling to the ground in a state of ecstatic exhaustion.”

Going into greater detail, Money wrote:

The two ran on stage under a veil and, amid much rushing about, occasionally froze in sensual poses during an adagio section. . . . [They] ducked and twisted with almost animal vigor, and even went into kissing clinches. Mordkin was wildly extroverted and untrammeled, and his sheer physicality brought out the vamp in Pavlova. Together they struck gold.

Pavlova and Mordkin in Valse Caprice

Otto Kahn, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera House, was in the audience that night and was as swept away as everyone else. He invited the two stars to come to New York and perform at the Met the following year. When they arrived, since they were unknown in New York, they were given a late-night slot after a four-act opera. Even so, they stunned the audience with a two-act Coppélia, and their bows lasted till 1:00 in the morning.

As part of that tour, they brought their Bacchanale to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this time after Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Reading an article in the local Brooklyn Citizen, one gets the picture of what a male ballet dancer was up against:

Michel Mordkine [sic] is the only male dancer who has been able to overcome a certain . . . repugnance in America to male ballet dancers . . . . A Bacchanale dance in the end brought their performance to a whirlwind finish amid thunders of applause.

Since critics in the U. S. and the U. K. had not yet seen Nijinsky, Mordkin was, according to Jane Pritchard, “acclaimed as the greatest male dancer of his time.”

It was said Pavlova and Mordkin were in love with each other, but the budding romance ended suddenly. Both tempestuous, they each had an episode of walking out on each other, she in San Francisco, and he a year later in London. Jealousies brewed as one or the other received more glowing press attention. Once at a performance at the Palace Theatre in London, as the curtain descended,  Pavlova slapped Mordkin.

Mordkin and Pavlova in Bacchanale

“Everybody is talking about the quarrel,” reported The Tatler, “which prevents these two artists dancing together in those pieces which were the sensational joy of the last London season.” Keith Money believed it had to do with a partnering mishap that they blamed on each other. Another theory was that she was angry that he received more applause.

Dance writer Jennifer Dunning names the 1910 season at the Met as the beginning of America’s love affair with Russian Ballet. Although Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had astonished Paris in 1909, that splendid company did not arrive on these shores until 1916.

Although Pavlova generally got better notices, Mordkin was also favored in the American press. The New York Telegraph wrote, “While Mme. Pavlova, whose fame preceded her appearance in New York by many months, quite fulfilled expectations, it was Mordkin who took us entirely by storm and created by far the greater sensation.” Dorothy Barrett, describing him in Dance Magazine years later, wrote, “Neither prince nor pirate, he had the appeal of both. Handsome, with a physique that Tarzan might envy, his masculinity belied the flowers in his hair.” (You can see in the costume at the top, the Tarzan effect.)

Mordkin’s popular Bow and Arrow dance, according to Money, “broke through the audience’s reserve.” Yet a critic writing in The Telegraph mocked him for appearing with bare legs painted brown.

Pavlova and Mordkin in Valse Caprice 1912, Dance Collection

Another source of mockery was their two-act Giselle, deemed an “uphill battle” by one syndicated columnist. However, the performers shone through, according to a critic who wrote, “Giselle . . . which began the program, is a weariness in the flesh. Yet, over all these obstacles, the art of the two dancers triumphed.”

Their combativeness continued through two long tours that criss-crossed the United States from 1910 to 1912. By the end of that time, both Pavlova and Mordkin chose new partners. According to Gennady Smakov, Pavlova often regretted the break with Mordkin and later advised the male dancers in her company to emulate his dramatic abandon.

Pavlova and Mordin in Russian Dance, 1910, collection of Cyril Beaumont, V & A Museum

Mordkin’s acting ability created excitement, but sometimes he went too far. As Conrad in Le Corsaire, he would suddenly scream. The critic Akim Volynsky, quoted by Smakov, found his “outbursts of temperament and frenzied enthusiasm hardly appropriate in the frame of traditional presentation.”

 

Return to Russia

In 1912 Mordkin returned to Moscow and resumed dancing as a Bolshoi principal for the next six years. He toured throughout Russia with a group he called All-Star Russian Imperial Ballet, which included his new wife, Bronislava Pojitskaya, a fellow dancer from the Imperial School. Because of his ability to express emotion through movement, he also became involved with the experimental Kamerny Theatre of Moscow, leading to an invitation from Konsantin Stanislavsky to teach students at Moscow Art Theatre in “plastique” and rhythmics. (Stanislavsky’s pioneering approach, known as method acting, was an influence on the Bolshoi as well as on Lee Strasberg and his Actors Studio in New York.)

Exempted from military service during World War I, Mordkin had to entertain the troops in addition to his other touring commitments. After the outbreak of the October Revolution in 1917, he choreographed his first large group piece. This was The Legend of Aziade, created under the influence of the popular Orientalism of the Fokine/Bakst Schéhérazade (1910). The following year he staged this work for the Nikitin Circus, pulling out all the stops. The cast included soloists from the Bolshoi as well as about 200 supers. Performers broke the fourth wall and danced into the house. Colored lights were projected onto some scenes, and horses trotted onstage in another scene. The audience ate it up. According to Souritz, so did Anatole Lunacharsky, the Soviet Culture minister who also championed Isadora Duncan.

Mordkin and Pavlova rehearsing Aziade in New York, 1910

In the fall of 1918 Mordkin went to Kiev, which had a thriving theater scene at that time. While staging Giselle and other classic ballets at the Kiev City Theater, he opened a studio that offered ballet, gymnastics, and social dances as well as classes in “expressive” movement.

In an essay on the period, Lynn Garafola quotes a young acting student, Stepan Bondarchuk, about Mordkin’s lessons in Kiev:

Work with Mikhail Mordkin inspired us with its originality, temperament and grand sense of plastic form. The exercises were not the standard classical ones we knew . . . Rather you could call them creative études. Mordkin would ‘sing’ with his beautiful body to music, and we would try to do the same.

He also had a school in Tblisi, and one of his projects there was an attempt at his own version of Fokine’s Les Sylphides. He seemed to be always remaking what had already been made.

In 1922 Mordkin returned to the Bolshoi as ballet master. With the school now under Communist rule, conflicts immediately arose and he felt it impossible to work there. He left after twelve days. He and his wife and small son traveled to the Caucasus and fell victim to a triple devastation: the typhus epidemic, the Russian Civil War and the ensuing famine. According to one account, the family was found on the edge of starvation in an abandoned boxcar by the American Near East Relief Com­mittee. This experience made Mordkin more determined than ever to leave Russia.

 

New York

Poster for the Mordkin Ballet, 1020s

The ballet master accepted an invitation from producer/agent Morris Gest to come to New York in 1924. Gest booked him into the Greenwich Village Follies at the Winter Garden (right around the same time Martha Graham was in the Follies!). For much of the 1926–27 season, Mordkin was on the road with a group he called the Mordkin Ballet. These dancers were mostly his students plus Vera Nemchinova, Pierre Vladimiroff, and Felia Doubrovska, all formerly with the Ballets Russes. He also taught at the Stanislavsky hub in midtown known as American Laboratory Theatre. There were times when he took a gig in Vaudeville that paid well but was less than artistically fulfilling.

An interesting cultural exchange was taking place that brought out Mordkin’s wicked sense of humor. While the American Isadora Duncan was performing in the Soviet Union, embracing the Communist ideal and proclaiming she would teach the Soviet children to dance, Mordkin was clearly preferring America, where he was paid better. According to Charles Payne (1929–1983), a longtime administrator of American Ballet Theatre, Duncan had “denounced Mordkin for deserting the Soviets.” To which Mordkin responded, “Miss Duncan cannot dance. That is why she has become a politician.”

In 1927 Mordkin opened his Studio of Dance Arts in Carnegie Hall. One of his students was Lucia Chase (1907–1986), a young widow who had initially wanted to be an actress. The recent death of her husband had plunged her into an abyss of grief that separated her from society. Attending Mordkin’s daily ballet class was her way of gradually coming back into the world. She appreciated the consistency, the rigor, and his emphasis on drama over technique (she had started lessons too late to develop strong technique anyway). And he noticed that she shone onstage in character roles. Chase, who had inherited a fortune, let him know she would help him develop a company. For starters, she offered him studio space at her summer home in Narragansett, Rhode Island, where the second floor of the stable was empty.

Chase’s biographer and son, Alex C. Ewing, described Mordkin from his mother’s point of view:

Mordkin was an exceptionally powerful figure, both physically and temperamentally, who combined a domineering personality with a colossal ego. With his proud bearing, his muscularity, his sudden unpredictable outbursts, he was like a magnificent animal that had to be accepted on his own terms.

In 1936, Mordkin produced a semi-professional, small-scale Sleeping Beauty at the Woman’s Club of Waterbury, Connecticut, Chase’s hometown. Chase was Aurora; Dimitri Romanoff, a dancer from Russia, was Siegfried; and Viola Essen, a teenage prodigy, danced the Bluebird as a solo. In publicity, Mordkin called Chase “The All-American Prima Ballerina.” He knew where his bread was buttered.

Lucia Chase with Dimitri Romanoff in Mordkin’s Sleeping Beauty, 1937, photo Delar

The next engagement, four months later at the Majestic Theater, included Mordkin’s Voices of Spring and The Goldfish (based on Gorsky’s ballet of the same name), as well as Giselle. The New York Times critic John Martin praised his performance as the old fisherman in The Goldfish, but barely mentioned Giselle, saying only, “Lucia Chase is by no means an ideal Giselle.”

Chase knew she wasn’t up to these starring roles and insisted they engage real ballerinas. The new managing director, Rudolf Orthwine, agreed. German emigré Rudolf Orthwine (1893–1970) had met Mordkin in 1935 and helped him set up the Mordkin Ballet. Together they set up Advanced Art Ballets, Inc. with Orthwine as managing director, Mordkin’s son Michael Jr. as business manager, Mordkin père as choreographer and director, and Lucia Chase as principal backer. (Orthwine soon became a publisher when he bought two dance publications and merged them in 1942 to become Dance Magazine.) They brought in Patricia Bowman, a Fokine protégée who became prima ballerina of Radio City Music Hall; Karen Conrad and Edward Caton, who’d been with the Philadelphia Ballet (previously the Littlefield Ballet); and Nina Stroganova and Vladimir Dokoudovsky from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The company became more professional, but all the choreography was still Mordkin’s.

Rehearsing Voices of Spring, from left: Stroganova, Mordkin, Bowman, Chase, and Conrad, ABT Archives

 

Enter Richard Pleasant, Architect of ABT

Richard Pleasant, Dance Magazine

Because Mordkin was on tour a lot, Orthwine decided they needed someone to manage the New York studio. Dimitri Romanoff told them about a smart young man he’d met in California when he was dancing in San Francisco Opera’s production of Le Coq d’Or. (This version of Le Coq d’Or, originally by Fokine, was choreographed by Adolph Bolm, who’d danced in the troupes of both Pavlova and Diaghilev.) Richard Pleasant had been a supernumerary in that show. With a degree in architecture from Princeton—which got him nowhere during the Great Depression—he’d had a string of jobs and was looking for something more permanent. He came to Chicago to see a Mordkin performance, and Romanoff introduced him to Chase and Orthwine.

Pleasant seemed to be capable in a general way, but he was a bit more dance-savvy than he first appeared: He had spent summers at the Perry-Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Colorado and had encountered Agnes de Mille in Hollywood. In fact, according to B. F. Giannini, de Mille “was amazed when this lanky twenty-six-year-old from Colorado announced that someday he would have a ballet company of his own.” Orthwine hired Pleasant for $260 a month to manage the studio.

Although his job description did not include any kind of artistic advisement, Dick Pleasant (1909–1961) could see that Mordkin’s touring enterprise was not top-notch. He started dreaming of a company of American dancers with a repertoire of the best international choreographers. Maybe it would be the Mordkin company, but expanded to include multiple choreographers. Or maybe it would be a consortium of companies, each led by a different choreographer. Pleasant’s ideas were evolving.

In the summer of 1939, Pleasant spent two days in Narragansett convincing Chase of his larger picture. He pointed out that if they had a more expansive and professional operation, it would be more likely to attract other backers. Once she gave him the green light, he called Carmelita Maracci and Ruth Page and tried to involve Mordkin as one of the group of choreographers.

Mordkin would have none of it. For one thing, he felt disdain for American choreographers working in classical ballet. For another, bigger reason, he was wary of anyone trying to take over his company. He knew what happened to Fokine, who was twice supplanted as choreographer by Diaghilev’s favorites—first by Nijinsky, and later by Lifar. So Mordkin’s paranoia, combined with his poor command of English, did not help the situation

 

A World War Opens the Door to Top Choreographers

Meanwhile, Pleasant’s attempts to recruit Fokine, Antony Tudor, and Anton Dolin at first came to naught. They were all too busy. But then, cataclysm: Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and war was declared in Europe. All the ballet companies shut down, and many artists wanted to flee Europe. Fokine, Tudor, and Dolin all pivoted to accept Pleasant’s offer. Fokine was considered the best living choreographer at the time—even by Mordkin. So when Fokine came on board, Mordkin saw the writing on the wall. He refused to speak to Pleasant, so communication had to be carried out through Mordkin’s son, Michael Jr. In this indirect manner, Pleasant requested a list of preferred ballets and dancers from Mordkin, but it never came. Although Pleasant had initially promised to include nine Mordkin productions, only one, Voices of Spring, was on the rehearsal schedule. Dolin, who had told Pleasant that Mordkin’s stagings of the classics were not authentic, took over the staging of Swan Lake and Giselle, and Bronislava Nijinska staged La Fille Mal Gardée—all three were ballets that Mordkin had set many times.

The new enterprise, now called Ballet Theatre, opened its inaugural three-week season at the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center on January 11, 1940. It was under the aegis of Advance Arts Ballets, the legal entity created by Orthwine and Mordkin. Orthwine was now president, Pleasant managing director, and Chase still the prime backer and principal dancer. Mordkin’s role was reduced to setting a single ballet.

Voices of Spring with Patricia Bowman and Nina Stroganova by Ira Hill

The repertoire was a dazzling array of the latest ballets by international choreographers including Tudor’s Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, de Mille’s Fall River Legend and Three Virgins and a Devil, Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Bluebeard, and Eugene Loring’s Great American Goof. Eleven choreographers, twenty-one ballets, fifty-six dancers (plus twelve in José Fernandez’s “Spanish unit” and fourteen in de Mille’s “Negro Unit”), and three conductors. Among the dancers were Chase, Conrad, Romanoff, Stroganova and Dokoudovsky from Morkin’s company as well as Nora Kaye, Donald Saddler, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, Diana Adams, Antony Tudor, and Hugh Laing. The company soon obtained works by Massine, Balanchine, Robbins, Ashton, and Bolm. Needless to say, Ballet Theatre, renamed American Ballet Theatre in 1957, has become one of the world’s great ballet companies. It couldn’t have happened without Mikhail Mordkin. He had cultivated Chase as a dancer and donor; he had involved Orthwine as chief administrator, he had hired Pleasant, and he had trained some of the dancers.

 

Mordkin as Ballet Master

From the time he was a teenager at the Imperial School in Moscow, Mordkin was always teaching somewhere. In New York, his notable students included not only Chase and Essen, but also Leon Danielian, Katherine Hepburn, and Hemsley Winfield (1907–1934), the African American man who started a Black dance company and then died tragically at age 26.

Even after being evicted from his own company, Mordkin remained a popular teacher. He continued to offer daily classes at the Masters Institute on Riverside Drive until he died in 1944.

Mordkin directing rehearsal of Giselle, 1936

Many years after his death, Mordkin was still a vivid presence for many. Julia Vincent Cross reminisced about his classes in the August 1956 issue of Dance Magazine:

I, like many others, was overwhelmed by his vivid personality. At first he almost frightened me by the whirlwind tempo of his classes. Mordkin, with his wonderful feeling for rhythm, sweep and emotion, would some­times start a movement slowly—then go quicker and quicker—until a climax was reached which would put me into great confusion. When this occurred, as it did on many occasions with all of his stu­dents, he would stop the whole class and ask to have a funeral march played.

Mordkin had a tendency to frighten his pupils or make fun of them. But this really grew out of a wonderful sense of humor. And his usual attitude was one of love and affection, especially for those he thought had talent. One of his rare quali­ties as a teacher was to consider each pupil as an individual and to try to bring out some special personal quality.

He loved his teaching and his pupils with a fervor and devotion which seemed to carry them forward as dancers without a great deal of concentration on form and technique. His lessons always depended on his mood of the moment. He never gave a dull class. He inspired one to move—to flow with the music. Even his barre exercises forced one to use the whole body rhythmically. He was never affected, self-conscious or false. His danc­ing stemmed from his heart.

After he died, his devoted wife Pojitskaya, who had been ballet mistress to his company, continued teaching at his studio until the late 1960s.

Students at Mordkin Studio preparing for a recital, Dance Magazine, c. 1940s

Legacy

Mordkin was essential in bringing Russian ballet to the U.S.  A compelling performer and invigorating teacher, he helped create the mold of the heroic Soviet male dancer at a time when women dominated the ballet stage. And he laid the foundation for ABT.

However, he was never considered a distinguished choreographer. Elizabeth Souritz, has this to say:

Mordkin did not have talent as an expressive choreographer; his subjective biases as an actor prompted him to dramatize dance along the lines of romantic melodrama. Moreover, he imitated Fokine and Gorsky but his works did not contain any new ideas at all.

Even Orthwine, who called Mordkin a genius as a dancer and mime, made no claims for him as a choreographer. My guess is that his style became outdated and Pleasant picked up on that. Smakov has written that the early films of his works look like silent movies, and that is borne out in this clip from The Legend of Aziade.

Nevertheless, Mordkin opened up the United States to ballet in ways that aren’t always obvious. The relative prosperity of the U.S. had something to do with it. “Why should we go back to Russia,” he once said, “when we can earn more money here in American in a year than we could earn in Russia in ten years?” As Dorothy Barrett wrote in Dance Magazine,

When reports reached Russia of the way ballet paid off in this country, the low salaried dancers in the Czar’s ballet grew restless. Nor did Mordkin forget that after eight years as soloist in the Moscow Ballet he had been able to save very little substance. He wrangled leaves for thirty artists from the Imperial Ballet and took them on his American tours. For many years afterwards Russian dancers rushed to this country as to the promised land.

Perhaps this last word from Barrett explains the secret to Mordkin’s magnetism: “Through it all, he com­municated a kind of mad passion for all that Russian ballet stood for.”

¶¶¶

Sources

Books

Bravura! Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre
By Alex C. Ewing
University Press of Florida, 2009

Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s
By Elizabeth Souritz
Duke University Press, 1990

Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art
By Keith Money
Knopf, 1982, out of print

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
By Lynn Garafola
Da Capo Press, 1989

Anna Pavlova: Twentieth Century Ballerina
By Jane Pritchard with Caroline Hamilton
Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2012

Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance
By Sharon Skeel
Oxford University Press, 2020

The Great Russian Dancers
By Gennady Smakov
Knopf, 1984, out of print

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today
By Simon Morrison
Liveright, Norton, 2016

But First a School: The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet
By Jennifer Dunning
Viking, 1985, out of print

 

Articles

“The Era of Mikhail Mordkin” by Charles Payne
American Ballet Theatre
Knopf, 1978, out of print

“Richard Pleasant: An American Dreamer”
By B. F. Giannini
Dance Magazine, Jan. 1990

“Mikhail Mordkin”
By Rudolf Orthwine
Dance Magazine, Feb. 1943

“Mikhail Mordkin: His Last Curtain Call”
By Rudolf Orthwine
Dance Magazine, Sept. 1944

“Mikhail Mordkin: Pioneer in the Ballet Bush Country”
By Dorothy Barrett
Dance Magazine, Sept. 1948

“A Class with Mikhail Mordkin”
Julia Vincent Cross
Dance Magazine, Aug. 1956

“Rudolf Orthwine (1893–1970)”
By William Como
Dance Magazine, Sept. 1970

“An Amazon of the Avant-Garde: Bronislava Nijinska in Revolutionary Russia”
By Lynn Garafola
Dance Research Journal, Winter 2011, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 109­–166, pub. Edinburgh University Press

“Stanislavski and America: A Critical Chronology”
By Paul Gray
Tulane Drama Review, Winter, 1964, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 21–60, pub. The MIT Press

“Mordkin, Mikhail”
The Oxford Dictionary of Dance

“Mordkine and Pavlowa Add Amazing Grace to Opera”
Brooklyn Citizen (no byline), April 5, 1910
http://levyarchive.bam.org/Detail/objects/4669
Via BAM Levy Archive

 

Films

Lucia Chase Tribute Film, a film by the 2018 Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame

Excerpt, The Legend of Aziade
With Mordkin and Pavlova, possibly from 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera House or later

Like this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 5

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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