Jewish Dance Scholarship Has Arrived

The book cover features Suzanne Miller in “Needle and Thread,” reflecting dance as memorial, Ph Daniel Paquet.

The far-reaching Oxford Handbook of Jewishness and Dance is both a culmination of decades of scholarship and a new look into the intersection of dance and Jewishness. No longer an obscure, occasional practice, Jewish dance scholarship has arrived. It has been accumulating for years, with Judith Brin Ingber, to whom the book is dedicated, leading the way. Researchers like Dina Roginsky, Henia Rottenberg, and Nina Spiegel have carried the torch. Young scholars like Hannah Kosstrin and Rebecca Rossen have recently given us provocative books and essays, laying the foundation for this new phase of investigation.

This anthology of thirty essays, published by Oxford University Press, was sparked by a stimulating conference held at Arizona State University in 2018. Titled “Jews and Jewishness in the Dance World” and organized by Naomi Jackson, it attracted hundreds of dance artists and educators from all over the world. It was a warm gathering—emotional at times—crammed with talks, demonstrations, and workshops. At the end of three days, we were treated to an evening of performance of inspiring works by Sara Pearson, Ephrat Asherie, Adam McKinney, Jesse Zaritt, Nicole Bindler, Maggie Waller, and Hadar Ahuvia. David Dorfman and Dan Froot topped it off with a rollicking ride, complete with sly Yiddishisms and dancing for all. (Full disclosure: I co-curated the concert with Liz Lerman, who was a co-organizer of the whole conference with Jackson.) Happily, the companion website connects to resources like video clips, so I’ll be giving specific links along the way.

The scope and depth of this 737-page tome are invigorating, evoking pride, joy, sorrow, outrage and all kinds of mixed emotions. Kudos to the editors—Naomi Jackson, Rebecca Pappas, and Toni Shapiro-Phim—for stretching us in many directions. The contributions of young dance-makers like Hadar Ahuvia, Jesse Zarrit, Adam McKinney, and Yahuda Hyman are each brilliant in articulating a broken-ness that needed to be repaired… internal tikkun olam that engages with the world through art. What you won’t find is a lot of coverage of Israel’s flagship company, Batsheva Dance Company, or the development of Israeli folk dance. The reason, as explained in the Introduction, is that these areas are amply covered elsewhere. So when these topics appear in this volume, it is usually through the lens of a critique.

Although it’s clear from the choice of the word “Jewishness” rather than “Judaism” that the thrust is toward a cultural rather than religious definition, a few chapters do swing toward religion. Examples are Jill Gellerman’s essay on inclusiveness in Hasidic dance, Efrat Nehama’s “My Body Is My Torah,” and Talia Perlshtein, Reuven Tabull, and Rachel Sagee’s chapter on dance in the religious sector of Israel.

First-Person stories

I tend to gravitate to personal stories, so I will touch on six inspiring tales, told with complexity and intensity. Four of them are by young firebrands, and two are by respected elders Judith Chazin-Bennahum and Ze’eva Cohen. They have all found ways of integrating their passion for dance with their Jewish heritage. They’ve reimagined their identities to arrive at who they have become and are becoming.

Hadar Ahuvia, who grew up in Israel and the U. S., questions the Zionist legacy in her essay “Joy Vey: Choreographing a Radical Diasporic Israeliness.” When she learned about the Nakba (the Palestinian word for the disaster of the birth of Israel and expulsion of Palestinians), it shattered the anchor of Zionism as a “grounding force.” She wrestled with her old beliefs, utilizing Israeli folk dance—her attachment to, and yet interrogation of—to embrace multiple identities. She articulates her inner, political struggle in the bracing solo Joy Vey, with a bit of guidance from Jeanine Durning’s method of Unstopping. In it she skims the earth with folk dances learned as a child, while hearing an incantatory voice (her own on recording) in a litany imagining another reality. (“And maybe they never fled because they were never there, Maybe we didn’t shoot at them as they left to make sure they never returned.”) I add here that her performance of an excerpt of Joy Vey was a powerful, mesmerizing contribution to the final concert of the conference.

Adam McKinney in “HaMapah,” 2010, Ph Lafotgrapheuse.

For Adam McKinney, being Jewish is only part of a difficult yet sometimes joyful multiple identity. His writing in “HaMapah/The Map: Navigating Intersections” reveals a sweetness and vulnerability, and yet a determination to uncover his tangled roots. As he plays with words, he answers to “boychick” in the Yiddish sense, but also claims his feminine side in the “chick” portion. When tracing his family history, some of it violent, he calls himself “GayBlackNativeJewish.” He doesn’t want his multiple identities to be wedged into “otherness.”  You can see his powerful, soulful dancing and storytelling in these clips.

Jesse Zaritt in “send off, “ph Grant Halverson.

Jesse Zaritt, who teaches at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, wrote about how being gay was definitely outside his Jewish upbringing. A sharp, painful clarity on his outsider-ness informs his essay send off, which is about his piece of the same title. Send off harks back to ancient biblical stories with a stinging sarcasm. After an immersive journey in dance, Zaritt has arrived at a place that is somewhat of a tortured elegy but also fluidly himself:

In send off my whole body at once reaches forward  toward a fantasy of queer potentiality and backward toward an imaginary erotics of ancient Jewish embodiment …I am a man who is still a boy… I am the caretaker betraying and betrayed by those he loves. I am the divine feminine…And I am an animal about to die. In collapsing four unruly beings into one, I find myself uncomfortably, impossibly, in a willful, passive, wise, and wild body. I am trying to create a new being made of the parts these four characters have played.

If you want to catch an excerpt of Jesse Zaritt’s send off, accompanied by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin’s hilariously sarcastic yet powerful dialog riffing off of Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son, click here.

Dege Feder in “Jalo,” 2017, Ph Inbal Cohen Hamo.

Dege Feder, an Ethiopian Jew, came to Jerusalem from her small village in northern Ethiopia, where she herded goats at age 6. She would sing while minding the goats, but music and dance as performance were nonexistent. At 8, she walked barefoot to Jerusalem, with a group of people who sometimes left her behind. (The Ethiopian government would punish anyone caught trying to emigrate with prison or death, so refugees could only walk at night. The courage of this child is staggering.). When she arrived in Jerusalem, she eventually taught dance to the Ethiopian community. At the University of Haifa, she encountered Ruth Eshel, the Israeli dance maven who engaged with Ethiopian communities with the notion of dance as a cultural bridge. Feder joined Eshel’s Eskesta Dance Theater, which centered on the percussive Ethiopian shoulder dance called eskesta—first as a drummer and then as a dancer. The company broke up and then resumed under the name Beta Dance Troupe. Feder became its soloist, and then, in 2013, its director. This enchanting music video, titled Amaweren’ya (2017). shows her singing (sheer charisma), dancing that crazy shoulder dance (parts of the upper body jutting in different directions), and activating a multi-generational community.


Stories of Two of Our Elders

Chazin-Bennahum in “Clarissa,” choreography by Thomas Andrew, Santa Fe Opera, 1961, Ph Tom Webb.

For Judith Chazin-Bennahum, dance was so central to her early life that it crowded out Judaism. But in her mini-memoir, “The Nearness of Judaism,” she takes us through her transformation from a ballet girl to a dance historian, increasing her commitment to Jewishness along the way. While performing with the early Joffrey company and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, she took note of Jewish dance artists  like Melissa Hayden, Bruce Marks, Doris Rudko, Pearl Lang, and Judith Dunn. Eventually, as expressed in her final sub-section, “My Body and Soul Merge,” she finds a way to balance dance with family and Judaism. She writes of the common ground she found in ballet and the Torah:

I loved the sense of inevitability, that one thing followed another and that movements needed to be accomplished the same way pretty much all the time, only better. Dancing in tune with others was thrilling, and keeping together reassuring. I found out later that the rigor of studying the Torah required a similar obsession with learning, with knowing what came next, with a joy in the ritual of habit.

Today Bennahum is a foremost dance scholar who has written books on pivotal Jewish figures, namely René Blum and Ida Rubinstein.


Ze’eva Cohen, a harbinger of the current trend in cultural identity dances, grew up as a Yemenite Jew in British Mandate Palestine, later to become Israel. Her story is a must-read for anyone interested in the connection between Israeli and American dance. Her insights about Gertrud Kraus (lots of improvisation), Sara Levi-Tanai (channeling her Yemenite heritage into Inbal Dance Theater), and Margalit Oved (muse of Levi-Tanai and star of Inbal) are compelling. Not to mention her work with Anna Sokolow, who brought Cohen to Juilliard. Cohen’s breakthrough at Juilliard was dancing in Doris Humphrey’s rippling Ritmo Jondo. (I saw her perform in this work in the 1960s and have never forgotten her light-giving, sensual magnetism.) As a solo performer touring with her own rep, she crossed many cultural barriers. While being true to her Middle Eastern heritage, she also found “otherness” within herself as a performer working with contemporary choreographers like Rudy Perez, Viola Farber, and James Waring. When Cohen started to choreograph, she unconsciously circled back to her Yemenite background. (At the conference, Ze’eva gave a workshop in which she taught the deceptively simple Yemenite step that appears in Israeli folk dance.)

Ze’eva Cohen as Rebecca in “Mothers of Israel” by Margalit Oved, 1979, Pd John Lindquist © Harvard Theatre Collection.

Cohen points out that Inbal, the first internationally touring dance company of Israel, was populated with Yemenite immigrants who were perceived to be “authentic,” meaning close to biblical times, but not “professional” modern dancers. When, years later, she commissioned Oved to choreograph Mothers of Israel for her, she felt that “I became my grandmothers.” You can see a number of clips of Mothers of Israel and Ze’eva’s own choreography here. (There is more about the remarkable, captivating singer/dancer/storyteller Margalit Oved in Nina S. Spiegel’s chapter, “Mapping a Mizrahi Presence in Israeli Concert Dance.”)

The Ever-Present Holocaust

The Holocaust is addressed with all the weightiness needed. One of the most intense personal connections with Holocaust history is related in Yehuda Hyman’s “Dancing on Smoke: A Dance Action in Germany.” Hyman visited a reflecting pool in Freiburg designed as a commemoration of a synagogue that had been burned to the ground during Kristallnacht in 1938. When he saw the casual, party atmosphere of people around the pool—and no visible plaque to mark the atrocity—he became upset. Not speaking German, he felt an absolute necessity to take physical action. He stepped into the pool with his challis and yarmulka, took out his tallis and recited a prayer. He walked, he moved, he screamed. As he recalls,

My body is summoning up a story about the destruction that lies below me…I start to…embody what I am discovering in the pool and executing every Jewish gesture I know. So I’m doing ‘The Wise Jew,’ I’m doing ‘The Happy Jew,’ I’m doing ‘The Sad Jew’ and then…the traumatized displaced Jew whose body is in shock and can’t move at all.

Hyman’s action became known as “Jew in the Pool.” He reprised it a year later, this time dancing for three days in the pool. It inspired a vigil, some protests, and finally, the installment of signs showing the burnt synagogue and pictograms forbidding certain actions. This did not entirely stop the disrespectful behavior. But for Hyman, he’d been through something: “For me the pool represents the body of the Jewish people and the act of defaming that body feels like a violation of my body…I danced on tragedy, beauty, and community.”

Yehuda Hyman, in commemorative pool in Freiburg, 2018, Ph Thomas Kunz.


Marion Kant brings up Primo Levi’s statement, “There is Auschwitz and so there cannot be God.” His follow-up question is the title of her essay, “Then in What Sense Are You a Jewish Artist?” Levi’s answer is, “The racial laws and concentration camp stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate… They made me Jewish.” Kant goes into the history of German culture in which she mentions that the plot of Giselle (1841) draws on a narrative by the Jewish Heinrich Heine as “a tale of the Jewish struggle for emancipation.” There’s lots more complex history, which I don’t entirely grasp. But I did pick up one surprising point: Based on Heine and the integration of Jews at the loftiest levels of German culture, Kant contends that ballet in the 19th century was more open to Jewishness than German Modern Dance in the 20th century (e.g. Laban, Wigman), which tended to be nationalistic. She concludes that a sense of responsibility is necessary to reach “the emancipation of all humanity.”


Laure Guilbert studied the rare incidents of dancing amidst the hell of the death camps. In “The Micro-Gestures of Survival: Searching for the Lost Traces,” she retains an elegant balance between theory (e.g. Kafka, Bettelheim, Adorno, Deleuze) and encompassing the enormity of evil and suffering. The prisoners were considered “mere shadows without names or faces,” and yet a few of them managed to reclaim their souls through some kind of dance. She tells of the harrowing bravery of Tajana Barbakoff, Yehudit Arnon, Helen Lewis, and Catherina Frank. Dance played a role in the imagination that kept their minds alive, and sometimes dancing for SS officers kept them physically alive. Guilbert calls these moments of dance “the final act of life amidst their own death sentence. In a larger sense, they also embody and condense the final gasp of German-Jewish and Eastern European Yiddish cultures.”

She also calls them “a testament to the human impulse to save humanity even in the very moment of its radical destruction.” The inner life, amidst the hunger and humiliation, can be preserved in memory or movement. Hella Tarnow, trained in Indonesian dance, used the sense of touch to bring back physical sensation to prisoners. Miraculously, Helen Lewis was able to forget the freezing cold, the pain, and the hunger when her fellow campmates asked her to dance to Delibes music. Although these brief moments could not put a dent in the infernal Nazi machine, they are “the very ethical and poetic support structure, that makes survival possible in those places.”

Yehudit Arnon, an Auschwitz survivor included in Guilbert’s account of prisoners’ bravery, became one of the giants of Israeli dance. Gdalit Neuman, in “From Victimized to Victorious,” studies Arnon’s project in Budapest right after the War, when Arnon worked with young women to strengthen their bodies and spirits, thus changing the gender balance. Arnon went on to establish the International Dance Village at Kibbutz Ga’aton and the award-winning Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. (If you want to know more about the seminal Arnon, see Judith Brin Ingber’s entry on her in Jewish Women’s Archive.)


Rebecca Rossen focuses on The Ivye Project (1994), the magical, site-specific work that Tamar Rogoff created in a forest in Belarus. When Rogoff first visited Ivye, she learned that twenty-nine members of her father’s family perished in the massacre of May 12, 1942. To mourn them, she has to know them, and to know them, she has to spend time there. She gathered more than a hundred people—very few of them Jewish for the simple reason that most Jews had been murdered—to take part in a time-travel work that depicted Jewish shtetl life in Belarus while also marking the Nazi massacre. Scenes included a seder, a man putting his daughter to bed, a couple feeding each other, a game of cards, and a Sabbath celebration with live music by Frank London and the Klezmatics. Luckily, the companion website gives glimpses of The Ivye Project that allow you to feel you’re in the forest experiencing Rogoff’s wondrous version of Jewish life at the time.

“The Ivye Project,” with David Rogow as the Rabbi, Ivye, 1994, Ph Aaron Paley.

Rossen discusses the after-effects on the town and the performers, some of whom were children of survivors. She quotes the cast historian saying,

People needed to see that Jews used to live in Ivye. That there were artisans, tailors, shoemakers, that there were also lazy bones and there were saints. All of us were involved, we didn’t act in the performance, we lived it.

There was a realization that what was lost was not only 2,524 lives, but a whole way of life. As Rossen’s writes, “The Ivye Project resurrected a suppressed Jewish history and invited a diverse group of people to witness and actively participate in reviving and narrating it.”


Anna Halprin in “My Grandfather Dances,” NYC, 1999, Ph Julie Lemberger.

Naturally, the Holocaust crops up in many other places, for example, in the interview with Anna Halprin by Ninotchka Bennahum. (Ninotchka is the daughter of Judith Chazin-Bennahum.) A dance pioneer who claimed her Jewishness both as religion and as moral philosophy, Halprin says that her early solo The Prophetess (1947), about a powerful woman judge in the bible who protects her people, was also meant as “a way of fighting back against the Nazis.” Halprin is represented on the companion website by her poignant/funny solo My Grandfather Dances (2003) and her landmark performance piece, Parades and Changes (1965). (These works are discussed in the interview’s prelude, which is based on Bennahum’s research for Radical Bodies, an exhibit and book that Ninotchka and I were, along with Bruce Robertson, co-curators on.)

Others who wrote about Holocaust-related projects include Rebecca Pappas, Alexx Shilling, and Suzanne Miller.

Tying Modernism to Jewishness

Douglas Rosenberg offers an art-historical underpinning to Jewishness in modernism in his essay “It Was There All Along: Theorizing a Jewish Narrative of Dance and (Post-)Modernism.” He frames it as a ghost history, saying that the recognition of Jewishness in dance means it’s no longer veiled. He sees Jewish identity as familiar, historical, and tribal. One of the principles is tikkun olam (repairing the world), a value that runs throughout this book. Rosenberg makes a connection between Dada, Susan Sontag, Clement Greenberg, and “hidden Jews” of the Avant-garde.” Referring to Tristen Tzara, born Samuel Rosenstock, and Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky, he invokes other Jewish artists, like Mark Rothko and Allen Kaprow, to draw parallels. In terms of dance, he talks about the contribution of Jewish women to modernism, invoking Meredith Monk, Sally Banes, Liz Lerman, and Sally Gross, to whom this landmark essay is dedicated. He refers to all these artists as examples of “the ecosystem of Jewishness that traverses modernism.” He compares Sally Gross, one of the Judson Dance Theater experimenters who is not often mentioned, to painter Mark Rothko in creating a “sacred Jewish space.”

And More

There isn’t space here for everything. But I want to mention the chapter on Felix Fibich (by Naomi Jackson, Joel Gereboff, and Steve Lee Weintraub), the early modernist who defined the Jewish soul as marked by both joy and sadness, thus creating a torque in the body. And Dana Shalen’s chapter on Arkadi Zaides, the radical Belarus-born choreographer who brought Israelis and Arabs together. In his tremulous quartet, Quiet, two Israeli and two Arab men broke cultural barriers by tenderly or violently touching each other. (When I saw this in Tel Aviv, a lightbulb shattered above their heads; although it wasn’t intended, it was a perfect metaphor for shattering cultural taboos.) An innovative workshop dreamt up by Victoria Marks and Hannah Schwadron led to their essay “I, You, We: Dancing Interconnectedness and Jewish Betweens.” Miriam Roskin Berger, Marsha Perlmutter Kalina, Johanna Climenko, and Joanna Gewertz Harris write about the Jewish roots of dance therapy. There are more stories about various aspects of Israeli dance by Melissa Melpignano, Dina Roginsky, and Joshua Schmidt, and a politicized view of Ohad Naharin’s Gaga practice by Meghan Quinlan. And interesting entries by Philip Szporer, K. Meira Goldberg, Liora Bing-Heidecker, Christi Jay Wells, Avia Moore, and Eileen Levinson. So sorry to lump all these chapters in one paragraph.

In the book’s conclusion, Kosstrin cherishes every contribution (as do I) but also nudges us toward confronting gnarly dilemmas. She suggests a more feminist language and a less European (Ashkenazy) lens through which to investigate the interconnectedness of Jewishness and dance. For non-Ashkenazy lineage, she gives the example of the hand mudras used by both Margalit Oved and her son Barak Marshall. These gestures migrated from Yemen to Israel to the States. She advocates scholars “grappling with the entangled aesthetics and politics embedded” in choreography. She wants us to notice “the tension between Jewishness and Israeliness” (which, I would say, is more keenly felt by the younger generation). And she situates Jewish dance scholarship in the context of other cultural dance studies: Black dance studies, Latinx, South Asian, native and queer dance studies. Kosstrin ends with a series of questions. For example, when talking about the aggression of Israel’s government toward Arab communities, “How do we engage in dance in ways that show empathy and vigilance?” Nu…what could be more Jewish than asking questions?

It takes time to absorb the diverse and deep views in the Handbook. Time to sort through the chapters, return to some of them, make connections. Time to allow oneself to evolve, to gain or lose or reclaim different aspects of the intersection of Jewishness and dance. Spirituality and art. Culture and choreography. History and the contemporary world. What it means to be a Jew, to be a Jewish dancer, and how that changes at different times of one’s life (as anti-Semitism continues to rise and fall). A final note: “Handbook” is a misnomer. This book is a treasury of gems of courage, creativity, storytelling, and research. L’chaim.


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Resources for Archiving & Researching

Compiled by Wendy Perron and Norton Owen (in process)
NOTE: If you would like to add a resource or make a correction, please comment in the space below.

Creating Your Own Archive
Dance/USA’s Archiving & Preservation Affinity Group
ChromaDiverse – Judy Tyrus’s organization for archival management for the
performing arts
Jacob’s Pillow Archives and info
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive (including Playlists and Themes|Essays)
Jacob’s Pillow Archives
PillowVoices podcast

Library Archives
New York Public Library  Jerome Robbins Dance Division
Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s Oral History Project
San Francisco Museum of Performance + Design holds collections of Bay Area artists like Anna Halprin
Dance Treasures A-Z, Dance Heritage Coalition at Library of Congress Web Archives
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Getty Research Institute has collections of Yvonne Rainer and Simone Fortil
Many libraries have finding aids for specific collections, for example, NYU has this site for the Wendy Perron Papers of the SoHo Weekly News 1975-78

Other Institutional Archives
BAM Hamm archive
ADF Archive
Bennington College Digital Repository Home includes photos of
the Bennington School of the Dance
Juilliard Digital Resources (Key in dance)
American Tap Dance Foundation

Examples of Company Archives
Martha Graham at the Library of Congress
Urban Bush Women Legacy Timeline
Merce Cunningham chronology of choreography
Merce Cunningham Archives and Selected Readings
Alvin Ailey timeline
Katherine Dunham Timeline
Eiko & Koma timeline
Nikolais/Louis Archives
Trisha Brown repertory
Archives of José Limón (must request access)
New York City Ballet Repertory

Historical Archives
Michel Fokine—Fokine Estate Archive
George Blanchine Catalogue

Culturally Specific Archives
MoBBallet – Theresa Ruth Howard’s website, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet
History Makers, long interviews with Black artists
Jewish Women Archives has entries on Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang, Sophie Maslow etc.
University of Michigan’s Chinese Dance Collection
Final Bow for Yellow Face

Innovative approaches to archiving
David Gordon’s Archiveography

For the avant-garde of all genres: UbuWeb

Publications no longer publishing in print
Contact Quarterly
SoHo Weekly News, SoHo Memory Project

Alexander Street, a ProQuest database, has more than 1200 videos and all of Dance Magazine digitized. You can access through a college or university affiliation but you can get a free trial here.

The Dance Education Literature and Research descriptive index (DELRdi) is an index listing more than 9,000 literary works including theses, dissertations, journal articles, conference proceedings. The listings, which are drawn from hundreds of publications, university dance programs, government agencies, and other organizations and individuals. They include information on the methodology, techniques, and characteristics of the literature documented in the index. Full text of a document is included when permission is granted by the copyright holder.  Access options can be found here.

Photographers’ Websites in Dance
Stephanie Berger
Christopher Duggan
Rose Eichenbaum
Lois Greenfield
Matthew Karas
Kyle Froman Photography
Chris Nash, UK choreographer

For any past article in The New York Times, just key in name or headline on the NY Times site.

Unsung Heroes of Dance History on this site

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Jeni LeGon (1916–2012)

With swinging arms and flashy legwork, Jeni LeGon could tap her way onto any stage or screen. Her lively eyes and enchanting smile put audiences in a good mood. Less polished than her white counterparts like Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, she was more inviting, more joyful. There was a freedom to the way her limbs expanded a bit too much, her energy spilling over. When she rose up in a toe stand, it was as though sheer effervescence pulled her up.

Publicity shot, Smithsonian Papers

The first Black woman to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio, LeGon was caught between Hollywood’s ambivalent attempt at inclusion and the racism that was everywhere. If MGM had followed through on that contract, there would be a cluster of good movie musicals starring Jeni LeGon. But the opportunities she had to shine were mostly limited to low-budget Black musicals. Luckily, we can treasure glimpses of them on YouTube.

Jeni LeGon (née Jennie Ligon) grew up in a large, musical family on Chicago’s South Side. As a child, she took a few dance lessons at the Mary Bruce’s School of Dancing, but mostly she learned to tap in neighborhood theaters. In those days there was a stage show and a movie, and both would repeat. Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway would tour to one of the Chicago theaters with their bands and their dancers. Twice a week Jeni would use her lunch money to spend a day there. She’d watch the stage show, then, when the movie played, she’d go upstairs to the lobby to try out the steps. For the last stage show of the day, “I’d go back down and watch ’em again to see if I had remembered the steps well enough to get ’em in my head.” (qtd. in Greschuk) She would dash home to make it by 6:00. She never told her mother until years later that she had skipped school. In a sense, those stage shows were her schooling.

On weekends she organized “show gangs” with what she called “tramp bands” that might include a kazoo, a bass made of a string attached to a washtub, singers, dancers, and drummers (even if it was just tin pans or cardboard boxes). They performed to “patrons” who sat on the stoops:

We charged a nickel and a dime, people would sit on the steps and we would be on the sidewalks. We had kids who could do acrobatics or could sing. I was the boss. I’m a Leo, I was the head honcho. (qtd. in Abbott)

Her brother was an exhibition ballroom dancer and together they would enter competitions and sweep up. When she was only 13 or 14, she auditioned for the chorus line of Count Basie’s new band. She was the youngest and least developed, so when the new chorus girls tried on the sexy two-piece outfits, she didn’t fill it out.

“The bra hung down… and I felt so silly,” she recalled decades later. “The director had a fit: “What am I going to do with you?” I said, “I don’t wear those things. I always wear pants.’ ” When he found out she could sing, he said, “Then you don’t have to dance with the line, you can dance out front.” (qtd. in Greschuk) She had to quickly back up her claim by assembling a snazzy suit outfit with contributions from family members.

At 15, she joined the Whitman Sisters. Considered the royalty of Black vaudeville, the four Whitman Sisters were the only touring group produced and managed by Black women. The four sisters were known for cultivating the talents of many Black entertainers, including Count Basie and tap dancer Leonard Reed. They toured their variety show with a jazz band, comedians, acrobats, and a chorus line. As LeGon recalled,

The Whitman sisters had fixed the line so we had all the colors that our race is known for. All the pretty shading — from the darkest, darkest to the palest of pale. Each one of us was a distinct-looking kid. It was a rainbow of beautiful girls.” (qtd. in Frank, 122)

They toured the South, which was a daunting prospect for Black groups. For the first time in her life, LeGon saw signs requiring segregation in public spaces. But the Whitman group, numbering twenty or thirty performers, was well prepared: Mabel, the eldest sister and the one in charge of bookings, had arranged for hotels and rooming houses that served Blacks in every city. Alice, the youngest, was known as the top female tapper of the day, and Jeni would watch her hungrily from the wings. (Abbott) Alberta, calling herself Bert, would perform in pants, which must’ve confirmed for Jeni that it wasn’t too crazy a thing to do¹. Stepping out of the chorus line, LeGon was part of the Three Snakehips Queens (Malone 62), who performed a version of the dance popularized by Earl “Snakehips” Tucker: swiveling the pelvis, undulating the spine, and shimmying feverishly.

Robison and LeGon, RKA-Radio Detroit publicity ph Robert W. Coburn

After a season with the Whitman Sisters, LeGon formed a duo with her foster sister, Willa Mae Lane, for which she wore the pants and Willa Mae wore a skirt. They were performing in Detroit with other talented youth when they were approached by a man who claimed he would get them work at the Culver City Cotton Club. So sixteen of them took a bus out to Hollywood … but the gig never materialized.

Somehow they got connected to Earl Dancer, who had been Ethel Waters’ manager. According to LeGon, Dancer “used to supply Black talent for all the studios.” (Crowe) He organized a performance for casting directors at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. In the audience was RKO, which had just signed Bill Robinson and Fats Waller to appear in Hooray for Love. They liked LeGon so much that they added her to the cast. (This was 1935, the year that RKO released two films with Robinson and Shirley Temple dancing together.) LeGon was the first Black woman to dance with Robinson on screen.

On the RKO lot all the dancers rehearsed in the same building—and that included Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. LeGon and Robinson had a congenial relationship with the famous pair. According to LeGon, “We’d stop by one another’s rehearsal and do a little bit of exchanging of steps and yakkity yakkin’ and stuff like that. It was fantastic.” (qtd. in Frank 123) But she was never invited to any of the white performers’ homes except for Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler, and that was probably because Jolson and Earl Dancer were good friends.

Robinson & LeGon

In Hooray for Love, her song-and-dance number with Robinson, “Living in a Great Big Way” is part of a set play within a play. Jeni’s character is a forlorn young woman who’s just been evicted from her home. Wearing a white turtleneck and dark trousers, she looks like a gamin, a tomboy. Robinson struts on, twirling his cane; he is the flamboyant “mayor.” (Robinson’s real-life nickname was “Mayor of Harlem” so he was basically playing himself.) He snaps his fingers to snap her out of the doldrums. She gamely clicks and taps along, with what Constance Valis Hill calls “her added bounce and genuine sweetness.” (Hill 124) Her casual, un-Hollywood look only adds to her charm. Her movement quality—loose torso, flowing arms, head bobbing—contrasts with Robinson’s centeredness. Fats Waller, as one of the moving men, starts jiving along with them, then impulsively plays the piano that’s been put out on the street. With the help of Robinson’s upbeat rhythm and Waller’s jazzy piano, her character transforms from melancholy to cheerful.

LeGon loved dancing with Robinson, who was the supreme tap legend, then and now. “I was floored. Just to think that me, a little skinny-legged kid coming out of Chicago…to be able to work with him was the highlight of my life.” She appreciated his rigorous approach. “Bill was a task master. When he was showing something you paid attention and you got it. He wouldn’t do it twenty times. He’d do the step two or three times and you’d better get it.” (qtd. in Greschuk) An added bonus: He taught her to like ice cream. (Crowe)

The audience response to her at the opening preview was ecstatic:

After Hooray for Love was shown, we went out in the lobby, and the people just descended on me like it was no tomorrow! — asking for my autograph and congratulating me, and all that sort of business. As I’ve said before, at that time, we lived in this black-and-white world, definitely. But here were all these people of the opposite race hugging and kissing me, and man, I thought they had lost their minds!…It was just glorious that all those people would stop me and talk to me that way. (Frank 124)

Did she think they had “lost their minds” because they weren’t behaving the way white people normally behave toward Black people? Scholar Nadine George-Graves interprets those three words as meaning “The minds they lost were their rationalizations for their typical treatment of African Americans.” (George-Graves 535) For that moment of appreciation, they suspended their usual sense of superiority.


Jeni was so successful in Hooray for Love that Earl Dancer was able to convince the head of MGM to put her under contract. MGM immediately cast the young tapper in a supporting role in the upcoming movie Broadway Melody of 1936, starring Eleanor Powell. At a dinner to promote the show (some called it a charity banquet), LeGon was to perform a number from the film as an opening act for Powell. But her dancing was so beguiling that she received two encores. (Spaner) “They kept applauding and I’m bowing, bowing, bowing.” (qtd. in Crowe) It was just a little too much love shown for the opening act and not enough for Powell. The next day, Arthur Freed from MGM told Jeni’s manager, Earl Dancer, that they could not have two female soloists, so they dropped LeGon. This was rather abrupt considering MGM had circulated this announcement: “JENI LEGON: MILLION DOLLAR PERSONALITY GIRL SIGNED.” (displayed in Greschuk) She was to receive a hefty weekly salary of $1,250 that could be raised each year for five years to a maximum of $4,500. MGM must’ve seen a gold mine in her—at first.

She never did play a lead in an MGM movie.


Triumph in London

After negotiating with Earl Dancer, MGM arranged for the young tapper to star in the London cast of C. B. Cochran’s At Home Abroad, a revue whose New York cast had been led by Ethel Waters and Eleanor Powell. On the way to London the title changed to Follow the Sun; LeGon sang Waters’ songs and danced Powell’s routines. She was a hit. A reviewer for Empire News raved:

Jeni LeGon is one of the brightest spirits that ever stepped on the stage. It seems that little Jeni LeGon is overshadowing all other entertainers…Jeni LeGon, the sepia Cinderella girl who set London agog with her clever dancing and cute antics. (qtd. in Frank 126)

Dishonour Bright 1936

She loved London and its lack of American racism:

It was an entirely different kind of life. We went from black and white to just people. It was the first time I had been addressed by Miss LeGon. I didn’t have to worry about going to places and being told I couldn’t come in. (qtd. in Greschuk)

During her two-year stay in London she was very social. Guests at her birthday party included the Nicholas Brothers and singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, who was friends with Josephine Baker. Though LeGon had never seen Baker dance, she emulated her from what she knew about her—being the end girl in the chorus line, taking comedic risks. (Her scene in Ali Baba Goes to Town with its over-the-top faux savagery, could have come right out of a Baker number. More about that later.) Through Paul Robeson and Earl Dancer, LeGon was introduced to Baker. “I finally met her—over the phone. Oh, I just carried on like a fool!” (qtd in Frank 125)

While in London she made the film Dishonor Bright (1936), a romantic comedy in which she played a cabaret dancer. She wanted to stay in London, where she was treated so well, but returned to the States in 1937 because of the first stirrings of war.


The Hoofers’ Club

Publicity shot for Hooray for Love

Almost as soon as she landed in New York, she was recruited to the Hoofers’ Club in Harlem, “the epicenter of twentieth-century tap” according to tap aficionado Brian Seibert. (Seibert 21) This was a small room with a piano in the same building as gambling and a pool hall. LeGon recalls that it was probably John Bubbles who brought her, and she was one of the very few women invited—possibly the only one. Bubbles, Robinson, Eddie Rector and other top tappers were regulars. It was a place for jamming, but it was rigorous: If the others didn’t like what you did, you would not be invited back. Or you would go away and work on your steps until you could master them, and along the way you developed your own style. The credo, according to Hill, was “Survive or die.” (Hill 87). LeGon valued both craftsmanship and “selling” it. “I absorbed it. Every time I’d see something that I liked, I would take it and tear it to pieces and make it my own.” (Qtd in Frank 127) The Hoofers Club, which lasted into the 40s, was portrayed in the movie The Cotton Club as a smoke-filled room where the denizens casually showed off their virtuosity.


More Screen and Stage

LeGon returned to Hollywood to make more films. In the all-black cast of Double Deal (1939), she is Nita, a cabaret dancer who is desired by both the gangster and the honest guy, played by popular Black actor Monte Hawley. Dancing her own choreography in “Getting it Right With You,” she does some Charleston-derived tapping, a bit of truckin’ and a hint of a rumba. Her flyaway arms and softly kicking legs signal a glorious comfort with her own body. When she throws her head back in joy you’re convinced she’s having the time of her life. (No wonder she brought the house down as a warmup act for the more severe Eleanor Powell!) This was a cherished role. Not only was she the romantic lead, but she got to dance her own steps — “Being myself when I danced as me.” (qtd. in Greschuk)

Dying in Cab Calloway’s arms in Hi De Ho

Double Deal was the first of four all-Black movies where she played a heroine. The next one was Crooked Money, later called While Thousands Cheer (1940). She plays Myra, who helps her boyfriend, the star of the college football team, outwit the gangsters.  In Take My Life (1942), she was paired with Hawley again, as his character’s wife. This film also featured Harlem’s Dead End Kids, a group of talented boys who appeared on Broadway as well as in Hollywood. The last of these was Hi De Ho (1947), a vehicle for Cab Calloway. Here she is cast against type as the possessive, threatening girlfriend. The script is so bad that one cannot even judge her acting in it: “I’ll see you dead before I let anyone take you from me,” she says to the man she loves. He slaps her, of course. But, as she said years later, “I got to die in Cab Calloway’s arms.”

Fats Waller

From her days working on Hooray for Love, LeGon made fast friends with Fats Waller, who hired her for four of his shows including one at the Apollo (Crowe). He coached her on how to present a song, and you can see his influence in the way she rolls her eyes with a sense of mischief. She describes a particular skit where they one-upped each other: He would play a jazzy lick on the piano and challenge her to do it with her feet; then she’d tap a complicated rhythm for him to replicate on the piano. All the while Waller would be wise-cracking with his usual campy one liners like “All that meat and no potatoes.” They goofed off elaborately during their exit, with each miming No you go first. “And finally I would exit and he would grab the curtain and shake his bum! We would tear up the place!” (qtd. in Frank 125)

The last show she did with Waller’s music was Early to Bed, which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1943. She landed the featured role of Lily Ann. Also featured was George Zoritch, a star of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In a 2004 interview, LeGon recalled that Katherine Dunham’s company was performing nearby and she would go to see their Sunday matinee when Early to Bed was off. (Crowe) My guess is that she brought Zoritch with her, because he writes in his memoir that he started studying with Dunham around that time. (Zoritch 117) (I probably don’t have to tell you how rare it was for a Russian ballet dancer to study Dunham technique!)

Easter Parade (1948) with Ann Miller and Fred Astaire

One of her more active of her many servile roles was in MGM’s Easter Parade (1948) with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. She plays Essie, the loyal maid to Ann Miller’s Nadine, the glam ballroom dancer. (I wonder if any of the executives at MGM remembered the high salary they first offered their “personality girl” thirteen years before.) Jeni manages to wedge in a bit of humor in addressing two of Nadine’s pets. To the first puppy she says, “C’mon, Short Hemline.” To the second one, a little pug, she says, “Who pushed your face in?” The 2010 Turner edition of the Easter Parade DVD carries a special feature in which John Fricke, a Hollywood historian, gives LeGon a morsel of attention. He calls her “this amazing talented dancer,” ticks her credentials like working with Count Basie, Fats Waller, and Bill Robinson, and claims she could equal the Nicholas Brothers “with acrobatics and the tap and all the style.” No mention of why, with all that talent, she was cast as the maid.

Magazine cover, 1937

LeGon occasionally branched out into writing. With her husband at the time, the jazz composer and lyricist Phil Moore, she wrote the song “The Sping,” blending Spanish and swing; they offered it to MGM for Lena Horne in Panama Hattie (1942). MGM accepted the song and asked LeGon to come and stage it. LeGon and Moore also wrote The Matriarch for Ethel Waters, though it was probably never produced. (A bit of gratuitous gossip: Moore, whom LeGon met while working on Double Deal, went on to become a composer, booking agent, and lover of Dorothy Dandridge.)



Activism: LeGon’s and others’

Around 1950 LeGon joined a group of performers seeking to raise the opportunities for Black actors to have dignified roles. They called on Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, to support their cause. About his response, LeGon said, “We tried to get him to intervene for us, but he wasn’t the least bit sympathetic. He didn’t even lie about it.” (Ebert) [2] She was friends with Paul Robeson, whose 1956 encounter with the communist-hunting House UnAmerican Committee destroyed his flourishing international career. It’s not surprising that many Blacks pulled back from protesting during that period.

While she lobbied for better roles for Blacks, LeGon also wanted to hold on the roles that were available. In the early 1950s, she appeared on the televised version of Amos ’n Andy, often as Kingfish’s secretary. She was sorry to see it cancelled:

It was one of the best all-around casts that I ever worked with. All the leads were exceptionally good performers. Amos and Andy and Kingfish and his wife Sapphire—a wonderful experience. A couple of the characters didn’t speak too well…deeze, dat and doze. The Black community got mad and wanted to cancel it. They succeeded and threw a whole bunch of people out of work. But the show was true to life, that was what was so funny about them—things that happened to everybody. I loved them, I thought they were grand.” (Greschuk)

The attacks on the show had actually started decades earlier.[3]


Boyish? Girlish? Mannish?

Although LeGon liked wearing pants while she danced, a headline in Sight & Sound that proclaimed she danced “like a boy” is misleading (Hutchinson). Yes, she did the boys’ moves like flips, knee drops and a man’s split (as in the Nicholas Brothers). But she did not take on male characteristics. She wasn’t like the flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya, who wore trousers to emphasize her jabbing male heel-work, transcending femininity with a volcanic force. She wasn’t like Marlene Dietrich, who wore pants to add a note of androgyny to her sexual allure. (Dietrich once said to her, “I say, my dahlink, you wear the pants better than I do.” (qtd. in George-Graves 517) I think she wore pants to edge away from the expectation of sultriness. Many glamorous female stars, like Lena Horne and Rita Hayworth, appear to be poured into their gowns. LeGon avoided that look even when she did wear a skirt or dress, and I think it kept her dancing fresh and energetic. Of course LeGon’s idol, Josephine Baker, made a fabulous mockery of seductiveness with her banana skirts and pelvic gyrations.

While singing “There’s a Boy in Harlem” in Fools for Scandal (1938), LeGon sways suavely in white top hat and tux. She could be that boy in Harlem herself. She’s backed by chorus girls wearing skimpy outfits or glitzy gowns, almost like a man would be backed by super femmy women. Her dancing here is minimal, sedate, allowing the fancy gowns to fill in the glamour quotient.

“There’s a Boy in Harlem” in Fools for Scandal


Later Years

Starting in the 1950s, LeGon ran the Jeni LeGon Dance Studio in Los Angeles. She hired Archie Savage to teach Dunham technique and a Russian ballet dancer (Lazar Galpern — does anyone know this name?) to teach ballet. She taught jazz and tap herself. She organized a group with a steel band called Jazz Caribe that blended jazz and Calypso, in which she danced and played percussion. (She had learned to play conga drums from Dunham drummer Gaucho Vanderhans.) For five years they played gigs at clubs as well as military posts.

She sometimes took on choreographic assignments outside her circle. In 1965 she worked on the West Coast premiere of William Grant Still’s “African” ballet Sahdji (1930) with a full symphony orchestra and the Combined Youth Choruses of the City of Los Angeles. (Dance Magazine, July 1965)

LeGon in 2009

After two former students set her up to teach in Vancouver, she moved to that city in 1969. Basing her school at Kits House (Kitsilano Neighbourhood House), she formed a youth tap group called Troupe One that performed in hospitals and senior homes. In the mid-80s, she also had a jazz group, Jazz Cinq, that played Ellington, Cole Porter, and the blues. She’d sing, dance, and play congo drums, timbals and “scratchy instruments” in the band. (Creighton)

In the 1980s she visited London with a group called the Pelican Players. She also re-united with the Nicholas Brothers for a radio show in Oakland (Crowe). She was in Cold Front with Martin Sheen in 1989 (Creighton) (though her scene may have been cut because she is not listed in IMDB.) One of her last appearances was in Snoop Dogg’s 2001 film, Bones.

Jeni LeGon had a fruitful career, but she should have had more opportunities to really dance. She made bold choices from the beginning. As Rusty Frank has written about early tap dance, “The rarest act of all was the girl solo.” (Frank 118) On screen LeGon was not only a dancer with a unique style, she was appealing as a romantic heroine: attractive, savvy, expressive. Just as RKO took a risk when they paired Shirley Temple with Bill Robinson, MGM could have taken a risk by fulfilling their contract with Jeni LeGon.


Coping with Racism

Hollywood studios have been racist since Birth of a Nation (1915). LeGon encountered discrimination almost immediately. When she signed with MGM, she was only 17, so she had to attend the school on the lot. Her classmates were four or five other teenagers, including Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. She got along with the other kids, especially Mickey, but not with the teacher: “I was an ardent reader. She’d ask questions of our group…I’d raise my hand to answer. The teacher wouldn’t let me answer the questions.… She just looked [at me] like I wasn’t there.” (qtd. in Abbott) LeGon asked to be released from those classes and given private lessons. (For perspective: This is the period when Eleanor Roosevelt couldn’t even get President Roosevelt to consider an anti-lynching bill.)

Jeni could be defiant in her resistance, but she could also be playful. George-Graves relates a kind of game LeGon played with a friend when she returned to New York from London. She and the friend, who had also lived in London, would sit on a bus and carry on a conversation with their newly acquired British accents. They got a kick out of  confusing the white people on the bus. They also would browse fancy Fifth Avenue stores like Bonwit Tellers and Tiffany’s, making comments like “I wonder, my dear, just how much this is in pounds.” (George-Graves 527)

In her essay “Identity Politics and Political Will: Jeni LeGon Living in a Great Big Way,” George-Graves speculates that a series of incidents could have turned MGM against her. The day before the event when she unwittingly upstaged Eleanor Powell, LeGon and Earl Dancer had tried to enter MGM’s main dining room to discuss the score, not realizing that segregation was still the rule. They were turned away. MGM’s hypocrisy did not elude her: “Here, they were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn’t good enough to eat in their dining room.” The dining room episode might have been perceived as defiance. That, plus her refusal to continue classes with the racist teacher, suggests George-Graves, could have made MGM executives skitter away from her. (George-Graves, 518-19) Perhaps, in finding her a gig in London, MGM was giving her a peach after taking away a plum—or taking away the whole orchard.

Duke Ellington at left, on his birthday party, 1937

When talking about racism, LeGon was careful not to lay blame. In one interview she described Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney as “the kids next door” and said, “I didn’t fit in at the time as one of the kids next door.” She recognized that “Hollywood was no different to the rest of the country in that respect.” (qtd. in Hutchinson) In hindsight, she said, “It was very difficult for any of the minority groups to break into the movies at that time.” (qtd. in Creighton) She did occasionally make a stronger statement: “At that time blacks and whites did not mix, even if you had a little intelligence and could carry on a conversation. But the world had been whitewashed.” (qtd. in Abbott)

LeGon was clear-eyed yet patient in the face of closed doors. Another performer might have quit after being relegated to servant roles so many times (at least nine of her twenty-four films). There was a practical aspect to her patience. As she told the Vancouver Sun in 1989,

I think I played every kind of black maid you can imagine. I’ve been a maid from the West Indies, Africa, Arabia. It was frustrating, but what was I going to do? You gotta eat, darling — you gotta eat. (qtd. in Bernstein)

Black women who followed LeGon also had a hard time in Hollywood. In the 1940s Lena Horne turned down roles of maids and prostitutes. Dorothy Dandridge, another dazzling dancer/singer/actress, also turned down demeaning roles. After establishing herself as a formidable leading lady opposite Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones in 1954, Dandridge hit a dry spell of three years.

In Grant Greschuk’s documentary, Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way (1999), she says,

After thinking about it all the years…I don’t think it has changed an awful lot. There’s some changes that have been good…but basically I don’t think they’ve done too much. There’s still this black and white world.” (qtd. in George Graves 530)

She found a measure of peace in Vancouver. Although she was the only Black person in her residential building, her neighbors were welcoming and warm to her. And she was beloved by her students, which is obvious in the documentary. She met Frank Clavin, a drummer, in 1977, and they worked and lived together the rest of her life.


Awards and Honors

Publicity shot

In 1987 Jeni LeGon was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame —along with Sammy Davis, Jr. In 2000 she received the Flo-Bert Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2002 she was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame. That same year Oklahoma City University bestowed her with an honorary doctorate (along with eight others, including Fayard Nicholas, Leonard Reed, Jimmy Slyde, and Bunny Briggs). (Hill 330). And on her 90th birthday, British Columbia’s National Congress of Black Women Foundation held a luncheon in her honor. (Spaner)

“Swing Is Here to Stay” from Ali Baba Goes to Town

Perhaps the greatest honor for Dr. LeGon, however, came posthumously. She has been enshrined in Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time as a shadowy inspiration. The narrator, a young British woman, and her best friend Tracey become obsessed with LeGon, spending hours watching the faux African number “Swing Is Here to Stay” from Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) on VHS. It’s a ludicrous dream sequence, with LeGon sashaying across the space, doing Charleston-like swinging, truckin,’ and stomping on her toes—all her own steps—wearing a grass skirt. She’s backed by musicians in mock African regalia, including Eddie Cantor in blackface. In the novel, both girls notice that LeGon looks uncannily like Tracey. Taking that resemblance as a sign, Tracey identifies with the tapper so obsessively that she creates the social media tag of truthteller_LeGon. When she applies to a top conservatory, Tracey prepares for the audition by learning every step of LeGon’s sequence from “Swing Is Here to Stay.” The judges proclaim her choreography to be totally original, and she gets in. Years later, as a beleaguered single mother living in the projects, Tracey names her first daughter Jeni. (Smith 213, 401)

Jeni LeGon with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Also years later, the narrator (never given a name), while organizing a photo exhibit, chooses the photo of LeGon where she is springing up in a toe stand, with Bill Robinson kneeling at her side. She likes that shot because LeGon is above the famous male dancer. (What she doesn’t catch is that Robinson, although below her, is clearly telling the teenager what to do, with his finger pointing upward.)

While working on the photo exhibit, the narrator has burrowed into some research that shatters the girls’ fantasy of LeGon’s glamorous life. She learned that Fred Astaire had hobnobbed with LeGon and Robinson back in 1935, but by the time she played the maid in Easter Parade (1948), he ignored her. The narrator, whose voice is now conflated with that of Zadie Smith herself, explains her perception of what was going on in real life:

Astaire never spoke to LeGon on set, in his mind she not only played the maid, she was in actuality little different from the help, and it was the same with most of the directors, they didn’t really see her and rarely hired her, not for anything except maid parts… (Smith 428)

The narrator concludes that although the dancer was adored by her and her friend, Jeni LeGon is only a shadow, not a real person. And yet, on the final morning of the novel, she sees her old friend Tracey, still in bedroom slippers, dancing on her balcony with her three children. Even if LeGon was a shadow, her dancing was contagious.

That one of the best writers of our time fell under the tapper’s spell through video attests to LeGon’s power.

To come back to the non-fiction world, Jeni LeGon was embraced by the current tap community toward the end of her life. She was invited to several festivals and respected by a new generation. For Brenda Bufalino, a major dancer/choreographer who founded American Tap Dance Orchestra, LeGon was significant not only because she was one of the few women soloists in tap, but also, “She had a style that’s so delightful. This wonderful relaxed style, just swinging, more in line with the tap dancing of today.”

Oh, and in case none of the earlier clips made you fall in love with her, here is LeGon at 91, singing “Living in a Great Big Way,” charming as ever.



[1] For more on the Whitman Sisters, see The Royalty of Vaudeville by Nadine George-Graves.

[2] In 1992, Stephen Vaughn wrote this about Reagan’s leadership at SAG (1947–1952): “Reagan’s efforts for civil rights were secondary to his desire to combat communism and maintain a public image for the film industry.” For a complete discussion on Reagan’s changing position, see Vaughn’s essay, “Ronald Reagan and the Struggle for Black Dignity in Cinema, 1937–1953” in the Journal of Negro History, Vol. 77 No. 1, 1992.

[3] The all-Black show had started airing on a Chicago radio station in 1928. Although Amos ’n Andy was rated the most popular comedy show in radio history, the NAACP started objecting to it on the grounds of racial stereotyping in 1931. In 1953 CBS cancelled in response to those protests.


Special thanks to the library staff at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.


Works Cited

Books and articles

Bernstein, Adam. “Jeni LeGon dies at 96; dancer was one of the first black women to become a tap soloist,” Washington Post Dec. 11, 2012.

Crowe, Larry, interviewer. Jeni LeGon (The HistoryMakers A2004.113), July 28, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive.

Ebert, Roger. “Jeni le Gon: The first black woman signed by Hollywood was livin’ and dancin’ in great big way,”, January 23, 2013

George-Graves, Nadine. “Identity Politics and Political Will: Jeni LeGon Living in a Great Big Way,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics, eds. Rebekah Kawal, Gerald Sigmund, and Randy Martin, eds, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Hutchinson, Pamela, “Hooray for Jeni LeGon: the Hollywood pioneer who danced ‘like a boy’” Sight & Sound, March 8, 2017.

Guide to the Jeni LeGon Papers, 1930s-2002, undated, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Seibert, Brian. What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. Farrar, Strouse and Giroux, 2015.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. Penguin Books, 2017.

Spaner, David. “I’m doing OK and I’m living in a great big way’: Jeni LeGon, often stole the spotlight dancing with the biggest stars of the 20th century.” The Province, Oct. 22, 2006.

Tinubu, Aramide. “The Hidden History of Lena Horne and ‘Stormy Weather.’” Zora, July 21, 2020.

Walling, Katie, ed. Tap Dancing Resources “Remembering Tap Dancer Jeni LeGon (1916-2012)”

Zoritch, George. Ballet Mystique: Behind the Glamor of the Ballet Russe: A Memoir by George Zoritch. Cynara Editions, 2000.


Film and video

Abbott, Dave. Global Village, The Tomorrow Channel, 2001. On Facebook.

Creighton, Gloria, host and producer. Interview with LeGon for Contact.

Rodgers Cable 4, West End NTV 1989.

Greschuk, Grant, director. Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way, documentary. Produced by National Film Board of Canada, 1999.


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The Next Wave Festival — 35 Years

In 2018, Brooklyn Academy of Music celebrated 35 years of its interdisciplinary Next Wave Festival with a lavish book. The festival had become so essential to New York art-going that it helped revitalize downtown Brooklyn. I was commissioned to write the essay on dance. I had performed at BAM in 1976 with Trisha Brown, and I had seen most of the dance works in the festival for those decades. To prepare for writing this, I made frequent trips to the BAM Hamm archives on Dean Street in Brooklyn to watch videotapes of works I had not seen as well as those I had seen long ago. This immersion reminded me how much I loved, really loved, so many of these works. Since the book, BAM Next Wave Festival, is not easily available, I decided to repost this essay here, with thanks to editors Steven Serafin and Susan Yung, Archivist Sharon Lehner, Archives Manager Louie Fleck, and all the photographers. Reprinted with permission from BAM and Print Matters Production.

Original frontispiece of my chapter on dance, showing Morena Nascimento in Pina Bausch’s “Como el musguito, en la piedra, ay si si si …,”, Ph Stephanie Berger.

If you have followed any part of the Next Wave Festival over the course of its 35 years, you’ve witnessed some of the great minds of modern dance: Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, and Ohad Naharin. These artists and many others have been nurtured and developed by legendary BAM impresario Harvey Lichtenstein and his chosen successor, executive producer Joseph V. Melillo. We have watched each of them grow and change. We have been close enough to be swept away by their beauty or staggered by their audacity. They have engaged us in the issues of our time: race, gender, the environment, the relation of art to life. Whether their aesthetic places them in the category of minimalism, tanztheater, epic narrative, or dances of cultural identity, they have all alighted in one spot: BAM. Although many new dance presenters have sprouted up in the last 35 years, the Next Wave continues to be a beacon of forward-looking dance.

These dances do the traditional work of art. They educate, edify, and entertain, but they also unleash. They unleash the individual imagination, experimental ideas, collaborative alchemy, and altered states in both performers and viewers. Some notably memorable moments: Molissa Fenley charging across the Lepercq Space, sculpting the air with her arms to the jazz music of Anthony Davis in Hemispheres (1983); or Bill T. Jones as a wobbly pre-verbal “fabricated” man in Secret Pastures (1984); or Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Julie Shanahan yelling to her two suitors to throw tomatoes at her in Palermo Palermo (1991). You might have seen Dana Caspersen enacting a ferocious split personality, her seething body animated by the exaggerated voices of two opposite characters in William Forsythe’s I don’t believe in outer space (2011).

Not only has the Next Wave cultivated these individual artists over decades, it has also cultivated audiences. The festival has accustomed us to the unaccustomed, the unconventional, and the unpredictable. It has raised the standards for interdisciplinary work and it has raised our curiosity for dance around the globe. It’s given a home for experimental work that may or may not eventually expand into a proscenium space.

But before there was a Next Wave Festival, there was a Next Wave Series. Initiated as a pilot project by Harvey Lichtenstein for two seasons, in 1981 and 1982‒83, the series gave experimental American artists an opportunity to play for a broader audience. Dance was in the forefront of the Next Wave from the beginning, guided by Lichtenstein, who had danced professionally with modern dance greats Pearl Lang and Sophie Maslow. Innovators Trisha Brown, Laura Dean (with a young Mark Morris in her company), and Lucinda Childs were all featured in the Next Wave Series as well as Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. The overwhelming success of the series enabled Lichtenstein to expand into an annual festival.

Interdisciplinary collaborations that came to define the Next Wave were encouraged from the start, illustrated by two productions that served as artistic landmarks in American dance: Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset, performed in the inaugural season, an acknowledged masterpiece by a mature artist; and Secret Pastures from the second season, a provocative work by emerging young mavericks Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. Both pieces utilized rigorous postmodern methods of problem-solving to mount a fully elaborated creative vision. Both were distinctly American, yet the two visions were almost opposites of each other.

Set and Reset 1983  From left: Diane Madden, Randy Warshaw, Stephen Petronio, Vicky Shick, Eva Karczag. Ph Lois Greenfield

Trisha Brown, along with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg and composer Laurie Anderson, crafted an exhilarating mind-body synergy in Set and Reset. The piece seemed to levitate, fueled by the illusion of spontaneity: the sense of flying high, a connection to air, decision-making on the spot, was palpable. More than any other previous work, Set and Reset showed how a collaboration of basically formal approaches could blossom into a fully blown opus. Anderson’s music, with a tango-like beat, propelled the dance in many directions, mostly away from center stage. And Rauschenberg’s set, which started as a light-filled sculptural form on the floor and then rose upward, lent a sense of liftoff. Adding to that was the riddle of the transparent wings: When the dancers were visible behind those wings, were they still performing?

For the performers, momentum of body coincided with momentum of mind. In making the dance, they had treated specific dance phrases with suggestions like “Play with being visible and invisible.” For the audience, you had to sit on the edge of your seat to catch even a fraction of the interaction. When dancer Diane Madden curves over with an arm extended outward, Trisha Brown rushes in from stage left, grabs her arm and flings her across the space—to land in the arms of Stephen Petronio, who has appeared out of nowhere. Split-second timing is the name of the game. The six ready-for-anything dancers are all aiding and abetting each other’s recklessness. Another time, Petronio―who would soon found his own company―slowly leans on one dancer and when he’s just about to fall, a different dancer is suddenly visible underneath him. Conceal and reveal, deflect and proceed. For all of minimalism’s supposed disregard for the audience, Brown captures the audience’s attention with near crashes, clever escapes, and playful dares, all embedded in her dreamy fluidity and Anderson’s syncopated score.

If Set and Reset leaned toward abstraction, Secret Pastures hinted at narrative. They were the two halves of the new collaborative postmodernism. In Secret Pastures, for which Keith Haring designed sets, Willi Smith designed costumes, and Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra made the gorgeously quirky music, each element lent its own fabulousness. Gordon once commented that he as well as Jones and Zane all had “a desire for sensual answers to formal questions.” Arnie Zane as “The Professor” sported a lab coat, glasses, and a Mohawk haircut. Janet Lilly sauntered in a fur coat made of white Afro wigs sewn together, and Seán Curran skipped and skittered in blue hair. As “The Fabricated Man,” Jones was curious, innocent, open to learning but also vulnerable. He moved like an underwater animal, wandering and wondering despite the added lumps to his costume. Anna Kisselgoff described him in the New York Times as fusing “a pantherine grace with a massive power.”

Beatriz Schiller’s photo of Arnie Zane and Bill T. Jones in Secret Pastures, with Keith Haring designs, appeared on the cover of Ballet News.

The most moving scene was where the Professor tries to teach the Fabricated Man how to behave. The magnetism between Zane, with his near-pantomimic sharpness, and Jones, in his feigned awkwardness was poignant. The Professor circles the Fabricated Man, who accidentally lurches at the Professor. Although the characters were cartoonish, the process consisted of solving tasks—at a wondrous level of virtuosity. Perpetually buoyant, Curran―whose own company would later perform in the Next Wave―nimbly performed an Irish jig overlaid with a series of Jones’s arm gestures while also inserting ballet beats.

The giddy Secret Pastures astonished some, provoked others. Esteemed critic Deborah Jowitt wrote that it “may be the first dance work of any consequence to acknowledge the influence of MTV on our perception.” Some critics felt the characterizations were more style than substance. Others appreciated the mashing up of aesthetics. As Kisselgoff noted in her New York Times review, Marcel Fieve’s extreme haircuts and colors helped make the dancers look witty and chic. She felt the sensibility was “punk art domesticated, a collaboration between received intellectual influences from academe and a fashion consciousness that keeps an eye on the street.” For the Jones/Zane company, Secret Pastures marked a pivotal moment. With its connections to the art and fashion worlds, it attracted celebrities like Andy Warhol and Madonna to BAM. Word spread, leading to a surge of international touring. In effect, Secret Pastures put the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company on the map.


Brooklyn: Portal to Europe

The 1980s were the height of postmodern “abstract” dance in New York. Influenced by innovative choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Lucinda Childs, American “dancemakers” were making dances about form and motion, pattern and space. At the same time, dancemakers in Europe were investigating narrative with a modernist sensibility. The Next Wave Festival was only two years old in 1985 when the Europeans started coming, beginning with German choreographer Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Brussels-based group Rosas.

Bausch’s work was a revelation for American audiences. And the regularity of Tanztheater Wuppertal’s appearance at BAM—nearly every other year—made it an ongoing and evolving revelation. Elegance was juxtaposed with absurdity, cruelty with lavish dancing. Gender was a polarizing force; extreme stereotypes were exhibited, questioned, and mocked. Bausch excavated fantasies both dreamy and nightmarish. Flirtation devolved into abuse. A woman scrubs the floor from one side of the stage to the other while a man keeps tossing popcorn onto the floor. This kind of scene leads to questions. Are the women enjoying their abuse? Is attracting the opposite sex the main goal?

Two Cigarettes in the Dark, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, 1994. Ph Dan Rest

While American postmodernists like Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs favored a “neutral” facial expression, Bausch’s dancers were drenched in irony, making commentary on performance itself. They adopted a performance mask, be it sardonic, sweet, desperate, impassive, or unhinged. While Brown and Childs had an aversion to flamboyance, Bausch wrapped her women in extravagant gowns of luscious colors. The monumental set designs were possibly the prototype for the unwritten edict to “fill the stage” in Next Wave interdisciplinary collaborations. Rolf Borzik had created set and costume designs until his death in 1980; subsequently, Peter Pabst designed sets and Marion Cito the costumes. Bausch made her BAM debut in 1984 showcasing four works, and in the following year was invited to the festival for a three-week engagement. Audiences were hooked—and not just dance audiences. Her productions attracted people of all persuasions and were often sold out. Tanztheater performers were our hostesses: smiling, unctuous, hiding naughty secrets up their sleeves. The contrast between their elegant demeanor and the absurd, sometime cruel things they did to each other was mesmerizing.

Tanztheater Wuppertal’s first Next Wave Festival program—comprising Arien, Kontakthof, Gebirge, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Don’t Be Afraid—was unsettling. At the time, the women’s movement had challenged gender stereotypes, but Bausch clung to exaggerated gender roles: Men were drawn to women like catnip, and the women happily tried to please the men. Both genders poked, squeezed, and wrenched each other’s body parts as an accepted ritual. In one diagonal procession, the women jammed their feet into high heels as a necessary torture. Some of us went to see Tanztheater Wuppertal with a combination of dread and fascination.

But one cannot deny the sheer scale of Bausch’s thinking. For Palermo Palermo, the first thing that happened was a huge brick wall (set design by Peter Pabst) keeled over backward, scattering debris all over the stage. In Der Fensterputzer (1997), we encounter a red-glowing mountain of 40,000 silk flowers, also designed by Pabst, which the dancers dive into, burrow under, or slide down.

Although most of her scenes assumed an automatic heterosexuality, she expanded to other kinds of gender play. Male dancer Jan Minarik in Palermo Palermo strutted wearing a crown of cigarettes, bare legs, and red high heels; in contrast, Nazareth Panadero—his female counterpart—used her mannish voice to command our attention. All Bausch dancers are keenly aware of performing. Whether they are engaging in degrading or uplifting actions, they are about performing.

By the time of Two Cigarettes in the Dark (1994), the balance of brutal to benign began to tip toward the latter. It became clear that Bausch’s overall theme was the absurdity of life in general rather than specifically about sexual attraction. A woman with a pot tied to her runs and smashes against a wall over and over, while a man tries to intercept her. A man wielding an ax roams ominously while a woman serenely practices yoga. Bausch’s work offers the best examples of theatrical Dada in our time, with radical juxtapositions that require a double take. We get some comic relief in the person of Dominique Mercy, who periodically scampers onto the stage as a chef/conductor, setting up a cooking table on which nothing gets made. He cavorts so recklessly that his head seems about to fling itself away from his body. Later, in a previously hidden alcove, he takes a bath—wearing flippers.

Whether her scenic collaborator was Rolf Borzik or Peter Pabst, each one of Bausch’s works immersed us in a whole different world. While Americans were going minimal, she was going maximal. Gesamstwork—the totality of parts—wins us over. In Bamboo Blues (2008), we are intoxicated by a world of the senses. Swatches of cloth billow; towels wrap around torsos like saris. Combativeness is gone. The elegant Shantala Shivalingappa offers segments of a long ribbon to the audience, asking sweetly, “Can you smell it? It’s cardamom.” Created during a residency in South India, Bamboo Blues nevertheless has little to do with the reality of a particular region. Hunger, poverty, stench, fires, street children—none of these things make their way into this piece. Bamboo Blues is all about pleasure. As Bausch has said in interviews, the real world became so full of violence that she felt compelled to create pleasure onstage, a transition notable in her later works.

Rainer Behr in Vollmond, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, 2010. Ph Julieta Cervantes

The theme of water, seen previously in Arien and other works, reaches its peak in Vollmond (2010). It’s as though all the glasses, buckets, and puddles of water in previous pieces poured into this great river of water on the Opera House stage. To see Rainer Behr splashing through the water, his arms and legs whipping outward, is to see a man’s soul lashing out. Then, in her final work, “…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…” (Like moss on a stone), which came to BAM in 2012, three years after Bausch’s death, we see their pleasure in a preverbal, polymorphous way. Sixteen dancers are sitting on the floor in a diagonal, alternating male and female. They are each massaging the head of the person in front of them. They are connected through touch, through care, and through the ability to take and give pleasure at once.

Pablo Aran Gimeno in “…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…” (Like Moss on a Stone), by Pina Bausch, 2012. Ph Stephanie Berger

The BAM audience has seen Bausch’s works move from harrowing to absurdist to delightful and loving. Three things draw us back: Her outsized imagination, her Dadaist sense of humor, and the dancing―the dancing. Although it’s not the first thing people talk about in Bausch’s work, some of the best solo dancing in New York happens in Tanztheater Wuppertal. Each member of the cast is stretched, windblown, urgent yet precise, and unique. One could complain that some of the solos are long and repetitive, but the actual dancing is superb.

Hailing from Belgium, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas has appeared in the Next Wave Festival almost as often as Tanztheater Wuppertal. More interested in momentum and less in theater, De Keersmaeker makes works that rev up minimalism into a fury of pure movement. She has partnered with Steve Reich’s music many times, as they share an approach to building complexity. Fase, a work for two women that she performed with dancer Tale Dolven at Steve Reich @ 70 (2006), was first developed in the early 1980s in New York at the studios of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She took Lucinda Childs’s vocabulary of walking, twisting, and turning and imbued it with emotional intensity. The result was what New York Times reviewer Siobhan Burke calls “stark euphoria.”

Her collaborations with Reich expanded to larger ensembles with Drumming (2001) and Rain (2003). The rhythms were tantalizing and the dancing became more forceful—impulsive, highly inflected, obsessive. De Keersmaeker’s notoriety leapt forward in 2011 when Beyoncé’s music video Countdown appropriated some of the exact moves of the choreographer’s Rosas Danst Rosas (1986) from a YouTube clip. Charges of stealing hit social media, setting off widespread debate about the uses and abuses of appropriation.

Vortex Temporum, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: Rosas:Ictus, 2016. Ph Robert Altman

De Keersmaeker’s special brand of momentum reached an invigorating peak with Vortex Temporum (2016). The music ensemble Ictus played Gérard Grisey’s score of the same title with its spectacularly de-crescendoing notes (imagine a siren sounding backwards with a myriad of textures within it) on a bare stage. Later, the musicians and dancers together created a terrific centrifugal force. Moving in concentric circles, they were so commingled—all wore dark outfits—that it was hard to discern the difference between the dancers and the musicians. That confusion added to the excitement of the gathering whirlwind of sound and motion, their orbits crashing and clashing. One dancer even shoved the pianist off his bench, and somehow the piano ended up careening around the stage while being played. It felt like the performers were veering off into a solar system of their own.

Continu, Sasha Waltz & Guests, 2015. Ph Julieta Cervantes

Although Tanztheater Wuppertal and Rosas have performed at the Next Wave Festival more regularly than any other dance group, visitors from Europe have included a wide variety of choreographers: Mechthild Grossmann, Susanne Linke, Maguy Marin, Jiří Kylián (Nederlands Dans Theater), the French-Albanian Angelin Preljocaj, and the astonishing mixed-nationality hip-hop duo Wang Ramirez. The German dance-theater practitioner Sasha Waltz mesmerized audiences with the visually stunning Körper (2002), followed by Impromptus (2005), Gezeiten (2010). Her most recent Next Wave production, Continu (2015)—with its long dresses, explosive gestures, and Edgard Varèse’s dissonant music—took us back to the early drama of modernism.

But one of the most enduring and powerful influences from Europe has been William Forsythe. The American-born choreographer who revolutionized ballet in our time presided over Ballett Frankfurt and later The Forsythe Company for more than 30 years. He stretched and twisted and interrogated classical ballet until it became utterly contemporary and often bizarre. He used pointe shoes not to float but to jab into the floor. Some saw the super-attenuated, aggressive bodies as distortions, but those extremes were based on classical épaulement. In 1998, EIDOS:TELOS jolted us with the essential wildness of Forsythe’s choreography. The Ballett Frankfurt dancers thrust themselves into space, constantly interrupting their own movement as though trying to rid the body of something awful.

Ballett Frankfurt dancers in Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, reproduced” © 2003 Ph Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

In 2003, the final program of Ballett Frankfurt before it transitioned into The Forsythe Company included three galvanizing works. Twenty metal tables screeched into place for One Flat Thing, reproduced. The dancers crawled and lunged and pounced over and under the tables, creating a swarming hive just this side of chaos. They seemed to have a terrific urge to investigate the tables, unleashing their inventiveness into a very purposeful search. In a different vein, (N.N.N.N.) was a cause-and-effect sequence wherein four men fit into each other’s nooks and crannies like a puzzle. The most pristine piece was Duo, a duet mostly in unison, danced by two women in sheer black tops. With a spare soundscape by longtime Forsythe composer Thom Willems, it lays bare the powerful legs, destabilized pelvis, and extreme torquing of the upper body that characterize the Forsythe style.

Forsythe considers the stage a laboratory, and he’s experimented with radical new ways of generating and organizing material. In Decreation (2009), he used a device to “conduct” the dancers from backstage, thus varying their timing on the spot. It was Forsythe’s of-the-moment attention to the performance/audience relationship that determined how he conducted. Similarly, in Sider (2013), the dancers were listening to scenes from Hamlet through earpieces, and Forsythe’s voice would interrupt the Elizabethan cadence to guide them in speed and structural options. Just as Bausch was a leader in dance-theater, Forsythe exerted similar influence over post-classical ballet, which continues to be felt here and in Europe.


Epic Narrative

Praise House by Urban Bush Women, Ph Cylla van Tiedermann

In the 1990s, African American choreographers felt a pull toward narrative as a means to tell their stories, which some have argued was a natural rebound from formalism. Dance scholar Ann Cooper Albright has called this direction “epic narrative” and points to four choreographers, all of whom have visited the Next Wave Festival, working in this capacity: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Garth Fagan, David Roussève, and Bill T. Jones.

Zollar’s Praise House, performed by her group Urban Bush Women in 1991, was based on the life of visionary black painter Minnie Evans, but the larger story was the profound black experience of turning suffering into joy. Praise House drew upon African American cultural traditions, including shouts and field hollers, to tell the story of an artist alienated from the church. Carl Riley’s gospel music infused it with a sense of place and time.

Nora Chipaumire of Urban Bush Women in “Les écailles de la mémoire” (“The Scales of Memory”) Ph © 2008 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

Zollar embarked on a more complex project in the 2008 Next Wave with Les écailles de la mémoire (The scales of memory), a collaboration between the all-female, Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women and Senegal’s all-male Compagnie Jant-Bi. A major effort to understand Africa diasporan cultures, the collaboration itself was epic. The men don’t just dance, they go at dancing. Yet Urban Bush Women dancer Nora Chipaumire―who returned to the Next Wave in 2012 and 2016 with her special brand of gender chutzpah―gives them a run for their money. She taunts, yells, and out-dances them.

Other images refer to slavery: Men struggling with their hands clasped behind them as though trying to free themselves from shackles, heads bowed in supplication; women and men standing on a bench as though being sold at auction. The lighter moments see women strutting their stuff for the benefit of the men. One man does an amazing ass shimmy. The common ground between the male Africans and the female African Americans is well earned, gradually arrived at, and full of humor.

Valentina Alexander and Norwood Pennewell in Griot New York, Garth Fagan & Wynton Marsalis & Martin Puryear, 1991. Photo courtesy of BAM Hamm Archives

Garth Fagan’s Griot New York, which premiered in 1991 and returned in 2012, explores a remarkable range of tones and moods. Fagan merged the Caribbean tradition of storytelling with the American sculptor Martin Puryear and jazz great Wynton Marsalis. Fagan spices the techniques of Merce Cunningham, choreographer Lester Horton, and ballet with a sensual twistiness and mischievous pelvis. In a dance that’s a cross between a funeral dance and vaudeville, Natalie Rogers sashays and skitters onto the stage, does a slow and viscous solo with stretched classical lines, and then breaks it up with angular elbows, flexed feet, and jittery twitches: a seamless amalgam of cultural tropes.

Griot New York also contains one of the most casually tragic scenes in memory. It portrays homeless people either running around frantic or lounging around stoned. During the long section, one dancer inches slowly along the floor. A limp figure sprawls across his lap. Is he sleeping; is he dead? They stay together as they make their way from one side of the stage to the other, surrounded and sometimes hidden by the general commotion. Eventually, we see that the prone figure has some kind of palsy: His hand is shaking. Fagan, who also created the dances for The Lion King on Broadway, is a choreographic griot telling a story that doesn’t shy away from suffering.

David Roussève (featured) in The Whispers of Angels, David Roussève: REALITY, 1995. Ph Dan Rest

Another seasoned storyteller, David Roussève, has choreographed three epic narratives for the festival, all in the BAM Harvey Theater (formerly the Majestic Theater): Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams (1992), The Whispers of Angels (1995), and Love Songs (1999). Each one has a hard edge—nothing goes down easy with Roussève. He can catch you in the middle of a heart-warming tale and dip it in acid. In Whispers of Angels, he teamed up with jazz queen Meshell Ndegeocello, gospel singer B. J. Crosby, and filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira to tell stories of black folk from previous centuries. He spliced an annoying account of auditioning for a soap opera with painful stories of plantation life. Not one to simply celebrate black culture, Roussève, as the narrator, said lines like, “I stopped believing in everything black because everything black stopped believing in me.” His stage is populated with different generations and types. Funny can be brutal and brutal can be surreal. Angels, ancient people, eccentric characters, innocent children: All are subject to the harshness born of slavery, but the ultimate message is one of hard-earned hope.

Bill T . Jones in Still Here, 1994. Ph Joanne Savio

Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here (1994) was an epic narrative, followed by an epic debate. The piece paid tribute to those who died or were dying of AIDS or other terminal illnesses. Gravitas had replaced chic in his work. With Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), Jones emerged as a leader of the multicultural side of the so-called culture wars. Deeply affected by Zane’s death from AIDS, and infected with the virus himself, Jones planned Still/Here to include material from his survival workshops, in which people with terminal illnesses articulated their fears and hopes. These participants would be seen in projections, and their words would provide text for the professional dancers to speak. He wanted to learn from what they were going through. Like his fabricated man in Secret Pastures, he was open, absorbent, and vulnerable.

When the press release went out saying that there would be videos and text taken from people with terminal illnesses, dance critic Arlene Croce had a fit. Her attack on Still/Here, published in the New Yorker under the title “Discussing the Undiscussable,” turned the piece into a cause célèbre. She refused to attend the performance, not wanting to see “dancers I’m forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women, or disenfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art.” Letters poured in to the magazine, some defending her choice and others defending Jones’s right to make art out of whatever was preoccupying him.

This debate reverberated around the country and has become required reading to understand the culture wars of the 1990s. Croce was railing against the oncoming inevitability of multiculturalism and inclusion in the arts. But beyond the debate, Still/Here became known as a cri de coeur in the age of the AIDS crisis. With his small group of diverse dancers, Jones managed to project hope, wisdom, and humor. The dancers recite phrases taken from the survival workshops, each time announcing the name of the participant first. Still/Here is epic in that it plumbs the mysteries of life and death in a poetic way. The quotes and gestures transcend the deadly circumstances to attain a kind of universality. Still/Here is a requiem, which, of course, is a time-honored form in music, theater, and dance.


Modern Takes Root and Branches Out

Ever since 1952, when Harvey Lichtenstein studied dance with Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, he was convinced that Cunningham was the future of modern dance. In 1954, when most of the dance establishment was dismissive of Cunningham, Lichtenstein offered him his first full evening of performance in New York City. Later, in 1968, he named the group a resident company at BAM. Long-time Cunningham dancer Carolyn Brown says the opportunity gave the choreographer “a kind of security that Merce had never known.” The company performed there many times, the last being The Legacy Tour at the 2011 festival.

Second Hand, included in The Legacy Tour, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, 2011. Ph Stephanie Berger

Cunningham and avant-garde composer John Cage had blasted open the relationship of music and dance. They created the two parts independently, bringing them together only for performance. The two men, who were partners in their personal lives as well as their artistic lives, never aimed to impart a single meaning or message, but were open to various interpretations. The Cunningham style of clean, unmannered, multidirectional movement was paired with experimental, sometimes cacophonous music by Cage or one of his colleagues. Not only was there no clear narrative, but the structure shunned the typical A-B-A format that was so reliably legible in most ballet and modern dance.

True to form, each of Cunningham’s Next Wave outings contained some sort of unorthodoxy. The soundscape of Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1986) mixed Cage’s compositions based on pages from James Joyce’s epic novel Finnegans Wake with sounds of laughter, seagulls, water pouring, a dog barking. A cluster of onstage chairs provided a resting spot for the dancers, most often used by Cunningham himself, who was already showing signs of debilitating arthritis. In the program Forward & Reverse, staged in the 1997 festival, video artist Elliot Caplan embedded video monitors into surrounding walls in Installations. They formed such an unusual décor that Anna Kisselgoff called them “opaque windows.” The series also included the New York premiere of Rondo and Scenario, whose grotesquely lumpy costumes by Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo tested our faith in Cunningham’s open-mindedness.

Split Sides, which premiered at BAM in 2003 as part of the 50th anniversary of the Cunningham company, embraced chance in a very visible way. Each night before the show someone rolled the dice—onstage in view of the audience—to determine which half of the choreography would be first. They rolled again to decide the sequence of the music (either Sigur Rós or Radiohead), and again for the backdrop (by either Robert Heishman or Catherine Yass). We were watching chance in action. On opening night, Robert Rauschenberg and Carolyn Brown rolled the dice. We were watching history in action. The Legacy Tour, which criss-crossed the country for two years after Cunningham’s death, reprised Split Sides with old favorites such as Roaratorio, RainForest (1968), and Second Hand (1970), and later works including Pond Way (1998) and BIPED (1999).


The Poetry of Motion and Objects

No young dancemaker was untouched by the Cunningham/Cage influence. New Yorkers like John Jasperse, Wally Cardona, and Kate Weare have continued in the spirit of experimentation with a keen focus on the specificity of movement. They tend to have less interest in chance methods and more interest in creating a visual field that triggers certain tasks. Each of the choreographers deploys everyday materials to arrive at a poetry of motion and objects. All have the uncanny ability to create something out of basically nothing.

Miguel Gutierrez and John Jasperse in Giant Empty, John Jasperse Company, 2001. Ph Maria Anguera De Sojo

In Misuse liable to prosecution (2007), John Jasperse filled the stage of the BAM Harvey with hundreds of coat hangers and water bottles, creating a kind of homemade, random beauty. He applied a methodical approach to functional movement. In Giant Empty (2001) that approach rendered his nude duet with Miguel Gutierrez fascinating. The small adjustments of hands, feet, butt cheeks, and back of head formed interlocking parts of a two-person puzzle. Giant Empty placed the body in a liminal space between the sculptural and the sexual. In 2016, Jasperse created Remains, seamlessly incorporating touchstones from the history of Western culture into his sculptural formations and phrases.

Kathryn Sanders and Joanna Kotze in Everywhere, by Wally Cardona, 2005. Ph Stephanie Berger

In Everywhere (2005), Wally Cardona, took on a workmanlike demeanor as he placed wooden beams vertically in rows. When he started adding a beam horizontally on top of each stanchion to make T-shapes, the configuration multiplied and changed the space. The banging, thudding sounds of beams added to Phil Kline’s sound score. Eventually the beams were reshaped into a staircase that a female dancer perched on, in contemplation. A male dancer hovered over the first step, arms holding a beam high overhead. Then he put the beam down and—lest you thought Cardona would get sentimental on us—he sat on a step and turned away from her.

Kate Weare, impulsive and fierce, premiered Dark Lark, a series of solos, duets, and trios, in 2013. There is something mythic about these encounters but it’s still intimate enough for the Fishman Space. The mood ranges from a private sense of wonder to a primal urge to fight. The contenders seem locked in a needy/belligerent love/hate battle with each other.

Rules of the Game, Jonah Bokaer & Daniel Arsham & Pharrell Williams & David Campbell, 2016. Ph Stephanie Berger

Jonah Bokaer, who danced in the Cunningham company and choreographed opera for Robert Wilson, was the inaugural dance artist for the smaller, flexible Fishman Space at the BAM Fisher Building in 2012. Melillo encouraged him to create a different kind of viewing experience than in the Opera House or the Harvey Theater. For ECLIPSE, Bokaer and architect Anthony McCall placed the audience on four sides and filled the room with 36 light bulbs arranged in neat descending rows of six. The first row of spectators was seated inside that grid. The choreography and the installation were meticulously timed, and when Bokaer passed his hand in front of a bulb, he seemed to magically bring on a mini-eclipse. Four years later, Bokaer created Rules of the Game, with stunningly ominous film projections by his longtime visual collaborator Daniel Arsham and music by Grammy Award‒winning composer, Pharrell Williams.

Cynthia Oliver in BLEED, Tere O’Connor Dance, 2013. Ph Ian Douglas

Others, like Tere O’Connor and Jodi Melnick, both of whom also performed in the BAM Fisher, lend an elliptical quality to the postmodern sensibility. You really don’t know what’s going on until something big and dramatic hits you. In O’Connor’s BLEED (2013), we get fragments of ambiguous, whimsical behavior. Heather Olson kneels over a prone man, playing some sort of patty-cake game. She could be a nurse, a sister, a mother, a playmate. He could be dead or alive. Suddenly everyone’s running in a circle, looking upward as though expecting lightning, gathering force until Olson leads them into a diagonal where they seem to be fighting an earthquake. They are shaking as though electrified, as though they themselves are the lightning and the thunder, all connected to each other like the old tale of the golden goose. People drop to the floor one at a time: an apocalypse.

In a calmer, less agitated vein, Jodi Melnick―who danced at the Next Wave Festival with Nina Wiener in 1987―premiered Moment Marigold (2014), a trio for women. Deadpan but glamorous, Melnick moves with a kind of gliding femininity that is a mystery in itself. In this piece, the three women conjured a private world of crystalline gesture, with the help of Joe Levasseur’s ingenious lighting. But in the end there’s a chilling tenderness to the way they arrange each other on the ground, fanning each other’s hair out. Are they preparing to bury their best friends?

Other Next Wave artists like Susan Marshall and David Dorfman have taken postmodernism into psychological realms. Marshall first came to the Next Wave Festival in the Lepercq Space with a very physical piece: Interior with Seven Figures (1988). It depicts the struggle of relationships with a certain toughness. One man is bent over, holding a woman roughly, grappling with her changing position, trying to keep control over her, possibly to kiss her. She climbs him like a tree. It’s an arduous, unwinnable partnership: the awkwardness of human need.

David Dorfman’s “underground” Ph © 2006 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

David Dorfman, who performed in Marshall’s Interior, used some of that same grappling energy in underground (2006) at the BAM Harvey, but it’s between the central figure (a beleaguered Dorfman) versus the group rather than between partners. With his defiant stance and shouted questions, he veers toward the political, reliving questions prompted by the revolutionary Weather Underground when he was a teenager: Are you a pacifist? In a violent world, can you fight for peace? Is violence ever justified? Is your country worth killing for?


Mark Morris: Merging Dance with Musicality

In some ways, choreographer Mark Morris is a throwback to pre-Cunningham times. Devoted to the idea of music and dance “going” together, he tends to choose classical music—played live—and relies on its classical structure. This occasionally appears predictable, but in his best work—and he is fantastically prolific—the music and dance together gather force. We experience the wholeness of the work immediately and thoroughly.

By 1984, the year of Morris’s festival debut in the Lepercq Space, he was, according to Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times, “being talked of as the most solidly promising heir to the mantle of the modern dance greats.” His solo O Rangasayee, danced to an Indian raga, awed critics by the sheer chutzpah of taking on the role of an Indian classical dancer, as well as by the freedom of his dancing and the richness of his choreography. The conventional theme-and-variations format works for him: His inventiveness and humor keep tumbling out. He also gave us luxurious movement at a time when the postmodernists were keeping it simple. As Jeff Seroy wrote in the Paris Review, “Part of the genius of O Rangasayee is that it returns one of the oldest and hoariest of modern dance tropes—the exotic Eastern solo of Denishawn days—to its primal roots in the ecstatic.”

In 1990, Morris presented the New York premiere of L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato at the BAM Opera House; the choreography breathes with Handel’s oratorio and yet allows Morris’s goofiness to creep in. Only Morris could get away with having people stand there with arms extended as tree branches, and three men being pulled by dancers as hound dogs. The big rounded arcs of the body hark back to Doris Humphrey and the free-flowing skips are pure Isadora Duncan. L’Allegro was brought back to BAM in 2001; when it was broadcast on PBS “Great Performances” in 2015, critic Alastair Macaulay referred in the New York Times to its “miraculous beauty.”

Morris is not afraid to be entertaining. The motifs, messages, and jokes are easy to follow. He presents a community in every piece, and it’s a community of fallible human beings, not the super virtuosic dancers we see on the ballet stage. The performers’ enjoyment is contagious, easily crossing the footlights.

The Hard Nut, Mark Morris Dance Group, 2016. Ph Julieta Cervantes

The Mark Morris Dance Company is something of a fixture at BAM, and the work produced most often in the festival—six times—is The Hard Nut. Popular with both art audiences and families, it’s fun for the kids, and the adults chuckle every time they catch one character humping another in the first act. All the peaks and valleys, dangers and harmonies of the majestic Tchaikovsky score find their counterpart in Morris’s choreography. The bold black and white sets by Adrianne Lobel contrast nicely with Martin Pakledinaz’s riotously colorful costumes; both are inspired by a comic artist with a dark side, Charles Burns. Some characters, for instance the happy black maid, are a bit off key, but everyone gets the jokes. The Hard Nut is a relief for those who find other Next Wave offerings puzzling.

The gender play in The Hard Nut has more than entertainment value; it is part of an ongoing interest of Morris’s. In works like O Rangasayee, L’Allegro, and Championship Wrestling after Roland Barthes (1984), he rejects the obvious gender divide that is natural to ballet and modern dance and instead concocts an upbeat androgyny. In The Hard Nut, the corps of snowflakes—all-female in most other Nutcrackers—is co-ed, and they all wear two-piece tops and tutus.

The emotional center of this Nutcracker, however, is still the shy and tender Marie, a child full of wonder and idealism. All manner of jokey things happen to her, but in the final pas de deux she is swept up into young adulthood by love—with the help of all the crazy characters who return to usher her into her dream of romance. Morris wins us over with a sincere core surrounded by comical edges.


A Growing Hybridization

One of the unique aspects of Next Wave Festival is the prominence of collaboration wherein dance is just one element in the mix, illustrated by the influence of BAM “regulars” David Gordon and Big Dance Theater as well as intriguing hybrid productions such as Sarah Michelson’s DOGS (2006), Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche’s In-I (2009), and David Michalek’s Hagoromo (2015).

David Gordon, as much a playwright as a choreographer, has devised four dancing-and-talking productions for the festival—all with Gordon’s special brand of inquisitive irreverence. His grand opus, United States (1988), was co-commissioned by BAM and 26 presenters around the country. Gordon gathered written bits of local color from these presenters, to which he added movement material recycled from previous works. Included in this mélange was “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from On Your Toes, based on the 1948 Hollywood movie danced by Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen. Naturally, former Cunningham dancer Valda Setterfield, Gordon’s wife and muse, played the Vera-Ellen character while Gordon approximated Gene Kelly. His character gets shot, setting off a corps of policemen—his own version of the Keystone Cops—who console the now widowed and veiled Valda. Like Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, Gordon was a founding member of the groundbreaking Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s. He is not beholden to any particular method but always engages his audience with a sense of play.

17c, Annie-B Parson & Paul Laza’s Big Dance Theater, 2017. Ph Rebecca Greenfield

The tiny Big Dance Theater, a true hybrid of dance and theater, presents vivid characters in a collision of genres and narratives. The directors, Annie-B. Parson (dance) and Paul Lazar (theater), create a collage of images that intersect each other. In 2014’s Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature (a reference to Hollywood directors who didn’t want to claim a show they felt wasn’t up to snuff), the added component of film enlarged, foreshadowed, or echoed events onstage. The Dadaist landscape of Alan Smithee, complete with fur coats, long telephone calls, and cigarettes, could change from combative to docile on a dime. Shards of text from the movies Terms of Endearment and Doctor Zhivago interrupt other narratives, in the same sense that, as mentioned previously, William Forsythe’s dancers interrupt themselves physically. This kind of interruption, according to postmodern theory, wakes the brain up, even if the overall gist remains an enigma.

Next Wave hybrids have included three other intriguing productions at the Harvey. In Sarah Michelson’s absurdist DOGS, four dancers navigate huge spiraling sculptures and tree-sized sprouts of lighting instruments while engaging in a kind of mad hatter’s tea party; roast chicken was served to audiences at intermission. Akram Khan’s duet collaboration with actor Juliette Binoche entitled In-I infused questions of intimacy that touched on racist tropes with visceral struggles. The elegance and force of Binoche as a mover matched Khan’s vulnerability as a storyteller. And in Hagoromo, David Michalek’s enchanting vision for telling a Japanese Noh drama in music, puppetry, and dance, David Neumann’s choreography for ballet star Wendy Whelan distilled her essence to slowed down, other-worldly gliding.


Sarah Michelson’s DOGS, 2006. Ph Julieta Cervantes

Wendy Whelan in Hagoromo Ph Julieta Cervantes










Going Global

In the 1990s, Lichtenstein and Melillo started looking for Next Wave programming beyond Europe and embraced an international artistic perspective. They imported the calligraphic beauty of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the intense ritual of the Paris-based Japanese butoh group Sankai Juku, and the cryptic imagery of Saburo Teshigawara from Japan. They also brought in the steady beat of Brazil’s Grupo Corpo and the rawness of Bangarra, the Aboriginal group from Australia. Each of these groups transported us to a different geographical and mental landscape.

Moon Water 2003 Ph Teng Hui-En

Another force that has taken the dance world by storm is Ohad Naharin and his Tel Aviv‒based Batsheva Dance Company. Just as Forsythe has redefined ballet, Naharin has turned modern dance inside out, giving us a staggering vitality barely contained by a sophisticated sense of form. Although precisely choreographed, his dances plunge us into an experience of humanity in a raw state. Gaga, his improvisational method or “movement language,” enables Naharin and his dancers to make wild, unpredictable movement that is true to their nature. Younger choreographers all over the world have been influenced by his unflinching investigations, and Gaga workshops are in demand as a training method that energizes all corners of the body.

Mamootot, by Ohad Naharin: Batsheva Dance Company, 2005. Photo- Julieta Cervantes

In 2005, Naharin brought the disarming Mamootot to the Next Wave, performing in the intimacy of a dance studio at the nearby Mark Morris Dance Center. In the brightly lit space, the Batsheva dancers, looking somehow caught off guard, are wearing something like tie-died long underwear. Nothing about these dancers is conventionally beautiful, but you sometimes find yourself gasping at the emotional beauty of the interactions. At one point a woman is lying down, while a nude man dances quietly near and over her. He kisses his own hand, then his knee, then the other knee but never touches her. Finally, she crawls up into his arms and he walks off with her slowly, her limbs dangling down. The mix of wonder and eroticism in Mamootot was called “pretty thrilling” by New York Times critic John Rockwell.

A sly sense of humor permeates the three sections of Three (2007). The penultimate scene has three sets of dancers lining up to take turns exposing different parts of their bodies. It’s a somber-to-silly depiction of the extreme vulnerability that’s essential to Naharin’s work. And then, to change the mood, they stride low to the Beach Boys song “Welcome.” As the lights fade, they are all still striding, threading through each other with purpose and direction, filling the space with a kind of rhythmic communal bliss.

Three, Batsheva Dance Company, 2007. Ph Richard Termine

In 2014, Naharin presented the bracing Sadeh21. A string of solos that expands to duets and trios, it can ricochet from tender to disturbing to soothing. One woman treads around the stage, hiking each hip up in a ridiculously distorted walk—for so long that it becomes second nature. One dancer tries desperately to latch onto another’s legs until she gives up hope. Just as your heart can contract watching these dancers, it can also expand. A small group of three people opens up to let another person into the circle, then another and another until the circle looks too big for the stage. Meanwhile, the hip-hiker is now treading in place.

Political Mother, Hofesh Shechter Company, 2012. Ph Julieta Cervantes

Naharin was neither the first nor the last Israeli dance artist to come to the Next Wave. In 1983, the festival invited Rina Schenfeld, a celebrated dancer/choreographer who danced with Batsheva before Naharin took the helm as director. Hofesh Schechter, who had also danced in Naharin’s Batsheva, brought his driving, tribal Political Mother in 2012. And in 2016, Zvi Gotheiner, who came to New York from northern Israel in 1978, presented a travelogue of sorts, On the Road, based on the Beat generation novel by Jack Kerouac.

Many choreographers have incorporated high technology into their work, but Gideon Obarzanek devised an especially spooky world in his Mortal Engine (2009). This piece from the Australian group Chunky Move started with digital animations of roving circles and ovals that somehow morphed into humans. Obarzanek and his team created the illusion that the dancing body generated light and shadow. Whenever the bodies moved, they seemed to be burning the space around them. Inky, smudgy shadows threatened to envelop the six dancers. With mesmerizing effects, Mortal Engine was a precise vision of gloom.

Ioane Papalii of company MAU performs in Lemi Ponifasio’s ‘Birds With Skymirrors’ Ph © 2014 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

Possibly the most global Next Wave participant, in the sense of far off as well as the sense of planetary precariousness, was Lemi Ponifasio’s Birds With Skymirrors (2014). The Samoan-born, New Zealand‒based Ponifasio sent monk-like men scurrying while making hieroglyphic gestures. A nude woman shouted warnings of impending doom. On film, a pelican rose up, straining to flap its wings in an oil spill. Although parts of the performance were inscrutable (or literally too dark to see), the message about an impending ecological apocalypse was clear. In the program notes, Ponifasio pointed out that in the Pacific Islands, climate change is “already here.”


Ralph Lemon: The Geography Trilogy

Unique among Next Wave offerings was Ralph Lemon’s monumental Geography Trilogy, spanning ten years. Lemon had danced with Meredith Monk but his early work was more formalist than imagistic. However, Monk’s interdisciplinary approach and her connection to the deep past had sunk in, and in going forward he was also going back. He decided to explore his own racial background by traveling far and wide. The trilogy comprises three different explorations into his artistic, ethnic, and spiritual history. For Geography (1997), the first installment of the trilogy, he traveled to his ancestral home of Africa; for Tree (2000), to his spiritual home of Asia; and for Come home Charley Patton (2004), to the racist United States South.

Ralph Lemon, Geography. 1997 Ph Tom Brazil

In an era when many artists were giving a mere nod to other cultures, Lemon was immersing himself geographically, physically, and artistically. His research produced three poetic evocations of time and place, each with its own balance of peace and turmoil. For the first part of the trilogy, he gathered four dancers and two drummers from West Africa and a Guinean storyteller living in Brooklyn. He had entered new territory and felt, he told me, “profoundly discombobulated.” The search for new materials and performers catapulted him way beyond his comfort zone. He ripped away stereotypes by giving the men cream-colored linen suits instead of either traditional African regalia or the bare-chested muscular look of, say, the Alvin Ailey company. Nari Ward’s curtain of recycled bottles and box springs transported us to a village of huts and dirt roads. Although Lemon cast himself as an exile from Africa (the structure was loosely based on the Oresteia), he often moved among his diasporic cast. While the West African performers did a stomping dance, torsos twisting, arms windmilling, knees flying up, Lemon himself was more swoopy, fluid, stretched. He danced with less of a beat, aloof from the pounding of the drums. He retained his postmodern self while still being one of the men.

But his postmodern “self” got interrogated and pelted. As Ann Daly wrote in the New York Times, “He has put post-modern dance on trial, and race is the grand inquisitor.” Sitting in a circle, the men argued with each other. A stylized fight broke out between two of them: head-butting, gripping, hurtling, and falling. Again and again. Lemon did not shy away from violence. Nor did he shy away from beauty. Ward’s gorgeous set, the rhythms of the drums, and the beguiling movement qualities came together to create a visual and cultural richness.

Tree, the second part of the trilogy, traced the route of Buddhism through Asia. The production was a collage of different cultures, languages, dances, and musics. Performers included men and women from Côte d’Ivoire, China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. Costume designer Anita Yavich’s extended their backpacks upwards with bicycle wheels that Lemon called “mandala vehicles.” We heard two simultaneous stories in two languages in two different parts of the stage. As a choreographer, he nearly crossed the line of disrespect: smoking on the same stage as classical Indian dance. Tree was more peaceful than Geography but also had moments of perverse cultural collision. A classical Odissi dancer was accompanied by African drumming. Two Asian men in blackface played traditional instruments similar to a harmonica and a banjo. Again, Lemon is pelted with stones. Was he making himself the target as atonement for transgressing against traditions?

Ralph Lemon’s “Come home Charley Patton”  Ph © 2004 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

The final part, Come home Charley Patton, brought video into the mix. We saw Lemon, wading in water up to his waist while reading from a book. We saw the 99-year-old Walter Carter of Yazoo, Mississippi, get up and do a dance rooted in Africa. The cast was smaller—just four men and two women, all of them American except for the Ivorian dancer Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, a constant throughout all three parts. The sound score traveled through various blues songs and other music while the dancers shuffled with precise footwork in a forerunner of the “buck dance.”

There were odd, jarring juxtapositions. Okwui Okpokwasili sang Jacques Brel but then put iron horseshoes around her neck, harking back to captured slaves. She told a searing story about how in the fourth grade she and a white girl kept yelling the N-word at each other until the teacher informed Okwui that the other girl “can’t be a N-word.” A small screen placed high up showed an animation of James Baldwin’s face speaking in his real recorded voice. It was as though Baldwin were overseeing the proceedings.

While in the previous two pieces Lemon was pelted with stones, here he was assaulted by a fire hose, an echo of the famously brutal police response toward civil rights marchers in the early 1960s. It was viscerally shocking to see a blast of water trained on Lemon while he continued dancing, slipping and staggering under the force of the blast: dancing for survival.

The Geography Trilogy was more than one dance artist’s exploration into the past. It investigated the nature of what it is to be a global citizen, to not flinch at the painful contradictions that quest might involve. It also integrated the Next Wave audience racially. As Lemon said recently, “For the first time in my work, I was getting black people to my shows.” Obviously there was a personal satisfaction in this. But it reflects a larger accomplishment that BAM in general has been able to effect: integrating the audience.


Crossing Cultures

While not as long-term a commitment as Lemon’s Geography Trilogy, other cross-cultural forays include Karole Armitage’s Itutu (2009), Reggie Wilson’s Moses(es) (2013), and Seán Curran’s Dream’d in a Dream (2015).

Megumi Eda in Itutu, Armitage Gone! Dance, 2009. Ph Julieta Cervantes

Armitage collaborated with Burkina Electric, an African pop band led by composer Lukas Ligeti. Visual artist Philip Taaffe channeled the pop African blend into a series of backdrops depicting fauna with an almost predatory look. At times, with Peter Speliopolous’s kicky tutu-reverse costumes, the piece looked like a quirky fashion parade. The choreography sets African chest contractions against balletic leaps. The spirit of melding reached a poignant peak in a duet between the exquisite Megumi Eda and Zoko Zoko, a West African dancer who was part of Burkina Electric: a tender, patient, seductive sharing of styles and sensations.

For Dream’d in a Dream, instead of inviting other cultural traditions into his own craft, Seán Curran went toward them. Through the BAM-produced DanceMotion USASM, a program of the U.S. Department of State, the Seán Curran Company traveled to Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia. There they encountered a traditional music ensemble called Ustatshakirt Plus. A former folk dancer himself (a champion Irish step dancer) as well as a former member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Curran devised folk steps to mesh with the traditional mountain music. With nine benches onstage the dancers reclined and rested, danced and dreamt. When the musicians stepped downstage, we could see that their instruments were variations on banjos and recorders.

Dream’d in a Dream, Seán Curran Company: Ustatshakirt Plus, 2015. Ph Julieta Cervantes

In a recent conversation, Curran said that when he was invited to make a piece for the BAM Harvey Theater, he was thrilled. He thought back to 1987, when Peter Brook inaugurated what was then the Majestic Theater with his legendary production of The Mahabharata, and he knew he had to “fill the space” visually. Mark Randall, Curran’s longtime visual collaborator, hung a magnificent carpet of reds and purples to transport us to the region. The choreography was simple, nothing fancy, but fostered a warm feeling among the cast. While Itutu was bold and chic, Dream’d in a Dream evoked a sweetness from its dancers and musicians.

Like Lemon and Curran, Reggie Wilson gathers ideas as he travels. For Moses(es), which focused on the overlap between various Moses myths―including Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain―and the African diaspora, he paid visits to Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. Wilson’s Fist & Heel Performance Group includes both dancers and singers, and, as in the African tradition, there’s a fluidity between singing and dancing. Sometimes Wilson sits on a chair stamping and clapping while the dancers follow along in what he calls his “post-African/neo-HooDoo” style. The music, as eclectic as Wilson’s influences, ranges from Louis Armstrong’s “Go Down Moses” to gospel, Egyptian, and Hebraic songs.

Moses(es), Reggie Wilson: Fist & Heel Performance Group, 2013. Ph Julieta Cervantes


Altered States

When a choreographer thrusts her or his dancers into the outer reaches of the imagination, they can plunge into extreme psychological states. Witnessing this kind of unmooring from the roots of sanity is partly what pulls us back to Next Wave again and again.

Josephine Ann Endicott cut a sordid, messy, over-the-top figure in Pina Bausch’s original Kontakthof. Excessive in every action and self-mocking to the hilt, she threw decorum to the winds. She was more than on the verge; she had tipped over the edge into a kind of insanity. The result was riveting, even alarming.

Eiko & Koma in their Night Tide, included in New Moon Stories, 1986. Ph Beatriz Schiller

The duo Eiko & Koma enter into another kind of extreme state. When they perform, they seem to be caught in a post-human apocalypse. Either the human world has self-destructed, or they are victims of a vast natural disaster. They have a visceral kind of need that stretches out time, and yet they command our attention. They create their own environment and then become part of it. For Night Tide, included in New Moon Stories (1986), Eiko & Koma’s inverted nude torsos resemble randomly placed boulders. In Tree (1988), they seem to be made of leaves. Collaborating with Native American musician Robert Mirabal for Land (1991), they thrash on parched earth; Koma pushes a bear carcass. Perhaps they are drowning in River (1997), one desperately trying to rescue the other. You can barely distinguish them as human: they are part of the driftwood. We, as audience, have to tap into our own powers of concentration in order to fully experience their super slow dive into the primal imagination.

Culturally, their work is related to butoh, the form that was developed in Japan during the United States occupation there in the 1950s. The New York‒based Eiko & Koma studied with Kazuo Ohno, one of the two founders of the form, and were devoted to him until he died. Extreme states, super slow pace, and a connection to nature are all characteristics of butoh. But they feel their work is independent, so they do not label it butoh.

In 2000, Eiko & Koma devised a cave-like environment for When Nights Were Dark. With the celestial sounds of a live praise choir and their typical slow motion, they could either be being born or dying. Sunlight seeps thru the stalactites as the whole “cave” makes one full rotation during the 75-minute performance. The two sink lower into the cave and rise up to come together, though you think it will be an age before they actually touch each other.

In William Forsythe’s Decreation, which is based on poet Anne Carson’s essay and opera of the same title, each member of his cast locates a center of madness within themselves. Toward the end, dancer Georg Reischl seems to break down before our eyes. He’s shifting on his feet and lamenting that his “spiel,” his story, is gone. As he expresses his torment at not being able to retrieve it, he cannot stop moving. In a talk after the performance, Forsythe explained that the idea of extreme states came from Carson’s view of mystics. He said of his dancers that “They are also contemplating the idea of these mystics in these extreme states. Carson calls it extasis. Georg’s misery is a kind of ecstasy at the same time.”

Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, David Thomson, and Darrell Jones in How Can You Stay In The House All Day And Not Go Anywhere? by Ralph Lemon, 2010. Ph Stephanie Berger

The second half of Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay In The House All Day And Not Go Anywhere? (2010) includes a 20-minute process of going past exhaustion. The five improvising dancers lose their bearings and their energy, yet they keep going because they can’t seem to remember how to stop. The flesh comfort among them—touching, leaning, supporting—provides a kind of harboring. In this case, the extreme state of the performers had its roots in Lemon’s real life. When he made this piece, he had just ended a long vigil over his lover, the Odissi dancer Asako Takami, watching life ebbing away from her. He recently told me, “I didn’t have the opportunity to think about anything other than this moment of dealing with a sick and then dying body. That became the work. I was watching this incredible genius dancer body falling apart, daily. In a weird way, a perverse way, I got to see that falling apart violently, horribly, and beautifully.” His state of mind seeped through the entire piece. The dancers, staggering and falling, weren’t “performing” anymore, they were just surviving. And we were there to witness it. One could call it anti-choreography, as Lemon had witnessed anti-life overcome his partner.

But Lemon wasn’t done with grief yet. After this section, Okwui Okpokwasili was onstage alone, sobbing honestly, ferociously, heartbreakingly for ten minutes. Lemon has said that she prepared for this ordeal by exposing herself to images of people suffering—and that she was a surrogate for his own mourning. Her crying jag was a tour de force that had a few people leaving the theater—but the rest of us glued to our seats.


The New Wave: Transgressive, Gritty, Interactive

As Next Wave favorites wind down—the Cunningham company folded two years after his death; Trisha Brown’s company rarely performs on proscenium stages; Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal is in flux; and The Forsythe Company has disbanded—a new crop of choreographers has sprung up. Among them are Kyle Abraham, Faye Driscoll, and Nora Chipaumire. These three have shown the kind of stark originality the festival is known for. In the 2016 festival, they all made excellent use of the flexible Fishman Space, while also tackling difficult subjects

Kyle Abraham in his Pavement, 2016. Ph Ian Douglas

Pavement is Kyle Abraham’s poignant take on the 1991 John Singleton movie Boyz N the Hood, transposed to the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he grew up. Abraham is bent on “investigating the state of Black America and a history therein.” The eight dancers of Abraham.In.Motion combine his mellifluous amalgam of hip-hop and postmodern improvisation with gently devastating images of police brutality. By the end, you feel familiar with the streets of the Hill District. The chilling “normalizing” of police profiling is met with a camaraderie born of survival instincts, all against a backdrop of music that ranges from Bach and Vivaldi to Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway: an operatic array for a history of survival.

Faye Driscoll unleashes a kind of 360-degree zaniness in Thank You For Coming: Play. Audience members are asked to write words on slips of paper that are later incorporated in a lament: “Ohhhh X, Ohhh Y,” uttered in wonder and mock despair by Driscoll herself. In a section of astounding virtuosity, words and gesture are dislodged from each other and repeated with slightly different changes until finally the words and gesture match up. Driscoll, who has been influenced by both Tere O’Connor and Big Dance Theater, specializes in destabilizing whatever you thought was certain. The dancers change their costume and their tone in madcap succession. Talking about extreme states: Brandon Washington taps into his own lament, chanting over and over, “Where is my mom?” As he flails and bounces off the walls, it is somehow funny too, possibly because of the playful context. But like Georg Reischl in Decreation, he is caught in an ecstatic lament.

Nora Chipaumire with Shamar Watt and in portrait of myself as my father, 2016. Ph Julieta Cervantes

In portrait of myself as my father, which is part of BAM’s new Brooklyn-Paris Artist Exchange with Théâtre de la Ville, Nora Chipaumire thrashed against ropes that restrained her in a makeshift boxing ring. Head covered with a towel, midriff bared, wielding boxing gloves, she was chomping at the bit to break out of the box of one gender or another. She accosted the audience with growls, grunts, and accusations in French. We heard humiliating disses on black masculinity that her father, who was largely absent from her childhood, undoubtedly endured as a black man in Zimbabwe. She imagined herself teaching him how to get his swagger on. Senegalese dancer Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye leapt in and out of the boxing ring. Finally, Chipaumire bent over and lifted Ndiaye onto her back, saying, “I carry the carcass of my father.” Like Driscoll, Chipaumire excels at destabilizing, ejecting us from our center of comfort.

This tradition of discomfort continued in the 2017 festival with Germaine Acogny, known as the mother of contemporary African dance, who performed a solo choreographed for her by Olivier Dubois of Ballet du Nord that nearly unhinges her. A frequent guest at the annual DanceAfrica festival of African dance at BAM, Acogny brought her all-male Compagnie Jant-Bi to the 2008 Next Wave to collaborate with Urban Bush Women on Les écailles de la memoire (The scales of memory). Nine years later, she performed Mon élue noire (My Black Chosen One) Sacre #2, a driven solo to a recording of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, in which she runs in place, pipe clutched in teeth, at a pace that would exhaust any other 73-year-old.

Making her Next Wave debut as a choreographer, Cynthia Oliver—who performed in Tere O’Connor’s BLEED—asked her all-male cast to dig beneath the stereotypes of black masculinity in Virago-Man Dem. She sometimes put them in situations that make them squirm but ultimately expanded their range of emotions and textures.

Another kind of boundary-pushing is the collaboration between video wizard Charles Atlas and former Cunningham dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Tesseract extends Cunningham’s embrace of technology with 3D film and live video-mixing that ensures a heaping dose of chance. The six dancers were filmed, edited, and projected by Atlas in real time, making for some ghostly effects. Mitchell and Riener are Next Wave alums as dancers—both appeared in the Cunningham company’s Nearly Ninety program in 2009 and again in the Legacy Tour in 2011—but Tesseract was their Next Wave debut as choreographers.

To complete a full circle, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s double bill that first wowed New York in 1984 returned to the festival. Bausch’s powerfully bleak Café Müller and her raging Rite of Spring shook New Yorkers and alerted the BAM audience that complacency had no place at the festival.

Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, Ph Stephanie Berger 2017

The waves of the Next Wave Festival will continue to bring stimulating artists to our shores, to reveal the depth and diversity of dance from near and far. Some of these artists consciously risk failure—and, let’s admit, it’s exciting to see how close they come to the precipice. But more than that, the Next Wave also reveals our own reactions, the varieties of method and madness within ourselves. While we return to the festival again and again because of our curiosity, we do not sit outside it, judging it from a distance. We are inevitably pulled into the arena—mentally and sometimes physically—whether it’s the Howard Gilman Opera House, the Harvey Theater, or the BAM Fisher. When we go to a Next Wave performance, we honor the curiosity within ourselves.



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Notable Dance Books of 2021  

The pandemic has been good for dance books. Many are being published, and we’ve had more time to read them. I tend to gravitate toward stories by or about dancers (as opposed to how-to manuals, technique methodology, or theoretical treatises), so this list is obviously subjective. By chance, this year unleashed a profusion of memoirs about Balanchine and New York City Ballet. This ever-present magnet in our field is counter-balanced by stories about major Black ballet dancers.

Note that Florida University Press, which happens to have five (!) books on this list, offers a holiday discount code of XM21.

To my list of notables, I’ve added three more categories: Books Received or Announced, New Editions of Existing Books, and Children’s Books.

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Notable Books:

Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil LeClercq
By Orel Protopopescu
University Press of Florida

She was beautiful, smart, witty, dedicated, and one of the best ballerinas of her time. She was a muse and wife to Balanchine while also being cherished by Jerome Robbins. And then tragedy: At just 28 years old, she was struck down by polio and never walked again. But here’s what is equally awesome as her talent: She lived past that moment with style and resilience.

Writer and poet Orel Protopopescu tells this story in a way that allows you to feel “Tanny’s” stellar qualities, as both a dancer and a person, from the age of 11. She had studied with Mikhail Mordkin and, on advice from Balanchine, also went to the Katherine Dunham School (directed by Syvilla Fort). Along with Black dancer Betty Nichols, she performed with Merce Cunningham’s when they happened to be gallivanting in Paris at the same time. Beguiled by her dreamlike style, Balanchine made La Valse on her and Jerome Robbins made Afternoon of a Faun on her. And there were many more roles. She delivered them all with aplomb, or with sass, with melancholia—whatever was needed. She did get nervous before performances; whenever she had to dance Swan Lake, she would throw up.

LeClercq was as mystified as anyone at Balanchine’s inventiveness. Living with him at home and dancing in the studio with him, she saw his choreography pour forth with no apparent planning except listening to the music.

In 1956, on their way to a European tour while the polio epidemic still raged, all the City Ballet dancers lined up to get their polio vaccine. Tanny grew impatient and ditched the line. That tour turned out to be particularly exhausting. In Copenhagen, she came down with polio and had to be put in an iron lung. Balanchine—and the whole company— was devastated.  He stopped choreographing for a year, devoting himself to her care. With great optimism, he devised exercises to stretch and activate her lifeless legs. His remedies never worked, but they gave him material for his groundbreaking 1957 ballet Agon.

Her letters to friends before, during, and after treatment reveal a quicksilver mind and playful intellect. She joked about the silver lining of her catastrophe: She never had to dance Swan Lake again.

When Balanchine’s obsession with Suzanne Farrell became painfully, publicly clear, LeClercq broke off their marriage. That was a rocky time. But she eventually regained her equanimity—and her witty self. Finding new outlets for her creativity in the 1960s, she produced two books: Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat, filled with her own photographs; and The Ballet Cook Book, a collection of recipes from many other dancers. She later spent eight years teaching at Dance Theatre of Harlem, valiantly directing from her wheelchair.

Balanchine and Le Clercq remained devoted to each other till the end. In his will, he left her more ballets than anyone else.


Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, a Celebration, a Movement
By Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel
Kensington Publishing Corp, Dafina Imprint

The glory of DTH, as told by former company dancer Judy Tyrus and archivist Paul Novosel, stretches over 304 pages and more than fifty years. This book illuminates the mission of Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook to prove that Blacks could master ballet—and to bring beauty to theaters all over the world. A bounty of luscious photographs celebrates the technical, dramatic, and artistic abilities of the dancers up and down the decades. From Arthur Mitchell’s days as a star of New York City Ballet to opening a school in Harlem, to DTH’s rise on the world’s stages, to the revolutionary decision to dress the dancers in flesh-toned tights and pointe shoes, to premieres that stretch the repertoire and the dancers’ abilities, we get the inside story. Punctuating this saga are lists of what was happening in Black cultural life at the time.

This book includes a welcome section on DTH co-founder Karel Shook, who had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and taught at Katherine Dunham’s school. Shook was the first person who saw a future for Mitchell as a ballet dancer.

We get photographic glimpses of dancers Stephanie Dabney, Lorraine Graves, Virginia Johnson, Andrea Long, Alicia Graf Mack, Ashley Murphy, Laveen Naidu, Carolene Rocher, Eddie Shellman, Ingrid Silva, Ramon Thielen, Donald Williams; choreography by John Butler, Glen Tetley, Geoffrey Holder, Valerie Bettis and John Taras; and luminaries like Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, and of course, Mitchell s good friend, Cicely Tyson.

DTH has been called “a miracle,” and this book reveals the elements that made up that continuing-but-changing miracle. It includes the 2004–2012 hiatus due to financial issues, and the changing of the guards with Mitchell’s successor: the former DTH ballerina Virginia Johnson.

Although I wish there were an index, this book is a gift for ballet lovers, and is essential to understanding the ongoing issue of Blacks in ballet.


Onstage With Martha Graham
By Stuart Hodes
University Press of Florida

This high-spirited memoir was so much fun—and so essential to our understanding of Martha Graham— that I couldn’t resist writing about it when it came out in April. See 13 “Gems from Stuart Hodes’ New Book on Martha Graham.”




Dancing with the Revolution: Power, Politics, and Privilege in Cuba
By Elizabeth B. Schwall
University of North Carolina Press

Alicia Alonso reigned as the queen of ballet in Cuba for decades, and Elizabeth Schwall helps us understand how that happened. The ballerina had been a star with (American) Ballet Theatre, and her husband Fernando, who had danced with Mikhail Mordkin as well as with Ballet Theatre, oversaw ballet training throughout the island of Cuba. Together they created Ballet Alicia Alonso, which became Ballet Nacional de Cuba when Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Fernando’s brother Alberto set up his own company in opposition.

But Cuban dance is more than just the Alonsos. Troupes like Ballet Teatro de la Habana and Danza Abierta and their relationship to political actions are also discussed.

Schwall doesn’t shy away from contradictions. While ballet in Cuba is an art form of the people—famously, the cab drivers know who’s starring in Swan Lake on any given night—dancers of darker hues are not welcomed into ballet. While Castro’s position was anti-racist, the white supremacy of ballet was as ingrained in Cuba as it was in Europe and the U. S.  So, as Schwall points out, ballet in Cuba fostered elitism and populism simultaneously. Modern dance there is more racially diverse. But the folkloric companies, mainly black, face racism from white choreographers. Also, the male dancers were expected to be hyper-masculine. All these complexities fuel an ongoing debate about which form fulfills the revolutionary ideal best.

Schwall argues that, whatever the government edicts at the time, dance artists themselves have created the multi-faceted field in Cuba, that dance itself has the power to transgress.


Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy
By Misty Copeland
Aladdin Books, Simon & Schuster

Although this book is aimed at ages 10 and up, it would be inspiring for any dancer. Each of the twenty-seven women named on the cover have blazed a path as a Black dancer in a white form. Copeland gives each one of them a full page of love and respect. The names are alphabetical, but it’s fitting that the list starts with Lauren Anderson, whose image on the cover of Dance Magazine in 1999 gave the young Misty Copeland hope. As Copeland writes in the introduction, this is not a comprehensive list, but a group of ballerinas she has felt a personal connection to. Also in the introduction she brings up the issue of colorism, admitting her own privilege in being bi-racial and light-skinned.

When she writes about her fellow luminaries—Aesha Ash, Virginia Johnson, Ebony Williams, Andrea Long-Naidu, Ashley Murphy-Wilson, Alicia Graf Mack, Tai Jimenez, and many more—she waxes eloquent about their unique qualities and the obstacles they overcame. A special place is reserved for Raven Wilkinson, who broke the color barrier back in the 1940s and, decades later, mentored Misty. The younger dancer’s connection to Wilkinson, both personal and historical, provides one of the most powerful moments: “Raven is my angel, and her wings help me take flight every day and on every stage.”


Balanchine’s Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back
By John Clifford
University Press of Florida

This book starts off with sheer exuberance, deepens as it goes, and on the last page, articulates a beautiful devotion. John Clifford, a dancer with a rambunctious flair, reveals a whole other funnier, raunchier side of his mentor than is usually presented. Balanchine, who seemed bemused by this impulsive, extroverted, Hollywood kid, took him under his wing at New York City Ballet. In this memoir, Clifford is plenty plucky about his own abilities, but he’s even more colorful when writing about other dancers. He reports that he’s fast at picking up steps, and Balanchine liked that, but Suzanne Farrell is even faster. Apparently she could replicate the tiniest detail and inflection. “It was uncanny how she could do that,” he writes, “as if they shared the same brain.”

Clifford, who was a member of NYCB from 1966 to 1974, soaked up everything he could as a dancer and choreographer. He ultimately made eight ballets for City Ballet, and about twenty for other companies. In 1974, with Mr. B’s blessing, he left City Ballet to start the Los Angeles Ballet. His company, very active but often in financial peril, lasted for ten years. But Clifford keeps the focus here on Balanchine.

During Clifford’s spirited account of his apprenticeship, we get vivid descriptions of Anton Dolin, Maya Plisetskaya, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, Peter Martins, Merrill Ashley, and Gelsey Kirkland (No, Mr. B did not give her amphetamines.) He tells us what Balanchine meant when he said “Don’t put your heels down,” and why the master approved of Clifford’s impulse to “entertain.” Clifford’s devotion to Balanchine is boundless, and the ways that Balanchine treats him like a son are quite moving.


Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet
By Martha Ullman West
University Press of Florida

This double biography focuses on two feisty dancers who helped build ballet in America: Todd Bolender, who danced and choreographed for many companies, and Janet Reed, who preceded Maria Tallchief as the darling of New York City Ballet. By all accounts they were both irresistible and very funny — onstage and off—and had a delicious camaraderie. Close friends for fifty-eight years, the two were also close with legendary figures like Jerome Robbins, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Melissa Hayden.

Based on massive research, Martha Ullman West chronicles the endless rehearsals and freelance stints. She delves into the making of iconic ballets like Robbins’ Fancy Free and Balanchine’s Agon. But she also gives accounts of lesser known ballets like Balanchine’s Renard and Bolender’s Mandarin and Still Point.

Bolender choreographed for Katherine Dunham, Jerome Robbins’ Ballets USA, the Joffrey Ballet, and countless other groups, often while dancing for either Balanchine or Robbins. His choreography, influenced by Austrucktanz leader Mary Wigman, spanned modern dance and ballet, and American and European ballet. His last long-term position was artistic director of Kansas City Ballet from 1981 to 1995.

A strong coach as well as performer—Doris Hering described her as having a sense of “the serious salted with the ridiculous”—Reed helped seed dance companies in other cities including Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Lincoln Kirstein felt that Reed was so lively that she attracted better known dancers like Nora Kaye and Diana Adams to NYC Ballet, where she served as ballet master in the 1960s.

The surprising moments include Bolender being almost knocked unconscious onstage by a super energized 17-year-old named Jacques d’Amboise, and Bolender’s admission that he never understood Balanchine’s counting system. Pleasant revelations include that Balanchine’s process was more collaborative than is usually described. An unpleasant one was that Lincoln Kirstein, whose dream of NYCB made it happen, habitually denigrated female choreographers.

Gratitude to Martha Ullman West for showing that dance artists who are not superstars have contributed mightily to the forging of ballet in America.


Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina
By Georgina Pazcoguin
Henry Holt and Company

Georgina Pazcoguin’s transformation from an introverted trainee to a fearlessly frank soloist at New York City Ballet makes this book a page-turner. With a swag you can’t miss, she describes her passion for dance, her chutzpah in confrontational talks, and her defiance of what she calls “ballet toxicity.” She’s shocked by her first “fat talk” when her boss, Peter Martins, tells her that her thighs are too heavy—oh, and he also questions her commitment because she asked for a day off to attend her brother’s wedding.

She never gets to play the Swan Queen, or even Sugar Plum, but she does get plum roles on Broadway in On the Town and Cats. She also starred in iconic Broadway numbers with American Dance Machine of the 21st Century: She performed a nude duet from Oh! Calcutta! by Margo Sappington and worked with Chita Rivera on the Jack Cole number “Beale Street Blues.”

Pazcoguin weighs the differences between Broadway and ballet: For musicals, you have to audition for every role, whereas a ballet company gives you security. But in a company you are dependent on one boss who can play games and be abusive. NYCB has changed leadership since Martins stepped down under a cloud of allegations, and Pazcoguin expresses hope that the NYCB dancers will now be treated with respect.

The most hilarious moment was the time in Nutcracker when the toy soldier doll didn’t show up, and Robbie La Fosse as Drosselmeyer had to improvise up a storm. Her description of his spontaneous eruption is so full of life that you feel like you are there, with the dancers backstage, gobsmacked by La Fosse’s brilliant improvisation that saves the day.


A Body in Fukushima
By Eiko Otake and William Johnston
Wesleyan University Press

This beautiful/tragic book moved me so much that I wrote about it here when it first came out.




Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life
By Gavin Larsen
University Press of Florida

For readers who are curious about the training and the day-to-day life of a ballet dancer, this book has a lovely lilt to it. Gavin Larsen, who trained at the School of American Ballet, spent seven years at Pacific Northwest Ballet before she found a harmonious home at Oregon Ballet Theatre. From the beginning of her training to her farewell performance, she describes her experiences with sensitivity and profuse detail.

Her range of emotions is wide. Slogging through a single Nutcracker season, she hits a low as a “crumpled mess of tears in my dressing room.” Then later, in the Sugar Plum pas de deux, “suddenly at the height of the lift and on that one magnificent note, everything was crystal clear: this is the apex of life. This is the happiest a person on earth can be. This is perfection.” (The pairing of ballet with “perfection” has become so automatic that I confess I almost lopped off that part of the quote.)

The chapter on “Tumey” is bracingly real. Antonia Tumkovsky, who taught at SAB for decades, deploys the old-school style of correction by humiliation. Like all of the chapters on training, Larsen refers to herself in the third person, but it’s clearly she who falls into disfavor. For one moment, she loses her concentration, sending Mme Tumkovsky into a fury. The girl is now “the One Who Had Lapsed,” and Tumey continues tormenting her until the end of class. But how the Lapser keeps her cool is impressive. And maybe Tumkovsky is not just being petulant but is testing to see if Larsen can match her fury with her own. Larsen rises to the occasion.


Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-memoir of a Boy in Ballet
By James Whiteside

This funny, sexy, sad almost-memoir starts with James Whiteside’s mother, a strong woman who let little James be whoever he wanted to be. Family, friends and hard work are what this story is all about. Whiteside becomes painfully torn when he’s about to go onstage as the Prince in The Sleeping Beauty and he’s just received a text saying his mother is dying. He describes his unbearably conflicting emotions poignantly and powerfully.

The exhilaration of dressing in drag and other antics with friends are liberating. Meanwhile Whiteside struggles to attain the perfect boy ballet body, and his goal is to get past that obsession to work on his technique. But don’t expect any details about his ten years with Boston Ballet or his nine years with American Ballet Theatre. Center Center is mainly about claiming the right to flamboyance and feeling centered in your chosen way to express yourself.


Dance Spreads Its Wings: Israeli Concert Dance 1920–2010
By Ruth Eshel

Batsheva Dance Company is the tip of the iceberg in this dance-rich country. Former dancer/choreographer and critic Ruth Eshel unfolds a wealth of dance going back to before Israel was even a country. She follows pioneers like Gertrud Kraus, who fled Austria at the peak of her dance career and started Israel Ballet Theatre; Sara Levi-Tanai and her sublime muse, Margalit Oved, of Inbal Dance Theater; Bethsabée de Rothschild, who started both Batsheva and Bat-dor Companies; and Tamra-Ramla Dance Theater (co-founded by Zvi Gotheiner). Eshel ties each new wave of creativity to political developments. Americans who came to nurture the Israeli dance scene included Jerome Robbins, Anna Sokolow, Talley Beatty, and later Lisa Nelson and Simone Forti. Chapter headings like “Israeli Expressionist Dance Meets American Dance” and “To Dance in Holy Jerusalem and Socialist Haifa” reflect investigations into ongoing questions.

Eshel highlights independent choreographers like Yasmeen Godder, Arkadi Zaides, Roy Assaf, Hillel Kogan, and Sharon Eyal. It’s illuminating to read about the evolution of major companies like Rami Be’er and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, and Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al of Vertigo. And of course, Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company. Eshel also touches on community efforts to bring Arabs and Israelis together in Haifa and the international dance festivals in Ramallah. She herself met the influx of Ethiopian Jews with dance workshops and helped them develop their choreographic voices based on their folk dances. Whether you read this 500-page volume from start to finish or keep it on your shelf for reference, you are sure to get a sense of the global dance activity in Israel over the years.


Physical Listening: A Dancer’s Interspecies Journey
By JoAnna Mendl Shaw
Arnica Press

As educators, we know that listening is crucial, and that listening leads to imagining. JoAnna Mendl Shaw has extended and developed these intuitive knowings into her multi-faceted practice of physical listening.

A child of Jewish refugees, Mendl Shaw learned to ski at 3 years old. It was exhilarating, and she excelled. “The mountain,” she writes, “was where my physical intelligence flourished.” Although she wasn’t immediately thrilled by dance classes, she grew to love them.

The book gives a detailed account of her life’s work as a dancer, educator, Laban Movement Analyst, and mastermind of mixing species in performance. With great lucidity, she explains how each phase led to the next in her creative life. Thus we hear about the doodle game she played with her father, her resolve to make dances that leave a visual tracing, and origami folding for Zoom workshops.

An invitation from Mount Holyoke College to make a site-specific piece unleashed Mendl Shaw’s equestrian imagination. She started working with horses and never looked back. Although, in these performances each horse is controlled by a professional rider, the dancers concentrate on a dialogue, “giving and taking leadership” with the horses. In one episode, a horse nestles close to a dancer’s shoulder, and Mendl Shaw imagines the animal is whispering to the dancer.

Within each chapter are sections on practical thinking, poetic sensing, and scores. The scores—for example, an obstacle course, a blind learning score, a folding score, walking score, touch and weight sensing—are a valuable resource for anyone teaching dance composition or improvisation.

This book is a testament to what you can do when you break through the conventions of performing. It’s also a compendium of ways to engage in a life-art-reflection process.

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Before we move on to the other categories, I want to register an objection to a trend I’m seeing. Three of the ballet books above represent the dancers with drawings instead of photographs. Maybe it’s my background in journalism, or my respect for photographers, but I feel this choice does not do the dancers justice. If I’m curious about a dancer, I want to see what kind of spirit that person brings to their dancing. I want to see the artistry created by that dancer onstage, or in the studio. So, to my eye, Center Center, Being a Ballerina, and Black Ballerinas would be more exciting if they were illustrated with photographs rather than drawings.

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Books Received or Announced:

Baring Unbearable Sensualities: Hip Hop Dance, Bodies, Race, and Power
By Rosemarie A. Roberts
Wesleyan University Press
Co-director of the Cultural Traditions Program at Jacob’s Pillow, Rosemarie Roberts asks the question, “Can a body be both singular and collective at the same time?” While dipping into Katherine Dunham’s 2002 interview at the Pillow, the author also interviews dance artists Rennie Harris, Mr. Wiggles, and Moncell Durden as well as scholars like Thomas DeFrantz, Ananya Chatterjea, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. 

It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity
By Sonia Gollance
Stanford University Press
Even though it was forbidden for Jewish men and women to dance together in 19th-century Europe, people still danced. Sonia Gollance traces social dancing in taverns, ballrooms, weddings and dance halls and the shift in sexual mores as the waves of immigrants came to these shores. The appendix defines about forty genres of social and folk dances from bolero to Charleston to the Hora, to the Kazatsky to Mambo, the German Cotillon to polonaise, the mazurka to the merengue.

Tandem Dances: Choreographing Immersive Performance
By Julia Ritter
Oxford University Press
A scholarly treatment of immersive dance including Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell.

My West Side Story, a Memoir
By George Chakiris with Lindsay Harrison
Lyons Press
The brooding sensuality and sexy dancing of George Chakiris’ Bernardo was felt all over the world. Here the charismatic dancer/actor tells us about his career leading up to and away from his Oscar-winning swirl as Bernardo.

Love Dances: Loss and Mourning in Intercultural Collaboration
By SanSan Kwan
Oxford University Press
SanSan Kwan, a dancer/scholar at UC Berkeley, focuses on duets that bridge East and West sensibilities.

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet
Edited by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
Oxford University Press
This massive collection includes essays by Kyle Bukhari on Twyla Tharp, Anna Seidel on Hans Van Manen, Ann Nugent on William Forsythe, Laura Cappelle on Jean-Christophe Maillot, Tanya Wideman-Davis on Dance Theatre of Harlem, Apollinaire Scherr on Alexei Ratmansky, Gia Kourlas on Mark Morris, and lots more—over 1,000 pages worth.

The Ballerina Mindset: How to Protect Your Mental Health While Striving for Excellence
By Megan Fairchild
Penguin Random House
From this sparkling New York City Ballet principal dancer’s Instagram page: “It’s part self-help, part autobiographical, and I’m super excited to share the nuggets of wisdom that I have learned throughout my career. One of them being: DO NOT READ YOUR REVIEWS.”

Funding Bodies: Five Decades of Dance Making at the National Endowment for the Arts
By Sarah Wilbur
Wesleyan University Press
This is a behind-the-scenes look at how the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1965, has affected dance communities across the country. 

Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok
By Trevor Boffone
Oxford University Press
This book is about the interplay of social media and hip hop. Chapter headings include “Gone Viral: Creating an Identity as a Hip Hop Artist” and “When Karen Slides Into Your DMs: Race, Language, and Dubsmash.”

The Oxford Handbook of Jewishness and Dance
Edited by Naomi M. Jackson, Rebecca Pappas, and Toni Shapiro-Phim
Oxford University Press
This anthology overflows with subjects that interest me, but it comes too late for me to give it the attention it deserves. With contributions from foremost dance scholars Naomi Jackson, Marion Kant, Hannah Schwadron, Douglas Rosenberg, Hannah Kosstrin, Rebecca Rossen, and Laure Guilbert, and dance artists Liz Lerman, Ze’eva Cohen, Victoria Marks, Hadar Ahuvia, and Jesse Zaritt, this volume broadcasts that Jewish dance scholarship is here in a big way. I look forward to diving into this book and writing something about it in the near future. (Disclosure: the book is based on a conference at Arizona State University that I participated in as a curator and learner.)

Memories of Rudolf Nureyev
By Nancy Sifton
Arnica Press
A collection that draws from more than a thousand performances of the superstar Soviet defector attended by traveler/archivist Nancy Sifton. The memories included transcriptions of many interviews.

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New Editions of Existing Books:

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century
By Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick
Yale University Press first published in 2003, now in paperback
A thorough, masterful history of twentieth-century concert dance, this 900-page volume covers a vast stretch of American and European dance from minstrelsy and vaudeville on up through current choreographers. An invaluable resource.

Moving Through Conflict: Dance and Politics in Israel
Edited by Dina Roginsky and Henia Rottenberg
Routledge, first published 2020, now in paperback
The nine chapters include Henia Rottenberg on “artistic activism” in the works of Rami Be’er and Arkadi Zaides and Naomi Jackson’s analysis of maverick dance artist Jesse Zaritt’s work. An appendix lists many Dabke groups in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.

This Very Moment: teaching thinking dancing
By Barbara Dilley
Originally published by Naropa University Press in 2015.
Digital edition from Contact Editions
Master teacher-founder of contemplative dance practices and past member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Barbara Dilley created this multi-faceted contemplation of her dance experiences. She weaves her influences— John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Tibetan Buddhism, and the anarchism of Grand Union—into her unique approach to teaching at Naropa University. A poetic collage of observations and practices.

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 Children’s books:

My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey
By Lesa Cline-Ransome
Foreword by Robert Battle
Simon & Schuster
or through Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

My Daddy Can Fly
By Thomas Forster with American Ballet Theatre
Penguin Random House

Grand Jeté and Me
By Allegra Kent

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Living with AIDS: 6 Dancers Share Their Stories

This story was originally printed in Dance Magazine, December 2000. When I included it in my first book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer, in 2013, I wrote a two-paragraph intro (below, in italics). Eight years later, I am happy that most of the subjects are alive and well, and you will see recent updates at the end.

When I joined the editorial team of Dance Magazine, I was asked, What is the issue we are not covering? My immediate answer was AIDS. The disease had ravaged the dance community, yet not much had been written about it in the magazine. I was devastated when my friend Harry Sheppard died in 1992, and that was just one death of thousands. Working on this story immersed me in the sadness and anxiety we all felt. But it was galvanizing—and uplifting—to hear what these six dance artists, all of whom had contributed much to the field, had been through and the courage they called upon.

By 2000 there was some good news: people who had found the right combination of meds were living with AIDS a long time. At least four of the six dancers I interviewed are still alive and thriving. (Sadly, we lost Stephanie Dabney in 2022.) 

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I was riding in an elevator in a Manhattan hospital, and the elevator doors happened to open onto a ward in which a distraught young man was talking into the phone at the nurses’ station. I recognized him as a fellow choreographer—Arnie Zane. I knew Arnie had AIDS, and I stepped out to say hello. He had just learned that his chemotherapy wasn’t working and the doctors were telling him there wasn’t much hope. He was crying, and I hugged him. That was all I could do. As we walked outside, he lamented, “I know I complain a lot, but I love this life and I don’t want to die.” A few months later, Arnie, like so many others, left us.

That was in 1987–88. If this scene had happened today, there would be more hope.

In the eighties and nineties, the dance community was decimated by AIDS. We lost some of our most treasured elders: Alvin Ailey, Robert Joffrey, Rudolf Nureyev, and Michael (A Chorus Line) Bennett; some of our most promising youths: Edward Stierle of the Joffrey and Peter Fonseca of American Ballet Theatre; and mid-career artists like Arnie Zane (whose memory is preserved in the name of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company), Louis Falco, Robert Blankshine, Christopher Gillis, John Bernd, Harry Sheppard, and Ulysses Dove. During that period, it seems, we were attending as many memorial services as dance performances. We learned the meaning of community—the gathering together when the loss of someone you love leaves a big hole.

But thanks to improved medication, testing positive for HIV is no longer a death sentence. More dancers are continuing to live and dance with the virus. Others are still having a hard time. The fatality rate is slowing, but we cannot forget the devastation the disease still brings. I spoke with six dancers and former dancers who are handling the disease in different ways.

Dancer/choreographer Neil Greenberg, who teaches at the State University of New York at Purchase, tested positive in 1986. He’s been basically asymptomatic, so he is living his life as usual, only cutting back on alcohol. Greenberg says 1993 was a hard year for him: his brother died of AIDS, two-thirds of the people in his HIV support group died, and he learned that the virus’s presence in his blood had increased. Out of these tragedies emerged his Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994), a powerful work that created a buzz in downtown New York.

Greenberg in 2018, photo by Paula Lobo

But in 1997 he landed in the hospital. “I had high fevers the whole week I was performing that fall,” he says. “About a year later the doctors realized it was the medication that was doing that to me.”

Now on new medication, he is thriving again. All along, he says, he has maintained a positive approach. “I tried to deny what all of the papers said, which was a ten-year maximum life expectancy,” Greenberg says. “I refused to believe that and, as it turned out, I was right, for myself.” However, he still struggles with the disease emotionally: “The whole AIDS-as-punishment thing is hard to get rid of in the deepest layers, and I probably haven’t.” In order to dispel some of the stigma that he grew up with, he makes a point of telling his freshman students at SUNY Purchase that he has the virus. After all, he reasons, it’s part of their education.

Another dancer I spoke with performs every night in a high-powered Broadway musical. He has asked that his name be withheld, so I’ll call him Jack. Jack got the bad news in 1996, the year that new medications came into being and many AIDS patients found “cocktails” of a variety of medications to be effective. Jack says, “My doctor told me right away, ‘This isn’t the end of your life. Don’t drive your car off a cliff. There are medications that are helping people, and you should be able to live a normal life. It’s a controlled disease like diabetes. You just have to take your pills every day.’” At first Jack balked at telling his fellow dancers. But, he said, “I’ve never had a bad reaction from people I’ve been working with, though it’s scary at first. You’re afraid that people will look at you differently. But I don’t mind being out at work, because people have questions and they know they can come to me. I enjoy giving back whatever I can to people around me.” He’s been generally very healthy, but his doctors haven’t always known what to prescribe: “One time, for a whole month, I couldn’t leave the couch: vomiting, diarrhea, severe stomach cramps. It was very scary.”

The knowledge of his HIV status actually motivated him. “It made me pull my life together and get my career going. I was happy doing revues and competitions, but I decided I wanted to make Broadway. Within three months, I made Broadway.”

He feels comfortable in the dance world. “Being gay in the dance world is more accepted and you can be who you are. Because of that, people who are [HIV] positive can come out and share that also. When you get into tv or film, being gay is not OK. They may hire you to be a gay character, but they want you to be straight. If they were to find out you’re HIV [positive], they would probably not hire you.”

Of course, not only gay men get the disease. Stephanie Dabney, former star and unforgettable Firebird with Dance Theatre of Harlem in the early eighties, was diagnosed ten years ago. Her first thoughts were, “There goes my career. If I get too sick to dance, what am I going to do? How am I going to tell my brother and sister?” She spent all of 1996 in the hospital with recurring pneumonia, and the following year in nursing homes. “My fourth pneumonia was PCP [pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a life-threatening infection for people with weakened immune systems], and my lung collapsed. I had a chest-tube pump in me for eight weeks. I remember the doctor coming into my room, surprised, saying ‘Hi, I didn’t think you would be here.’ He thought I wasn’t going to make it through the night! That freaked me out.” She is now participating in an experimental program, a nine-month trial with an Italian physician. “Maybe I’ll help him find the cure,” she says. Friends encourage her to resume dancing. “I ran into [actress] Cicely Tyson, and she thinks I should dance again,” she says. “But Arthur [Mitchell, DTH’s artistic director] has young, healthy, and eager dancers now, and there’s nowhere else I would want to dance besides DTH. I can’t imagine trying to get in shape. I’d rather be remembered as the Firebird when I was young and healthy.”

Stephanie Dabney in John Taras’s Firebird

Sometimes nondancers would turn against her when they found out she had AIDS. “There was a woman in Atlanta whose position was to wine and dine the Somebodies,” Dabney says. “I was the black ballerina who did Firebird, so I was in her in-crowd. But when she found out I had it, she wouldn’t even return my calls.”

Dabney, who has taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, thinks about the future. “I thought I’d want to teach again, but I’m walking with canes now. Tanaquil LeClerq [the extraordinary Balanchine ballerina who was struck down with polio in 1956] was my favorite teacher. She used her hands and arms as legs and feet.”

Another former dancer, Joseph Carman, is now a freelance writer. Carman, who has danced with American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, almost died four years ago before the new medications became available. He had been diagnosed in 1987 while dancing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. “I kept it secret in the beginning because there was such a stigma. That was the time when The Post was running headlines like ‘AIDS Killer.’ There weren’t many support groups around. The year before I left the company, I told the ballet mistress, Diana Levy. The Americans with Disabilities Act had just been approved, which protects anyone in the work force who has a disability. It allows people with HIV to shorten work hours or to do a less demanding job. She was understanding and would ask me during rehearsal, ‘Are you OK?’ ” The main thing for Carman was getting enough rest. Working on a new production, he’d sometimes be in the theater for twelve hours: “When things were bad, I’d break out in shingles.”

Joe Carman in ABT's Don Quixote, 1970s

Joe Carman in ABT’s Don Quixote, early 1980s

In 1996, he was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), a cancerous growth associated with AIDS. “It progressed slowly and then all of a sudden my immune system went like a house of cards. I’d wake up with two new lesions every day. It was terrifying. They discovered I had KS in my lungs. That usually means a year to live if you’re lucky. The doctor put me in the hospital and administered heavy-duty chemotherapy. I call it ‘slash-and-burn’ chemo because it wrecks everything. For days afterward I would feel like crawling out of my skin. But it did get rid of the tumors.”

An AIDS conference in Geneva had just demonstrated that protease inhibitors and the new “cocktails” were helping people. It was good timing, and Carman started a regimen of the new medications. “My immune system slowly started to rebuild itself, and my T-cells [white blood cells that help suppress disease] climbed from ten to over six hundred. It’s truly miraculous.” But it wasn’t easy emotionally. “I thought I was dying, and then all of a sudden I wasn’t dying. I was in shock for about a year. Physically, it took me four years to feel like myself again.”

Joe Carman now

But Carman has been through a significant shift. “When you come that close to death, it changes the way you look at things. It’s like a rebirth; it cuts the bullshit factor. For me now, the quality of life is important: eating well, walking my dog in the park, spending time with my boyfriend. I still do a juggling act with all my medications.”

Carman feels that consciousness has been raised and there is less stigma about the disease. He is grateful for the concern of people in the dance world. But the past is a string of sorrows. American Ballet Theatre’s 1977 video of The Nutcracker starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland used to be broadcast on TV every Christmas. He says, “I can’t even watch it now because half the dancers in it are dead.”

Chris Dohse, a dancer/choreographer/writer who is also a proofreader, is torn between submitting to the new medications and just letting himself slide downhill. “I don’t know if I want to buckle myself into the regime of the new cocktails. I don’t want to go through that ordeal.” Dohse, who tested positive in 1987 when he was dancing in Washington, D.C., was put on azido-thymidine, or AZT, in 1990. AZT inhibits the spread of the AIDS virus, but it can have debilitating side effects. “I felt terrible every single day of that year,” says Dohse. “It makes you tired, nauseous, headachy, dizzy, and run-down. During that time they were finding that it works better if you take less of it. I got disillusioned and distrustful, so I don’t believe anything the doctors say.”

Chris Dohse in a dance by Nancy Havlik

But for Dohse too, the news was at first a motivating factor: “Knowing I had the virus made me stop fiddling around. I stopped dancing for other people and started making my own work.” Like Greenberg, he used his despair creatively. “I made a big dance for nine people that was going to be the final thing that I gave to the world. I kept revamping it. I didn’t want to finish it because then it meant I was going to live, and have to make other work. This was supposed to be the everything-I-have-to-say piece.”

He lost the few romantic figures in his life, which has left him with a sense of alienation. “Mostly I feel anger that I didn’t get to go with them. They had these memorial services and dramatic narrative arcs, but I have to stay here and turn gray and have my teeth fall out and pay back my student loans. I’m lonely.” Medically, he’s not up for the new round. “They started saying I should take new medication to reduce my viral load. They said that to me in 1990 with the AZT, my blood data will improve but I’ll feel awful.” His T-cells are under a hundred, and, after thirteen years, his viral load has gone sky high. Looking back, he says, “Eight years ago the data showed that thirteen years was the longest anybody had lasted before they started getting sick. I thought: Okay, I got five years left; I’ll make a five-year plan. For eight years I had made six-month plans. I would have gotten a college degree back then if I wasn’t going to die any day. I danced instead, thinking I’d go out in a blaze of glory. Little did I know I would keep lingering. I’m the boy who cried wolf because I’ve lived so long on this edge of despair.”

Christopher Pilafian with Argos, 2021

Christopher Pilafian, on the faculty of the University of California at Santa Barbara, has found some measure of peace. He danced with Jennifer Muller/The Works from its inception in 1974 to 1989, eventually serving as associate artistic director. Now 47, he says, “It’s hard to tell whether what I’m feeling is a result of the virus or of the natural aging process. I’m a little more methodical, less rambunctious now.” Four years ago, he improved his T-cell count tremendously with the new medications.

Pilafian feels fortunate to have colleagues who are sensitive to his condition. “When I was having a bad time, they were available to cover classes for me.” He mourns the toll the virus has taken on the lives of dancers he admired as well as on his own. “The middle years are an important period in a dancer’s life: you’ve still got your chops and also your independence. I would like to have seen what Louis Falco would have done, had he lived past 50. If I weren’t HIV positive, I might have focused on my work as a choreographer. Instead, I had to go into self-preservation.”

In 1989, he attended a seminar that redefined AIDS not as a terminal illness, but as a manageable chronic infection. “To take the assumption of fatality off the diagnosis is very powerful. Now I’m doing things that support life: meditation, visualization, eating well, and watching the purity of things. There was so much fear about the available medicines at that time. To deal with that, I used what I knew from dancing: imagery. I began to visualize the medications as rainbows, waterfalls, and light.”

Pilafian and Nancy Colahan, at the end of their collaborative duet Dream Dancing,  c. 2010

“At the conference we were asked, ‘What is this apparent misfortune bringing to you that is a benefit?’ It gave permission to look at your life in a different way. You could imagine the endpoint being closer. Then starts the dropping away of the nonessentials, which is a sacred, life-sustaining process.”

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These six dancers are, like the rest of us, many-faceted people. One of those facets, surely, is tremendous courage. Another is hard-earned wisdom. All of them agree on one thing: the need to tell young people to take precautions. Anyone can contract the virus from sexual activity, and drug users can get it from using a contaminated needle. Although a broad range of treatments is now available, not every patient does well on them, and the side effects can be devastating. The ultimate message is one of prevention: inform yourself, protect yourself, and have only safe sex.

Updates, as of 2012, and, just added, 2021:

  • Joseph Carman, a senior contributing editor at Dance Magazine, has written about the performing arts for Playbill, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the Advocate, and many other publications. Now in stable health (and juggling many medications), he is the author of Round about the Ballet and also teaches various styles of yoga, including vinyasa, hatha, and restorative. Update 2021: Now living in Palm Springs, Joe continues to teach yoga, including chair yoga for survivors of HIV. He writes occasionally and serves on the committee for the Dance Magazine Awards.
  • Stephanie Dabney, Update 2022: Sadly, we lost Ms. Dabney last month. The NY Times obit is here.
  • Chris Dohse has worked as a copywriter and editor for several major pharmaceutical ad agencies in New York. His life performing, choreographing, and writing criticism has become an avocation. He is currently on disability, dealing with the effects of multiple medications and co-morbidities. Update 2021: Chris lives in upstate NY, writes poems and monologues and takes walks in the woods. His drawings are on display at Visual AIDS.
  • Neil Greenberg is a professor of choreography at Eugene Lang College, The New School of Liberal Arts in New York City, where he continues to choreograph and dance. Though he had a run-in with an AIDS-related complication (Castleman’s disease of the lymphatic system), he’s had a complete recovery and is living happily, with no viral-load, with his husband. Update 2021: He’s still choreographing and on faculty at The New School, where he is dance program director; he currently teaches a course titled “Performance in the Age of Pandemic.”
  • Christopher Pilafian is director of dance and vice chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at UC Santa Barbara. In 2011–2012 he received tenure, co-organized a national conference, cocurated an exhibition, performed, wrote an essay for publication, and was appointed artistic director of the resident professional company, Santa Barbara Dance Theater. He’s been in the same domestic relationship for almost thirty years. Update 2021: After retiring from UCSB in July 2021, he continues to paint and to contemplate making dances.

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Sybil Shearer (1912–2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At home in Long Island c. 1920

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

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

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

Hanya Holm, 1930s, Bennington College Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Weidman 1934, Bennington College Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with Agnes de Mille

Agnes de Mille 1932 , ph Paul Tanqueray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen grab from “In a Vacuum,” CFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Northbrook, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

Sybil in Northbrook Studio, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sybil leaping, ph Helen Morrison, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

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

The Neumeier connection

John Neumeier 1961, Morrison-Shearer Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

But he also recalled how frustrating her rehearsals could be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inheritance, photo series, Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

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

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

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

The curious Sybil/Merce friendship

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

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

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

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

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

Getting into Sybil’s skin

Kristina Isabelle with film of Shearer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sybil Shearer Studio at Ragdale (rendering)

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

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

I leave you with some choice pearls from her writings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Houseal, Joseph. Ballet Review, Summer 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shearer, Sybil. Dance News, March, 1949.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Phone with Kristina Isabelle, Aug. 7, 2021

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



Like this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 7

Gloria Fokine : Ballet in Havana

Gloria in Les Sylphides, Havana, 1937

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

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

(WP) Wendy Perron

(GF) Gloria Fokine


WP:  What are your earliest memories of seeing dance?

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

Alicia Alonso in Coppélia

WP:  And the audience was not just the parents?

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

WP:  Did Alicia play Swanilda?

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

Baronova and Paul Petroff in Aurora’s Wedding*

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

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

Toumanova and Massine in Three Cornered Hat

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

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

WP:  Did they had live music?

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

WP:  And what was your impression of Présages? 

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

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

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

WP: What other dancers did Pro-Arte bring?

Harald Kreutzberg, 1949

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

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

WP:  That’s very early for plastic.

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

WP:  Were you in other Yavorsky productions?

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

WP:  What other modern dance did you see?

Ted Shawn in Mevlevi Dervish, Jacob’s Pillow Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasinski in Cuba, 1933

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

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

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

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

Baronova in Les Sylphides*

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

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

WP:  And who choreographed these?

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

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

GF:  I stopped dancing.

WP: Why?

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

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

WP:  Where was she trained?

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

WP:  In Havana?

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

WP:  What was Fidel Castro like as a classmate?

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

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

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

Baranova practicing Choreartium in her dressing room, 1933*

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

WP:  So how did you get back into dancing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WP:  This is for Ballet Alicia Alonso?

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

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

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

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

Alexandra Fedorova in 1962

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

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

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

GF:  Looked for a job.

WP:  Did he do Radio City then?

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

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

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

WP: Yes, Bob was small too.

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

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

WP:  So you were on his side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis in an undated photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

GF:  Yes.

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

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

WP:  Yes, they’re defecting. Why?

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

WP: Where else have you taught?

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

WP:  When you teach, what do you emphasize?

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

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

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

WP: Did Leon stage any of the Fokine ballets?

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

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

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

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

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

Les Sylphide with Roman Jasinski 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcisse Matouchevsy and Yurek Lazowsky on the beach,1932*

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

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

GF:  I might not sleep tonight.

≠≠ END ≠≠

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

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

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


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Resisting Forgetfulness Via Eiko

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

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

Eiko in Yamadahama Seawall, all photos by William Johnston

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

At Shiogama Shrine

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

In Hittachi Benten

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

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

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

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

Shinmaiko Beach

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


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Michio Ito (1893 to 1961)

Portrait of Michio Ito, photo Toyo Miyatake Studio

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

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

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

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


Early Life

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

Exhibition of Eurhythmic dance, Hellerau Institute

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

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

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


London society

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yamada Tone Poem II 1926


Collaborating with Yeats

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

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

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

Hawk headdress ph Alvin Langdon Coburn, London, 1916

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

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


Coming to New York

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

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

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

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

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

Brochure for Ito school in NYC, with Ito family crest

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

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

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

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


Michio Ito and Martha Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noguchi head of Ito

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


Pauline Koner and the Tour to the West Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tango, 1926, photo Toyo Miyatake Studio

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

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

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

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

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


A Utopian, Socialist, Communal, Impossible Dream

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

On a rooftop in NYC, 1919

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ito-Horton-Ailey Thread

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

Poster with drawing by Ito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Hollywood — In Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pizzicati (1916), photo Toyo Miyatake Studio, 1929

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

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

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

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

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

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

California was ready for Ito. And yet . . .


The Dark Side of Orientalism

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

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

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

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


Pearl Harbor, the FBI, and the Artist as Saboteur

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

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

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

Another view of Pizzicati

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

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

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

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

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


Return to Japan

Self caricature 1937

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


Oddly Bridging East and West

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

Sakura Flowers, Ernie Pyle Theatre, Tokyo, 1947

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

Sakura Flowers, Ernie Pyle Theatre

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

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

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

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

Ito rehearsing Rhapsody in Blue, 1947


Ito’s Last Idealistic Plan

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

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

Pizzicati drawing by Ito

Revivals of Ito’s Work

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

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

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

Tseng also described being coached by Maki:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burgess in Pizzaccati. ph Mary Noble Ours

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

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

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

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

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

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

En Bateau, performed by Repertory Dance Theatre

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

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

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

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



Side Trip to Other Ito Fables

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

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

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

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

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


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


Works Cited


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholarly Essays and Dissertation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wong, Yutian. “Artistic Utopias: Michio Ito and the Trope of the International.” Worlding Dance, ed. by S. Foster. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009.


Other Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other Resources

Anonymous “Dance On” Video, 1984. Accessed May 11, 2021

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

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

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



Michio Ito Foundation

Hellerau, History of

“Appia, Adolphe,” 1862-1928. Ref.: Exhibition of Eurhythmic Dance at the Hellerau Institute. JSTOR, Accessed 10 May 2021.

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