Nightmares of Our Time

Hutch Hagendorf as a man in a “mirror prison”, all photos by Marcia Davis

OK, enough of hope. If you’re looking for a dance/theater/design performance that reflects the extreme anxiety of our lives right now, tune in to Donald Byrd’s new Lyric Suite. It’s not lyrical at all—unless you think fever dreams that plunge you into the darkest paranoia are lyrical. This series of twelve solos, performed by the twelve dancers of Spectrum Dance Theater, depicts the claustrophobia of confinement, the terror of police brutality, and the fear of an invisible menace. Other issues like homelessness, availability of PPE, news overload, and toxic wildfires are hinted at. Alban Berg’s music of the same title attenuates the strains of string instruments to make us feel like we’re ready to snap. (Additional sound is by Emmanuel Witzthum and Rob Witmer.)

All the episodes come out of the active imagination of Donald Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director; they arrive to the screen by way of cinematographer Egan Rory Kolb, who also produced the haunting special effects. Not every choreographer is willing to put their most harrowing thoughts into their work. But Byrd is not interested in wrapping his packages up with an optimistic bow. Instead, he and Kolb use movement, objects and the mercurial nature of dreams to delve into the current American psyche.

Akoiya Harris

Of the twelve episodes, I’ll describe three.

Akoiya Harris is hugging a tree, whispering her thankfulness to its bark. Off in the distance a pesky mirage of black wisps advances closer, emitting a shrill chirping sound. Harris climbs up the tree higher and higher as she’s chased by this scampering phantom virus. Though she lifts off the tree in a skyward escape, it does not end well.

Michele Dooley, wearing a sleek black suit and high heels, dances around a box in a free-floating, borderless room. On the box is a tally of how many days have passed—could be the number of days of sheltering at home or could be solitary confinement. She eventually crawls inside the box even though it’s much too small for her.

Perhaps the most frightening nightmare is when Mikhail Calliste dances, slow and sinuous, in view of a looming silhouette of a towering policeman in riot gear. The cop suddenly multiplies and his many boots hover over Mikhail, who is now face down on the floor. A sickening thud is heard as one boot stomps on the dancer’s face. In a rare lucid-dreaming moment, Calliste grabs the boot, now detached from the cop, and pounds it while he laughs.

The Spectrum dancers bite into these fantasies without flinching, and the camera work is stunning.  If you have the fortitude to face these fears while seeing a wild imagination at work, you can purchase a three-day pass (part of the company’s digital fall season) at this ticket link to view this weekend’s encore of Lyric Suite, November 20–22.

 

 

 

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Valerie Bettis (1919–1982)

As a young dancer/choreographer, Valerie Bettis burst on the stage with such vividness that she was compared to both Merce Cunningham and Pearl Primus. After she premiered The Desperate Heart in 1943, Edwin Denby wrote that her “vitality on the stage, her technical facility are astonishing, and her composition unusual.” Louis Horst called the piece “the finest modern dance solo of this decade.” Doris Hering dubbed the young dancer “a wild wind” in Dance Magazine.

Bettis in The Desperate Heart, photo Gerda Peterich

Bettis danced with a freedom that was at times reckless, but she could also steep herself in a character. When she started choreographing, it was this ability to create a character that defined her style. She gave choice roles to ballet stars like Patricia Wilde, Frederic Franklin, and Virginia Johnson. In Hollywood, she devised steamy numbers for Rita Hayworth (links to clips further down).

She experimented, not in the avant-garde mode, but in other realms: early television, dance-dramas based on literature, and developing the Dancers Studio as a counterpart to the famed Actors Studio (more about that later). Some critics bemoaned her crossover into television and Hollywood, but she had developed a taste for larger audiences and a talent for acting. She kept many plates—and genres— in the air at once.

Early Training

Growing up in Houston, Bettis had plenty of gumption from the start. At an early age, she wanted to study ballet with Rowena Smith but was told she was too young. She admits she “pulled a tantrum,” prompting Smith to tell the girl’s mother, “If she can keep up with the class, I’ll let her stay.” Needless to say, she kept up and then some.

Valerie Bettis, photo by Larry Colwell, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Archives

Rowena Smith nurtured Valerie’s talent. She brought in guest teachers, most notably Tina Flade, a German dancer who had studied with Austruckstanz leader Mary Wigman. This was Valerie’s first encounter with barefoot dance, and she considered Flade “exotic.” Flade’s six-week course prepared Valerie for her later immersion in Hanya Holm’s work. Smith also brought Valerie to the West Coast (possibly UCLA), where she saw Dorothy Bird demonstrate Graham technique, took class with Carmelita Maracci, and studied and performed with Myra Kinch. When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came through Houston, she auditioned for the company and was accepted, but her mother nixed it. (Her father had died when she was 13.)

Bettis, photo by Nina Leen, 1948

One year at the University of Texas was enough for Bettis to know that college wasn’t for her. She moved to New York, arriving in 1937. She visited the studios of the three major women modern dance “pioneers”: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm. But she was inspired only by Holm—possibly because of the Wigman connection. (Holm was chosen by Wigman to set up her school in New York. Because of anti-Nazi sentiment, in 1936 the name of the school had been changed from the Mary Wigman School of Dance to the Hanya Holm School of Dance.) Her first exchange with the German choreographer has been oft repeated. When Holm asked why Valerie wanted to study, the teenager replied: “Because I want to be a great dancer.” To which Holm wisely stated, “Well, that will take some time.”

Like Wigman, Holm ran her school with a full palette of technique, choreography, improvisation, and dance notation. Each teacher was grounded in the Wigman approach but had a different style of teaching. “I was darn lucky,” Bettis said in 1979. “It’s rare today to get a variety of temperaments teaching basically the same principles but not doing the same things.”

Almost right away she was taken into Holm’s company. She debuted in Holm’s landmark work Trend that same year. She was such a striking, buoyant dancer that Holm created a duet with Bettis called In Lighter Mood (1946) at her Colorado College Summer School of the Dance. In the documentary film on Holm, Bettis was called her “longtime muse.”

Holm and Bettis in Colorado, 1946, screen grab, Hanya Holm: A Retrospective

However, after three years with Holm, Bettis took time off to work independently. She debuted as a solo artist at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in November 1941. All the music was by Brazilian composer Bernardo Ségall, whom she later married, and she designed the costumes herself.

The summer of ’42, soon after the U.S. joined World War II, she made her first group work and dedicated it to those “who have suffered the monstrous oppression of the Axis, but whose spirit lives to inspire the free.” That December, in a program shared with Sybil Shearer and Erick Hawkins at the 92nd Street Y, she presented her first durable composition, And the Earth Shall Bear Again, with music by John Cage.

How did she get into acting? Classic story. One of her fellow dancers was auditioning for the 1939 World’s Fair but was too nervous to do it alone. The friend did not make it, but Valerie did. Thus she performed in Railroads on Parade, with music by Kurt Weill, book by Horton Foote, and choreography by Bill Matons. Her partner was Michael Kidd. (Yes, he who choreographed the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.)

The Desperate Heart

In 1943 came her breakthrough as a dancer/choreographer. Bettis premiered The Desperate Heart, with original poetry by John Malcolm Brinnin, at the Humphrey-Weidman studio. Margaret Lloyd, author of The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, wrote that the dance was “like a haunting melody . . . deeply emotional, changeful, and with the modulations of feeling amplified by words.” John Martin of The New York Times clearly felt she overshadowed the other two dance artists on the program—Erick Hawkins and Pearl Lang: “She has . . . speed without pre­cedent in the modern field, and a temperament that can make the atmosphere fairly sizzle.” He gave the dance his critical award of the year.

The Desperate Heart, photo by Barbara Morgan

The following January at the 92nd Street Y, Bettis shared a concert with Pearl Primus. Denby effused, though with a slight reservation:

Two young modern dance soloists gave the most dramatic recital that any young dancers have given this season . . . Both are thrilling to watch in motion, and neither has any of the careful academicism that makes many young modern dancers less effective on the stage than in the classroom. They represent a new generation of modern dancers, full of theater vitality . . . [Bettis] is an actress of very great talent, not unlike Bette Davis in her effect . . .To my mind, Miss Bettis has difficulty concentrating on a simple climax and resolution; she hesitates between a lyric and a dramatic form. But she is a dancer of real power and originality.

In the summers of 1946 and 1947, she brought The Desperate Heart, the Cage piece, and other works to Jacob’s Pillow.

Bettis, photo John Lindquist, c. 1946 © Harvard Theatre Collection, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives

Television, Broadway, and the Movies

Bettis with Paul Whiteman for his TV series, Dance Magazine Archives

Bettis preferred applying her ingenuity to the demands of television, film, or literature, rather than coming up with an idea from scratch. In the late 1940s she produced dance—often twenty-minute segments— for the early stages of television. In 1949 she worked on a 16-week series of CBS’s Paul Whiteman TV Show:

At CBS I did countless experiments; I was learning and so were the cameramen. It was like a fascinating toy. . . It stimulated another image of movement for me . . . I didn’t want a replica of something for the stage. It was done right then and there for the camera . . . I did 15 minutes of dance very week on that show. It’s gone, but the value to me is mine. The craft and the sheer necessity to produce was wonderful—backbreaking, but wonderful discipline.

As a performer, she was appearing in some of the TV shows she choreographed as well as on Broadway. She was in productions with Walter Matthau, Shelley Winters, Paulette Goddard, Zero Mostel, Colleen Dewhurst, and the list goes on. She danced in two musicals choreographed by Helen Tamiris. The first one, Inside U.S.A. earned her a Donaldson Award (precursor to the Tonys) for best dancer, and a second one for best musical comedy debut. Jack Anderson singled her out in his review:

Broadway took note of Miss Bettis in 1948 when she appeared in the revue “Inside U.S.A.” and scored a triumph in “Tiger Lily,” a number choreographed by Helen Tamiris in which she portrayed a torrid but lethal seductress fond of throwing lovers off cliffs.

Bettis teaching her part in Inside U.S.A. to her replacement, Beverly Bozeman

Rehearsal for Bless You All, From left: Helen Tamiris, Daniel Nagrin, Bettis, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

Her second stint with Tamiris, Bless You All (1950), was the first time she was asked to sing onstage. Her partner was Donald Saddler, who appeared in several later projects with her. (Assisting Tamiris was her husband, Daniel Nagrin, another notable choreographer.)

In 1958, Bettis choreographed for Ulysses in Nighttown (1958), based on James Joyce’s Ulysses. The following year, in the London version, she played the female lead opposite Zero Mostel. Her reputation as a triple threat reached such heights that she was chosen to replace Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera (no doubt her throaty voice helped.)

During the ’50s Bettis continued to work in television. As either a choreographer or actress, she worked with Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, and many other household names. In the series called Playwrights 56, she appeared in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury with legendary actresses Ethel Waters and Lillian Gish.

From left: Ethel Waters, Lillian Gish, Bettis, and Janice Rule, in The Sound and the Fury

Bettis with Zero Mostel, Ulysses in Nighttown, London, 1959

In Hollywood, Bettis choreographed for Rita Hayworth on two films: Affair in Trinidad (1952), in which Bettis herself also appeared, and Salome (1953). In the first, both the “Chica Boom” number and “I’ve Been Kissed Before,” have plenty of jazzy pelvic action as well as modern dance shapes. The fabulously raunchy result earned the insult “vulgar and grotesque” from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. Salome featured Hayworth in “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a high-class cousin of a strip-tease. Bettis and Hayworth would work for weeks on each number. About the movie star, she said, “I loved Rita. Very unpretentious. Worked every day, you know; she really did class with me and worked very, very hard.”

Bettis and Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad, Dance Magazine Archives

Bettis’s Hollywood publicity shot, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

First Modern Dancer to Choreograph for a Ballet Company

Bettis believed that it was her television work that led Serge Denham to ask her to choreograph for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. However, Margaret Lloyd suspected that it was John Gay’s Beggar’s Holiday (1946), her first Broadway musical, that did the trick. With music by Duke Ellington, this show had an interracial cast that included Marge Champion, Lucas Hoving, and Lavinia Williams. Bettis’s choreography combined ballet, modern, and jazz dance.

In any case, Virginia Sampler opened in 1947, touted as the first ballet by a modern dancer. (Agnes de Mille, considered more of a ballet dancer, premiered Rodeo with the same company in 1942.) The setting was the state of Virginia after the Revolution, when outsiders started to settle on their land. It had a stellar cast of Marie-Jeanne, Patricia Wilde, Frederic Franklin, and Leon Danielian—although some critics felt that Bettis herself, playing the Unidentified Lady on Horseback, outshone the others. Although the ballet was not a success, Wilde relished her role as the malevolent Mother “almost more than anything else she danced with the company,” according to her biographer, Joel Lobenthal.

Critic George Amberg wrote that Bettis’s “different kind of dance impulse” clashed with ballet training, and he called the result “altogether unsatisfactory.” Lloyd wrote that the failure was “much to the gloating of those who opposed the union [of ballet and modern dance], and to the disappointment of those who approved it.”

Bettis fared no better at American Dance Festival in 1949. She premiered two text-heavy dance-theater works: It Is Always Farewell, which was described by critic Nik Krevitsky as “vague in theme and characterization;” and Domino Furioso, with text by Brinnin that prompted John Martin to quip, “If Miss Bettis is not careful she will talk us all to death.”

A Streetcar Named Desire

Franklin and Slavenska in Streetcar (1952), Dance Magazine Archives

Although the critical reaction to her first ballet was dismal, Frederic Franklin thought Bettis was ahead of her time. For his new endeavor, the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet, he wanted a ballet version of Tennessee Williams’s great American play, A Streetcar Named Desire. When Antony Tudor got cold feet about doing it, Freddie called Valerie. To quote Franklin, she replied, “What, Streetcar Named Desire? Oh, I don’t think so. When do we start rehearsals?”

Streetcar opened in Montreal in October 1952. According to Leslie Norton, when it came to New York in December, it “marched off with the laurels.” Martin wrote that the climactic scene “delivers a wallop that you are not likely to forget.”

Again, Bettis created vivid roles that the dancers could sink their teeth into. For the role of Blanche, Terry wrote that Bettis “has let a gesture of nervousness grow into wild actions which bare a shattered spirit.” Franklin, long and lean, gentlemanly in every role, was cast against type. According to Norton, he “startled the ballet world” by creating “a brutal, loutish character.”

But Franklin himself was worried about the role:

Franklln as Stanley, photo Marcus Blechman, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

It was Mia’s [Slavenska’s] idea to do this. I said, “Mia, its fine for you, but what about me and Stanley?” I worked with Valerie. We started with me. And she said, “Freddie, if you’ll just let me go right in and bring it out, we can make this work.” I said, “Valerie, I’m wide open.” And I worked so closely with her. She was living in a lovely studio in the Village and one night, I got a phone call at four o’clock in the morning. “Freddie, come down immediately. I’ve got the Stella theme all worked out.” And I got a taxi, and we worked and worked. And I was on the floor and I was all over the place and at the end she said, very wisely, “Now Freddie, can you do this eight times a week?” And I said, “Well, I’ll break my neck, but I’ll do it, because what you’ve done here is so wonderful.”

John Martin deemed it “the finest performance of his life.”

Two years later Ballet Theatre (later ABT) took on Streetcar briefly. Bettis herself played Blanche and Igor Youskevitch (“dreadfully miscast,” according to Leslie Norton) played Stanley. In 1955, Nora Kaye, known for her portrayals of dramatic heroines in Tudor ballets, took on the role of Blanche, leading Martin to muse that some ballet goers “would like to see Miss Kaye quit suffering for a spell.”

Critic Robert Coleman, however, opined that Streetcar would “rank with Antony Tudor’s magnificent Pillar of Fire among the top-drawer modern works.” Posterity has proven otherwise. I suspect the ballet was too heavily laden with drama to last into our current century.

But after Streetcar Bettis was busy all the time. She might be doing an acting gig in one city while racing to another city to choreograph. “I was my own agent,” she said. “I wrote all my letters. Signed them A. Adams. Booked myself and toured.”

The Dancers Studio

Bettis was so committed to what she called “danced theater” that she formed the Dancers Studio in the image of the famed Actors Studio. The latter was a place where actors, directors, and playwrights could collaborate to create something new. Based on the inner-truth-seeking approach of the Stanislavski method, the Actors Studio gave us Marlon Brando, Lorraine Hansberry, Bradley Cooper and many others. Jerome Robbins was one of the few dance artists to get involved, and it steered him toward his famously intense demand for authenticity from his dancers.

Valerie Bettis, Donald Saddler, Grover Dale, who were both performing with her at the time, 1960, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Archives

During the peak years of the Dancers Studio, 1964 to 1968, dance writer Deborah Jowitt participated fully. An actor before she was a dancer or writer, Jowitt felt at home in this context, where Bettis brought in guest directors and writers. “Valerie was groping to get something together that would rival the Actors Studio,” Jowitt told me. “She wanted to do acting and dancing and singing and train us and get us jobs . . . She kept decrying modern dance because you got to perform something once, if that.” One of the guests, director Clinton Atkinson, was so impressed with Jowitt’s abilities as a dancer, choreographer, and actor, that he placed her in several plays and musicals. She was also given the chance to choreograph two of her own works that Bettis produced. “So, in my career, what Valerie started pushed me in new directions.”

Other notable dance artists who were part of the Dancers Studio include Jeff Duncan, Clyde Morgan, and—though fleetingly—Carolyn Adams, who danced in a piece by French choreographer Brigitte Réal.

Because of the varied projects that were seeded at the Dancers Studio. Jowitt says. “It seemed that what we were doing was very fertile.”

Beals in The Desperate Heart, 1975, photo Meg Hunnewell, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Archives

Margaret Beals, another member of the Dancers Studio in the ’60s, felt that Bettis was “a pioneer of integrating the spoken word with dance.” The opportunity arose a decade later for her to perform The Desperate Heart, specifically so the dance could be filmed for posterity. The choreography, she said, was “very motivated physically, like Graham, but more human, less archetypal, less heroic.” The visceral movement sometimes required a strength she found challenging: “There’s one jump where you’re in a low fifth-position plié and you’re holding your fingers locked together with your elbows high, and as you push off into an attitude jump, you flip your hands apart out of the anguish.” Once she felt the anguish fully, the difficult jump became possible.

Even six decades later, Beals’s impression of Bettis had not dimmed:

I thought of her as a powerhouse, a tiger. Valerie had an actress energy, an emotional energy. Very sexual. Mesmerizing. She had real star quality, which wasn’t useful to the modern dance field. She was magical and beautiful, but she had a lot of brains and and could choreograph with a motivated power and brilliance.

In the film linked above, both the 55-year-old Bettis and the young Margaret Beals are interviewed by critic Walter Terry. Bettis describes how she wanted the solo to go back and forth in time—“not to be trapped” in a single emotion. Beals notes that although they used improvisation differently (Beals was a master improvisor in her day), “We have the same relationship to movement coming from the spirit of the moment.” After the interview, we see the lyrical Beals perform the solo, revealing how dynamic the gestures are. Bettis’s low, smoky voice reading the Brinnin poem is slightly reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s recordings but with more of a theatrical dollop. To my eye, Beals’s performance is magnificent, bringing alive a piece that Terry pronounced a classic of modern dance.

American Dance Company

Bettis in As I Lay Dying

During that same period, José Limón decided to create a repertory company to promote modern dance (not unlike today’s Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance Company). He chose works by the notable modern dancers of the day, including Limón and Doris Humphrey (of course), and Donald McKayle, Anna Sokolow, Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, Pearl Lang—and Valerie Bettis.

The American Dance Company, hosted at Lincoln Center, lasted only one season. It was well attended, but there was no sustained funding. (Interestingly, two years later the Rockefeller Foundation seeded money for the formation of Repertory Dance Theater in Salt Lake City, which is still going today.) The company contained a mix of Limón’s dancers, Juilliard students, and some freelance dancers like Kathryn Posin and Larry Richardson.

Posin and Larry Richardson in As I Lay Dying, 1964

Posin was cast in both Humphrey’s Passacaglia and Bettis’s As I Lay Dying (1952), based on Faulkner’s novel. Still a student at Bennington College, Posin played an innocent little girl to Larry Richardson’s little boy.  Posin’s impression of Bettis was similar to that of Beals’s: “She was formidable. With her beautiful face, body, and voice, she was like an aging movie star, like Ava Gardner, Claudette Colbert, or Loretta Young.” Posin saw the choreography as generic modern dance that took second place to the narrative. “I was taught three hitch kicks, then grab Larry’s hand, like two children in the schoolyard. It was more about the theatrical meaning than it was about the movement itself.”

Both Jowitt and Posin noticed that Bettis had a drinking problem in the ’60s. “Valerie had a cane with a very ornate handle, like a knob,” Posin recalled. “She would unscrew it and drink from it.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem Re-stages Streetcar

While her career was winding down, Streetcar was revived by Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1982. Artistic director Arthur Mitchell explained his choice to Alan Kriegsman in The Washington Post:

No one’s done it in a while; it’s an American stage classic with box-office appeal; and because I visualized Blanche DuBois as an ideal vehicle for Virginia Johnson. Bettis and Fred Franklin did the staging for us; Bettis asked Tennessee Williams what he thought of the idea of doing it with an all-black cast, and he told her it was wonderful, fascinating.”

Virginia Johnson as Blanche in DTH’s production of Streetcar, 1982

For Virginia Johnson, the reigning star of DTH, working with Bettis opened up a new channel of expression. In a recent phone call, she called the process “fun, but really intimidating.” She remembers one particular day in the studio:

She asked if I’d done my homework, and I thought my homework was the step. She wanted to know, Where am I coming from and where am I going, and what do I want in this moment —the acting questions—and it was a revelation. I love doing those dramatic works. It opened a door, and it was not hard any more because then I could stop apologizing that my arabesque wasn’t very high, or that I didn’t have the right x or the y. But I could think about what I wanted in that moment and use that movement to get to it.

Streetcar turned out to be a star vehicle for both principals: Johnson as Blanche and Lowell Smith as Stanley. Anna Kisselgoff praised both dancers as well as Bettis’s “absolute mastery” of characterization and atmosphere. Rose Ann Thom wrote about Johnson’s performance, “In her sensitive portrayal of Blanche DuBois, vulnerability and arrogance coexist in heightened confusion.”

In 1986, when Streetcar was made into an episode of “Great Performances: Dance in America” on Thirteen, Jennifer Dunning wrote,

Lowell Smith, a superlative dramatic dancer, explodes with a typically sure and nuanced passion that makes Stanley’s anger and desire vividly immediate . . . And Virginia Johnson gives one of those flamelike performances that give lie to her reputation as an almost exclusively lyric ballerina. All long, broken and stretching limbs, Miss Johnson is frighteningly intense as the mad and maddening Blanche DuBois.

The demands of the role of Blanche, along with the role of Lizzie Borden in Fall River Legend by Agnes de Mille, helped prepare Johnson for her triumphant, touching Giselle in DTH’s production of Creole Giselle in 1984. Johnson recently told me,

I couldn’t have done the mad scene in Giselle if I hadn’t done Streetcar and Fall River Legend. They [Bettis and de Mille] weren’t making ballets, they were telling stories. That’s what was so powerful. We were a neo-classical company and I loved it and it was great. But this is a whole other way of being onstage.

In Conclusion

Bettis’ s works were important in the past but their staying power is in doubt. Even Johnson, now the artistic director of DTH, said that she would not reprise Streetcar because it’s about “this poor broken woman,” adding, “I don’t know that it is a story that we actually need now.” Not to mention that the form of dance drama has lost currency here in the United States.

But that form was Bettis’s strength. She was in demand as one of the rare performing artists who blended dance and drama. She advocated whenever she could for the melding of the two disciplines.

Bettis portrait, 1939, Dance Magazine Archives

Margaret Beals feels that Bettis made a huge contribution, that she created a niche that could have loomed larger in dance history. :

José Limón and Martha Graham divided the dramatic thing that came out of the ’30s and ’40s. Merce was making movement that’s valuable for itself, which is very important. In the crack of all that was Valerie, but she wasn’t a blow-her-own-horn person. She broke ground. She understood that movement has its greatest power when it tells a story. That a story by itself is nice, that dancing by itself is also very satisfying. But when, if you put together really good writing and really right movement, that’s pretty powerful.

¶¶¶

Special thanks to Norton Owen, Deborah Jowitt, Virginia Johnson, Margaret Beals, Kathryn Posin, and Khara Hanlon.

 

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Like this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 4

Syvilla Fort (1917–1975)

A young Syvilla Fort,1940 in Seattle, photo by Ernst Kassowitz, Courtesy Glory Van Scott.

 

 

 

A rare talent who danced with both Merce Cunningham and Katherine Dunham, Syvilla Fort was a leader as an educator. She was a force of nature, inspiring generations of students at both the Dunham School and her own school. She was a technical powerhouse in the Dunham style and one of the great teachers in New York. Writing in The New York Times, Jennifer Dunning called Fort “a choreographer and dance theorist of imagination and taste.” Alvin Ailey called her “our inspiration.”

Fort grew up in Seattle, Washington, the oldest of three children. From the age of three, she was bursting with the desire to dance—specifically ballet. Her mother took her to a number of ballet teachers in the area, all of whom abided by the racist practices of the day and turned her down. But several teachers agreed to give her private lessons, including Fred Christensen, the uncle of the more famous balletic brothers—Willam, Harold, and Lew. She was so avid about ballet that, at age 13, she gave free lessons to younger children in her neighborhood. She also performed in musical and dramatic productions in high school.

 

 

The Cornish School
In the early 1930s, Fort found a home for her love of dance at the Cornish School in Seattle. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for Nellie Cornish, who took an interest in her children and allowed Syvilla to enroll free of charge. Fort was one of three top students in Cornish’s modern dance program, which was under the leadership of former Graham dancer Bonnie Bird. One of the others was Mercier Cunningham (known as Merce only to his friends), and the third was Dorothy Herrmann, who soon left the dance field.

Bonnie Bird, Merce Cunningham, Syvilla Fort, and Dorothy Herrmann, in Three Inventories for Casey Jones, photo by Phyllis Dearborn, Courtesy the Cornish College of the Arts Archives.

In 1939, the dance department produced an evening called “Hilarious Dance Concert.” Bird choreographed Three Inventories of Casey Jones for herself and the three favored students. Also on the program was Skinny Structures, a collaboration by the three students in which they played silly characters: Cunningham spoofed a bellhop that had been a popular figure in a cigarette ad, Fort did a take-off on “The Good Ship Lollipop,” and Herrmann played a kind of streetwalker. This work had premiered the previous year as a benefit for the cause of the Spanish Civil War. It was originally site-specific, occupying three “skinny” row houses on the campus.

Skinny Structures with Fort, Cunningham, and Herrmann, Courtesy Cornish College of the Arts Archives.

Another activity of Syvilla’s at that time was modeling for student artists. Below is a watercolor made by Ruth M. Kreps, who was part of a group of serious women artists, probably in 1936.

Watercolor by Ruth M. Kreps, Courtesy Glenn Airgood.

The Invention of the Prepared Piano
In 1938, Bonnie Bird hired John Cage as an accompanist, teacher of experimental music and choreography, and composer for dance works. For her piece Bacchanale (1940), Fort asked Cage to write something with an African “inflection.” Cage envisioned a percussion ensemble, but there wasn’t enough room to accommodate it in the performance space. All he had was a piano. So he lifted the lid and stuck things like screws and bolts and paper clips in between the strings. This was Cage’s first experiment with the “prepared piano.” Thus altered, it sounded like an entirely different instrument—sometimes reminiscent of a gamelan orchestra— and it’s one of the inventions Cage is known for. (The actual idea of altering the piano’s inner strings is attributed to Henry Cowell, but he did not develop it into a compositional element as Cage did.)

Making Training Available to All
After four productive years at Cornish (which did not become accredited as a college until 1986), Fort attended the University of Washington, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in two years.

She moved to Harlem to dance with Katherine Dunham around 1941. According to Talley Beatty, she was “a very sensational dancer;” other sources say she received rave reviews. While touring to her home city in 1943, Fort was interviewed by the Seattle Times. She spoke out about the lack of opportunity for students of color: “A fight that a lot of young people have, especially if they are of a minority race, is to get the training they want.”

Dunham dancers: Lucille Ellis, Marie Bryant, Laverne French, Lavinia Williams, Claude Marchant, Roger Ohardieno, Tommy Gomez, and Syvilla Fort. Photo, Armand’s Photography, San Francisco.

She also expressed a dream that soon came true: “Through the Katherine Dunham group of dancers and other groups, things are happening. Maybe it will finally bring about a school or a place of training which would be open to all for artistic or cultural training.”

At the time of the article, the movie Stormy Weather—with Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, and the Dunham troupe—had been shot but not yet released. Fort had this to say about the filming process: “It is much more difficult to sustain the mood when dancing before cameras than before an audience. When dancing before an audience they sort of ‘warm up’ to you and you to them at least before you’re halfway through the program.”

Fort in a Dunham work, photo by Carmine Schiavone, Joe Nash Collection.

Dunham opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre on West 43rd Street in 1945. Not only were there classes in Dunham technique, ballet, and modern dance, but also classes in percussion, dance notation, classic Spanish technique, dance history, acting (with master teachers like Herbert Berghof and Paula  Strasberg), visual design, voice and speech, French, Spanish, music appreciation, psychology, and philosophy of religion. Writing in The New York Times in 1946, critic John Martin was clearly impressed with the range of offerings, the rigor of the pre-professional programs, and the inter-racial mix of the 400 students. But he also noted that it was financially precarious. Almost every student who wasn’t on the GI bill was on scholarship.

The Dunham school, however, made a huge impact. Dunham biographer Joanna Dee Das credits it with “desegregating the space of dance in New York and in promoting diaspora as a model for a peaceful postwar global order.” It was a central hub of many genres of dance. This is where Arthur Mitchell met the ballet teacher Karel Shook, years before the two formed Dance Theatre of Harlem.

When she wasn’t on tour, Fort taught both Dunham technique and ballet there. Two of her students, Marion Cuyjet and Sydney King, asked her to guest teach at their studios in Philadelphia. She did teach in Philly during the 1947–48 school year but stopped in 1948, when she took on the responsibilities of dance director of the Dunham school. That same year, her mother died, making her the legal guardian of her 8-year-old brother, John Dill (together, at right). He joined her in Harlem and eventually became a drummer.

The Phillips-Fort Studio of Theatre Dance
Although Fort was devoted to Dunham, she wanted to be independent. (Some sources say there was a falling out between the two women.) She had met tap dancer and war veteran Buddy Phillips at the Dunham school, and they married in the early 50s. In 1954, they opened their own school, which was to offer his style of Jazz Tap and her Dunham-based style of Modern-Afro, one block north of the Dunham school. Many students followed her to the new school, especially her children’s group, which included Walter Nicks, Julie Robinson (who later married Harry Belafonte) and Joan Peters. As with Dunham’s school, the Phillips-Fort Dance Studio offered a wide array of dance classes, adding tap classes led by Cholly Atkins, Honi Coles, and of course, Buddy Phillips.

Eartha Kitt foreground, James Dean, background, most likely shot by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

Alvin Ailey, Chuck Davis, Eartha Kitt, Brenda Bufalino, and Yvonne Rainer all studied at the new school. So did James Dean, Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, James Earl Jones, and Geoffrey Holder. As current dance artist Katiti King said, “If you were an actor, she was the movement teacher to go to.”

Fort correcting James Dean, most likely taken by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

Fort’s presence remains vivid in the minds of those who studied with her. Joan Peters, who has been chair for the Dunham technique at The Ailey School since 1978, was part of her special children’s group. “When you were around her, she gave you such a warm feeling,” Peters said recently. “There was a certain softness there so you were never afraid to try things in front of her.” As the children grew, more was expected of them. “She was more critical; she wanted you to be constantly thinking of what you were doing and not just sliding by.” This loving yet demanding approach created an incentive to do well. “You poured your heart out because you wanted her to be satisfied with what she saw.” And Peters had one more memory: “She had the most beautiful arms and hands, and we always tried to imitate that.”

Fort, 1940, photo by Ernst Kassowitz, Courtesy Cornish College of Arts.

Dr. Glory Van Scott, the triple-threat star who was invited to join New York City Ballet by Balanchine (she turned him down), devoted a chapter in her autobiography to Fort. Here is an excerpt:

There were times in her studio . . . when everyone was so synchronized, so spiritually in tune, that it seemed that the walls moved back and forth with us . . . Miss Fort plied her magic. We grew, we thrived, and went out to conquer Broadway, dance companies, and the concert world. We held Boule Blanches—white dress balls—talent showcases and performances at the Diplomat Hotel and other theatres in and out of town. We had a world where those who taught us cared, shared, and nurtured us—so much so that no matter where you were, you always returned to 153 West 44th Street to take classes and recount your travels . . . The studio was really home to us. . . Whenever Miss Fort walked into the room to teach class, there was an air of excitement and expectation, an almost holding-your-breath waiting to hear her say, “Good Afternoon, now let’s begin” . . . She had such beautiful, large, doe-shaped eyes—they seemed to mesmerize you into wanting to do everything right . . . When you said her name, it conjured up the feeling of comfort, of well being, of a mother’s quiet, steady, loving touch.

In a recent phone conversation, Van Scott recalled Fridays with special fervor:

On Fridays after classes ended at 7:00, we’d rush home and get ready for the Bambouche at 10:00. People would flood that studio, and you’d sign up on a list to show your work. Miss Fort and Buddy would both be there, and there was always food. There were kids of all languages. I remember Chinese acrobats wearing beautiful costumes. Sometimes we would dance until three in the morning.

When I asked Van Scott to describe Fort’s own dancing, she said, “She moved like a feather—light and flowing. When she danced her role in Danza, you’d be mesmerized. It was Spanish with a Moorish accent.”

In a completely different vein, Fort choreographed for Langston Hughes’s Prodigal Son in 1958, directed by Vinnette Carroll. Van Scott played the lead female role of Jezebel. “That was hot choreography!” she blurted out on the phone.

Langston Hughes’ Prodigal Son (1965) with Philip Stamps and Glory Van Scott, photo by Bert Andrews, Courtesy Van Scott.

Tap dance master Brenda Bufalino (and choreographer/director of The American Tap Dance Orchestra), also had a sense of uncontainable activity at the studio. “The studio was very small,” she told me, “and sometimes so crowded you felt like you might end up out in the street.”

Bufalino felt challenged and strengthened by the classes. “Syvilla gave a strong barre. Lots of hinging. You needed strong thighs and good knees. She really prepared you to dance. You felt ready to do whatever you needed to do.” Then Bufalino, who is 83 and still dancing, added, “which is what made me last so long.” The tapper also felt that Fort was sensitive to the fact that she was one of the few white dancers there. “Even when I was taking class with another teacher at the studio, like Talley Beatty or Walter Nicks, or ‘Chino,’ who taught Afro-Cuban, I felt she was watching over me.”

Children were captivated by Fort. Katiti King, who was a child when Fort died but whose parents shared the same artistic milieu as Fort, was also struck by her: “I remember her being kind, thoughtful, articulate, super intelligent. When she looked into your eyes, it didn’t matter your age or how you danced.”

A tango with Peter Gennaro and Fort, likely taken by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

Buddy Phillips passed away in 1963. After paying for the funeral, according to her stepson, Sabur Abdul-Salaam, Fort was strapped. Luckily, just then Harry Belafonte recommended her for the position of helping develop a national dance company in the country of Guinea. She spent a few months there, giving the dancers a solid foundation in Dunham technique and other forms. According to Van Scott, she was so successful that the organizer in Guinea wanted to keep her longer. When returned, she resumed running her school. In 1967, she took an additional part-time job at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Because of the past discrimination she faced as a child, Fort was passionate about keeping her school open to everyone. “In the violent sixties,” wrote Van Scott, “she refused to bow to radical pressure to have only Blacks in her workshop group, for she felt that dance was universal.”

And yet she was committed to a Black dance aesthetic. As scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz has noted, Syvilla Fort was part of the sweep of African American artists aligned with the Black Power Movement, a precursor to Black Lives Matter. They recognized “the political need for a coherent ‘black aesthetic’ . . . outside traditional structures of dance performance.” These artists, who included Nanette Beardon, Chuck Davis, Louis Johnson, Joan Miller, Walter Nicks, Eleo Pomare, and Rod Rodgers, “sought to invest ‘black dance’ with the proclamation of self-representation, to use it as a tool . . . to create work relevant to African American audiences.”

A Starry Gala Tribute
Around 1974, this beloved teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer. As her strength faded, the Black Theatre Alliance produced a celebration of her life in 1975. Titled “Dance Genesis: Three Generations Salute Syvilla Fort,” it was held at the Majestic Theatre, where The Wiz was playing. Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie, a lead Dunham dancer who had trained under Fort, hosted.

In this clip from the Black Theatre Alliance, we see glamorous audience members singing her praises. James Baldwin, who was friends with Eleo Pomare and other dancers, said, “I’ve seen the results of her work, and she’s a very important woman.” Harry Belafonte said, “More silently, more tenaciously and more graciously than almost anybody else I know on the face of the earth, she made one of the most powerful contributions to the field of dance, to the field of theater.”

Tributes continued onstage that night. Alvin Ailey: “She is our mother, our inspiration . . . She taught us to de­velop a beautiful philosophy of how to live and  how to love. She taught dance as a positive expres­sion of the human spirit.” Dunham, who was in the hospital at the time, sent a message, calling Fort “one of the greatest people who ever honored the Dunham com­pany with her presence.”

Dianne McIntyre’s Shadows, with Phillip Bond. Photo by Bert Andrews, Courtesy BAM Archives

The performances were stellar. Charles Moore performed Asadata Dafora’s classic Ostrich; Dyane Harvey danced what Don McDonagh of the New York Times called a “razor sharp” rendition of Pomare’s Roots; Chuck Davis’s troupe gave a rousing performance of the South African Boot Dance; Dianne McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion premiered Shadows, with music by Cecil Taylor. There were numbers by Peter Gennaro, who adored Miss Fort, and George Faison, the choreographer of The Wiz.

Fortunately, Miss Fort was feeling well enough to leave the hospital to come enjoy the evening with her friends and former students. Sadly, she left this world five days later.

After Her Passing
About a year after Fort’s death, Joan Peters resuscitated the Syvilla Fort Dance Company. It gradually morphed into the Joan Peters Dance Company. Van Scott produced the company’s programs of Fort’s works at Symphony Space in 1992 and ’93. Afro-Caribbean works like Yanvalou (1940), Rhumba (1954) and Carnival (1950), as well as Danza (1955) were staged. In 1992, Jennifer Dunning wrote that Danza “a delicately perfumed yet sturdy abstraction of the stylized Spanish “school” of dance. . . was performed to the hilt by Dr. Scott, Hope Clarke and Loretta Abbott.” In a 1993 New York Times review, Jack Anderson wrote that “What made Yanvalou (1940) striking was the way the cast conveyed a sense of communal solidarity and awe in the presence of divine powers.”

Glory Van Scott in Danza, 1992 Carmine Schiavone, Courtesy Van Scott.

Community builder, dynamic dancer, intriguing choreographer, beloved teacher, Syvilla Fort was lionized by the Black community. In a 1979 article in The Black Scholar, Ntozake Shange grouped her along with superstars Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Charlie Parker and Katherine Dunham as the giants who “moved the world outta their way” and made art that reflected their lives.

Lastly, some good news: First: the documentary Syvilla: They Dance to Her Drum, made by notable filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira in 1979, is being digitized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (timeline unknown). Second: Glory Van Scott and Joan Peters plan to mount some of Syvilla’s work next year (or whenever possible) at Symphony Space. Van Scott will produce and direct, and Peters will stage the dances. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Portrait of Fort, 1940s, by Carmine Schiavone, Joe Nash Collection

¶¶¶

Special thanks to Dr. Glory Van Scott, Joan Peters, Katiti King, Lee Gretenstein, Brenda Bufalino, Ayoka Chenzira, Glenn Airgood, and Bridget Nowlin, Director of Library Services, Cornish College of the Arts.

Other sources:

 

 

 

1 person likes this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 11

Mel Wong (1938–2003)

Mel Wong moved with the power of an athlete and the ease of the dancer he was. Forceful yet unforced. No mannerisms or tensions, just pure movement coming from deep within him. He took that physical ease into choreography, where he combined movement with elements of light, water, rock. Deborah Jowitt called him “a spiritual thinker.”

He danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and was influenced by both Cunningham and John Cage, the revolutionary composer/philosopher who was Cunningham’s partner in life and work. Wong choreographed non-stop from 1970 on, making more than 180 works, many of them boldly experimental.

His 1989 solo Childhood Secrets from Growing Up Asian American in the 50s pioneered what later became known as dances of cultural identity. He wittily remarked on the discrimination he endured growing up in California, punctuating his monologue with spectacular yoyo tricks. (See Appendix for a video and text.)

“Childhood Secrets” by Mel Wong, ph Kevin Bubriski

Wong was also a beloved teacher across the country and in Hong Kong.

Early Life

A fourth-generation Chinese American, Wong was born in Oakland Chinatown. But when he was five, his family moved to an all white neighborhood in Oakland. It was there that he became aware of differences, even as his parents wanted him to “become an American.” According to his widow, dancer/writer Connie Kreemer, he took gymnastics to shore up his strength to fight the white boys who teased him. And he studied ballet to improve his floor exercises in gymnastics. He joined the Oakland Civic Ballet, then Pacifica Ballet Company, and he also studied with Eugene Loring, Mia Slavenska, Carmelita Maracci, Anna Halprin, and at the Shawl Anderson Dance Center.

He took up the yoyo because he could practice alone with no one bothering him. In high school he won a local competition, beating out the football hero and winning a Schwinn bicycle—his first source of pride.

In New York he studied at the ballet schools of Richard Thomas/Barbara Fallis, Leon Danielian, and Robert Joffrey.

Class at Cunningham Studio, 1969. Merce jumping, Mel at far right, Sandra Neels in white, ph James Klosty

In 1964 he won a Ford scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the academy affiliated with New York City Ballet. Rumor has it that when ballerina Allegra Kent saw his bounding leap, she proclaimed he would be the next Nijinsky. (Reached by phone, Kent said the remark sounds like her, but she could neither verify nor deny she said it.) He attended San Francisco State University and then Mills College for an MFA in visual art. At UCLA, he worked toward an MFA in dance, but before he could complete the program, he received a telegram from Merce Cunningham (who had seen him in a master class) inviting him to join the company for a South American tour. He thought it was a joke, so he didn’t respond for a few days. For Mel’s farewell dance to UCLA, he arranged for a van with a mattress so he could leap out the dance studio window, Nijinsky-style, never to return again.

Dancing with Merce

Like all Cunningham dancers, Wong moved big. When you watched him, you didn’t think about his training. It all looked so natural. During his four years in the company (1968–72)—an exciting period in terms of Cunningham’s collaborations—he was part of the creation of Canfield, Tread, Second Hand, Signals, and the made-for-TV Assemblage. He also danced in Events, which were collages of existing pieces. The Events provided the bracing challenge of not knowing the order until the last minute. Wong would write the sequence on his palm, but the ink would drip away with the sweat.

Cunningham company, l-r: Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Wong, Chase Robinson, John Cage, ph. James Klosty

According to fellow dancer Sandra Neels, “Mel was great to have in the company because he was always very calm and in a good mood.” But he needed work on rhythm and timing, especially in partnering. So he would work on his own, dancing with a metronome to build up speed. Still, partnering was not his forte. He told Kreemer about performing in Rainforest, for which, as usual, the dancers didn’t encounter the set—in this case, Andy Warhol’s silver pillows—until the night of the performance. Another dancer had to leap into his arms, but at that moment a pillow was floating between them, and he had to think fast.

Rainforest by Merce Cunningham, decor by Andy Warhol, with Mel aloft, Meg Harper at right, ph James Klosty

In this clip from a panel discussion of Asian American dance artists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1995, Wong expresses his admiration for Cunningham and Cage. In his relaxed, witty way, he also talks about what his Asian identity and spirituality mean to him as a choreographer.

Choreographic Process

While he was still in the company, in 1970, Wong started choreographing, performing in the streets, on the subway, or in front of the Statue of Liberty. In 1972, he staged a 12-hour work for Washington Square Methodist Church. It wasn’t until 1975 that he formed the Mel Wong Dance Company.

Dancer/choreographer Rosalind Newman, who worked with Wong in the mid 70s, described his process on the phone:

Mel could spill out a whole realm of movement. He never went back and edited. He would make it and then it would be made. The movement would fall out of him—action-oriented kind of movement. He was interested in the visual big picture, not very detailed. His sense of time was very different, more like a block of time rather than thinking of it like a melody. It didn’t have phrasing, and he would let me put that in myself. He allowed me the freedom to change the tempo inside of it . . .Being in his pieces always felt spacious and open. Even though they were choreographed, they still felt so open and free. And it was exciting physically: you had to just go for it. Afterwards, you felt like you just ran five miles.

Kreemer, who danced in many of her husband’s works, says his aim, while formulating movement, was “to clear his mind and get out of his own way and let the impulse take him.” When he transferred the movement to the dancers, he wanted them “to do the movement without thinking, to bypass the linear, verbal part.” She mentioned that he often had the dancers looking upward, up to the heavens. “It was connecting with the cosmos, connecting with the greater universe. He wanted people to connect with something greater than themselves. His dances were always about other realms, not just the typical world of the earth.”

Undated photo

He loved the outdoors and would sometimes rehearse on a rooftop or, when he was living in Westbeth, the abandoned West Side Highway (which is now the High Line).

From 1979 to 1987, Wong collaborated with composer Rob Kaplan on more than 30 pieces. Kaplan was immediately taken with his choreography. “The first time I saw his work, I felt as I were watching a dream unfold. The images stayed with me for days.” But it took him a couple years to get into a groove of working with Wong. It was not a linear process but “an intuitive process that dealt with subconscious interaction.” The choreographer did not explain his choices. Kaplan later came to cherish what he called “the communal surrender” of the process. He described certain intense moments in the studio:

When Mel would choreograph, he would put both hands over his face, and just be still. You could hear a pin drop, and everyone was ready for whatever would happen next. He would point to somebody and Mel would move—quite an extended phrase—and then the person would do it.

Kaplan was sometimes involved in the visual aspects of making the work as well. “We’d go down to Canal Street and have a field day,” he recalled, speaking of all the stores in SoHo where you could buy hardware cheaply. Wong built plexiglass boxes and trays for a variety of pieces, recycling and varying his idea of what the boxes could hold. Often the trays held shallow pools of water. In one instance, a plexiglass box was filled with incense, and when a dancer lifted the lid off, smoke billowed out.

Wong’s process has influenced Kaplan’s own teaching at Arizona State University. “When I’m teaching dancers, I am basically helping them understand how to observe and listen and go with an impulse as opposed to intellect, to tap into different realms of your consciousness.”

Wong’s work changed over the years. With the growing influence of capoeira, he “excitedly tapped into his gymnastic champion roots,” Kreemer told me. “He experimented with using the floor, going upside-down, doing one-handed handstands and flips, going more and more off the axis.”

Images of experimentation

Wong made short dance-y pieces, large, unrepeatable happenings, and full-evening works. He often combined and re-combined his ideas, objects, images, and ideas. Here are some other snapshots, the first from my own memory, the rest from other sources.

• I saw Wong perform Ramp Walk in 1971 at The Cubiculo in midtown Manhattan. The simplicity of it was staggering to me. He simply walked up a 45-degree ramp that was nine feet high, carrying a heavy brick in his arms. You could see the weight of the brick affect him the higher he got up on that incline. Much later, I could look back and place Ramp Walk in line with Anna Halprin’s task dances and Simone Forti’s Slant Board. (I note here that both Halprin and Forti were also influenced by Asian ideas.)

Wong and Renée Wadleigh rehearsing Catalogue 34 at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum

• The multi-media Catalogue 34 (1973) occupied three galleries at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum, overlooking Cayuga Lake. There was music by Gordon Mumma and Pauline Oliveros and videos and paintings. The local reviewer (Ellen Beth Laipson in the Cornell Daily Sun) called it “a stunning presentation of Mel Wong’s world, a symbolic and dynamic dance ritual.” She mentions “the boundless energy of Wong’s vision” and “a spectacular ramp dance by Stephen Buck and Mel Wong” which must have been a duet version of the above. “Of special merit,” Laipson adds, “were Renee Wadleigh’s ‘Reflection’ solo, Roz Newman’s ‘Beginning,’ and ‘Walk in Water,’ with Wong and Wadleigh wading through plexiglass pools.”

• In Breath (1976), at St. Peter’s Church, dancers transferred goldfish from a bucket to a tank, Mel did tumbling tricks, and dancers read books on the sidelines. Also, a dancer breathed on a pane of glass, fogging it up, and then passed it on to the next dancer. This is the piece that caused Jowitt called Wong “a spiritual thinker.”

• He experimented with making some of the dancing not visible. In Peaks (1979), at the Cunningham studio, he built a low mountain in front of the dancers, and for SALT (1979) he built a dividing wall on wheels that would conceal some of the action. He also made drawings in a booklet with instructions for the audience on how to follow the dancing.

Streams, with Grazia Della-Terza and Henry Huey (a later, non-nude version),

• In Streams (1980), three dancers stepped in and out of 30 trays of water. For the soundscape, Kaplan scraped the inside of a piano with a wooden mallet. Three dancers, who were nude in the premiere, placed small stones in the water, making it ripple. The light reflected the water, giving off what Kreemer described as an “ethereal glow.”

• He tried different views for the audience. In Glass (1976) he strung paper up between the performers and audience, while the audience could see them only via video. Toward the end, three children slowly ripped the paper to reveal the performers. For A Town in Three Parts (1975), Wong placed the audience high above the dancers in the cavernous Cathedral St. John the Divine, and they could come and go, upstairs and downstairs, throughout the eight-hour performance.

• For Blue Mesa (1987), Wong collaborated with T.W. Timreck, who filmed scenes of the dancers in the Painted Desert. Kaplan recorded R. Carlos Nakai playing Navajo flutes and, for the film, recorded Skip LaPlante playing a metal pipe flute. Kaplan felt that Wong was making “a symbolic connection between the natural and human-made world, the ancient and the new.”­ Jennifer Dunning, writing in The New York Times, felt the piece was evocative:

Mr. Wong creates the feeling of dance in a time and space as untroubled, for the most part, as the surface of still water…. A central figure moves through the piece as an archetypal American Indian, at one moment a bird, at other moments a ritualistic water bearer and figure of death and rebirth. And as he moves, he seems to draw forces of nature in around him, as other dancers, … join in this ritualistic evocation.

Wong filmed in Painted Desert for Blue Mesa, ph Connie Kreemer

• Falling Sky Event (1990) was an outdoor piece with five skydivers, 30 dancers, a trapeze artist, projection, motorcycles and tree climbers, at Artsfest, University of Colorado, Boulder. Wong made choreographic use of the steps of the university’s dance building, the tall windows, and the campus quad.

Asian influence

In 1983 Wong received a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Hong Kong and China. In her book Further Steps 2: Fourteen Choreographers on What’s the R.A.G.E. in Modern Dance, Kreemer wrote that “it was the first time he’d been in a country where he was in the majority race, where people looked like him…and he felt at home. He became more conscious and proud of the beauty within Chinese culture.”

Rob Kaplan accompanied Wong and Kreemer on that trip, and they created a concert for the modern dance company in Hong Kong and performed in the Asian Arts Festival. The trip deepened what Kaplan called Wong’s “ancestral knowledge.” He became more committed to the symbols of Chinese culture: water, rock, mountain. (See Appendix II for Mel’s list of symbols.)

In terms of the musical collaboration, Kaplan points out that he and Wong often worked in an area of overlap between an Asian sense of time and minimalism: “We allowed time to play out with single sounds while the movement provided the ‘melody.’ The use of drone sounds and repetitive patterns—these were also very much part of the ‘minimalist’ vocabulary.”

At the Great Wall of China, c. 1983, ph Kreemer

Other Story-telling Solos 

When dance artist and educator Li Chiao-Ping saw Wong perform his yoyo solo, she recognized similarities in their lives as American-born Chinese. As she said, “There’s so much pressure in the family to do something else” besides dancing. She was also overwhelmed by his virtuosity. “He had such control. The overall impression took my breath away. Here was this Chinese American man who was so good at so many things and was so contemporary.”

Li Chiao-Ping in Judgment by Mel Wong, ph screen grab

In 1997, Li asked Wong to be one of six choreographers for her solo program at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He decided to use their common backgrounds to create the text for a dance called Judgment.

At first, Li was not prepared for Mel’s dive-in mode of making: “He’d walk to the spot and whip out the movement. I’d look at him like, ‘What just happened?’ ” But she quickly adapted. As she took part in his process, she perceived a melding of East and West:

He had a vast skill set of using postmodern tools that gave him a kind of freedom. As much as he didn’t prepare, he was following something, a flow. Maybe he learned almost a Zen approach in making the work. Attention to craft, but open to chance and aleatory operations, letting spontaneity take place as well.

Click here to see an excerpt of Judgment, interspersed with Wong’s explanations.

Wong also made three solos for Kreemer. In one of them, Never Say Never, she talked about their efforts seeking fertility and how it was a Chinese barefoot doctor, prescribing dense balls of Chinese herbs, who solved their problem. (They eventually had three daughters.)

Another solo, this one part of a larger work, was for Beth Soll, the summer of 1974 at Harvard Summer School Dance Center. It didn’t tell a story to the audience, but it told the story of their friendship that summer. Beth had come down with a severe flu, and he made a dance that fit her fragility at that time:

I was very weak and could barely walk. He took me out every day to eat. “Eat, Beth Eat.” I would go to rehearsal and lie on a bench. He made a tai chi dance for me. The spiritual thing was like breathing for him. I love doing something slow and peaceful onstage. Other dancers poured water into buckets. Making this part for me was an act of generosity. In a sense he cured me.

He also made purely musical solos. Silvia Martins, a freelance dancer who toured her own solo program, accrued 11 dances by Wong. His Bolero for her garnered a praise from critic Tobi Tobias, who called the dance “marvelous” and the rhythms “unpredictable and arresting.”

Teaching

Kreemer came to Wong’s classes as a dancer with Erick Hawkins and Nancy Meehan. “Mel would show a phrase not more than twice and you’d have to immediately repeat it on the second side. My friends who were trained in Hawkins would leave his class in tears.”

But most people felt challenged by his classes. Beth Soll, who taught at MIT for 20 years, said “I brought him to MIT and students adored him. He would demonstrate fantastically difficult combinations and the students just had to keet up.”

The freelance dance artist David Thomson studied with Wong at SUNY Purchase in the ’80s. In a recent phone conversation, he said, “Mel felt more approachable to me than other teachers, more easy-going and open about what dance was or could be. Being one of the few people of color on the faculty and working in a postmodern aesthetic was a rare gift to experience during my formative years there.” One of the things students were charmed by was that he always wore white sneakers to teach class. (“No one at Purchase ever saw Mel’s bare feet.”) But the main thing, as Thomson said, was that “Everyone, everyone, everyone loved him! He was a phenomenal teacher.” Naturally, the students were upset when Wong was denied tenure, and they mounted “a bit of a protest.”

Wong was invited to teach at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts in ’87 and’88. Rosalind Newman said that people there, even now, in 2020, still talk about him. “He made a big impact. The physicality of his classes affected the way they think about dancing. You come in and whack it out. Just do it. In just doing it, you do things you never thought you could do.”

Wong also taught at Cornell, Trinity College in Connecticut, Arizona State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and independent classes in SoHo. His final teaching gig was at UC Santa Cruz, where he was full-time professor in the Theater Arts Department from 1989 till his passing.

Critical and Funding Response

Wong received a Guggenheim fellowship, six National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Performing Arts, and many commissions. But funding was not consistent. At least once, when applying for a special grant for artists of color, he was told that his work wasn’t “Chinese enough.”

Although he was sometimes reviewed favorably, many critics often expressed mild disdain when greeted with his work. Jack Anderson, writing for The New York Times in 1982, called his work Shuttle, in which dancers transported paper stars and moons, “mystifying at best, pretentious at worst.”

From Wong’s point of view, critics and funders did not make the effort to get past cultural barriers:

I remember a remark from a panelist who said I was “putting them on.” I was very upset and mad…I worked all year long, saved my money to produce my dance concerts, and would spend over $10,000 on a dance concert, which would be over in three or four nights . . . I was very bitter but I continued to make dances despite the criticism. I had support from the dance community, my concerts were always sold out, and besides, I loved to make dances.

Another factor that could have chilled the critics’ reception is that, for many years, Wong did not edit his dances. Even Kreemer says many of his pieces were too long and she tried to convince him to tighten them.

Nevertheless, the performers were often praised. About Renée Wadleigh in Four or Five Hours with Her, Cornell critic Barbara Jasperon wrote, “It was impossible to dismiss Renée Wadleigh’s presence, her control, exhaustive, and desperately beautiful dancing or the intentionally emotional evocations of the piece as a whole.”

Wong as a Visual Artist

A painting by Wong, 1990s

Wong was also a painter, and he infused his dances with his artistic sensibility. Drawing was an artistic compass for him. “He might have an idea about something,” Kreemer recalled, “and he would just start drawing or painting and let it flow out of him.” Sometimes he showed his art work in the lobby of the theater because he felt they related to, or came from the same impulse as, his choreography. Sometimes he would create sets for his work, like a small mountain. Other times, even without sets or props, his spatial sensibility was keenly felt. As Dunning wrote in 1985, “Mr. Wong has a clear and vital sense of spatial arrangement, and he clustered bodies arrestingly at times.”

Wong was fascinated by light. Kreemer describes a section of Buddha Meets Einstein at the Great Wall (1985), where Mel was wearing all white. “He would enter the stage from the diagonal, carrying a cardboard box, and leave and return many times. Toward the end, he knelt down and opened the box and there was light emanating from the box. Then he started his solo.” That solo, judging from this clip, was ghostly and prayerful.

Wong with light box, ph Johan Elbers

Mel Wong was the first Chinese American to win a Guggenheim fellowship in dance and the first Chinese American to perform with Merce Cunningham. He was among the first Asian students at SAB. But no one was keeping track back then. According to Kreemer, “Mel had a lot to say about racism, and his Growing Up Asian American in the 50s series was a way of releasing anger and letting people know, in his own humorous, educational way, how racism had wounded him as a child and how he continued to feel its effects.”

For a subsequent solo in the series Growing Up Asian American in the 50s, he wrote this:

I was told to keep my silence but after fifty years, I must speak out! The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that citizenship was reserved only for whites. That law remained in effect until 1952. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was directed at the Chinese on a racial basis.

As always, there is dancing. In the documentary on Li Chiao-Ping’s solo project, Wong says the following:

You dance before you go to war. You dance before you get married. You dance at a funeral. And so dance really is a powerful form, and I still don’t quite understand why it’s not as respected as other art forms. It’s the juxtapositioning of everything in the world, that makes the world go.

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Special thanks to Connie Kreemer, Rob Kaplan, Doug Rosenberg, Rosalind Newman, Li Chiao-Ping, Beth Soll, Sandra Neels, Renée Wadleigh, James Klosty, Kevin Bubriski, Nick Perron-Siegel, Stephan Koplowitz, and Andrea Potochniak of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. Other sources include a chronology of choreography.

Appendix I

Below is the monolog [with names of yoyo tricks in brackets] of “Childhood Secrets,” Mel’s solo from his series, Growing Up Asian American in the 50s.

I was born in Oakland, California [Rock the Cradle]. I grew up in an all-Chinese neighborhood [The Sleeper]. We lived in a big white house. We lived on the first floor [Around the Corner]. I lived with my mother, my father, my brother, my grandmother, my aunt, and my uncle [Loop-de-loop]. My grandmother took care of me most of the time, when I was very young. My parents were busy working, making money [Three-leaf Clover, Three-leaf Clover]. I remember my grandmother would cook Chinese food, three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And sometimes, she would cook spaghetti [Spaghetti]. I remember she would cover the big, round table with newspaper, and use that as a tablecloth. And one day, the newspapers were gone, and replaced with a plastic tablecloth. I wondered why. And then I heard my parents talking to my grandmother, saying, “We’re not going to use newspapers anymore,” they’re gonna do it the sanitary way, the modern way, the western way. A few days later, I saw pictures of a Chinese family, eating their meals using newspapers as tablecloths. And I can’t help but to think: they were making fun of us [The Creeper].

Recently, my wife was pregnant. And we had to drive from Boulder, Colorado, to Santa Cruz, California. She was due in two weeks. So, I asked the nurse for some emergency information. I said, “What should we do if she delivers out on the highway?” The nurse said, “Bring a lot of newspapers. For newspapers are the cleanest and most sanitary thing you can find around the house” [Around the World] [Brain Twister] [Man on a Flying Trapeze].

At the age of five, we moved to an all-white neighborhood. And for the first time, and for the first time, I realized… I was different. I used to go with my parents to look for a new house. They would always come back, with their head bowed low, and say nothing. And one day, my father said, “They don’t sell houses to Chinese people.” Eventually we did find a house—a beautiful house, next to a lake. When we got settled, my father took me to the neighborhood barber for a haircut. The barber said, “I don’t cut Chinese people’s hair.” So, my father promptly took me back to Chinatown. Or, my best friend in grammar school has me to his house to play. His mother said, “Where did you find this little boy? You can’t play with him—he’s from the west side.” Or, if you ask people from my generation when they learned how to swim, they’ll tell you, “In the late teens,” because in those days, they did not allow minorities in the public swimming pool.

Time has moved on, and many things have changed, and yet many things have not changed. I look up in the sky, and I see the Big Dipper. I look up in the sky, and I see stars shining brightly [Star]. I look up into the sky, and I see shooting stars, shooting up into the heavens [Shooting Star]. And I still believe that people will understand each other, and that love will prevail.

Yoyo solo, ph Johan Elbers

Appendix II

Kreemer found Mel’s handwritten list of symbols, which was based on A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot, the original 1962 printing by Philosophical Library. Because the handwriting did not reproduce well, I’ve typed the correspondences here:

Crescent moon — world of changing forms, also, medieval emblems of the Western world

Flame —  transcendence itself – light signifies the effect of transcendence on

environment

Mirror — symbol of imagination/reflect the formal reality of the visible world

Mountain — for the Chinese. greatness of generosity of emperor. Profoundest symbolism is one that imparts sacred character.

Stone — cohesion and harmonious reconciliation with self, unity and strength, rock permanence

Water — Chinese consider water as the specific abode of the dragon because life comes from H2O

Star — ascension toward spirit, forces of spirit struggling against forces of darkness

Lighting — spiritual illumination

Smoke — escape from time and space into eternal

Portrait by Paul Schraub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 person likes this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 7

Eleo Pomare (1937–2008)

I’m starting a new series devoted to outstanding dance artists who have either faded from memory, had too short a dance life, or are left out of the dance books. I’ve been around long enough to witness absolutely unique people getting lost in the mists of time. I plan to add one person each month, drawn from the long list of people I’ve either seen myself or heard about and am curious about. Some of them were praised at the height of their careers but gained no permanent traction. Others were never fully recognized for their contributions. This series is an attempt to rebalance the books—the dance books.

First up is Eleo Pomare. Recently, when I mentioned him in my dance history class, no one knew his name. But when the students saw a clip of his work on YouTube, they said, “Why haven’t we heard of him?”

¶¶¶

Eleo Pomare was one of New York City’s unforgettable dance artists of the 1960s. When I saw him in a DanceMobile show (basically a flatbed truck that toured inner-city neighborhoods), he performed a drastic solo from Over Here (1968). While the American anthem was playing, Pomare was mimicking retching. It was so real, so alarmingly visceral, that you could practically see his innards thrusting up through his throat. This remains the most extreme public response to our nation’s injustices I’ve ever seen—long before Colin Kaepernick took the knee.

Pomare was a prolific choreographer whose work was too raw for prime time. As Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times, “Eleo Pomare’s dances always have a special gutsy quality.” His performances were hyper-realistic; indeed he was accused of being “too real.” Although he wasn’t invited to go on State Department–sponsored international tours like Alvin Ailey or to choreograph Broadway musicals like Donald McKayle, he kept making dances—118 in all. His courage and imagination were inspiring; his febrile physicality was startling. As dance historian Katrina Hazzard Donald says in the PBS special Free to Dance, Pomare “imparts a new validity to Black life in much the same way that Malcolm X does.”

For this article, I have relied on two main sources: A cover story in the November 1968 issue of Dance Magazine and a recent phone interview with Dyane Harvey-Salaam, the well-known dancer who started working with the Eleo Pomare Dance Company in 1969. A complete list of sources is at the end.

Beginnings

Born in Colombia, South America, Eleo Pomare sailed with his father, who was of Haitian and French extraction, to join his mother in Panama when he was six. This was during World War II, and his boat was torpedoed by the Germans. Although he was rescued, his father was never found. The trauma of that tragedy gave him a dread of water for the rest of his life. When he was ten, he emigrated to New York to live with his mother.

Pomare in photo shoot with David Fullard, courtesy Jill Williams

Pomare was always drawn to music. When he reached Harlem, the sounds coming out of churches reminded him of Carnival back in Colombia and Panama. About attending the church events, he said, “At the time I didn’t realize I was studying theater.”

Pomare enrolled in the High School of Performing Arts for its theater program, but after a year he switched to dance. Fellow student Cora Cahan (co-founder of The Joyce Theater and now president of Baryshnikov Arts Center) remembers him vividly: “He was true to his own voice at an early age. He couldn’t conform; it wasn’t in his DNA. He was highly original.” He studied composition with Louis Horst; he also sought out teachers of color, attending the New Dance Group to study with Asadata Dafora and Pearl Primus, and also studied with Syvilla Fort and José Limón. After he graduated in 1958, he co-started a small dance company with fellow student Dudley Williams.

In 1962, he accepted a scholarship to study with Kurt Jooss in his school in Essen, Germany. But he hated it there, likening the school to “a convent or prison.” He started choreographing with students from the school, which rubbed Jooss the wrong way, and he was expelled. He moved to Amsterdam with his dancers and performed his experimental work in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, receiving good reviews.

In 1963, fate intervened. As the Civil Rights movement in America heated up and the March on Washington approached, the writer James Baldwin, a good friend of Pomare’s, called him. “Eleo,” Baldwin commanded, “you are going to be there.”

He was ready to leave Europe anyway. “Eventually, I felt Europe wasn’t for me,” he said in 1968. “A Negro dancer is to them a ‘wild thing,’ exotic.” On a later occasion he explained his disaffection further: “I believed the myths that one had to study in Europe to be really educated, and that Europe was more sensitive to Black people. I was looking for a place to work where my complexion didn’t come before my product.”

Artistic Range

The March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous “I have a dream” speech, galvanized Pomare to put Black life forward in his work. His work Blues for the Jungle (1966) included a preacher, a couple involved in domestic abuse, a prison inmate dreaming of freedom, a prostitute, a cop, a nun, and, most famously, a junkie. Pomare performed the junkie himself, writhing, convulsing, desperate for a fix, basically self-destructing—in the most riveting way. According to Thomas de Frantz, Blues for the Jungle “included a cast of desperate characters who spilled from the stage as they shouted slogans and physically confronted the audience, accusing them of complicity in the construction of the American ghetto.” (The beginning of this segment of “Free to Dance: Episode 3: Go for What You Know” shows part of Jungle including “Junkie.”)

Narcissus Rising

His signature solo, Narcissus Rising (1968), was possibly even more harrowing. Pomare, as an S & M biker, wearing a leather jockstrap, bare chest, sunglasses and rakish cap, revved his imaginary motorcycle, declaring his right to be a rebel. The character, whom we might define today as intersectional, was described by Don McDonagh as “menacing”—until he is hunted down by police searchlights.

Spanning five decades, Pomare’s work explored many other themes as well. Some, like Sombras (1980) and Conaqua (1987), were based on his Hispanic heritage. Others were based on literature, like Still Here (1982), inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, and Tabernacle (1989), inspired by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Still others were mostly musical, like Back to Bach (1983).

Conagua (1987) with , L: Stanley Joseph and R: Maxine Steinman, photo by David Fullard, courtesy Harvey-Salaam and Martial Roumain

A more hard-edged portrayal, along the lines of Blues for the Jungle, was High Times (1967). McDonagh recalled that in the “Up Tight” section of this ballet, “a snarling speakeasy atmosphere vividly came alive to convey skillfully the unhappiness of the people trapped within.”

And then there was the high drama of the literary sort: Las Desenamoradas (1967) an interpretation of Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba.” About this enduring work, Dyane Harvey-Salaam says, “This situation deals with the human condition, how human beings interact with one another. Everybody in the piece is suffering, except the suitor who married into the family. All of the women are frustrated, and you get a chance to dig into personalities and interactions.”

About his grittier work, Harvey-Salaam says, “It doesn’t bother me to depict these powerful atrocities because if we don’t show them, if we don’t dig into them, how will we ever be able to appeal to anyone else’s humanity?”

But she also appreciates the gentler, imagistic side of her mentor’s oeuvre: “Along with all the global consciousness, the human suffering, the struggle against injustice, he was very intrigued with the beauty of life itself.” She described scenes from De la Tierra (1975), which is based on images from his youth: “He created a cricket by using dancers with poles as the legs,” recounted Harvey-Salaam. “A little boy was dancing around the cricket, searching for his voice. In another scene I portrayed a little girl playing/dancing in the street as a funeral passed by. These were haunting yet beautiful images.”

Pomare was ahead of his time in exploring gender. As mentioned, Narcissus Rising claimed his right to be Black, queer, and self-defined. In “Ode to Prophet Jones,” which was originally part of Radiance of the Dark (1969), he played a prophet in drag. But he also knew how to give women dancers their power. McDonagh, writing in The New York Times, described the solo Hex (1964) as “a study of a woman bursting with venom and magic.”

Pomare in Cantos from a Monastery (1956)

 The music for Pomare’s choreography ranged from Coltrane to Vivaldi, Steve Reich to a Congolese Mass, Miles Davis to the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Other companies that have performed Pomare’s works include Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Philadanceo, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cincinnati Ballet, the Cleo Parker-Robinson Dance Company in Denver, Alpha and Omega Dance Company in New York, and companies in Holland, Norway, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and Brazil. He has mounted works for students at Southern Methodist University, Howard University, Florida A&M, The Ailey School, and Hofstra, where Harvey-Salaam has been an adjunct for years.

Pomare in South Africa, with Diane Johnson of African Arts Fund, 1992, photo by Anthony Rodale

In the Studio

 Elizabeth Dalman, an early dance collaborator in Pomare’s European company (Dansgroep Eleo Pomare) in the ’60s, said this about working on his piece Gin.Woman.Distress (1966): “My body was in such turmoil, and he would say, ‘Push the leg more, the arm more,’ … the shape being the feeling for the viewer.”

In the early 70s, as Harvey-Salaam told me, “The Black Arts Movement was on fire. Everyone was finding their voices, developing their expression.” It was in this context that she started working with Pomare. “He made me think about what I was doing. He made me investigate what kind of energy I needed to achieve the movement or the shape or the concept.” She watched him nurture other dancers too. “Depending on what you brought to him, he would adapt and adjust and then go full steam ahead on you. He did that with your mind as well as your body.”

In 1972, the same year that Ailey choreographed Cry for Judith Jamison, Pomare made Roots for Lillian Olubayo Coleman. A fifteen-minute solo in three sections, it started in Africa with African sculptures, went to the song “Strange Fruit” with Billie Holiday singing about the horror of lynchings, and ended up with Nikki Giovanni’s poem “The Great Pax Whitie,” an indictment of systemic racism. For Harvey-Salaam, who stepped into the solo later, Roots made a statement: “We have to honor ourselves. We have to see life for what it is and acknowledge our greatness, our ability to survive, achieve, and thrive.”

Lillian Olubayo Williams in High Times, photographer unknown, courtesy Havey-Salaam and Martial Roumain

Angry or Alert?

Although Pomare was often called the “angry Black man of dance,” his own preferred adjective was “alert.” He was alert to the ways in which the Black community was marginalized. He was also alert to how some white critics tried to marginalize him. When asked to respond to critics who called his work “too real” or “too un­disciplined,” he replied, “Whites see things only in terms of their own values — they feel too little for the Negro.” As for discipline, “How many critics really understand the discip­line it takes to erase all white influences, and yet dramatize precisely the world the Black artist is struggling to escape from?”

Pomare had no wish to seduce or appease a white audience. “I don’t create works to amuse white crowds,” he said in 1968. “Nor do I wish to show them how charming, strong, and folksy Negro people are—as whites imagine them—Negroes dancing in the manner of Jerome Robbins or Martha Graham. Instead I’m showing them the Negro experience from inside: what it’s like to live in Harlem, to be hung-up and up­tight and trapped and Black and wanting to get out. And I’m saying it in a dance language that originates in Harlem itself.”

The novelist Toni Morrison has also said that she did not write for a white audience. Of course, Morrison’s novels do attract many white people. So too did Pomare’s forceful and imaginative works.

In “Free to Dance,” he stated clearly his view of the artist’s role. “What the choreographer should do is to instigate or to be forecasters of things to come.”

Pomare, 1968, photo by Sigrid Estrada for Dance Magazine

This attitude sometimes caused controversy. At the Adelaide International Festival for the Arts in 1972, he railed against being marginalized by the choice of venue, making headlines. In the meantime, his main dancer, Carole Johnson had taught classes in advance of the performance to a group of Aboriginal dancers. To the dismay of the white presenter, he gave out free tickets to these indigenous dancers. While the white audience was indifferent, it was his new friends who really took to the work.

Creativity in All Directions

Harvey-Salaam notes how Pomare defined his art. At school lecture-demonstrations, he would explain to the children, “I’m a choreographer. A choreographer uses bodies to paint pictures to tell stories.” She recalled that his drive for artistic expression was constant and varied. When he wasn’t choreographing—or painting or writing poems—he could be stringing beads, sewing a shirt, or cooking a special dish—or he’d say, “Let’s go to the museum.” (An example of his paintings can be seen here.)

The poet in him came out when describing his own dancers. In 1966, two of his longtime female dancers performed in his Gin.Woman.Distress. to songs by Bessie Smith. They were Elizabeth Dalman, a white dancer from Australia, and Carole Johnson, an African American who later stayed in Australia to work with the Aboriginal dancers. “When Lizzie does it, it’s as if she swallows the heat and you feel that the heat is burning from the inside out, that she’s not going to let it explode. Carole ices it; she’s like a block of ice until you see the cracks when it starts melting.”

In the 1980s and ’90s Pomare’s home base was the Vital Arts Center on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he moved to a larger venue, with four or five studios, he presented work of younger artists like Harvey-Salaam. Pomare and his group kept performing at venues like Marymount Manhattan Theater, Hunter Playhouse, the DanceMobile, and the Delacorte. Sometimes the program included works by other choreographers like Anna Sokolow and George Faison. And he taught in many public schools. In this video where he is giving a lecture-demonstration, you can get a sense of how spontaneous and irrepressible he is, and of his unique, androgynous way of moving. He is showing the ditty bop walk of Harlem, and saying, “I want my dancers to be people.”

Morning Without Sunrise, with Charles Grant, photo by David Fullard

Pomare never accepted being wedged into any racial or cultural hierarchy. Even when he was invited to South Africa by Nelson Mandela in 1992, he did things his own way. Harvey-Salaam recalls, “He went to South Africa and was supposed to teach in Soweto. They told him they wanted him to teach ballet and he said, ‘No that’s not going happen. I’m going to see what the people move like. I’m going to have them teach me how they move. I’m not interested in imposing a European model. I want to give them tools to explore their own language.’ When he came back he created Morning Without Sunrise (1986), a work to music by Max Roach that was dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

He was also committed to community projects and co-founded the DanceMobile series. Sponsored by the Harlem Cultural Council, this flatbed truck took modern dance performances into underserved communities in the ’60s and ’70s. As its first artistic director, Pomare planned programs that would appeal to children who had never seen dance.

Pomare with children in Harlem, photo by Sigrid Estrada for Dance Magazine, 1968

Pomare remained friends with James Baldwin. According to Harvey-Salaam, “Whenever Eleo mentioned James Baldwin, his heart was warm. He had a deep, deep brotherly camaraderie with Mr. Baldwin. I believe they were kindred spirits in terms of how they used language and how they were deeply committed to discussing this problem with global injustice. They both had had experiences in the U.S. growing up in Harlem, feeling displaced, going to Europe and hoping that this would be the place where they could simply do their art, but realizing that  . . . this is the place where racism began, the seeds of racism.”

Eleo Pomare Dance Company in an undated publicity shot by David Fullard, courtesy Anthony Rodale

Sparking the Next Generation

Always outspoken, Pomare was the boldest voice on a panel presented by American Dance Festival’s landmark project The Black Tradition in American Dance, in 1988. He posed a question—“What are we going to do now?”—that sparked at least one younger Black artist into action. I had read that Halifu Osumare, author of Dancing in Blackness, was influenced by his question that day, so I asked her in an email to clarify, and she did:

As he was often called “the bad boy” of New York Black concert dance, he was never afraid to explore the underbelly of New York and its reflection of systemic racism and homophobia. One need only revisit his choreographic works Blues for the Jungle (1966) and Narcissus Rising (1968). His artistic themes reflected his vision of the world: one had to challenge injustice and call it out directly. Therefore, when all of the choreographers in ADF’s historic Black Traditions in American Dance project were acknowledging historic racism and attempted invisibilizing of Black dance artists, he wanted to focus on contemporary activism—what could be done at the time to ensure the field of dance was challenged and changed. Although he recognized ADF’s effort and was glad to be a part of the project with his Las Desenamoradas set on Dayton Contemporary Dance Theater, he felt more needed to be done.

When he challenged the ADF choreographers and panelists to think about “What are we going to do now?,” I knew my charge. I felt I had to make a major statement about the then young Black choreographers’ recognition and how they were perceived. Hence, I began to work on a mission statement and the first grant to the NEA for Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, a national dance initiative that premiered in 1989 at Theater Artaud in San Francisco and Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. My project continued for five years under the presentation of Theater Artaud, First Impressions Performances (LA), and later Sushi Performance Gallery (San Diego). Tens of artists were showcased and appeared on panels, such as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Nia Love, Lula Washington, Cleo Parker Robinson. I consider it to be the Black Lives Matter initiative in dance during the last decade of the 20th century.

Portrait by Anthony Rodale

Recognition

Although the name Pomare is not imprinted on our dance-history brains, he did receive accolades in his time. New York City Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins (later to become mayor) declared January 7, 1987 “Eleo Pomare Day” in honor of his contributions to the city’s cultural life. In addition to the John Hay Whitney Fellowship that sent him to Germany, the young choreographer received a Guggenheim Fellowship, regular funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous other awards. The Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company celebrated him with a Salute to Living Legends in 1993, and the International Conference of Blacks in Dance bestowed him with an Outstanding Achievements in Dance Award in 1994. The American Dance Guild gave him a Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Dyane Harvey-Salaam in Hex, 2018, photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy American Dance Guild

Continuing On

In 2001, the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company presented Narcissus Rising with a woman, Donna Clark—the biker dude turned to biker chick, complete with boots, G-string, and oiled thighs. Karyn D. Collins, reviewing in Dance Magazine, characterized Donna Clark’s performance as “all defiant glare and stalking feminist power.” This was quite an achievement considering some critics had claimed that this solo relied so much on Pomare’s own magnetism that it might not survive a transfer to another dancer.

In the 12 years since his passing several of his works have been reprised. In 2009, Hex and Roots were performed at a symposium in Paris sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. Harvey-Salaam and Robin Becker remounted Des Desenamoradas on Hofstra students in 2018.

Also in 2018, Loris Beckles, who had danced with Pomare for 18 years, mounted a tribute concert called Pomare Plus, with his group, Beckles Dancing Company. The program included a selection of Pomare’s solo works.

Longtime Pomare dancer Carole Johnson, who had stayed in Australia to teach indigenous peoples, co-founded of Bangarra Dance Theater in 1989. According to Rachel Fensham in “Breakin’ the Rules: Eleo Pomare and the Transcultural Choreographies of Black Modernity,” this company carries on some of his influence.

Looking back, Harvey-Salaam says, “Eleo wanted us to see ourselves in all of our pain and beauty, and to let his audiences know, ‘I see you, we are together in this.’”

Portrait by David Fullard, courtesy Jill Williams

¶¶¶

Special thanks to Dyane Harvey-Salaam, Cora Cahan, Jill Williams, Anthony Rodale, Halifu Osumare, Martial Roumain, and David Fullard. Thanks also to Rashida Ismaili for factual corrections given on August 3.

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2 people like this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 3

Ishmael/Bebe/Ralph

Ishmael, Ralph, Bebe, all photos by Nathan Keay via MCA Chicago

When it was announced that Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller would perform together, it seemed too good to be true. Three of our greatest mischievous/masterful dance artists improvising together!

And it wasn’t true—at least not for New Yorkers. Relations was only true for the lucky people in Chicago. The presenter was MCA Chicago, the curator was Tara Aisha Willis, and the dates were November 2–3, 2018.

Last week Tara organized a virtual watch party of the second performance, and it will now remain posted until July 31. I was thrilled to see the video. There’s a certain feeling of alert anticipation when you watch really good improvisers in live performance. And somehow this video did not seem like a document but seemed alive to me.

Ralph, Bebe, Ishmael

Three is a good number. Three people who are natural leaders agreeing to enter a leaderless arrangement. One is always in Relation to the other Two, as well as being in relation to a slat on the floor, or to a chair, or to a stash of records. I had that anything-can-happen sensation, that sitting-on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling, while also noticing how centered in their bodies and how conscious of their decisions they seemed. It doesn’t hurt that they are all, bottom line, terrific movers.

Ralph, Bebe, Ishmael

Clear roles emerged over the hour. Bebe was like the center, the mother, the connector—connecting to each of the men and connecting to her dancer self at every moment. Ishmael was the impulsive one, in and out at the same time, expressing his ambivalence in sneaky ways. Ralph was the architect/auteur, contemplating the space, designing the space, turning it into a literary space.

Ishmael, Ralph

I don’t want to say too much about how they interacted, or how they let words slip into their nestlings and challengings, or how they let a diagonal form and then unform, because I hope you’ll see the video for yourself.

What was the genesis of this occasion? Tara asked Ishmael what he would want to do, and he replied that he’d never gotten to dance with Bebe and Ralph. This seems like a modest proposal. But when you think of “Parallels” at Danspace in New York City in 1982, the landmark series of performances that Ishmael curated to challenge the reigning definition of “black dance,” it’s in that vein. “Parallels” was reprised for a tour to Europe in 1987 (which Bebe, Ralph, and Ishmael were part of), and back at Danspace, expanded by a younger generation, in 2012. Here we are in 2020, casting a loving eye on how these three “Parallels” artists have evolved, and how they are existing, existentially, now in their 60s (greater integration of mind and body) and how they intersect as performers.

Ralph downstage, choosing a record to put on the turntable

Although this threesome was called together pointedly as a group of Black dance artists, there was something porous about Relations. Maybe because of their familiarity with each other, we were allowed to see/feel their humanity in poetic, edgy, and witty ways.

I enjoyed the after-talk too. I especially appreciated that Ishmael mentioned those we have lost since the 1982 Parallels. It happens that two of those original artists—Harry Sheppard and Blondell Cummings—were good friends of mine. They had already been dancing downtown for a decade, paving the way for Ishmael to make the breakthrough.

The after-talk

Someone was quoted as saying Relations was like a “Black Grand Union.” Oh good, I didn’t want to be the first to say it! For those of you who don’t know, Grand Union was the legendary, post-Judson, mostly white, improvisation group from 1970 to ’76. I am sure that Ralph, Bebe, and Ishmael weren’t thinking of GU, but I saw some common ground: an anchoring in movement exploration, a certain nuzzling comfort (Grand Union was an unattributed laboratory of Contact Improvisation), patience in allowing things to develop in their own time, being totally themselves yet listening to the others. Being able to surprise each other, goad each other, add a touch of humor or echo to each other.

Naturally I would see them with this lens of Grand Union. For three years, I’ve been immersed in writing a book on this group that will be out in September. I thought of GU as a fluke, only possible because of a specific time and place, unrepeatable. And it was. And this event, Relations, is also unrepeatable. But . . .  I hope they repeat it in NYC some day.

(Adjunct materials for Relations—program notes, Tara’s blog, clips of the after talk, and a booklet of their writings—are here.)

 

2 people like this Featured 1

Sally Banes (1950–2020)

Courtesy Wesleyan University Press

The brilliant dance critic and historian Sally Banes, who pioneered a new way to write about dance as a social phenomenon, died on June 14, 2020, in Philadelphia. Her husband, Noel Carroll, said the cause was ovarian cancer.

Banes visited New York in October 1973 with a standard assignment: to write a book on modern dance for Chicago Review Press. Because of her curiosity about choreography, instinct for the experimental, and scintillating prose, she produced, in 1980, one of the most essential dance books of the twentieth century: Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance.

Shifting her attention from SoHo to the Bronx, Banes was the first dance critic to write about the exciting new urban form known as break dancing. Her article “To the Beat Y’All: Breaking is Hard to Do,” in the Village Voice in April 1981, introduced break dancing to readers before there was even a name for hip-hop culture. Fascinated by what she saw, she returned to this genre again and again.

Although these were her two favorite subjects—the (largely white) avant-garde and (largely black) urban dance—she investigated many other passions over time. In seven additional books on dance and a myriad of essays, she explored subjects ranging from the influence of black dance on Balanchine, to the drunk dances of Fred Astaire, to the Russianness of Firebird, to the knotty problem of appropriation. She held a string of college teaching-and-research positions and earned several lifetime achievement awards. She’s been a leader in the burgeoning field of dance studies, challenging her peers to rise to her level of intellectual rigor paired with vibrant prose.

Banes grew up in Silver Spring, MD, taking ballet lessons in nearby Washington, DC. She attended the University of Chicago, where she participated as a script writer and performer in a group called The Collective. She graduated in 1972 with an interdisciplinary degree in criticism, art, and theater. The following year she started writing criticism for the Chicago Reader and became its dance editor while also writing book reviews for the Chicago Daily News. During the same period, she founded the Community Discount Players, which she called “a motley collection of performers, dancers, and wizards.” She created performances that were part dance, part theater, part every-day happening. In 1974 she participated in the creation of Meredith Monk’s Chacon at an Oberlin residency. That same year, she was a co-founder of MoMing Dance and Arts Center, which was a collective as well as a presenter. She performed there with New York choreographer Kenneth King. According to dancer Carter Frank, “Without her guiding light and her enthusiasm, MoMing would not have made such a mark in Chicago. It was where I got to see people whom I had only read about in the Village Voice and it was like getting a drink of cool water in the desert.” It was at MoMing, after a 1975 performance of the improvisational group Grand Union, that she met her future husband, philosopher and critic Noel Carroll.

Collaboration with Ellen Mazer: “A Day in the Life of the Mind, Part 2,” 1975, The University of Chicago, ph Frank Gruber

Banes and Carroll moved to New York in 1976. She took class at the schools of Graham and Cunningham and the downtown Construction Company, and workshops with Simone Forti. She performed in Forti’s large improvisatory group work, Planet (1976) at P.S. 1 in Queens. (Forti was a lion, Pooh Kaye a bear, and Banes an elephant.)

The “Concepts in Performance” page of the SoHo Weekly News was the first to review the new boundary-crossing performances that defied the categories of dance, theater, poetry, or visual art—before the term performance art was coined. Banes wrote for this page from 1976 to 1980, becoming editor the last two years. She was given her own column called “Performance” in the Village Voice from 1980 to ’85, where she reviewed major artists like Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, and Laurie Anderson. She also reviewed singular performers before they became big names like Whoopi Goldberg (“careening from bathos to pathos”), Steve Buscemi (“like a human rubber band”), Eric Bogosian (“a raw, cognitive screech”), and Karen Finley (“this messy scabrous conduct exhilarated us”). These reviews are reprinted in Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York 1976–1985 (1998).

Banes adopted, in her own words, a stance of “knowing innocence” and a “sense of wonder.” She wasn’t wowed by mere virtuosity but was attracted to the questions posed by the mind/body of an enquiring artist. Whether she was writing in Dance Magazine or Dance Chronicle, she situated every artist in a social context. Her prose was informal, witty, and spontaneous, and she could paint a picture in words that was as startling as the performers themselves.

Sally wore her socialist feminism on her sleeve; she never tried to be “objective.” Reading her words, you got a strong sense of her presence at the performance. She was in line with the Duchampian idea that each work of art was not complete until the audience experienced it.

For Judson choreographers like David Gordon, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton who appeared in Terpsichore, and for break dancers like the Rock Steady crew, she was a staunch advocate. She took her advocacy further when, in 1978, she decided that Yvonne Rainer’s solo Trio A from 1966 had to be preserved. Although most critics were indifferent or worse—Clive Barnes labeled it a “total disaster” in The New York Times—Sally regarded this not-quite-five-minute sequence an exemplar of post-modern dance. Rainer agreed to re-perform it for the camera, even though by then she was a filmmaker who hadn’t danced in years. Originally a trio section of The Mind Is a Muscle, Trio A embodied all of Rainer’s studied defiance: odd, unmusical phrasing; looking away from the audience; eschewing repetitions that would make for a legible structure. Trio A has become a symbol of, or gateway to, postmodern dance—which probably wouldn’t have happened if Sally had not filmed it.

In 1980 Banes earned a PhD from the Department of Graduate Drama at NYU, later named the Department of Performance Studies. In 1983, Banes turned her dissertation on Judson Dance Theater into a book, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964, reprinted by Duke University Press in 1993. She framed the unruly Judson collective as democracy itself. This book has been the touchstone—or target—for younger scholars seeking to make their mark in contemporary dance.

In 1983, photo: WP

Making the shift from journalism to academia, she edited the scholarly Dance Research Journal from 1982 to 1988. There was a period of cross-fade when she was writing less journalism and more academic essays. Whether journalistic or academic, Banes’s writing possessed both intellectual heft and sensuous description.

Still invested in the sixties, she took the densest year of Judson, 1963, and expanded her research into the political, social and artistic activity during that time. Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, published in 1993, describes the intersecting constellations of Andy Warhol, jazz musicians, underground film, avant-garde playwrights, beat poets, and Bread and Puppet Theater.

In Writing Dancing in the Age of Post-Modernism, her 1994 collection, Banes conflates “the avant-garde, the popular, the commercial, and the vernacular.” Her interests range from post-Judson choreographers Bill T. Jones and Molissa Fenley, to emerging Latino choreographers, to, of course, break dancing. In Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (1998), she brings a feminist angle to women’s roles in the canon of dance from Romantic ballet to recent modern dance.

Sally was a radiant person, bursting with life. Her enthusiasms were contagious and her knowledge was vast. She championed artists from Yvonne Rainer to Urban Bush Women, Merce Cunningham to Tim Miller. She delved into historical pockets that aren’t in “the canon,” like Ballet Suédois of the 1920s and the leftist Workers Dance League in the 1930s. On the advice of dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen, she started studying Russian and quickly developed an interest in Soviet experimental choreographers of the 1920s.

Banes’ college teaching career began in 1980 at Florida State University. From 1981 to 86 she taught at SUNY Purchase, followed by two years at Wesleyan University, then three at Cornell. In 1991 she became associate professor of dance and theater at University of Wisconsin Madison, and chair of the dance program from 1992 to ’96, when she was named the Marian Hannah Winter Professor of Theater History and Dance Studies.

Lori Brungard, a faculty member in Hunter College’s dance department, studied with Banes at SUNY Purchase in the mid-1980s. “With her big coke-bottle glasses and her lisp and her energy in what she was talking about,” Brungard recalled, “I wouldn’t expect to be engaged by this person but I was. She was like wooo! but still focused. She had this phosphorescence, a glow. Light emanated from her and she induced a light in me.” Brungard felt enriched by what Banes was teaching: “One bridge she made was the connection to the African diaspora. She was excited about Robert Farris Thompson’s ideas and she inspired me to read African Art in Motion after her course was over.”

Banes suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2002. Her last collection, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing was compiled and edited by her then-assistant Andrea Harris. It has two forewords that sum up Banes’s prodigious output, one by historian Lynn Garafola, and the other by New Yorker critic Joan Acocella.

Garafola: “By the 1990s the hip, young critic of the mid-1970s had become a hip, mature academic. Yet . . . she continues to write in plain English. Her sentences move across the page with energy, and for all her interest in ideas, she still wants the reader . . . to see the movement and experience it imaginatively…More than any other critic or scholar of dance, she belongs to her time, writing with the voice of the Zeitgeist.”

Acocella: “Underneath it all…is an anarchic spirit, walking on the wild side. And joined to it is exactly what one needs with it: scholarship, moderation, wisdom.”

There aren’t many traces of Banes in person on the internet, but Walker Art Center posted this wonderful conversation between her and Yvonne Rainer in 2001. The occasion was Baryshnikov’s PastForward project, which gathered several of the Terpsichore artists together for a tour.

For her naming and framing of new forms, and for the breadth and depth of her writing about dance as part of a complex world, Banes garnered lifetime achievement awards from the Congress on Research in Dance, the Society of Dance History Scholars, and the New York Dance and Performance Awards (the Bessies). When Terpsichore was translated into French by Denise Luccioni, it won the prize for the best dance book of 2003 in France.

Brungard says, “When I read her now, I hear her voice coming through the page, I hear her excitement behind the words. I have that same sense of inspiration I had when she was my teacher. I’m glad her personal voice comes through in her writing because it’s a way that people can have her as a teacher now.”

There is another way her teaching lives on: choreographer Li Chiao-Ping, a protegée of Sally’s at University of Wisconsin, has just been awarded a named professorship and has chosen to be named the Sally Banes Professor of Dance.

Here are a few of the 51 comments from dance scholar Mark Franko’s Facebook page after he announced that Banes was in hospice care:

Millicent Hodson: “Sally was the star journalist of her time in Soho NYC & a generous colleague.”

Dena Davida: “She will be leaving us with an epic body of insightful and radiant texts about our dance world.”

Jennifer Fisher: “Such a beautiful writer, and her work retains relevance over time.”

Donald Byrd: “Sorry to hear this news. I admire her.”

Ginnine Cocuzza: “Bright flame.”

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Disclosure: Sally and I were friends and colleagues. She conferred with me when writing Terpsichore; I invited her to write for SoHo Weekly News when I was editor of its “Concepts in Performance” page. After I handed the editorship of “Concepts” off to her in 1978, she edited my reviews. She wrote about my choreography a couple times, and I invited her to be part of my Bennington College Judson Project while she was writing her dissertation on Judson Dance Theater. I was in her performance piece-in-progress, Sophie Heightens the Contradictions in 1983, in which I played Sophie, a young Communist ballet dancer at the time of the Paris commune. And Sally appeared in a video for my performance Standard Deviation in 1984. I contributed to Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible (2003), the collection of personal reminiscences she edited.

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New Treasury of Cunningham Images

 

One of the most exciting periods of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was the late sixties and early seventies. Cunningham himself was still dancing magnificently. Composer/philosopher John Cage was still driving the Volkswagen mini-bus on tour. And the company was making and performing some of the most iconic works of contemporary dance.

Luckily, during part of that period (1967 to 1972), the young photographer James Klosty chronicled the company, which was an ensemble of highly individual dancers. In the introduction to his original 1975 book, Merce Cunningham, Klosty wrote that although Cunningham worked with musicians and visual artists, the dancers were his “only true collaborators.” This became less and less true, as the age gap between Cunningham and his dancers widened—which is why the visual evidence of this period is to be cherished.

For the Cunningham centennial last year, Klosty re-issued and augmented his book, now titled Merce Cunningham: Redux, published by powerHouse Books.

With 140 pages of additional photographs, in alluring, rich duotones, the new version is even more of a treasure chest of images and essays, shedding light on a bold development in contemporary dance—the tectonic shift from modern dance to postmodern dance.

Rainforest w Mel Wong & Meg Harper, decor by Andy Warhol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During those five years, Klosty had an intimate relationship with Carolyn Brown, Cunningham’s most frequent partner. With his spouse-of-dancer status, he traveled with the company everywhere. That intimacy spills over into the studio and backstage. We see Cunningham and Brown work together, laugh together, quibble together. We see dancers reflecting on their next or last move. We are privy to relaxed moments of camaraderie as well as intense moments of striving to embody Cunningham’s vision—which included the dancers being totally themselves.

Cunningham famously broke with the narrative tradition of modern dance—specifically the psychological drama of Martha Graham. But he created his own brand of drama. The photos capture a sense of spontaneity within a rigorous structure. These images are so magnetic that we feel like we are right there with the dancers. The taut leg muscles, wide open eyes, and flesh-to-flesh comfort of the dancers have a sensual quality. Each dance has a different look, depending on whether the visual artist is Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Jasper Johns, Beverly Emmons, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, or Andy Warhol.

Merce and Valda Setterfield in Second Hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A particular elegiac moment captures Merce leaning back with Valda Setterfield’s head resting on his chest in a rehearsal of Second Hand in Paris. Another moment finds Viola Farber, while partnered by Merce in Crises (1960), in partial contraction with leg extended, looking tortured. A shot of Merce thrashing around in a big plastic bag in Place (1966), looking like he’s drowning, is atypically grainy.

In keeping with the Cunningham/Cage entwinement of art and life, the book commingles performance with the everyday. We see the dancers onstage in works like the absurdist Antic Meet, the darkly alarming Winterbranch, and the playful Tread; we also see them hard at work in rehearsal. Klosty follows the group from the peeling walls of the Third Avenue studio to the light-flooded, open space of the Westbeth studio, where the company moved in 1972.

Sandra Neels, Douglas Dunn, Valda in Third Avenue studio

 

 

 

 

While archivist David Vaughan’s essential book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, encapsulates almost every finished work by the choreographer, Klosty has caught a myriad of candid moments of the dancers at work and at play in a particularly fertile five-year period. For the everyday, we see the dancers napping in the sun, Viola Farber gleefully giving a haircut to artist Jasper Johns, and Merce reaching through a cluster of passengers to grab a suitcase from a luggage carousel. And for the site-specific, we see a number Events (Cunningham’s way to recombine pieces of pieces for a particular setting) in Paris, Grenoble, and Belgrade.

It’s hard to imagine how Klosty gained such continual access. I asked choreographer Douglas Dunn, who was in the company at the time, about his memory of Klosty’s presence. In an email, he wrote, “Jim on tour and in NYC managed to be a delightful presence and an invisible photographer. I don’t recall ever seeing him take a snap. He was friendly with anyone (like me) who wanted to convene, but, without seeming nervous, kept a distance based, I’m guessing, on what he sensed Merce (and the rest of us, each different in degree of self-consciousness) would accept. Once in a while, during the lull between the day’s preparation and the show, you might find him playing the grand piano in the pit—with considerable virtuosity.”

Carolyn Brown and Merce at Westbeth studio

The essays and reminiscences about Cunningham have been kept intact. We can recognize Carolyn Brown’s essay as the seed for her revelatory book, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. She describes the choreographer with great vividness: “His own dancing is suffused with mystery, poetry and madness—expressive of root emotions, generous yet often frightening in their nakedness . . .He moves with leopard stealth and speed and awareness and intention.” She also talks about his challenge to the dancers: “Merce requires…that the rhythm come from within: from the nature of the step, the nature of the phrase and from the dancer’s own musculature, not from without, from a music that imposes its own…rhythms.”</span>

Other entries are by Yvonne Rainer (who was influenced by Cunningham but was never in his company), Douglas Dunn, and Viola Farber as well as composers John Cage, Gordon Mumma, Earle Brown, Pauline Oliveros and Christian Wolff.

Also included is a letter that ballet mogul Lincoln Kirstein wrote to Klosty, with his usual belittling of modern dance. He deigns to say that he likes Cage and Cunningham personally but not their work. He contends that without 400 years of the ballet academy behind them, their work cannot possibly last. To my mind this reveals how ultra-conventional Kirstein was, while posing as someone in the know. (Kirstein is revered in ballet circles as the person who brought George Balanchine to the U.S.; he was also instrumental in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art.) Kirstein’s vitriol against modern dance has been aired on many occasions. I suppose it provides a frisson of controversy, but I felt at the time of Klosty’s original book—as I do now—that his screeds against modern dance were irresponsible.

Valda, Merce, Douglas, Susana Haymen-Chaffey in rehearsal of Signals

Some of the written entries reach back in time. The great American dance critic Edwin Denby reviewed an early Cunningham concert in 1945, saying, “Mr. Cunningham reminds you there are pure dance values in pure modern technique. He is a virtuoso, relaxed, lyrical, elastic like a playing animal . . .He has a  . . . drive and speed which phrases his dances; and better still, an improvisatory naturalness of emphasis which keeps his gesture from looking stylized or formalized.”

Those who have studied with Merce often think of him as a Zen master. And many of these photos possess a kind of tranquility. But he also brought a bracing edge to his work that rubbed off on his dancers. The whole enterprise during the Klosty years was marked by precision, purpose, and a readiness for abandon.

In the foreword to the Redux version, Klosty writes, “Images of Merce’s dances performed when he was in his prime have acquired a poignancy and power I didn’t anticipate forty-five years ago.” D’accord. Whether or not you saw the original 1975 version of this book, the beauty of these photos have accumulated over time.

Note: This article was commissioned by Tanz magazine and first appeared in German in its April issue.

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Imprinted Memories of 2019

Dance is all about motion, so when I say “imprinted memories,” I don’t mean a single still image. I mean how things flowed, or an inchoate sense that something different is happening. I like it when the dancing doesn’t fall into the easy thing, the cliché, but gives off a whiff of humanity in a new way. This list is limited by what I happened to see this year. These are the (admittedly New York–centric) performances that have left me with that kind of imprint.

NEW CHOREOGRAPHY

One. One & One, choreographed by Noa Wertheim for her Israeli group, Vertigo Dance Company, at Baryshnikov Art Center.

One. One & One, Korina Fraiman, aloft, and Etai Peri, ph Stephanie Berger

Agitated, bold, expansive. The dancers spread dirt on the floor as though planting. Held-in emotions get released into the air, into nature. In one grappling duet, the man and woman are slightly dangerous to each other. Then with a sudden buoyancy, the woman is flying/floating . . . a weathered kind of ecstasy. This trailer gives you some idea of why I was so affected by this performance.

Ink, by Camille A. Brown, at the Joyce.

Maleek and Yusha-Marie Sorano in Ink ph Christopher Duggan

Movement vocabularies drawing from a range of African diasporic forms. Solos of despair, courage, and joy. Duets of different relationships, different vocabularies. One kinetically exciting duet, based on the jitterbug, is made dense with intricate details in the hands and feet while fueled by the basic rhythm. The seven take-charge dancers, including Brown and long-term associate Juel D. Lane, were thrilling to watch.

End Plays, by Lisa Nelson with HIJACK (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder), at Roulette.

Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon in End Plays, ph Ryan Fontaine

The attention to objects and to each other was quietly intense. When you hear the words “End, reverse, repeat” you think you know what’s going on. But these commands (Nelson calls the process real-time editing) were followed or not followed seemingly at random, and that’s part of its playfulness. The space appeared empty; gradually objects appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The communication between the three performers and the objects seemed to depend on a hidden, subterranean language.

The Road Awaits Us (2017), by Annie-B Parson, co-directed by Paul Lazar, with text excerpts from Ionesco and Chekhov, at NYU Skirball.
Bravo for using older dancers with wit and whimsy! Bebe Miller, Douglas Dunn, Meg Harper, Keith Sabado, Betsy Gregory, and Black-Eyed Susan brought their own weathered warmth to this delightfully absurdist journey. Seeing Douglas Dunn as a fire chief is indelible in my mind’s eye.

To Create a World, by Andrea Miller in collaboration with the Gallim dancers, at the Joyce.

To Create a World ph Yi-CHun Wu

A dancer hatches out of a huge cloth that could be a shroud, or just as easily, amniotic fluid. Lots of fetal position, animal closeness, and crawling into each other’s negative spaces. Images of grieving and nurturing, for example, dragging away a victim, co-exist with the brutality of nature. The lighting evokes fire and ice. Extinction. The end is the beginning is the end.

In Absentia (2018), U.S. premiere, by Kim Brandstrup, part of Natalia Osipova’s “Pure Dance with David Hallberg,” at NY City Center.

David Hallberg, In Absentia, ph Johan Persson

This solo for Hallberg finds him sitting on a chair watching himself on a television monitor, clicking the remote morosely. It’s a rehearsal. But with the shadows and silence, a noir feeling hangs in the air, and the dancer seems sucked into a kind of no-exit situation. Hallberg brought it off with chilling sincerity and existential gloom.

And Still You Must Swing, conceived by Dormeshia, choreography and “improvography” by Jason Samuels Smith, Derick K. Grant, and Dormeshia, at the Joyce.

And Still You Must Swing, ph Christopher Duggan

These powerhouse tap dancers exercised their exhilarating virtuosity, camaraderie, and sense of humor. Guest artist Camille A. Brown brilliantly folded Africanist movements into the shapes and rhythms of the tappers.

Colored (2017), NYC premiere, by Kyle Marshall, part of Next Wave Festival at BAM Fischer, originally commissioned by Dance on the Lawn Montclair Dance Festival.

Colored with Kyle Marshall, Myssi Robinson, Oluwadamilare Ayorinde, ph Ian-Douglas

This trio—Marshall, Myssi Robinson, and Oluwadamilare “Dare” Ayorinde—starts with a postmodern pattern of gestures and evolves into something more personal and symbolic—symbolic of black culture, of Christianity. The meditative, interior sense of Marshall’s own performing resonates in the space. Memory, culture, and intimacy all collide in a very affecting way.

Dare to Wreck (2017) choreographed and performed by Madeleine Månsson and Peder Nilsson of Skånes Dansteater, part of Fall for Dance, NY City Center.
A harrowing relationship between a woman in a wheelchair and an able-bodied man. Attachment and resistance, with equal strength on both sides. Keen suspense: How will they connect or not connect? How will they survive being alone? How will they survive each other’s harshness?

Bzzzz, by Caleb Teicher with beatboxer Chris Celiz, commissioned by Fall for Dance at NY City Center.

Bzzzz, with Caleb Teicher, center, ph Stephanie Berger

This was crazy good fun with solo and group tap dance. The secret to their rhythmic propulsion: short moments of silence cropping up when you least expect them.

William Forsythe: A Quiet Evening of Dance, a Sadler’s Wells production co-commissioned by The Shed (which I wrote about here.)

A Quiet Evening of Dance, ph Mohamed Sadek

In the first half of the program—the quiet half—the dancers worked together in twos and threes. They were problem-solving, twisting or hurling themselves into some structure we didn’t know, or tying the body into and out of knots. The second half was business as usual: a performance for the audience, with music (by Rameau).

 

VITAL REVIVALS

Live! The Realest MC (2011), by Kyle Abraham at NYU Skirball.

AIM_Live! The Realest MC, ph Julien Benhamou

Taking the cadence and shapes of the lopsided ghetto stride and extending them into arias of yearning, power, and disintegration. Approaching the mic but not speaking into it. Finally a fragment of narrative: “They held me down and spit on me.” These are ghostly shards of an experience of gender and racial bullying. Pain and poetry. Wistfulness.

The Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham’s Tread (1970) at NYU Skirball, with the original set of ten standing electric fans by Bruce Nauman.

Tread with Petronio dancers, ph Ian Douglas

One of the few really playful Cunningham works. One person wedges herself under the crook of the knee of a sitting man. Bodies alternate between having agency and being a still object, sometimes held horizontally. A fun game of the body as puzzle.

Deuce Coupe (1973) by Twyla Tharp, revived by American Ballet Theatre.

Deuce Coupe at ABT, ph Gene Schiavone

Although it’s not the same as the first time out, this was an exciting revival.

Come Sunday (1960s) by Geoffrey Holder, at Fall for Dance at NY City Center.
This soulful solo, made for the exquisite Carmen de Lavallade, was transferred to a current exquisite dancer, Alicia Graf Mack. This clip, from the section danced to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” from Gia Kourlas’s #SpeakinginDance series shows Graf Mack in rehearsal.

Parts of Some Sextets (1965), choreography by Yvonne Rainer, reconstruction by Rainer and Emily Coates, within Performa•19.

David Thomson, Emily Coates, Jon Kinzel in Parts of Some Sextets, ph Paula Court

Eleven people share the stage with 10 mattresses, all 21 entities engaged in a variety of tasks. The text, the “Diary of William Bentley” from 1783 to 1819, was a bit unpleasant (“Most women have no character”) but the bare honesty of his reaction to various animals and deformed humans was one track of reality running parallel to the wholesome, diverse cast in this precisely timed slice of life.

Rosas danst Rosas (1983), danced by a younger generation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas, at New York Live Arts.

Rosas danst Rosas at New York Live Arts

A limited palette of gestures performed with sharpness and urgency. A sudden inhale sucks the body up as though held by the throat. Restless rest, thrusted twisting, agitated stillness. The exhaustion of merciless repetition rips away at precision.

City of Rain, a 2010 piece by Camille Brown, with music by Jonathan Melville Pratt, remade for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this season.

City of Rain with Ailey dancers, ph Paul Kolnik

Mourning a friend who died, dancers with hands on heart. Allowing the energy to emerge from feeling and caring, spurts of anger lifting the heads and the tempo. Spinning poetry from grief.

 

POIGNANT STORYTELLING

The musical Choir Boy, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and choreographed by Camille A. Brown.

Choir Boy, Jeremy Pope sitting in front row, foreground

The extraordinary Jeremy Pope, as a young gay man with a heavenly voice and a hellish life, is trying to survive in a black boys’ prep school. The character’s courage and vulnerability tore my heart. The step dance choreography by Brown allowed the characters to burst forth with their rage, hurt, and determination. (By now you can see that it’s been a banner year for Camille A. Brown.)

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, written, directed, and choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan for the Irish theater group Teac Damsa, at BAM Harvey Theater as part of the Next Wave Festival.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, Alexander Leonhartsberger, center, ph Stephanie Berger

A young man named Jimmy, played by Alexander Leonhartsberger, is caught in a downward spiral of loss and loneliness. He falls in love with a girl who, because she was sexually abused by a priest, is silenced by being turned into a swan. Sadness upon sadness. This dark fairytale is spiked with humor. For only a few minutes, Leonhartsberger dances— and you’re left longing for more.

 

STANDOUT PERFORMERS

Best Debut in a Classic Role
Calvin Royal III in Balanchine’s Apollo with American Ballet Theatre.

Calvin Royal III in Apollo, ph Rosalie O’Connor

A lift in his chest gave him a natural godlike quality. He invested in details of the choreography like the wrists flipping and resting his head on the palm of one of his muses, with his ennobling attention. An Apollo for the ages. Click here to watch him rehearse the role.

Best First Solo
Carrying Floor (2018), choreographed and performed by Abel Rojo of Malpaso Dance Company, with music by Satie, at the Joyce. Rojo placed squares of tiling down, marking where he’s going and where he’s coming from. His body twisted and curved, reacting to each decision, sometimes with peacefulness and other times with challenge. A simple idea, yet fully engrossing.

Motown Superstar
Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. The hyper-energized Sykes dove into sensational extremes; he’d bound straight in the air and slam back down into a sliding split. Sheer, adrenaline-fueled, shakin’-down-the mic wildness.

 

Ballet Dancers Throw Themselves into Merce
Adrian Danchig-Waring and Lydia Wellington in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace (1958) at NYCB. This classic modern dance piece is spare, sequenced by chance procedure, and basically unmusical—though with sharp timings. These two commanded the stage with an alertness that made you feel anything could happen—an illusion that’s even difficult for long-term Merce dancers to carry off.

Urban Glamour
Marcella Lewis in Show Pony (2018) by Kyle Abraham, at the Joyce. A glorious example of Abraham’s amalgam of strutting, contemporary dance, and hip-hop tropes. Her quicksilver transitions from one mode to another were electrifying.

 

Breaking New Ground
Chalvar Monteiro of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In April he bounded onto the stage in Night of 100 Solos of the Cunningham centennial at BAM with striking vigor. During Ailey’s winter season at New York City Center he lilted and swiveled through the mercurial opening solo of Aszure Barton’s Busk. He’s grown into a powerhouse since three years ago when Gia Kourlas wrote this “On the Rise.”

Anguish in the Bones
In Gallim’s drastic To Create a World, Gary Reagan is the most extreme form of drastic. His limbs emerge from what looks like a pile of bones to stretch and contort in bizarre ways. He could be being born or dying—or just barely surviving. Evoking images of the holocaust, he dances with a desperate, last-day-on-earth intensity. Not “beautiful,” but unforgettable.

 

Master Improviser
David Zambrano in Una Protesta at Movement Research at Judson Church, with live singing by Yva las Vegass. Solidly rooted yet impulsive, he took small steps like a geisha, gliding and skittering though space. Sudden whole-body pounces like a frog, vibratory extremities like a leaf in the wind, light laughter that hints at a wellspring of joy. Well-matched with the edginess of las Vegass’ singing, though they hadn’t met before.

BEST NON-BINARY CONCERT

The entire ‘Explode! Midwest Queer Dance Festival” at Links Hall in Chicago, curated by dance scholar Clare Croft.

LaWhore Vagistan, ph Al Evangelista

Crossing boundaries of gender and genre, this shared concert was hosted by the outrageous LaWhore Vagistan. It included work by Murad Mommy, Lee na-Moo, J-Sun Howard, and Jennifer Monson. For a full account, click here.

MERCE WAS EVERYWHERE

Night of 100 Solos, Chalvar Monteiro, center in blue, ph Stephanie Berger.

During this centennial year, evidence of Merce Cunningham cropped up in performances, live streams, books, films and on Twitter. High points included NYCB in Summerspace (1958), the program at the Joyce with The Washington Ballet in Duets (1980), Compagnie CNCD-Angers in Suite for Five (1956), and Ballet West in Summerspace. “Conversations with Merce,” curated by Rashaun Mitchell, gave three very different artists— Mina Nishimura, Netta Yerushalmy, and Moriah Evans—a chance to speak to Merce in their heads and on the Skirball stage. Stephen Petronio Company reconstructed Tread (mentioned above). For the Night of 100 Solos at BAM, visual artist Pat Steir provided a spectacular water-falling backdrop for 30 dancers who had never performed Cunningham work. Topping the centennial off are Merce Cunningham Redux, the newly augmented book of James Klosty’s fabulous photos from the 1970s; the re-issue of Cunningham’s notes titled Changes; and the 3D movie Cunningham. All of which are reminders that the master rebel took us from modern to postmodern, from the 20th century to the 21st, with uncompromising experimentation.

HURRAH FOR WOMEN LEADERS!

Wendy Whelan, who has, in her dancing and her collaborations, done so much to bridge the gap between ballet and contemporary dance, was chosen to co-direct New York City Ballet. We’re eager to see how she helps shape the NYCB repertoire. Alicia Graf Mack is now in her second year of leading the dance division of The Juilliard School, which provides equally rigorous training in modern dance and ballet. Call me biased, because I know them both (and am teaching part-time at Juilliard) but having these two glorious dance artists in top positions is good news for the dance world.
On the journalistic front, Gia Kourlas was appointed the new chief dance critic of The New York Times. Happily, she is covering dance more from the inside than any chief critic before her—following her curiosity to interview a wide range of dance artists and give them a voice. She is illuminating dance wherever she finds it, not simply going along with the ballet-is-best hierarchy we’ve seen before. Onward!

YEAR AFTER YEAR

Four dancers have each been performing one iconic role in Balanchine’s Nutcracker at New York City Ballet for so long that they are now associated with those roles. They add sensuality, shimmer, virtuosity, and intrigue to a beloved NYC tradition: Georgina Pazcoguin as Coffee since 2006, Megan Fairchild as Sugarplum since 2003, Daniel Ulbricht as Candy Cane since 2000, and Robert La Fosse as Drosselmeier since 1993.

Georgina Pazcoguin, ph Paul Kolnik

Megan Fairchild, ph Erin Baiano

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel Ulbricht, ph Paul Kolnik

Robert La Fosse, ph Paul Kolnik

 

 

 

 

 

The annual Table of Silence Project 9/11, conceived and choreographed by Jacqulyn Buglisi is performed at 8:20 am, the moment the first airplane struck the World Trade Center. The somber beauty of this ritual, with more than 150 dancers including illustrious guest artists like Terese Capucilli and Virginie Mécène, allows us to feel the enormity of what happened and how we linger in the shadow of 9/11. This annual ritual, so elegantly choreographed, gives dignity to our shock and grief.

Table of Silence, ph W. Perron

A shout-out to the many freelance dancers who serve as the backbone of Broadway musicals. My favorite example is Bahiyah Hibah, who’s graced many Broadway ensembles, the latest being Moulin Rouge, with her elegance and musicality. I’ve also seen her in Evita, Memphis, On the Twentieth Century, Rock of Ages, and After Midnight. She lends these productions a certain glamour but often disappears into the action unless you look for her. This summer she was awarded the annual Legacy Robe, that is passed down to a hard-working trouper.

Bahiyah Hibah in Legacy Robe

 

 

 

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Notable Dance Books of 2019

I love curling up with a good dance book. If you do too, then this column is for you. This year, with more and more dance books coming out, I’ve narrowed down the type of books I include in this list. I tend to enjoy accounts of dance artists’ lives rather than books on a particular technique or a particular theory. I like the story part of dance history.

Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances
By Paul A. Scolieri
Oxford University Press

This book is epic. Paul Scolieri follows Ted Shawn’s life with wit and rigor, while also delving into the knotty issues surrounding dance, race, and sexual identity of those times. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the rugged road to modern dance.

Ted Shawn (1891­–1972) was a searcher and a builder. He searched for authenticity in dance and he built a foundation for modern dance. After a childhood marked by multiple tragedies, he dabbled in ballroom dance. He encountered the “chaste goddess” Ruth St. Denis, and together they shared a faith in dance as devotion. They formed Denishawn, the school and touring company that was the crucible of American modern dance. They were devoted to each other—at least professionally. In an early feminist gesture, she removed the word “obey” from their marriage vows. It was an open marriage before the term was coined, and the two had continual power struggles regarding their relationship as well as their careers.

Shawn was the first major male figure in American concert dance, and there was a certain amount of (necessary) narcissism in this. He unabashedly displayed his body as the ideal of white manhood. The writings of Havelock Ellis, who saw “inversion” (homosexuality) and art as harmonious, helped Shawn to envision his artistic next steps.

His interest in other cultures— Spain, India, Japan, China, Egypt—provided new material for dances and spectacles. He went on long pilgrimages, for instance to Algeria in search of Ouled Nial dancers, roughing it to find elements of dance that he could bring home to his American students and audiences.

The New York Times critic John Martin preferred the modernism of Shawn’s students, namely Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, to Shawn’s “romanticism.” In the balance of art and entertainment, one could conclude that Denishawn tipped more toward entertainment (Shawn and St. Denis were closer chronologically to vaudeville), while Graham and Humphrey tipped toward art. One could also conclude that Shawn exploited other cultures to cash in on exoticism at home. Both are at least partly true, but Scolieri portrays Shawn and his psychological struggles with sympathy while also noting his blind spots.

One dramatic/hilarious scene occurs when Shawn, who was always finding work for Martha Graham, was faced with the young dynamo making a scene in a restaurant, screaming at him that his teaching offer was beneath her as an artist. Next day, according to him, she came crawling back to beg forgiveness.

Thickening the plot were Shawn’s tortured bisexuality and his belief in eugenics. This was before the horrors of Nazism, when eugenics, originally aligned with art, health, and labor, twisted toward racism. But the racism had been a subterranean current all along. For Shawn, jazz was “poisonous,” and the melting pot of New York City was a “cesspool.” As Scolieri repeats these opinions, he verbally cringes along with his reader.

Kinetic Molpai (1935), photo by John Lindquist, Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University

After many long Denishawn tours (the tour of Asia was more than one year) and side collaborations (including with German expressionist Margareta Wallmann), Shawn bought the land that is now Jacob’s Pillow. There he developed perhaps his most fulfilling project: Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. The group gave 1,250 performances in 750 cities and four countries. One of his most successful works was Kinetic Molpai (1935), which exemplified his vision of male muscularity and camaraderie within architectural formations. The Men Dancers was a glorious long finale of Shawn’s performing and choreographing life.

The marvel of this book is not only the revelation of how hard Ted Shawn worked and how embattled he felt. It’s also that Scolieri finds an eloquent balance between giving Shawn his due and pointing out his obliviousness to his white privilege.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is, of course, Ted Shawn’s most enduring legacy. That magnificent, constantly evolving dance mecca is only possible because of Shawn’s commitment, choreographic ability, courage, and leadership.

 

Jerome Robbins, by Himself
Selections from his letters, journals, drawings, photographs, and an unfinished memoir
Edited and with commentary by Amanda Vail
Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House

There’s something delicious about reading Robbins’ account of himself and his life. We tune in to his desires, pleasures, plans, sorrows, and frustrations. His bright ideas are expressed modestly, his epiphanies promise inner peace. Whether rehearsals are going well or badly, he writes with the same intelligence and playfulness—and rawness—we see in his choreography.

Somehow, in between a myriad of choreographic projects, Robbins had time to write loving letters to his friends. To Donald Saddler, one of the original dancers at the start of Ballet Theatre (later ABT) who then joined the army in wartime, he writes often. He ends one letter with “My love to your mother and all your sisters.”

By all accounts, Robbins was difficult to work with: demanding and at times combative. This could be due to what he has called “heavy clouds of hot anxiety.”

Just before starting one of his greatest ballets, Dances at a Gathering (1969), he had an epiphany that “all mankind is related” through shared DNA. With this realization, he writes, “It seems to allow me to drop off my ego & my super defenses . . . I can begin to handle in contact, not in combat, people & places.”

In a 1967 letter, he  articulates why he loves dance: “The province of Dance . . . evokes emotions and reactions not describable in words . . . it’s like the trip under the mushroom. One can come out of it and flounder, make metaphors about it, but one can’t truly pin it down.”

His letters to Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballerina (and Balanchine’s wife) who was laid low by polio in 1956, are full of compassion, passion, longing, and fun. But those qualities burst through all the letters and notes here, revealing a man who loves life in the deepest ways.

 

A Body in the O: Performances and Stories
By Tim Miller
University of Wisconsin Press

When Tim Miller first performed at P. S. 122 in the early ’80s, he was a breath of fresh air—both kinds of fresh. He was agile, unpredictable, clever, and brash. He would spray paint the word “faggot” on his chest. (Actually, he could only fit F-A-G onto himself, and his partner at the time, John Bernd, penned G-O-T on his own chest, so you could get the whole word only when they stood together.) Another time, I remember Miller kissing Peter Rose through a sheet of glass. He was and is an activist performance artist who has toured internationally. In this slim volume, his stories, scripts, and reminiscences glide into one other.

The struggle against homophobia is Miller’s main topic, and his stories about growing up queer are feisty, piquant, and raunchy. He recounts how the explosion of feminist performance at Women’s Building in L. A. “encouraged my agency . . . and also made me want to be a lesbian when I grew up.” In 1990, he was one of the NEA Four, whose grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were rescinded because their work was deemed indecent. (They sued and won their case in 1993—but at a cost: The NEA dropped its grants to individuals.) An advocate for performance artists as “first responders,” Miller co-founded both P. S. 122 (now NY Performance Space) and Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

His stated mission: “I am in the business of trying to get light bulbs to go on over people’s heads. I am also trying be a gay first responder when the bomb threats get phoned in; I am trying to…defuse the bombs of bigotry and suspicion that keep our country paralyzed. And when someone comes up to me and tells me that a glimmer of change just happened for him, it’s like we just hit the jackpot; the lightbulb going on. The treasure of what this country might someday become pours at our feet.”

 

Ray Bolger: More Than a Scarecrow
By Holly Van Leuven
Oxford University Press

Ray Bolger (1904–1987) was never as debonair as Fred Astaire or as crush-worthy as Gene Kelly. But he was a different kind of animal. He was an eccentric dancer, which meant he pushed everything to extremes—his limbs and his clownishness. The combination of stiff upper body and watery or jittery legs, his buoyant springiness and buckling spine—all this gave the illusion that he was out of control. But of course, every step was well rehearsed. In this clip from The Great Ziegfield (1936), his elegant tapping turns into staggering and lurching. One of his specialties was lowering into a split, drooping over in fatigue, then rising up by skooching his legs together. There simply was no one like him (though one can see echoes of him in Dick Van Dyke’s style.)

Of course, Bolger was his most lovable as the rubber-legged Scarecrow in “If I Only Had a Brain” in The Wizard of Oz (1939). But in this scene from the lesser known The Harvey Girls (1946), his goofiness is even more extreme.

In More Than a Scarecrow, Van Leuven explains, in dry but clear prose, how Bolger’s routine, which was in the legmania (or legomania) style of eccentric dance, was honed. He learned from predecessors in vaudeville like George Primrose, a white minstrel performer who traded steps with his black colleagues. He rose through vaudeville and early Broadway, largely due to his wife Gwen’s help in branding his act and getting gigs—even during the Depression.

In 1936 he originated the tap dance role in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in the musical On Your Toes, working with choreographer George Balanchine. While he relied on the master for a dose of ballet discipline, Balanchine relied on Bolger for his knowledge of American music. A quote from the ballet master: “This Bolger [has]…an amazing relationship to the rhythm of the music. His muscles have like the sense of humor.”

During the grueling seven-month shoot of The Wizard of Oz, Bolger was touched by Judy Garland’s innocence, and they became lifelong friends.

But Bolger didn’t enjoy making movies. He felt the process was mechanical, lacking in honesty and spontaneity. “I have to be free,” he said. “That’s the difficult thing in the motion picture business—I felt I was dancing in a phone booth.” At the end of his life, he wrote an ode to dancers he admired, saying they “left a little on the floor.” That’s what he hoped would be said of him too.

Actually, a good chunk of “If I Only Had a Brain” was left on the cutting room floor. Just for fun, take a look at this deleted sequence—he soars high above the cornfields and crashes into the fence—on YouTube.

 

Dancing with Merce Cunningham
By Marianne Preger-Simon
University Press of Florida

In 1949, the sole student who showed up to Merce Cunningham’s first technique class was Marianne Preger. It was just her, Merce, and his snapping fingers. She started dancing with him before he formed his company in 1953 and continued until 1958, remaining friends with him until his death in 2009. This book emphasizes her social relationship with Cunningham rather than the artistic challenges. Compared to Carolyn Brown’s astute, epic work, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cunningham and Cage, it is light, easy reading. Preger-Simon repeatedly calls his work “lovely” and “wonderful.” She comes across as having a naturally cheerful temperament, which was a salve for Cunningham, especially during stressful times. As Alastair Macaulay suggests in the afterword, Preger-Simon was the prototype for a string of such company members, being the “least psychologically needy one.” This is borne out by many passages in which Cunningham and Preger are hanging out together. One of the high points is the author’s account of a post-performance party at which Cunningham breaks into a tap dance.

 

And while we’re on the subject of Merce…

Merce Cunningham Redux
By James Klosty
PowerHouse Books

This exquisite book of mostly photographs focuses on my favorite period of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: the late ’60s to early ’70s. I have put my excitement about this lavishly augmented version into this posting.

 

How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World
By Ann Cooper Albright
Oxford University Press

With her prodigious experience as a teacher of modern dance, a practitioner of Contact Improvisation, and a scholar of post-modern dance, Ann Cooper Albright lays out the connectivity between the experience of the body and the experience of the world. “Falls both literally and metaphorically knock us off our feet,” she asserts. She widens her meanings by comparing falling bodies to “falling buildings, falling planes, falling economies, falling governments.” Her students at Oberlin, she notes, are more agitated and less adventurous than previous generations, and she attributes this to post-9/11 and ensuing national disasters. But the book is prompted by a disaster of a more personal nature: the teenage nephew she was caring for plunged to his death during a daredevil dive. How to land is a poetic contemplation on the mind/body connection that helps us absorb such tragedies and move on.

Cooper Albright’s conviction “that there is a deep interconnectedness between how we think about the world and how we move through it” is supported in every part of the book. Dancers intuitively understand this, but Cooper Albright extends the idea to nondancers too. She posits three R’s of the body: responsiveness, resistance and resilience. Borrowing from Contact Improvisation and Body-Mind-Centering, she has come up with her own series of exercises to increase sensation and grounding. The chapters are arranged in a cycle: Falling, Disorientation, Suspension, Gravity, Resilience, and Connection. Each one riffs on a real experience in her own life. The chapter on disorientation, for example, begins with an account of being caught in a street protest in Athens when the police started unleashing tear gas.

Her imagination takes the reader into all kinds of insights. She envisions the skin as the screen door to the outside world. The body as home. How to Land accomplishes the wish of many artists: to be personal and universal at once.

 

Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy
By Emily Wilcox
University of California Press

One of the few American dancers to have trained in China, Wilcox brings a fount of knowledge and experience to this book—not only of dance but of Chinese history in general. Contrary to the usual American narrative of Communist China shutting down individual artists’ work and producing propaganda ballets, Wilcox analyzes an array of Chinese 20th-century dance forms. She emphasizes the three founding principles of Chinese dance, as constructed by Trinidad-born choreographer Dai Ailian, who had trained in London: 1) kinesthetic nationalism (using movement from local sources), 2) spatial and ethnic inclusiveness (regarding minority ethnicities as good sources), and 3) dynamic inheritance (Chinese dance should draw on the past but also be new). Dai Ailian wanted the new aesthetic to be based on a merging of opposites: “northern and southern, secular and religious, elite and popular, rural and urban, Han [majority] and non-Han [equivalent of non-white].” In 1954, Dai became the first director of the Beijing Dance School.

Chinese opera, which combines music, words, movement, and acrobatic martial arts, was a rich resource in this project to construct a national dance form. Wilcox discusses other forms of dance that cropped up, like disco and hip hop. In the early 1980s, visits from Asian American dance artists Ruby Shang and Lan-Lan Wang were also influences. Wilcox tells us that Chinese dance today continues evolving through research and renewal.

While the author treads lightly on the repressiveness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), she does say that dance teachers were sent to do manual labor and that most forms of dance were banished during that period. But she also points out that women were given new respect. For example, marriage choice (as opposed to the tradition of arranged marriages) became a theme in the ballets of the period.

This book is the wave of the future in that it contains 19 QRs by which anyone with an iPhone can view video clips of the works she discusses. One fascinating example is the dance drama titled The Fires of Fury Are Burning (1964), performed by the PLA General Political Department Song and Dance Ensemble, about the brutality of American racism. It shows a community of people in blackface fighting a cruel white cop, complete with a burning cross and hooded KKK figures. In their naïve fashion—with exaggerated happy or angry facial expressions—this group was, according to Wilcox, “offering a message of support of African-American civil rights.”

 

Broadway, Balanchine & Beyond: A Memoir
Bettijane Sills with Elizabeth McPherson
Foreword by Carol K. Walker
University Press of Florida

Bettijane Sills, who danced in New York City Ballet from 1961 to 1972, shares her perspective on Balanchine’s approach. His avoidance of divas, treating technique class more as a choreographic laboratory than as a time for the dancers to warm up, his love of gossip, his abhorrence of pretense, earn him the term, in the author’s words, “benevolent dictator.” Although Sills rose from corps to soloist, certain obstacles prevented her from rising to principal status. One of them was the emotional see-saw tied to her fluctuations of weight: Balanchine would reward her with good roles when she was thin and take them away when she gained a few pounds. Ostensibly the fat shaming wasn’t just to become thin, but to become expressive. “You are like a cocoon,” he would say. “Your true personality will only be revealed when all the fat is gone, and you are down to your bones.” In this #MeToo era, she felt compelled to say he never sexually harassed her, but then again, she was careful to keep her distance.

There are moments of humor, particularly in what the dancers said among themselves. For instance, one passage of Serenade where they repeatedly touch their foreheads is called the “aspirin dance.” After nine years in the company, plus marriage and a child, Sills started teaching. She’s been on the faculty of SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance since 1979.

 

Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life
By Twyla Tharp
Simon & Schuster

Until her ’70s, Twyla Tharp never had a serious injury. She considered dance a “sacred trust, the fulfillment of my pledge to respect and work hard with what I had.” But after an injury that wouldn’t heal, she felt defeated. Being an uber problem solver, Tharp came up with strategies to get through the recovery process. This book is two books in one: First, a dancer’s story of injury, depression, and healing; and second, a how-to book for anyone who is facing aging. As with her books The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit, this one has grit because Tharp has figured all this out for herself. Here are some examples of her sensible advice: “Age is not the enemy. Stagnation is the enemy. Complacency is the enemy. Stasis is the enemy.” Here’s another: “Get out of your own way; do not expect what you have been in the past to make your today.” But enough of the don’t’s. Here are some inspiring Do’s: “Be deliberate, act with intention. Move. Chase the sublime and the absurd. Make each day one where you emerge, unlock, excite, and discover.”

Tharp also sets forth a number of exercises that could be done by nondancers as well as by dancers. My favorite is the Squirm, a movement she calls “our common evolutionary beginning.”

On her way to healing, the choreographer still retains her sense of wonder. For inspiration she watches an iPhone video of her grandson’s first steps, which reminds her “how incredibly courageous we all are as little mites lurching about in space.” And she’s thankful for the “freedom to be able to learn something for the second time around.” Of course, Tharp herself, still choreographing in her late ’70s, is an inspiration.

 

Glory: A Life Among Legends
By Glory Van Scott
Self published, widely available online

Dancer, educator, producer Dr. Glory Van Scott grew up in Chicago with obvious talent as a dancer and singer. One of six children whose parents were a doctor and a model, she seemed to have a comfortable childhood. But in 1955, she learned that her cousin, Emmett Till, was murdered in Mississippi for possibly whistling at a white woman. At that moment she vowed not to succumb to violence and revenge, ever.

The legends she worked with include George Balanchine (in House of Flowers), Katherine Dunham, Agnes De Mille, Talley Beatty, Langston Hughes, and Miles Davis. Although Balanchine wanted her to dance in his company, she declined and went instead with Katherine Dunham. (Arthur Mitchell tells a great story about how he and Tanaquil Le Clerq tried to convince Van Scott to join New York City Ballet, but she not interested. (Go five minutes into this clip). She took on some roles that only Miss Dunham had done.

A charismatic performer, Van Scott danced in many musicals including House of Flowers, Finian’s Rainbow, Showboat, Porgy and Bess, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Billy No Name, and Langston Hughes’s Prodigal Son. In 1978 she coordinated “The Magic of Katherine Dunham,” a historic series for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She also produced many children’s shows and memorial concerts for Miss Dunham, Syvilla Fort, and Talley Beatty. The current Dr. Glory’s Youth Theatre is still performing. In fact, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office proclaimed December 1, 2019, “Dr. Glory’s Youth Theatre Appreciation Day.”

 

Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master
By Nadine Meisner
Oxford University Press

We tend to think of Marius Petipa (1818–1910) as ancient history. But he was the beginning of ballet as we know it. In this exhaustive study, Nadine Meisner emphasizes that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was built on the foundation that Petipa had laid. He oversaw the evolution from romanticism to the clean lines of classical ballet. In 1909, when Ballets Russes revived interest in ballet in Europe—only a year before Petipa’s death—it brought ballet full circle, since Petipa had started in France.

A member of a dancing family, Petipa came to St. Petersburg as a performer in 1847. He stayed on, excelling in character roles, for 22 years. From 1869 to 1904, as ballet master, he created ballets that Meisner calls “exciting yet refined.” He learned from his predecessors. For example, Perrot (creator of Giselle) was good at manipulating large numbers of people onstage, and Saint-Léon (creator of Coppelia) was good at making solos. Petipa made or re-made many ballets in addition to the ones he is most known for: The Sleeping Beauty (1890), Nutcracker (1892, for which he had more to do with the libretto than the choreography) and Swan Lake (1895).

As ballet master, Petipa was strict but well loved. In 1904, after he was replaced, some of the dancers—including Pavlova and Karsavina— signed a petition demanding that he be hired back. But the current directorate had no such plan.

Meisner doesn’t shy away from Petipa’s artistic weaknesses: Long processions interrupted the plot, the narrative was carried by mime instead of dancing, and the virtuoso steps did not match the story. She quotes a critic who called his first big ballet, The Pharoah’s Daughter (1862), “interminable.” But Petipa knew how to give the public the spectacles they wanted. Meisner contends that his choreography led to the reforms of Balanchine. “In the century’s final decade,” she writes, “the proportion of dance to drama increased in dance’s favour, opening the door to the plotless ballets of the twentieth century.”

 

I’ve written endorsements for two books, and I repeat them here:

Making Dances That Matter: Resources for Community Creativity
By Anna Halprin with Rachel Kaplan
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
“Anna Halprin is a pioneer of postmodern dance, a warrior for connecting arts to social issues, and a healer of individuals and communities. Here, in crystal clear prose, her wisdom of the-body-in-the-world tumbles out. Borrowing concepts from various cultural traditions, Halprin lays out the scores she has created over a long lifetime of exploring and transgressing. Her ability to integrate body, mind, and spirit is both soothing and exhilarating.”

Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts
By Annie-B Parson
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
“After a dance is gone, what traces are left? For Annie-B Parson, her drawings, charts, and observations of motifs provide a rich afterlife. She has created hundreds of these two-dimensional forms that challenge the ephemerality of dance. They depict the most tangible part of her dances: the objects that float in and out of her enigmatic collaborations with playwright/director Paul Lazar. They are clues to Parson’s fertile imagination. Gathered into Darwinian sets of sub-species, they take on an incantatory power.”

 

Other Books Received

Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco
By K. Meira Goldberg
Oxford University Press
One of New York’s great flamencas, Meira Goldberg (aka La Meira) has become a distinguished dancer/scholar. In this book, she finds the ideas of writers like Robert Farris Thompson and Toni Morrison “useful in cracking the carapace of flamenco’s weird stereotype” as the Other. She finds new wrinkles in the annals of blackface minstrelsy that pertain to gypsies. She writes about the “minstrelized Gitano, who carried a hybrid of Spanish and American representations of Blackness directly into flamenco.” The place of the soul in flamenco, according to Goldberg, is the “place of exile, the place at the heart of Spanish identity wherein lie “the Gypsy, the black, the Jew [and] the Moor.”

Out Loud, A Memoir
By Mark Morris with Wesley Spence
Penguin Random House
This review by Brian Seibert in The New York Times says it all.

La Meri and Her Life Dance: Performing the World
By Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter
University Press of Florida
La Meri (1899–1988), was known, in her day, as a remarkably versatile “ethnic dancer.” After studying Indian classical dance in India and flamenco in Spain, she toured with a wide-ranging repertoire throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America. For many years she taught and performed at Jacob’s Pillow. This is the first biography of a woman who pioneered the form of what we now call “world dance.”

Staging Brazil: Choreographies of Capoeira
By Ana Paula Höfling
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
In the 1830s, capoeira was a violent martial art. Opponents were described as “throwing themselves against each other like rams,” often ending in knife fights. In 1890, capoeira was prohibited from being practiced in public spaces. It eventually acquired more gymnastic and musical skills and was named “Brazil’s national sport.” Now that it’s a popular export, Höfling addresses questions like How much is still connected to the African diaspora? How pure are the rituals? Some feel that capoeira “magnified European audiences’ fantasies of a savage, wild, barely-under-control Afro-diasporic corporeality.” Höfling’s aim is “to untangle the notions of Africa, traditions, and the past” and look at the true complexity of capoeira today.

Physics and Dance
Emily Coates and Sarah Demers
Yale University Press
A beautifully written exploration into the interconnections between physics and dance, co-written by dance artist Emily Coates, who has worked closely with Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, and Yvonne Rainer; and physicist Sarah Demers. Finding points of contact between how a dancer and a physicist look at motion, energy, time and space takes on a certain eloquence when the dancer is a thinker in her own right.

Celluloid Classicism: Early Tamil Cinema and the Making of Modern Bharatanatyam
By Hari Krishnan
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
On the intersection and cross influence between film of South India and the evolution of the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam.

After the Arbitrary: Merce Cunningham, Chance Operations, and The Human Situation on Stage
By Carrie Noland
University of Chicago Press
This book de-emphasizes the role of chance in Cunningham’s choreographic process. According to the press release, Noland shows that the choreographer “enacted archetypal human dramas.”

Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham
Foreword, Commentary, and Afterword by Laura Kuhn
The John Cage Trust
Available at Artbook
Charming, casual, poetic notes about John Cage’s own composing process—and about falling in love with Merce. And gossip. One revelation is that Jerome Robbins wanted Cunningham for a lead in his musical On the Town. The letters get intense when Cage loses his equanimity, admitting to Merce that he needs to know if Merce feels the same way.

 

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