Dancing on the Day JFK Was Assassinated

I wrote this ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Now, for the 60th year, I am updating it.

Like a lot of people today, I am thinking about the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. For me, that fateful day ended up affirming my commitment to dance.

Me at 17, during the time I was in the Advanced Teenage Class at the Graham School, Photo by Jerry Bauer

While in high school, I was taking the Advanced Teenage Class every Friday at the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. I lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey, so, right after school I would hop on the bus to Port Authority, get on the subway, and arrive at the Graham studio on East 63rd Street in time for the 4:30 class.

That Friday, earlier in the day, our whole high school heard, over the P.A. system, that Kennedy had been shot. And a few minutes later, another announcement: He was dead. I don’t remember the immediate reaction in the classroom, but when I went into the girls’ room, everyone in there was crying. We really let it out. Ridgewood was a heavily Republican town, but plenty of us admired Kennedy.

Whatever was happening in the world, it was a Friday and that was my day to take class at the Graham school. (My after-school schedule included Mondays and Tuesdays at the Joffrey school, and Wednesdays and Thursdays at Irine Fokine School of Ballet right there in Ridgewood.) I wondered if our class would actually happen, considering the national pandemonium. But I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I took the bus as usual. When I got to the studio, there were only about six of us there. Would David Wood, our teacher, show up? When David entered the studio, we stood up—as was the custom at the school—then sat down on the floor to begin. In his strong, deep, kind voice, David said, “I know this is difficult, that a great tragedy has occurred. But we are dancers, and what we do is dance.” And with that, we began the bounces on the count of One.

David Wood and Martha Graham in Acrobats of God (1960) photo Martha Swope, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.






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Notable Dance Books of 2023

This year I decided to post this column early enough to anticipate Thanksgiving—a fitting way to remind us to be thankful for dance and dance books. Starting with last year’s list, I’ve invited several other writers to contribute, and they’ve brought some recommendations too. After our twelve chosen books, you’ll find an additional list of nine that have been announced. I am sure they will make as good gifts (for others or for yourself) as the ones we are calling notable. Feel free to make a comment about our faves or add your own.


The Boy from Kyiv: Alexei Ratmansky’s Life in Ballet
By Marina Harss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff

What a wonderful book: A biography and an autobiography at once. It provides a wide window on the thinking process of a great dancemaker. It braids the story of the choreographer’s life with vivid accounts of his dances in prose that practically turns the pages by itself. And, swiftly and efficiently, it positions the subject’s Soviet training and Bolshoi experiences in the context of ballet in Europe and the U.S. during the late twentieth century. One sees the theatrical foundation for Ratmansky’s aesthetics from childhood and then, as he matures, his reach and aesthetic risk-taking that help his artistry to flourish.

“A phrase choreographed by Ratmansky contains more ideas than entire ballets by other choreographers,” author Marina Harss writes. “Multiple stories unfold at once. . . .This profusion of ideas is just as evident in the way Ratmansky modulates the steps. He is a product of many traditions; he melds them into one, shaping them through the filter of his imagination.”

Paragraph by paragraph, The Boy from Kyiv provides evidence for those sweeping statements. (Disclosure: Engaged by Harss as a reader of an earlier draft, I had the privilege of seeing how attentive she was to the drive of her storytelling.) She reveals nuances of Ratmansky’s character, showing him in awkward jams as well as in streamlined triumphs; she delineates some of the steep learning curves he had yet to master on becoming director of the Bolshoi Ballet. One concerns his efforts to explain to the dancers how to “be themselves” without smiling broadly when performing George Balanchine’s work; another concerns the Machiavellian power games that Ratmansky was forced to play with such old hands as the retired Soviet choreographer Yuri Grigorovich.

Harss deeply responds to Ratmansky’s aesthetic sensibility and she clearly cares about him and his family. The trust they share has resulted in a magical balance in the writing between her streaming chronicle of his life and her accounts of the ballets. She has elected to complete this book while Ratmansky, now 55, is in his prime. (Her meticulous chronology of works at the back, including the many ballets he has made for American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, is complete through the choreographer’s impassioned yet deliberately disunified Wartime Elegy, given its 2022 premiere by Pacific Northwest Ballet.) His art is still opening more doors than it is closing. At this point, he has the satisfaction of having explored his intense curiosity about Soviet ballets of the 1930s, the music of Shostakovich, and the original productions of many of Marius Petipa’s masterpieces. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the country where Ratmansky’s and his wife’s families reside—has prompted him to redefine elements of his identity. The events of history have forced him to remain young in the sense of ready to move at the drop of a hat in unplanned directions. As Harss writes, where that road will lead him, not even he knows.


The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson
By Misty Copeland with Susan Fales-Hill
Hachette Book Group
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This is an inspiring story of a relationship between a younger and older ballerina. In 2010, when watching a DVD documentary, Misty discovered the first African American ballerina to dance with a major ballet company. With awe and gratitude, she learned that Raven Wilkinson had been a lyrical Black ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s. Together with her agent, Gilda Squires, they tracked her down, finding that she lived only blocks away from Copeland’s home. Squires arranged for a public conversation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the first of many conversations over the next seven years.

Misty was moved by the grace with which Raven encountered racism while touring the South, where the Ku Klux Klan was still on the rampage. “Raven understood…how racism traps everyone in a no-win situation, bringing out the worst in all of us. Her response was always to rise to her best self. She was the embodiment of ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’” In appreciation of Raven, Misty articulates the difference between then and now: “She belonged to a generation that led with proof of excellence first and identity second.”

In her gentle yet firm way, Wilkinson challenged Copeland to take her talents further. One of the most moving moments is when Wilkinson said to her, “Every time you step on that stage, I’ll be the wind at your back.” The book details the months and years when Raven fulfilled that promise. She encouraged, listened, soothed, pushed, explained, reminisced, and shared moments of laughter. More than all that, she demonstrated how to be, how to exist with dignity in this racist world. What comes across is how vulnerable Misty felt, how much she needed the example of Raven. She puts Raven’s lessons into these words: “Soar above the hate. Lose yourself in the music and the steps, which will live on long after bigotry has died. Defeat hatred with beauty.”


Capoeria Connections: A Memoir in Motion
By Katya Wesolowski
University of Florida Press
Reviewed by Lori Brungard

The circle is a powerful symbol in African diasporic culture. Given Capoeria’s roots in Africa, it makes sense that circularity plays a key role in Katya Wesolowski’s Capoeria Connections: A Memoir in Motion. The primary vehicle for capoeria play is the circular formation of the roda. Circularity is lived as reciprocity. Various forms of give and take happen within the roda: the call and response between musicians and dancers, the capoeristas’ alternating attack and defense moves, and the African resonance that imbues the ever modernizing movement. Wesolowski invites the reader into the roda:

“The game has begun: with bodies close and low we trace arcs and circles above and around each other. . . I manage to catch myself on my arms and rise from the floor with a straight kick from the ground and then propel myself into a handstand. [My partner-opponent] enters with a scissor movement on the floor, and I touch my knees to my chest and slide under her legs on the floor careful to avoid an attack.”

The improvised interaction between two sparring capoeristas is almost like a moving yin yang symbol, as each one reacts to the other’s move by filling in the negative space (interestingly, a defensive move in capoeira is called a negativa). This complementarity is expressed in a larger sense by Capoeria’s repurposing of traditional African movement as resistance, in its original form as self-defense by enslaved Africans. But it did not rest there.

While Wesolowski does investigate Capoeira’s roots, she focuses more on the evolution of the form as it shifted from “its reputation as a marginal, violent, and delinquent activity” to folkloric staging and community building. In its representation of Brazilian pride with an international following, capoeira became a means of escaping poverty for its mestres (masters). She traces this trajectory through a similarly circular structure of chapters that starts in her hometown of Berkeley, CA, moves to Brazil, Africa, Europe, and circles back again to Africa, finally to return to the U.S. to her current home of Durham, NC. In the process, she interrogates her own positionality as a white woman in a form that was originally performed by Black males, finding connections despite these differences.

Wesolowski leads with a warm invitation to join her in convivencia, a Portuguese term connoting “connection, coexistence, and companionship.” Her story always returns to her relationships within various capoeira communities. Her writing is a dialogue with the reader: she calls and requests a response. It erupts from an inner necessity…from legs to limbs then directly to the page, taking us along for the ride, with all its bumps and beauty.


Chita, A Memoir
By Chita Rivera, with Patrick Pacheco
Harper One
Reviewed by Sandra Kurtz

We live in a first-person world right now—from the intense revelations of reality television through the never-ending scroll of social media posts, we are saturated with “I.” Chita Rivera, who combines a thrilling theatrical dynamism with the precision of ballet onstage, tells many stories about her life in her self-titled memoir, but she also gives us an up-close view of her times as well. And those times include some of the most innovative and significant developments in American musical theater. Her eye-witness account of a time that still affects what we see in the theater today is a roll call of artists and events from the 1950s to the present.

Rivera tells her story in a mostly chronological fashion, starting with her early life in Washington, DC, when her mother put the ultra-active girl in dance classes to keep her occupied. From there, a scholarship to the School of American Ballet took her to New York and launched her on the path to her career on Broadway.

Her first real job, as a chorus girl in the touring cast of Call Me Madam, sets her on a pathway full of other firsts, including the original Anita in West Side Story, the original Velma in Chicago, and the original Aurora in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. The highlights are quite high—Leonard Bernstein taught her to sing, and Gwen Verdon encouraged her to aim beyond the chorus—but Rivera’s narration of her dancing life brims over with names from all parts of the business. She performed in musical reviews with Bea Arthur and James Garner, learned to bump and grind from choreographer Peter Gennaro, and helped Dick Van Dyke learn to dance soft shoe for Bye Bye Birdie.

Rivera’s story of her personal life overlaps with her theater work—colleagues become friends, and friends become something more. She meets husband Tony Mordente in the cast of West Side Story—their daughter Lisa follows them into the theater. Her relationship with Sammy Davis, Jr. grew from their work in Mr. Wonderful.

She rarely has something negative to say about a person or an experience. She touches gently on racial stereotypes when she discusses her time at SAB (“Ballet at that time was an almost exclusively white world.”) Although she acknowledges that Jerome Robbins had a reputation for being harsh in rehearsal, “he was never that way with me.” More often, any frustration is softened by humor, like her quoting the song from Forbidden Broadway, commenting on how she is frequently mistaken for Rita Moreno: “Chita Rivera is not Rita, Rita Moreno is not Chita, Chita is Chita and not Rita, I would prefer you forgot Rita!”

Chita, A Memoir is a generous retrospective on a full life in the theater from someone who seems to have been everywhere and known everyone.


Banishing Orientalism: Dancing between Exotic and Familiar
By Phil Chan with Michele Chase
Yellow Peril Press, Brooklyn, NY
Available at Amazon.
Reviewed by Weichen Cui

Banishing Orientalism follows Phil Chan’s first book, Final Bow for Yellowface, published in 2020, and the launch of the pledge platform of the same name, cofounded with Georgina Pazcoguin. Continuing the discussion of Asian stereotypes in ballet, Banishing Orientalism elaborates on the tensions between the “Kingdom of Shades—Full of Ghosts of Ballets Past” and today’s increasingly diverse world.

Edward Said coined the word Orientalism in the 1970s to criticize the Western way to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient. In Chan’s view, “Orientalism in ballet is not just a stylistic device/genre, but rather an integral aspect of what defines classical ballet itself.” Orientalism has fueled innovations in ballet technique, music, and spectacle—the ultimate fantasyland. It also serves as a safe space to transgress taboos, reinforcing Western moral superiority over the heathen mysticism of the barbarians.

Ballet’s Orientalism legitimizes empire-building, colonialism, and slavery onstage. The ridiculous plots, such as opium fantasies and irrational love and sacrifice, along with the portrayal of exotic archetypes like Pirates, Slaves, Geishas, Sultans, and Harem Girls, had given rise to a shared sense of symbols. These messages, rooted in distortion and bias, had been passed down, from Petipa on. By setting white European culture as the default, ballet perpetuates a fantasy that excludes or misrepresents people from other cultures. In today’s globalized and diverse society, such a path will inevitably lead to the decline of ballet.

“How can I be a participant in an art form that’s obviously not by or for people like me? These days why should an art form that excludes people like me be considered ‘high art’ for an entire society?” These poignant questions reveal the vulnerability and confusion experienced by non-White ballet enthusiasts. In response, Chan objects to culturally demeaning representations; he advocates for a reimagining of ballet that is more relevant to today’s diverse audience. For example, by asking, “What else could it be?”, for their 2021 version of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Pacific Northwest Ballet replaced the Fu Manchu-style caricature with leaping crickets, a symbol of luck with playfulness.

In order to create an “art for all of us,” Chan feels it’s essential to address institutional inequity, pigeonholing and tokenism. As examples of cross-cultural experiments that more or less evade those failings, he offers Maurice Béjart’s study of khatak in India to Sylvia Guillem and Akram Khan’s collaboration Sacred Monsters (2006).

The book probes power dynamics and cultural dominance in ballet’s history and present. (As a ballet lover, I yearn for its continued progress because it fosters cross-cultural dialogues.) As Chan advocates, by fostering respect and curiosity, ballet can transcend the boundaries of our individual experiences and connect with those who are different from us.


Illusions of Camelot, A Memoir by Peter Boal
Beaufort Books
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This memoir is mostly about the shy, tender, young Peter Boal, the privilege (living in a huge house, live-in caretaker, country clubs) that fails to make the family happy, and his father’s alcoholism that poisons all relationships. Boal is a natural storyteller; his elegant prose is full of insights and humor. His narrative, however, includes only a precious few dance stories, which may cause dancer/readers to yearn for more. His audition for the School of American Ballet elicits belly laughs. His description of the popular teacher Stanley Williams deepens our understanding of ballet—and of Boal’s love of the art form. His description of the meditative, healing space of daily ballet class is stirring.

Working with Jerome Robbins on Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Robbins’s Moves is a highlight. Unlike the usual stories about how demanding and unreasonable the great choreographer was, Boal shows sensitivity toward Robbins and his effect on dancers. About Jerry’s coaching, Peter writes, “His words, however gruff and prodding, pushed me into finding my voice as an artist.”

The day that Peter gave his last performance in the SAB Workshop and his first performance as an apprentice with New York City Ballet happened to be the day the world learned that Balanchine had died. This coincidence sparked Boal’s memories of Balanchine, including a visit to him in the hospital when he was still a student.

Boal’s closeness to the tragic AIDS epidemic and his yearning for a relationship with his downward-spiraling father are deeply touching. He has a gift for leaving the reader with quiet joy and pain at the same time. (Disclosure: I’ve choreographed two solos for Peter and encouraged him in his writing.) Illusions of Camelot is a gentle story with unflinching detours into the epidemics of AIDS and alcoholism—dark streaks threading through this poetic reminiscence.


Teaching What You Want to Learn: A Guidebook for Dance and Movement Teachers
By Bill Evans
Reviewed by Janis Brenner

The widely respected dancer/teacher/choreographer Bill Evans has written a thoughtful, thorough, and wonderfully readable book. In Teaching What You Want to Learn, Evans journeys through his five decades of pedagogical research and practice. He also writes that the galvanizing moment in our country over the murder of George Floyd was a catalyst for reflection of his own ways of contributing to the world.

With a foreword by Selene B. Carter, the book has ten chapters with titles like “Language,” “Guidelines and Strategies,” and “Converting Theory into Action.” The chapters are divided into smaller modules such as “Remind Yourself That You Love to Teach,” “Embrace Evolving Values,” and “Never Work Harder Than Your Students.” These clear and concise modules add up to 94 different explorations. In addition, each essay is accompanied by a small box entitled “For Your Consideration,” where he asks us artist-teachers questions to contemplate: “When are you at your best as a teacher? Please relate how a teacher, mentor, or colleague, who believed in you at a crucial juncture… helped you understand yourself better and/or achieve success. How have you served in a similar role for someone else?”

Evans is a master teacher of Laban/Bartenieff Movement Fundamentals (L/BMS) and is founder of both the Somatic Dance Conference and Performance Festival and the Evans Somatic Dance Institute, headquartered in Washington state. The entire book is infused with this lineage and its applications to understanding a wide range of movement experience.

For long-time, seasoned dance teachers, some of his simple statements may seem obvious, but they are gems for the younger generations and good reminders for those of us who may need a dose of someone else’s perspectives besides our own! Evans also credits mentors and colleagues who have been of significance in the development of his practice—an important lesson for upcoming teachers and choreographers to remember “from whence you came.”

In later chapters, Evans delves deeply into “Anatomical Imagery,” including diagrams of specific body parts and functions, for instance, “Open-Chain Pelvic-Femoral Rhythm/Thigh Lifts and Leg Swings.” The final chapter, written by Bill’s spouse Don Halquist, explores Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” through a movement-based lens.

As a long-time teacher of improvisation and composition, originally through the pedagogical theories of Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis and Hanya Holm, I was surprised that the Nikolais heritage is never mentioned in relation to L/BMS, its origins and its direct connection to Laban/Wigman. However, I found that Teaching What You Want To Learn is a valuable guide into the creative side of dance education.


Dancing Black, Dancing White: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Race, & Youth Culture of the 1950s & Early 1960s
By Julie Malnig
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

Julie Malnig, author of Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance, has considerable expertise in exhibition ballroom dance as an expression of American history and culture and the place it holds in American society.  That knowledge informs Dancing Black, Dancing White, which explores the many teen television dance shows that proliferated in the two decades following World War II, the best-known of them being the American Bandstand. These programs featured exhibition ballroom, or social dancing, for a mass audience, white and Black. Malnig devotes a chapter titled “Movin’ and Groovin” to four Black teen shows, broadcast in the South. Like everything else in that period, the shows were segregated. But not for musicians. The groups performing on American Bandstand, for example, where the dancing teens were white, were often Black, and they sold a lot of recordings of such artists of color as James Brown, the Temptations, Chubby Checker, and Aretha Franklin. White musicians who owed much of their their fandom to these shows include Elvis Presley, and, following their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the Beatles.

Racial segregation is just one lens through which Malnig, Professor of Dance and Theatre Studies at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, examines these programs. Others include capitalism, social conformity, the country’s attitudes toward teenage girls, and dancing itself in mid-century America. Her many sources include books written by Thomas DeFrantz, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, and LeRoi Jones. Malnig’s interviews with the young dancers who appeared on these shows—and some who were excluded—and her descriptions of the shows themselves, offer the most compelling evidence for her thesis.

She points out that John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray is one of several films and musicals that reimagine the TV teen shows, carrying them into the future.

(For more on John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray, check it out on YouTube. The heroine, performed by overweight Ricki Lake, whose dancing is fantastic, is shunned by all but a few. One character is subjected to electric shock “deprogramming” by her bible-thumping, dance-hating parents; this is satire that can make your stomach churn.)

In the chapter called “Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Africanist Aesthetic” Malnig concentrates on Black dance, its origins, and its popularity with white kids. They loved doing the Madison, which is rooted in the plantation ring shout, as is the Big Apple, popular with adults in the 1920s.

Malnig’s descriptions of these “rock ‘n’ roll” dances also serve to illuminate the work that current choreographers like Caleb Teicher are doing now, specifically his terrific “Swing Out” show and its blending of tap, swing and the Lindy Hop.

But, as short as it is (220 pp) Dancing Black needed some pruning of repetitions and was so sloppily copyedited and proofread there are errors on almost every page. Nevertheless, those pages contain an enormous amount of valuable information about these shows, the dances themselves, and the context in which they were aired.


Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance
Photographs by Mark Mann
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

These striking photos, covering 142 dance artists who are diverse in genre, gender, age, and race, are all shot in black and white, lending a timeless quality. Many of the dancers are presented with a portrait shot as well as a full, luscious body shot, pairing intimacy with theatricality. You can spend hours, days, leafing through this book, savoring the images of dancers you know and getting a glimpse of dancers you don’t know.

The Irving Penn–inspired backdrop lends a rich, grainy texture, inviting a sense of visual depth. Mark Mann’s camera captures the sumptuous strength of Rena Butler, the drama of Terese Capucilli, the bejeweled mystery of Soraya Lundy, the breathy lift of Jonatan Luján, the jauntiness of Ephraim Sykes, and the playfulness of Miki Orihara and Stephen Pier as a couple. I especially appreciate the inclusion of dancers who are no longer young like Desmond Richardson, Michael Trusnovec, Janet Charleston, and Jodi Melnick. The portrait of Gus Solomons is so haunting that it made me wonder: Did he know he was nearing death? The last shot, with Sondra Lee and Carmen de Lavallade, makes reaching one’s 90s look like a fabulous time of life.


Remembering a Dance: Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019
By Yvonne Rainer, Emily Coates, and Nick Mauss
Published by Performa
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Lenz Press,
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This book was so exciting to me that I jumped the gun and wrote about it here.





Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly: A Memoir
By Dana Tai Soon Burgess
University of New Mexico Press
Review by Lisa Traiger

The early chapters of Washington, DC–based dancer, choreographer, and now author Dana Tai Soon Burgess’s life reveal the ingredients—a love of movement, an inquisitive mind, immersion in art and reading, and determination—that have shaped his productive dance career. His company, now in its 30th year, has toured the world for the U.S. State Department and recently was invited to serve as a Kennedy Center Social Impact Community Partner.

The son of visual artists—his mother, a Korean American; his father of German and Irish stock—Burgess grew up Santa Fe, New Mexico. An outsider, he wrestled with his visible Asian identity, humble family circumstances, and sexual identity. Bullied and lonely as a child, he created a rich internal life. Art—painting, weaving, sculpture, sketching—along with movement became significant avenues for young Burgess to translate, and ultimately transform, his world.

As a freshman at University of New Mexico, he wandered into an old gymnasium and observed a jazz dance class in progress. He later wrote, “My meandering had delivered me my destiny, a secular temple where dancers were tempered into competitive, professional-level performers.” He set his course to dance.

With determination and serendipity, he forged a path encountering significant figures along the way. Among them, sculptor/Martha Graham set designer Isamu Noguchi was in his parents’ art circle, while he was briefly an errand boy for an aging Rudolf Nureyev during a tour stop. Burgess collected an oral history from mid-century modern dancer Eleanor King and connected with Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier on choreography. And he immersed himself in researching and resuscitating the contributions of Japanese-American choreographer Michio Ito.

Burgess’s vivid descriptions of movement, as he re-shaped his karate-trained body, provide insight into his choreographic proclivities, which entwine balletic linearity with modern dance techniques. In Washington, DC, he built a company reflecting his Asian American and multi-hyphenate identities, which became his calling card on State Department tours worldwide. He also collaborated with visual artists and became the first choreographer in residence at one of the Smithsonian museums.

Lauded as the “poet laureate of Washington dance,” with this account Burgess proves himself as graceful on the page as he and his dancers are onstage. This self-portrait of an artist is penned with perceptive self-insight and evocative, lyrical language, painting a vivid picture of his journey to dance.


Why Dance Matters
By Mindy Aloff
Yale University Press
Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

Why Dance Matters is part of Yale University Press’s publication series “Why X Matters”. These are highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal, book-length essays about why a subject—poetry, architecture, composer etc. matters to the author.

Mindy Aloff has put a lifetime of experience of watching dance, writing about it, teaching its history, and editing the articles and books of other writers into why dance matters to her and to the world at large. Densely researched and conversationally written, it’s an excellent read for both those who know little and for those who live and breathe this art form as professionals in the field.

The seven chapters of this compact survey of dancing all over the world—as cultural expression, theatrical art, religious ritual, the kind you do and the kind you watch—are replete with all kinds of references, reflecting Aloff’s obsessive delving into all things dancing, including music, visual arts, and film. These are invariably interesting, but what really fascinates me is how she connects various forms of locomotion and dancing. Chapter One, e.g., “Child’s Play”, begins with an analysis of the book’s sole photograph, taken c.1940 by Helen Levitt, of young kids, one white, one Black, dancing in a Harlem street.

From here Aloff moves to her Philadelphia childhood, when as a 5-year-old she was placed in a class taught by a refugee from Nazi Germany and told to “be” a snowman: “snowfolks are round, roly-poly I figured; and so I lay down and rolled around on the floor.”  This memory leads her to the “Snow scene” and a discussion of ballet, the form that matters to her the most, especially as choreographed, modernized, and made relevant in the last century by George Balanchine.

That said, she does pay attention to modern dancers and choreographers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham; the uncategorizable Merce Cunningham; Paul Taylor; and post modernists Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, and David Gordon; tap dancers Honi Coles, Brenda Bufalino and Jane Goldberg connecting them all in interesting ways, drawing on the reviews of their work by other critics, her own interviews with some—specifically with Gordon, whom she talked with not long before he died, and obviously a lifetime of watching, writing and thinking about their work.

Dance matters, she concludes, because it connects: movement with music, dancers with each other, dancers with the audience, and audience members with dancers. About the last, she cites of all things Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s book I and Thou, sending me to my underlined copy to see if that made sense, which it did.

(Disclosure: Aloff and I have been colleagues and friends since the late seventies, when she was editing Portland’s Encore Magazine and writing incisive, historically based dance reviews for Willamette Week, the city’s alternative paper. She includes material from my own book, Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet [see Notable Books of 2021], which she edited.)



Books Received or Announced

Behind the Screen: Tap Dance, Race, and Invisibility During Hollywood’s Golden Age
By Brynn W. Shiovitz
Oxford University Press

Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity
By Ryan Donovan
Oxford University Press

Astaire by Numbers: Time and the Straight White Male Dancer
By Todd Decker
Oxford University Press

Dance Works: Stories of Creative Collaborations
By Allison Orr
Foreword by Liz Lerman
Wesleyan University Press

Ed Watson: A Different Dance
By Sarah Crompton
Prestel Publishing

Sharpening Dance Canons: Criticism, Aesthetics, and Equity
By Kate Mattingly
University Press of Florida

The Color of Dance: A Celebration of Diversity and Inclusion in the World of Ballet
By Takiyah Wallace-McMillian, founder of Brown Girls Do Ballet
Hachette Book Group

New York City Ballet
Choreography & Couture
By Mark Happel
Photography by Pari Dukovic
Foreword by Sarah Jessica Parker

You the Choreographer: Creating and Crafting Dance
By Vladimir Angelov
















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Remembering Rudy Perez

Perez in Countdown, ph Steve Sbarge

I will never forget Rudy Perez performing Countdown in 1968. If the word “riveting” did not exist, it would have to be invented for that performance. Sitting in a chair, his feet rooted to the ground, his focus unwavering, he took a super slow-motion drag on a cigarette. He slowly stood up, and without breaking his tempo, streaked his cheeks with green paint. Were they tears? Were they war paint? The recorded music of the “Songs of the Auvergne” transported us to a faraway place. Rudy was perhaps remembering something beautiful that arrested his everyday action. Countdown was also an example of radical juxtaposition, a term I didn’t know then, which describes a dada-esque collision of opposites that forces the viewer to create their own cogency. (It was a term Yvonne Rainer borrowed from Susan Sontag.) His work also had a whiff of satisfying absurdism. Of course Rudy never used such terms to describe his choices.

Barbara Roan, Anthony LaGiglia, and Perez, Ph Jack Mitchell

The place where I saw Countdown was the old Dance Theater Workshop, which was Jeff Duncan’s living space on West 20th Street. Later, in the fall of 1969, also at DTW, I was showing a solo of mine to Jeff Duncan for a program of what is now Fresh Tracks. Rudy had just finished rehearsing and decided to hang out and watch my solo. A few weeks later, I ran into Rudy in a local supermarket on the Upper West Side, and he invited me to join his tiny company. Having been knocked out by Countdown, I said Yes. I danced with him for a year, enjoying performing with the magnificent Barbara Roan, the delightful Anthony La Giglia, and being challenged by Rudy’s sturdy movement and uncompromising vision.

Me “picking flowers, to Mozart,’ in one of Rudy’s works, Ph Ted Wester

In 2019, the Stephen Petronio Company revived Rudy’s Coverage, a solo he made during the time I was dancing with him. When Siobhan Burke wrote an advance article for the New York Times, she asked me to describe what was unique about Rudy’s work. She quoted me describing his approach: “He had this instinct for what would work next to each other. We’d be doing something rigid and stiff, then suddenly we’d be bending down and picking flowers in a dreamlike slow motion…There was something very sure and magical about what he did onstage.”

Although Rudy was a strong and energetic dancer, he did not have what was considered a dancer’s body. He told me that he realized he’d have to make his own work if he wanted to dance. This, I think was a strength: He created his own aesthetics.

From left: Perez, Summit, Roan, Ph Herbert Migdoll for Dance Magazine

When Don McDonagh’s book The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance came out in 1970, I was excited because he highlighted dance artists from Judson and DTW—people I had danced with—as the ones who were raising modern dance up again in the Sixties. In his chapter on Rudy, he described the choreographer’s “vibrant stillness.” He also wrote that Rudy was “the most emotively charged dance maker of his generation, but his emotionalism is strictly controlled and measured out in carefully placed spurts of movement.” The elements of his choreography were “meticulous workmanship, unusual juxtapositions of visual and aural material, and a weighty intensity.”

Rudy was the first person I heard talk about Judson Dance Theater. He had attended some of Robert Dunn’s workshops and had participated in Judson concerts from day one. Judson became a huge topic of interest to me. Just hearing the name Judson helped me trace where Rudy got his exquisite simplicity from. When I started teaching at Bennington in 1978, I wanted to expose my students to the experimental spirit of Judson. I created a multi-year project called the Bennington College Judson Project, part of which is archived at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. (I also gave a “Dance Historian Is In” presentation on it. If you’re interested, the recording is viewable at the Library.)

Although Rudy is not often mentioned when Judson is discussed, he is one of the few of that collective who went on to have a multi-decade career in dance. (Others were the obvious names of Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, David Gordon.) I’m glad he found his niche in Los Angeles, but he drifted away from New York consciousness. Our loss was L.A.’s gain. Marcia B. Siegel called him “one of the quiet experimenters in whose hands I think the future of dance will rest.” At least two of his students there went on to create their own dance worlds: Victor Quijada of RubberbandDance and Chris Yon, now at Appalachian State University.

Conga line in one of Rudy’s pieces, c. 1971, led by Wendy Summit. Find Jane Comfort, ninth from the end. Ph unknown

In an article in the June 1971 issue of Dance Magazine, Rudy explained his process: “My work begins as a col­lection of images, but when it is finished it must be a whole, loose parts of exper­ience making up a whole. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit things together so that when it’s finished, it’s complete.”

Thank you, Rudy, for your completely remarkable work.

And thanks to Sarah Vox Swenson for setting up the memorial page of the website devoted to him.


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Revisiting Yvonne Rainer’s Mattress Monster

Front cover*

Back cover**

Yvonne Rainer’s epic task dance from 1965, Parts of Some Sextets, was given new life in 2019 when Emily Coates decided to reconstruct it. And now it has been given a third life as a luminous book collaboration between Rainer, Coates and designer/performer Nick Mauss. Remembering a Dance: Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019, was just published by Performa, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Lenz Press. It invites the reader to dive deep into Rainer’s many-layered work and the ideas that generated it—and the feelings stirred up by the reconstruction 54 years later.



Coates, a dance artist, researcher, and Yale professor who has danced with Rainer for more than 20 years, got the idea that Parts of Some Sextets was “the missing piece in the puzzle of Yvonne’s thinking.” She flew to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where Rainer’s archives are stashed. Coates’s journey of searching, finding, not finding, emailing with Rainer, is the (re)birthing story of the second iteration of what Rainer calls My Mattress Monster. With some puzzles still unsolved, Rainer and Coates gathered a new, more diverse group of eleven dancers and non-dancers. Commissioned by the Performa 2019 Biennial, they performed the new version at Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in DUMBO. This version was a bit longer, had only ten mattresses instead of twelve, and gave the dancers more freedom in the second half. But it kept the 31 tasks (e.g., bird run, bent-over walk, fling, rope duet, crawl through below top mattress) as much as possible. Curiously, it was more warmly received than 54 years earlier, perhaps because seeing a full-evening work by Yvonne Rainer has become a rarer event than in 1960s downtown.

Rainer and Emily Coates studying xeroxes of archival photos. Mary-Kate Sheehan at right, Baryshnikov Arts Center, 2019, Ph Simon Gérard.

The book Remembering a Dance is both an archive and an art object. It contains Rainer’s original essay about Parts of Some Sextets (PoSS), her notes and charts, detective work by Coates, five pithy essays, Jill Johnston’s summary of Rainer’s oeuvre up to 1965, archival photos, and—for a perverse kind of balance—a negative review from Jill Johnston. As an art object masterminded by Mauss; it offers gorgeous new photos mostly by Paula Court, a three-way conversation between Rainer, Coates, and Mauss; and inspired juxtapositions and overlappings of color photos with vintage photos.

Yvonne’s nature is to resist the status quo. The very title of her original essay, reprinted here in full, flouts the conventions of a title: “Some retrospective notes on a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,’ performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965.” She is-hell bent on undermining the usual virtues of grace and fluidity in dance. Just as John Cage, a big influence on her (and almost everyone in the art world at the time), rejected melody in favor of noise, she rejected flow in favor of bluntness. Cage didn’t want his pieces to be easy to listen to; she didn’t want hers to be easy to watch. She wanted changes to be “as abrupt and jagged as possible…So I resorted to two devices I have used consistently: Repetition and interruption.…both factors were to produce a ‘chunky’ continuity, repetition making the eye jump back and forth…” In case her dissenting voice was not perfectly clear, she added a brief postscript: “NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic…” You know the rest. In the recent interview toward the back of the book, Yvonne explains that she never expected this list of refusals to stick. It was intended to be provisionary, “never meant to be a set of principles to live or create by.”

Rehearsal, 2019. From left: Nick Mauss, David Thomson, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Rachel Bernsen, Emily Coates, Liz Magic Laser, Patrick Gallagher, Ph Paula Court.

Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Sally Gross, Judith Dunn, Judson Church 1965, Ph Al Giese

The 2019 performance certainly had that “chunky” continuity. A mashup of task-with-objects, robust dance phrases, and various mattress pilings, the actions changed every 30 seconds. This haphazard-looking commotion coexisted with the sound score of Rainer’s monotonous reading of 18th-century New England minister William Bentley’s diary. In the book too, people and mattresses look randomly scattered on the page. (Rainer has said that she liked to compose dances with the look of randomness.) And yet there is form and shape: One person might be hurtling toward a mattress, another tying a knot with rope, a foreground figure too blurry to distinguish, but there’s a cogency anyway. (You may notice that the cogency of the cover image has been knocked sideways…as in, perhaps, “No to uprightness.”)

While digging into the archives at the Getty, Coates leaves no stone unturned. But she becomes “addicted” to the archive and starts reading other notes of Rainer’s, written under the influence of hallucinogenics. The words were so sensual, so much about the body, so unguardedly poetic that Coates admits to falling in love with the 30-year-old Yvonne’s trippy prose. Perhaps Coates’s wildest idea is the proposition that “we accept these reflections as another kind of theory. And why not? They are as revealing of her artistic production as her published writing.” As someone who is often frustrated by overly academic theories of dance, I second that emotion.

Rehearsal, 2019. Foreground: Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Brittany Engel-Adams, David Thomson. Background: Mary-Kate Sheehan, Liz Magic Laser, Timothy Ward, Patrick Gallagher, Emily Coates, Nick Mauss, Ph Paula Court.

The most grippingly relevant theme is broached by David Thomson in his raw and articulate essay “It Takes a Village.” A longtime Rainer dancer (and freelance dancer/choreographer), he writes unflinchingly from both the inside and the outside, refusing to ignore the racial gap. Calling Parts of Some Sextets 1965/2019 “an ephemeral memory palace,” he reacts sharply—twice—to the presence of race in Bentley’s tale of mundane life in 18th-century Massachusetts. “Hearing the word Negro in his diary reverberated within me. It named me, called me out, and threw my body back into a difficult historical frame…And yet, simultaneously, it comforted me, in knowing that a person of color was noted in the archive in a benevolent way.” In the second instance, just as Thomson was performing a gestural solo downstage right, a Black servant named Jack surfaced in the recorded narrative. Bentley was lauding Jack, a wholly honorable person who had unexpectedly died. Thomson writes, “All at once, the past and present merged. I was locked in him and history. I became a living avatar for Jack… His life became tangible, and, personally, I embraced this meeting, feeling the power and necessity of the moment. I became his ghost manifest.”

Steve Paxton doing Fling, 1965, rehearsal at Judson Church, Ph Phil MacMullan.

The book is full of ghosts. Looking at the black-and-white images of a time gone by, we might recognize some of the people in the original PoSS (listed below). Paula Court’s vibrant color photos bring it back to this century. Occasionally the recent photos are converted to greyscale, nicely blurring the distinction between the two eras. For a moment, 1965 and 2019 merge.

While chunky discontinuity reigns in some of Rainer’s works, there is continuity in her work over time. For example, mattresses appeared in her previous piece Room Service (1963) and her later work Carriage Discreteness (1966). Her idea of interruption can be seen in many works. Jill Johnston, in her 1965 summary of Rainer’s oeuvre, identifies “irresponsible noises” as a kind of interruption: “Barking, grunting, mumbling, stammering, wailing.” One of the interruptions in the 2019 version (when Rump was still in office) was Rainer’s recorded voice suddenly calling out terms like “F^%#ing moron!”  “Shameless demagogue” or “Cynical asshole.”

Back when Yvonne Rainer was saying “No” to all those things in the postscript-turned-manifesto, what was she saying “Yes” to? In the images in Remembering a Dance, one can glean hints of Rainer’s “Yesses”: intimacy, effort, community, the unadorned physicality of functional movement, awareness of one’s environment, a challenge to the audience’s way of seeing/absorbing, and the readiness to accept change. All time-honored aspects of life and art…and yet also an invitation to look at the ordinary with fresh eyes.

Timothy Ward and David Thomson in rehearsal, Ph Paula Court.

* Front cover, bottom to top: David Thomson, Emily Coates, Timothy Ward, Patrick Gallagher, Liz Magic Laser, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Ph Paula Court, 2019.

** Back cover: Back row from left: Robert Morris, Steve Paxton, Tony Holder, Robert Rauschenberg. Front row from left: Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Sally Gross, Judith Dunn, Joseph Schlichter, Ph Peter Moore, 1965.

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Looking Back on the 2022-23 Season

While everyone else is looking forward to the new season, I want to take a moment to savor the NYC season just passed. I found the following offerings absolutely exhilarating. (I wrote a shorter, earlier version of this for Tanz magazine in Berlin.)


Encantado by Lia Rodrigues Ph Julieta Cervantes

Lia Rodrigues brought a seething, constantly shifting world titled Encantado to Brooklyn Academy of Music. Her performers, at first burrowing under colorful blankets, evolved from root vegetables to lumbering animals to preening and prancing humans. The illusion of total spontaneity veiled an undergirding of a highly choreographed ecology. The final scenes were like a big gay pride parade for every species.





Copland Dance Episodes, Ph Erin Baiano

Justin Peck’s new Copland Dance Episodes for New York City Ballet at first seemed daunting: Twenty-two sections with no intermission, no story. But Peck’s passion for Aaron Copland’s music drove this juggernaut to an inspired place where there was not a dull moment. Simple actions like leaning and falling transformed into complex patterns that cast a witty, formalist spell. A celebration of ballet as a non-narrative form.


Catherine Hurlin in Like Water for Chocolate, Ph Marty Sohl

Another huge premiere, this one in the narrative mode, was Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate for American Ballet Theatre, co-produced by The Royal Ballet. The magical surrealism of Laura Esquivel’s novel gleamed in the glorious visuals—a front drop of Mexican tile designs, a row of old woman knitting with flashing needles, mountains in the distance—and in Wheeldon’s storytelling expertise. The music by Joby Talbot incorporated sounds of Mexican instruments like the ocarina. One big plus was the feisty strength of the women characters—which does not always happen in ballet narratives, old or new.



Weathering, Ph Maaria Baranova

A surreal experience, Faye Driscoll’s Weathering at New York Live Arts was both sensual and drastic. It began as a tableau in utter stillness, eleven people crowded together as if frozen on a sinking ship. With imperceptible slow motion, they started smashing together, getting tangled in each other’s body parts and clothing. Picking up speed, they went from remote to heated to feverish and, finally, to a giddy sense of freedom. That ship, a large rotating platform, was like a magnet that the dancers were compelled to race away from but also stay connected to—even as the ship itself started drifting from side to side. Like some of her previous work, Driscoll was asking, What happens when the ground underneath you is destabilized? The entire  experience was both shocking and satisfying.


Broken Theater, Bobbie Jene Smith at left, Ph Steven Pisano

Bobbie Jene Smiths’ Broken Theater, a collaboration with American Modern Opera Company, was a clamorous yet elusive theatrical experience. It filled La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart space with absurdist interactions, dramatic texts, and isolated songs. The men engaged in a kind of tortured visceral dance; the women had a strange, veiled sisterhood. No scene was finished; no scene was spared from brokenness. Yes every moment was charged with emotional intensity.






Camille A. Brown brought her masterwork Ink, based on Black dance forms like the lindy and the hustle, to the Apollo in Harlem. It had been a hit at The Joyce in 2019, but it was exciting to see it again at the Apollo, where there is such cultural resonance. The sensual solos, explosive interactions, and choreographic brilliance rocked the house.




Swing Out, Caleb Teicher at right with arms raised, Ph Grace Kathryn Landefeld

Another joy ride was Swing Out, led by the exuberant non-binary tap dancer Caleb Teicher, at the Joyce. His rhythms, humor, and the push-pull partnering of the lindy were thrilling.  The Eyal VIlner Big Band added to the feeling of celebration.





on the other side, Ph Madeline Windland

On a more intimate scale, two Russian postmodern dancers—former Trisha Brown dancer Elena Demyanenko and Berlin-based Tarik Burnash—came to the Bohemian National Hall. In on the other side, the two were obviously troubled by the current war, expressing their disconnection with their families back in Russia through an existential sense of isolation. They sometimes clung to each other, holding each other back from rage. Songs from their childhoods  came through their vocalizing; so did the growling sounds of wounded animals.





Haint Blu, Ph Bee Lively Photography

Back in Harlem, this time at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Urban Bush Women co-directors Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Speis created an immersive production called Haint Blu. Starting in the “healing garden” of the church, they led us through a community ritual of storytelling, dance, song, a bathtub, and percussion. Every member of UBW possesses a fierce individuality, making for an exciting ensemble of defiance.



Liz Roche Company came to the Irish Arts Center with Yes and Yes, which marked the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Using the famous text only minimally, Roche highlighted the rawness, arduousness, and sometimes outlandishness, of Joyce’s words. In one arresting section, the four dancers took on the four valves of the heart in an astonishingly intricate pas de quatre.

Pardes, Ph Maria Baranova

Vertigo Dance Company from Israel returned to Baryshnikov Arts Center, with Pardes, by artistic director Noa Wertheim. The dancers set up a repetitive side-to-side stepping, one foot hitting opposite ankle each time. Within that steady rhythm, which was both punishing and mesmerizing, the dancers wove in and out of each other. One woman seemed to go crazy…was she tormented or rescued by her fellow dancers? The duets in this work, as in other works by Wertheim, are full of mutual challenge and caring, out of which grows a painful beauty.



Props to Susan Stroman, who choreographed and directed the joyful New York, New York. Every dance was staged magnificently. Not since Jerome Robbins have I seen a Broadway choreographer who can build a scene until you think they can’t top themselves and then they do. The manic scene where Jimmy Doyle tries out every instrument is priceless. With spontaneity and humor, Stroman surprises her audience; with her range of moods she gives a full experience in the theater.

For supreme standout dancers on Broadway, there were two: J. Harrison Ghee, who, as Jerry/Daphne, was the heart of the updated, non-binary story of Some Like It Hot, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholow. And Jared Grimes, as Eddie in Funny Girl, who shared his astonishing, almost recklessly inventive number “I Taught Her Everything She Knows” the night of the Chita Rivera Awards, to waves of ovations.

Kyle Abraham’s MotorRover, a subtle duet in silence, was the modest premiere of his season at the Joyce. It was performed by two men the night I saw it, but by two women on other nights. With its scooping, extending, curving phrase slipping in and out of unison, it sets up a pure-movement mode. But at certain moments—a look, a preening gesture, a sauntering towards or away—it shifted into seductiveness. With sly wit, Donovan Reed and Jamaal Bowman captured that subtle flirtatiousness. The silence allowed us to pick up the switching of intension with knowing delight. (I wish I could’ve returned to see Tamisha A. Guy & Catherine Kirk perform it too.)

For Four Walls

CCN Ballet de Lorraine came to the NYU Skirball with a double bill, the first half of which was the intriguing For Four Walls, choreographed by Petter Jacobsson & Thomas Caley. In a space that was mirrored to multiply the dancers’ images, it started with almost pristine barre work while onstage pianist Vanessa Wagner played the first movement of John Cage’s Four Walls. As the music became more irregular, so did the dancing, revealing the origami-like ways those mirrors repeated and refracted the choreography. The foldings and unfoldings eventually exploded into wildly bounding partner work. It was postmodern bliss.



Revival: What a time travel experience it was to see Robert Whitman’s American Moon at the Pace Gallery! This was a 1960 happening brought stubbornly to life by Pace Live. We sat in little compartments, surrounded by debris of paper, burlap, and ropes. It was like being inside a child’s tree house or toy attic. Figures encased in in crudely painted paper mâché objects waddled or swayed or got hoisted or dropped. We could see the person pulling the ropes. No theatrical illusions here. It was funny, but no belly laughs, just maybe a wry smile. This video gives you an idea of the experience. The most vigorous human activity was two people furiously rolling toward and away from each other. (Simone Forti originally did this part with Whitman.) A huge plastic encasement gets inflated as scraps of paper float down from above—a man-made snowstorm. Dream on.

A Trend: In three works, I saw dancers disrobing themselves or each other in an almost random way, while continuing to dance wearing only scraps of clothing. This happened in Lia Rodrigues’ Encantado, in Faye Driscoll’s Weathering, and in Miguel Gutierrez’ Cela Nous Concerne Tous (This Concerns All of US), the second half of Ballet de Lorraine’s show at NYU Skirball. These scenes were not driven primarily by seductiveness or sexual desire—although that was there—but by a compulsion to bare the body, to shed the outer layers of comportment. I would call it an urgency of exposure, perhaps related to what we see on social media (the postings that say “I’m available” or “I’ve achieved a gorgeous body”). On second thought, what these three pieces shared was a compulsion toward freedom—even if a dose of despair infiltrated that freedom.

Miguel Gutierrez’ Cela Nous Concerne Tous




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Gus Solomons jr (1938–2023)

Gus in his studio, ph by Kyle Froman for Dance Teacher, 2017.

Striking performer. Adventurous choreographer. Unforgettable teacher. Straight-from-the hip-reviewer. Inspiring mentor. Gustave Martinez Solomons jr was all these things and more. With boldly energetic dancing, a Hollywood face, and a ready laugh, Gus seemed comfortable in any dance genre. His fluidity between the largely white postmodern community and various dance communities of color was a healing balm in these times of bifurcation. He was beloved by people in all these factions, so it’s no wonder that, since his passing on August 11, messages of love and gratitude have come pouring in on social media. He’s been called a legend, dreamboat, amazing artist, and earthly angel.

Born in Cambridge, MA, Gus briefly took tap, acrobatics and ballet lessons in a local studio. In high school he performed with the Boston Children’s Theater and other community groups. As an architecture student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he moonlighted by studying dance with Jan Veen, the German Expressionist émigré who founded the dance program at Boston Conservatory. When he told one of his professors at MIT that he wanted to be a dancer, the reply was, “Oh no, you’ll be a credit to your race if you become an architect!” (Source: The History Makers.)

Guest artists came to teach at Boston’s Dance Circle, and one of them was Donald McKayle, Remembering Gus from class, McKayle invited him to New York for a musical that was dead on arrival—but Gus’s professional life in dance was born. He quickly picked up gigs not only with McKayle, but also with Pearl Lang, Joyce Trisler, and Paul Sanasardo. And yes, Martha Graham.

Gus loved to jump and said he could “hang” in the air. McKayle witnessed that skill firsthand in his own work Legendary Landscapes (1963): “There were… phenomenal aerial moments with Gus Solomons jr suspended in space above the female ensemble.” (Source: McKayle’s memoir, Transcending Boundaries)

“Motion Is the Medium,” photographer unknown. @nypl

In the early 1960s Gus was part of a studio-sharing cooperative called Studio 9, with Elizabeth Keen, Phoebe Neville, Cliff Keuter, Elina Mooney, Kenneth King, and others. He attended some of the sessions in experimental dance-making that Robert Dunn led at the Cunningham Studio, and he enjoyed using chance method inspired by John Cage. But he was “too in love with technical dancing” to get involved in the pedestrian aesthetic of Judson Dance Theater, which emerged from Dunn’s workshops. Not to mention he was already getting paid gigs with more established companies.

Gus found his aesthetic home in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, where he danced from 1965 to ’68. There he could just dance—leap, lunge, crawl, pivot, skitter, and extend his space-piercing legs. He originated roles in key Cunningham works: How to Pass Kick Fall and Run, RainForest, Place, Walkaround Time, and Scramble. After three years, a back injury forced him offstage temporarily. (For an excellent interview on his thoughts about Cunningham, see Mondays With Merce #14.)

In the late ’60s, Gus formed his own group, the Solomons Company/Dance, for which he choreographed more than 100 pieces. Taking an analytical approach, as per his architecture training, he made charts, designs, and diagrams and explored alternative spaces. Although many works had no music—or just the invited sounds of the audience coughing and rustling papers, as in Kinesia #5 (1967)—he sometimes collaborated with composers such as Mio Morales or Toby Twining. He embraced the new technology of video, creating an ingenious use of a dual screen for City/Motion/Space/Game in 1968 at WGBH-TV in Boston. His 1986 “interactive dance/sound/video system” titled CON/Text was performed at Just Above Midtown.

Randall Faxon, Doug Nielsen, Gus, and Santa Aloi. Solomons Company/Dance, 1973. Ph Joel Gordon.

Touring in the 1970s gave the Solomons Company/Dance full-time work. Many residencies, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with various artists-in-the-schools programs, required all company members to teach. The group became experts at adapting to all kinds of situations.

A watershed moment came in 1982, when Ishmael Houston-Jones brainstormed Parallels, a series for Black choreographers outside the Black mainstream of modern dance, at Danspace Project in downtown New York. Solomons, along with Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings, and Harry Sheppard, were invited to show their work. As Gus wrote for the 2012 reprise, he was glad to be included “instead of being criticized for not being ‘black enough’ as I often was back then.”

In 1996 Solomons founded Paradigm, a small group celebrating the artistry of older, seasoned dancers. The kickoff was A Thin Frost (1996), a trio Gus made for himself, Carmen de Lavallade, and Dudley Williams. This gem of a dance had moments of solemnity, wistfulness, and hilarity, where all three stars could revel in being themselves before finally reaching for a communal touch. Paradigm commissioned other choreographers, including Kate Weare, Robert Battle, Jonah Bokaer, and Wally Cardona. A glorious example of a guest work is Dwight Rhoden’s It All, for Solomons and de Lavallade. This was a moving, haunting duet to music by Björk, an excerpt of which, happily, is caught on video by Jacob’s Pillow.

Carmen de Lavallade and Gus in It All, by Dwight Rhoden for Paradigm, ph Marta Fodor via Ken Maldonado.

Solomons was a demanding but nurturing educator, teaching at UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, CalArts, Bard, and—for many years—NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His studio in Lower Manhattan was abuzz with his own classes as well as with rehearsals of dancers renting the space. In 2004, he received American Dance Festival’s Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching. And the Bessie Awards honored him with Sustained Achievement in Choreography in 2013. The following year the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts named him a Dance Research Fellow in its inaugural year.

Risa Jaroslow with Solomons, University Settlement, Lower East Side, 2000, ph Tom Brazil

Solomons has served as choreographic mentor at Dance New Amsterdam, The Ailey School, and NYU/Tisch and given informal advice to many others. He’s lent his performing self to younger choreographers, including Donald Byrd, Johannes Wieland, and John Heginbotham.

Always nimble with words, Solomons wrote reviews and features for Dance Magazine, as well as for the Village Voice, Ballet News, Attitude, andThe Chronicle of Higher Education. In recent years, he posted reviews and reflections on his own website, Solomons-Says.

Poster, BAM Archives

He also used words to advocate for himself. In 1983, Gus was not invited to participate in Dance Black America, the historic gathering at Brooklyn Academy of Music. He felt slighted and wrote this letter to the planners:

I have spent twenty years making dances that stem from my honest experience and my perceptions of dance as an expression of energy-as-motion, not as a vehicle for the expression of racial anger or social oppression, which, fortunately do not happen to be part of my personal background. It saddens me to realize, if indeed it is the case, that my work is apparently being ignored by my Black colleagues because it refuses ethno-cultural categorizing. (Source: The Black Tradition in American Dance by Richard A. Long)

Because Gus’s contribution was so huge, I’ve asked a few dance artists who worked closely with him for their memories:

Gus and Doug Nielsen, Solomons Company/Dance, 1970s

Douglas Nielsen, member of Solomons Company/Dance, 1973–75, and friend for life

Gus was like a coffee pot that never stopped percolating. He was a source of infinite possibilities. Articulate to the core. He was a director with a purpose. Always prepared, and always in step with the times. His choreography was clear and nonnegotiable: ‘This is what it is. Now do it.’ He often showed it, physically, but he also had prepared a movement score on graph paper for reference.
Gus was a role model. I am 6’4”, and so was he. He taught me how to move fast in space. Not to music, but with an inner non-narrative motivation. We did a duet called Prance Dance (1974), with extremely fast footwork in unison. It was like a race against the clock. I still remember every bit of it. The challenge was to stay focused, be precise, and be in the moment. Gus never gave us notes after a performance. We knew what might’ve gone wrong, and we knew how to correct it.
Gus lived his professional life as a man free of labels. He never defined himself by race, gender, or sexual orientation. When I asked him about that, he simply said he was “oblivious.” Truly an original.

Gus with Margaret Jenkins, 1964.

Margaret Jenkins, artistic director, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

Gus and I started working on simply this fondness in 1964. I had met him when he came to teach a workshop at UCLA. He said, “Come east and let’s work.” I did. His long legs and my long torso became the “subject” of the work—how to find the balance between the two. He pushed me to lean into risk. He taught me how to trust I would be caught. He was fierce in his demand. He was kind with his physical support. There was joy, aways joy, close by.


Larry Keigwin, Artistic director, Keigwin + Company; producer of the short film #sharethemattress—Gus Solomons jr.

Not only was Gus a mentor and friend, but he was also quick to dance for our camera when I asked him to participate in our video project Share The Mattress. It was a delightful and intimate afternoon. Gus gladly invited us into his bedroom and with cheer and vigor improvised for our camera. He didn’t need much direction….his physical instincts and dramatic intentions were spot on. Sensitive and self deprecating (in a good way) he kept us laughing with clever conversation and witty quips. It was pure joy.

Donald Byrd, Artistic director, Spectrum Dance Theater; member of Solomons Company/Dance, 1976–1978

What struck me about Gus was how thin he was, how long his limbs were, and that he was Black in what was often a very “white” context. I felt an affinity. The performance I saw, around 1973 at MIT, was enthralling. While Ailey’s work, which I was also enraptured by, struck me as heart and passion, Gus and his Cunningham-like vocabulary and odd organizing principles seemed to be a very different way of being Black. Its physicality was based on a subtle and ongoing interaction between body and mind, and an unapologetic assertion of the possibility that Blackness could be odd, astringent, and care little for respectability. I saw myself in him. And to some degree I still do.

Michael Blake and Gus in Idyll by Kate Weare for Paradigm, ph Christopher Duggan.

Michael Blake, Faculty member, University of Missouri, Kansas City; former member of Paradigm

Puzzles. To work with Gus was a puzzle from the day you committed until the day you completed the task. He would give you a map in words or on paper and say, “Make steps!” I loved that! I loved hearing his voice say that, too! That map was confusing, complex, challenging, and in the end, beautiful to look at and perform. Gus challenged my brain as well as my body and my nervous system.

Courtney Escoyne, senior editor at Dance Magazine; former NYU Tisch student

Gus fundamentally altered the way I look at and talk about dance. Responding to our peers’ movement studies week to week always started in the same way: Gus projecting his warm, resonant voice to ask us, “Now, what did you see?” It was an invitation to not leap immediately to judgments of good or not good, whether what we’d seen was to our taste or not, and instead to analyze what had actually unfolded and what we had taken from it. The word ‘like’ was banned from the room. If we wanted to express appreciation, we had to specify if we were intrigued, moved, made curious. He encouraged us to do the same thing when we attended performances, and reliably listened to, questioned, and supported our conclusions about what did and didn’t work. When he offered his own observations, it was invariably with wit, wisdom, and kindness—and more often than not opened up new angles we hadn’t considered.
A decade later, every time I sit at a keyboard to write about a performance or draw breath to give feedback to a peer, it’s still his voice that I hear first, asking not whether I had liked it, but what I had seen.

In his studio, ph by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine, 2022.

¶¶Quotes from Gus’s lips or pen¶¶

¶ On Cunningham technique: “Since the dancing was not ‘about’ anything but the movement itself, absolute clarity was quintessential to its full expression, and you couldn’t mask a wobble with a dramatic flourish.” Dance Magazine, November 2007, “Technique: Move Your feet! Merce Cunningham Technique.”

“In my early preteens… I was practicing a move I had seen Donald O’Connor do…and I flipped backwards off the couch and broke a window in our living room. I wasn’t hurt, but I was punished…because I was dancing!” (Source: Sharon Kinney’s documentary on the first “From the Horse’s Mouth” in 1998, now in posted on Facebook.)

¶ “Studying with Merce Cunningham, learning to dance from stillness, was giving me technical control rather than sheer muscle power, on which I’d been dancing until then.” (Source: Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible, ed. Sally Banes)

¶ “When I was in the world of Martha Graham, I was clinging to the world of Merce Cunningham.” (Source: “Choreography in Focus,” 2016)

¶ “I try to write reviews that are both engaging to the readers and instructive to the creators, while respecting the integrity of their efforts—however effective or not they turn out to be.” (Source: “Meet the Press” panel, Dance/NYC, 2012, quoted by me in “A Debate on Snark,” collected in Through the Eyes of a Dancer: Wendy Perron, Selected Writings)

Paradigm, with Gus, Valda Setterfield, Dudley Williams, ph Tom Caravaglia.

¶ “Paradigm…has reconfirmed my original naive conviction that dance can be a life-long vocation. Age need not be a limitation; it is a resource of life experience and dance craft that enriches performance beyond technical virtuosity.” (Source: AlumWeb Open Door Archive)

¶ “I’m dancing on momentum now. You can do more on momentum than on muscles.” (Source: “Moving Joyfully and Carefully into Old Age,” New York Times, April 2, 2000)

Solomons, ph Tom Caravaglia

¶ How to watch a Cunningham work: “The idea is to let the movement enter your consciousness without hierarchy and respond to it in that way. And then your experience, your culture, and your needs at the moment will create a hierarchy for you.” (Source: Mondays With Merce, #14, interviewed by Nancy Dalva)

¶ “As I got less depressed…I started involving my dancers more—my dancers’ input into the work—which became a much more fulfilling way to make work.” (Source: Mondays With Merce, #14)

¶ “Architecture and dancing are exactly the same. You design using all the same elements — time, space and structure — except that in dance, time is not fixed.” (Source: Cambridge Black History Project)

¶ About A Thin Frost, his first choreography for Paradigm: “It would change every [night]. Every time we’d come offstage, Carmen would say, ‘Well, who were we tonight? That never happened before!’” (Source: “From the Horse’s Mouth” Celebration of Gus Solomons, Interview with me, 2016, long version)

¶ Advice for making dances: “When I watch a dance I don’t want to be able to check out and do my emails. Keep me interested. Keep giving me new information. Take me on a journey. When I finish watching your piece, I want to be in a completely different place than when I started.” (Source: “From the Horse’s Mouth” Celebration of Gus Solomons, Interview with me, 2016, long version)

Photographed by MIT electrical engineering professor Harold Edgerton with stroboscopic camera, 1960.

The Gus Solomons Papers are held at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Last(ing) memory: I visited Gus at Mt. Sinai Morningside Hospital on July 25. He looked vibrant to me, so I did not think this would be the last time I’d see him. When I was leaving, Gus (usually so unsentimental) took my hand and kissed it.



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Iconic Short Solos

I’ve seen so many too-long performances lately that I’ve gained renewed appreciation for short, impactful dances. Mentally thumbing through dance history, I came up with ten short solos that make an indelible impression in under eight minutes. Most of them were created to stand alone, without a surrounding context or other dancers. Some have been reconstructed or imitated ad infinitum. They all have endured through time, remaining powerful even when seen in third-generation form on the Internet.


The Dying Swan (1905), Michel Fokine’s solo for Anna Pavlova.

“The dance was composed in a few minutes. It was almost an improvisation. I demonstrated for her, she standing behind me. Then she danced and I walked alongside of her, curving her arms and directing details of the poses… This dance aims, not so much at the eyes of the spectator, but at his soul, at his emotions.”

—Michel Fokine, Memoirs of a Ballet Master

Click here to see Nina Ananiashvili’s rendition at Jacob’s Pillow in 2010. If you asked Nina how she got her arms to be so liquid, she would joke and say she’d take out all the bones of her arms before performing this dance.



Hexentanz (1914 and 1926), by Mary Wigman, projecting her inner demons. She happened to see in the mirror “one possessed, wild and dissolute, repelling and fascinating. … She was—the witch—earthbound creature with her unrestrained, naked instincts, with her insatiable lust of life, beast and woman at one and the same time.”  —Mary Wigman: The Language of Dance, 40–41

Check out this fragment of Hexentanz.



Bill Robinson,1928, Vandamm Studios via NYPL

The Stair Dance (c. 1918) Bill “Bojangles’ Robinson, developed over time during Vaudeville.

“Instead of going straight up the stairs, Robinson milks the drama of hesitation, ascent, and descent. … It’s the drama of rhythm against constraints. Like a ragtime pianist syncopating an even march or a jazz soloist bringing a melody to the edges of recognition, Robinson shapes the standard into the new by pushing at it from inside.”

—Megan Pugh, American Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk

Check out the clip of his Stair Dance in Harlem Is Heaven (1932).




Ito in Pizzicati © Toyo Miyatake Studio

Pizzicati (1916), by Michio Ito, also called The Shadow Dance. Music by Delibes. Simple, forceful moves by Ito projected as a huge shadow, reminiscent of either a puppet or a dictator and described as having a “mystifying power.”

“A slim black figure silhouetted in startling relief against an enormous gold screen dominated the Rose Bowl and held the crowd of five thousand people spellbound and silent.” (reviewed in 1929, quoted by Caldwell, 88).






Graham in Lamentation ph Martha Swope

Lamentation (1930) by Martha Graham, to music by Kodály.

“Martha in Lamentation showed you the total, agonized lamenting of…all humans who had experienced loss and with it, unbearable anguish.” —Walter Terry (quoted in Martha Graham: Choreographer of the Modern, by Neil Baldwin)

Click here to see Graham herself in this dance.






Dudley in Harmonica Breakdown

Harmonica Breakdown (1938) by Jane Dudley to music by Sonny Terry. The solo woman’s figure strides with fierce determination, evoking the effects of grinding poverty in a succinct, powerful composition. She’s struggling against the obstacles while also expressing glimmers of hope or pleading. But mostly, it’s a grim feeling of constant striving.

Here’s a Vimeo clip of excerpts of S. Ama Wray performing it, with commentary by Jane Dudley.





Primus, ph Barbara Morgan, Courtesy of the University Museum of Modern Art, U Mass Amherst

Strange Fruit (1943) by Pearl Primus, danced to the eponymous poem by Lewis Allan aka Abel Meeropol.

“The dance begins as the last person begins to leave the lynching ground and the horror of what she has seen grips her, and she has to do a smooth, fast roll away from that burning flesh.” —Pearl Primus, “Five Evenings with American Dance Pioneers,” 1983

Click here for the rendition performed by Dawn Marie Watson of Philadanco.





Rainer in Trio A, screen grab

Trio A (1966) by Yvonne Rainer, originally created as a trio section of The Mind Is a Muscle, this piece is iconic not for its entertainment value, but because it embodies Rainer’s series of refusals at the time: rejecting eye contact with the audience, dynamics, contrast in tempo, structure through repetition.

This film, produced by Sally Banes in 1978, has Rainer performing it twice.




Water Motor, ph. Lois Greenfield

Water Motor (1978) by Trisha Brown, a 2 ½ minute swooping sequence that allows you to see—if you don’t blink—the initiation and follow through of Trisha’s extraordinarily fluid movement chains. She choreographed it meticulously to have the look and feel of improvisation. In her memorial piece on Trisha Brown, Deborah Jowitt referred to the “explosively careering Watermotor.”

Here’s the famous Babette Mangolte film of Water Motor, with an aftermath of slow motion. (The title is spelled with either one word or two.)

(Thanks to Lois Greenfield for the this photo and the next one.)



Caught (1982) by David Parsons, astounding illusion of an airborne solo, created by strobe light and incessant jumping. As Jowitt wrote in Artsjournal.com, this solo “shows us, via meticulously timed flashes of strobe light, a dancer who can appear to fly.”  Click here for a YouTube of excerpts.

David Parsons, ph Lois Greenfield

What short solos would you add to this list?


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Notable Dance Books of 2022

This year, instead of writing all the commentary myself, I’ve asked ten other dance writers to pitch in. Because each writer is spending more time with a particular book, each entry is more like a review than just a blurb. So what was meant as a quick gift guide has turned into quite an education. Big thanks to Mindy Aloff, Barbara Forbes, Ann Murphy, Lynn Colburn Shapiro, Robert Johnson, Bonnie Sue Stein, Marina Harss, Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, Morgan Griffin, and Emily Macel Theys.

La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern
By Lynn Garafola
Oxford University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff

Bronislava Nijinska (1891–1972) was a choreographer, teacher, and coach whose impassioned belief in the principles of classical ballet, coupled with her obsession concerning the spiritual importance of high art, defined her. Trained in the Imperial School of the Maryinsky Theater, she joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a dancer and then, after a period of teaching and dancemaking mostly in Kiev, rejoined Diaghilev as a choreographer. From there, she went on to create an international repertory (nearly all of it eventually lost) for companies throughout Europe, in South America, and, finally, in the United States, where she, her second husband, and their daughter settled after World War II. Her legacy as a teacher, based in Los Angeles, included such stars-in-the-making as Allegra Kent, Cynthia Gregory, and Cyd Charisse.

Dancers tended to love her; however, Nijinska’s affiliation with the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, her particular brand of choreographic abstraction, her privileging of form and symbolic ideas over physical attractiveness for its own sake, her incorrigible temper, and the strangeness of the choreographic imagery in her work contributed to her controversial reception among critics and impresarios. When Frederick Ashton, her student in the 1930s, became artistic director of The Royal Ballet, he revived her two Ballets Russes masterpieces: the 1923 Les Noces (complete with full orchestra, chorus, and four grand pianos) and the 1924 Les Biches bringing her to London to oversee each production. Lincoln Kirstein included her Les Noces in his landmark history Movement & Metaphor, republished as Fifty Ballet Masterworks: From the 16th Century to the 20th Century. The Russian émigré critic André Levinson despised Nijinska—yet his daughter, who also became a critic, adored her.

This is a genius who led quite a life. Deeply immersed in her art, she still found time, among her ceaseless travels, to marry twice and give birth to two children (while, from her youth up to her death, nursing a quasi-religious devotion to her memory of the legendary bass opera singer Feodor Chaliapine, who had stirred her young girl’s imagination without physically requiting her crush).

Esteemed dance historian Lynn Garafola meticulously chronicles this life—in the first full Nijinska biography ever—across half the globe, in and out of four languages, through Revolution and two World Wars. Perhaps as a tribute to Nijinska’s constant battles to prove herself and be taken seriously in the company of male choreographers, Garafola also touches quite lightly on the achievements of Bronislava’s more famous brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, “God of the Dance.” Indeed, there is not even an entry for him in the book’s otherwise elaborate index.


Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern, A Life
By Neil Baldwin
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

In the first pages, Baldwin situates Martha Graham (1894–1991) among great modernists like T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Frank Lloyd Wright. With massive research and a literary sensibility, this biography is as much about the era of American modernism as about a single dance artist.

The surprises in Graham’s life start at Santa Barbara High School. Martha was a voracious reader, talented writer, and basketball captain, setting a foundation for a life of both intellectual and physical challenge. She read throughout life, drawing inspiration from Nietzsche, Havelock Ellis, and Carl Jung for her choreography.

The account of Graham’s audition with Denishawn is delicious, with the grandiose Miss Ruth disdainful of the short, black-haired girl while Louis Horst at the piano murmured that she had something special. With the encouragement of Ted Shawn, Martha Graham sculpted herself into a dancer.

But she was determined to be more than an entertainer. Through constant experimentation, she strove to move beyond Isadora Duncan, “beyond ‘imperialism…and weakling exoticism.’” She traveled what Baldwin calls “the perilous journey through her inner landscape.” 201

The exterior part of that journey took her from Vaudeville to the concert stage. It was a gig at Greenwich Village Follies, (1923-25), where she danced alluringly in Michio Ito’s “The Garden of Kama,” that led to her teaching job at the Eastman School in Rochester. And it was her students at Eastman who formed her first company.

Baldwin is a storyteller. He skillfully builds suspense while recounting how Graham startled students with stillness at the Cornish School, how Erick Hawkins came into her life, and how she unknowingly — and haughtily—affronted Michel Fokine at a New School forum in 1931.

At 554 pages, this book keeps billowing out in different but related directions. Graham is always at the center — her conversations, happenstance meetings, evolving points of view, emergency rehearsals in the wee hours, plans with collaborators, and always, what she was reading. Along the way, we learn about other towering figures like Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, Mary Wigman, Michio Ito, José Limón, Helen Tamiris, Aaron Copland, Wassily Kandinsky, and Isamu Noguchi. With this wealth of information, what one reader might regard as a digression, another might find fascinating.

A definition of Graham’s modernism pops up during Baldwin’s description of Copland’s Piano Variations, which Graham used for her 1931 solo Dithyrambic:  “This ‘straining-against-itself’ jagged advancement and retraction, favoring tightly woven, conflicting patterns, is quintessential Graham.”

Among the many dramatic utterings from the lips of Martha Graham is this one describing her dancing in the solo Frontier (1935), her first collaboration with Isamu Noguchi: she was “flinging myself against the sky.” To explain why Massine cast her as the Chosen One in his 1930 reconstruction of the Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, she said it was her “passionate, destructive, ruthless quality…and also for a body that had animal strength.” 174

Although Baldwin focuses mostly on her modernist period (up till 1950), the book is expansive. The connections he makes between Graham and other modernist thinkers stretch what we know about her. Martha Graham was not only a great dance artist, but she was a major player in forging American modernism.


Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles, an American Classic
By Brian Harker
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

There are precious few films of John Bubbles available, but Brian Harker, in this epic biography, describes Bubbles’ dancing so vividly that we can practically see it and feel it. When Bubbles brought tapping back on its heels, he syncopated it, gave it irregular beats, and complicated the rhythms. According to Harker, he had “drop dead charisma” and a sexuality that was more threatening than that of the elegant, buoyant dancing of the more iconic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Buck and Bubbles, the Vaudeville team that he was half of, was a sure-fire act. (Their given names were Ford Lee Washington and John Sublett.) As a piano and tap dancing duo that was also comedic, they would bring down the house. They toured with Carmen Jones and they performed in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. As Sportin’ Life, Bubbles had “just the right combination of attractiveness and evil,” according to one critic. His portrayal inspired Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway to follow in his footsteps for their interpretations of this role.

But the Vaudeville houses were yielding to movie palaces, and after Buck died, it was difficult for Bubbles to find work. Like Robinson, he was sometimes accused of being an Uncle Tom type of performer because of the limited roles available to him. But he enjoyed a comeback when television stars like Lucille Ball and Judy Garland hired him for their acts.

Harker, a music professor, brings to light Bubbles’ influence on jazz music. During the time when he haunts the Hoofers’ Club in Harlem, he is called a bridge between ragtime and jazz. (Btw, Jeni LeGon has said it was Bubbles who brought her into this sacred/profane cauldron of male dance creativity.)

Bubbles was known as the “father of rhythm tap.” He wasn’t a model human being (and who is anyway?) but he was a “genius onstage” who inspired many in the next generation, including the current dancer/actor André De Shields.


Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century
By Jennifer Homans
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff

Toward the end of this ardent and enthusiastically praised biography is an author’s note of several pages, explaining how deeply immersed in George Balanchine’s milieu she has been since her adolescence. She also enjoyed a close relationship as a student and a longstanding friend of Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina photographed with the master on the book’s dust jacket.

The Note adds that the author grew up in “an intense family of intellect and words” at The University of Chicago. The essentially wordless experience of dance—which Homans studied from childhood, including at the School of American Ballet, and performed as a professional dancer with several ballet companies outside New York—impelled her, finally, to plunge into much of the life of, and some of the works (e.g. ApolloConcerto BaroccoThe Four Temperaments) by George Balanchine. Her birth-to-death chronicle roams where the man roamed, with or without Lincoln Kirstein, the world-class impresario who brought Balanchine to America and who, Homans claims, maintained the longest continuing relationship that Balanchine had with any other person in his life. (Didn’t Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova meet when they were both kids at the Imperial Ballet School, in St. Petersburg?)

Homans’ academic field is history, and, admirably, she goes to some lengths to locate Balanchine’s life among political and cultural circumstances outside those of ballet. Even if dance isn’t your passion, there are other aspects of the 20th century here to keep your interest. The book offers up many passages of creative nonfiction concerning Balanchine’s personality and what he intended his ballets to mean, undergirded by research notes that run for nearly ninety pages. It also follows the choreographer’s medical and emotional sagas, offers unconventional readings of famous ballets, and continually takes the temperature of Balanchine’s sexuality and capacity for what Homans terms his “cruelty” to dancers.

Homans portrays Balanchine as intrinsically lonely, even in the midst of building an institution and a repertory in what is debatably the most social of the arts and despite his five marriages and numerous love affairs. Only Kirstein, constantly embroiled in institutional planning and fundraising—social activities if there ever were any—is presented as similarly lonely.

Mr. B will tell you what books Balanchine read, what kind of bedroom maneuvers he preferred, how the light-skinned African American company manager, the formidable Betty Cage, could pass for white. It talks about elements that went into Balanchine’s dances and, now and then, it shares information about technique. The story proper begins with the Big Bang revelation that Balanchine was illegitimate. What more could anyone want from a biography?


On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation
By Stephan Koplowitz
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Ann Murphy

Choreographer Stephan Koplowitz, a familiar figure in the world of site-based performance, has been working in the genre for more than thirty years. His large-scale events, from Fenestrations at Grand Central Terminal (1987 and 1999) to the immersive site event The Northfield Experience (2018) in Minnesota, exemplify his interest in architectural scale, organized bodies in space and time, theater, media, history, metaphor, and a capacity for complex project creation and management.

Now, so does his new book, On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation. In this comprehensive, wonderfully organized volume, he shares his extensive knowledge of a multi-faceted genre, and he does so with elegant logic, along with a spirit of generosity and care. This care extends to a wide array of “guests”—twenty-four fellow artists who also make work in non-traditional spaces and share their thoughts, creating a subtle, antiphonal rhythm throughout that makes the role of collaborators palpable.

On Site is no dry or abstruse tome. It’s an homage to performance in non-traditional spaces, and it’s a stunning template that takes the reader step-by-step through the processes. Koplowitz begins with site visits then moves to constructing structures, gathering partners, participants, public relations, money, budgets, tech, costumes, documentation, and, at the end, designing and making assessments.

From the outset, Koplowitz brings his colleagues and peers into the discourse. His first question, Why make site-specific work? is answered by Anne Hamburger, founder of En Garde Arts: “There’s something exhilarating when I’m outdoors producing a show and thinking, my stage is as high as the sky and as far as I can see….”

Next he asks, How do we start?, then moves on to How to make a master plan and organize research goals. Here, in the research phase, he underscores the centrality of knowing one’s site. The artist is no longer in the seemingly “blank” space of a theater. A site, regarded seriously, is at least in part an unknown, perhaps even a mystery, and by meeting, engaging, and learning about it, one opens oneself up to inspiration and transformation. The site becomes a partner, even in cases where the site incidentally—or accidentally—conditions a work, as in Merce Cunningham’s Events in a particular environment.

Koplowitz professes no utopian vision. His solidarity with fellow artists is earthy and muscular as he invites his peers to present ideas. (Generosity may be one of the 21st century’s more radical acts.) Also, he approaches even the daunting administrative elements of creating site-based work with a spirit of equanimity. He brings to it a reflexive engagement that encourages one to decenter themselves again and again to meet challenges with curiosity, engagement, compromise, and self-assessment.

It’s not a bad recipe for living.


Serenade: A Balanchine Story
By Toni Bentley
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Barbara Forbes

The thrill of reading Toni Bentley’s moment-by-moment account of dancing Serenade, the first ballet George Balanchine choreographed in America, lies not simply in her meticulous description of the steps; nor in the fascinating story of how the dance came into being and earned its place in history; nor in learning why it was that Martha Graham wept when she first saw Serenade.

The reader is drawn in by the interweaving of all of the above with stories about the ballet’s creator and its composer, combined with portraits of the many artists who have contributed to the ballet’s evolution over time. Bentley is willing to delve deeply into her own intensely personal experience. It’s as if she is inviting us to dance with her in order to explore why this iconic ballet is one “of rapture, of crushing beauty.”

The opening paragraphs detail the rituals of preparation before the curtain goes up to reveal a formation of seventeen dancers on a bare, moonlit stage. Interpretation of the constant mood and scene changes during the ballet’s ensuing thirty-two minutes and forty-nine seconds is augmented by abundant historical information, yet anchored in the reality of the dance as it is happening, each step venerated and at the same time instructional.

For the reader who does not know the ballet, this book will no doubt promote the desire to see it. For someone already familiar with the wonder of Serenade, a sense of intimacy with its beauty will deepen. Perhaps an embodied description will bring to mind the Tchaikovsky passage for that particular moment of choreography. Balanchine claimed that he could see and hear better than anybody else: “God said to me, ‘That’s all you are going to have.’. . . I said, ‘Fine.’”

Bentley’s poetic impressions of Balanchine’s world support her belief, her conviction, that the Balanchine dancer’s unique passion is for “only one thing: to dance with him across the shadowed land of the eternal present.”


Balanchine’s Twenties
By Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer
Five small volumes—one each for Le Chant du Rossignol, Valse Triste, La Chatte, Le Bal, Cotillon—based on the authors’ historically informed theatrical realizations of the ballets with various companies in Europe and the United States.
Trapeze Press, a division of the Orion Group
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff

The ballets that George Balanchine made in Europe during his twenties, in the 1920s, are legendary for their glamorous contributors, exciting décors and musical scores, highfalutin audiences, mash-ups of fairytale elegance on the surface, and darkly suggestive subtexts. They also contain early examples of choreographic themes, images, and physical language that Balanchine himself put to use over the rest of his career. The authors here, dancer/reconstructor Millicent Hodson and the visual archivist Kenneth Archer, who have themselves excavated many supporting materials, are not intending to resurrect the ballets as alive and new, the way their original audiences perceived them. Still, their efforts at reconstruction—for both the page and the stage—let us glimpse the contour of the action, the floor plan of the choreography, the spectacle of the dancing bodies in costume, some of the choreographic imagery, and, here and there, impart an educated guess as to Balanchine’s intentions.

These “jewel” volumes—each a delightfully sized 7 x 7-inch square—conjoins the assembled elements into a kind of browser’s magick. They offer readable, contextual essays by Hodson and other scholars or performers; a “guide” to the ballet at hand that breaks down the dance action into comprehensible scenes; revealing quotations about the work from Balanchine’s contemporaries at the time of the premiere; footnotes and bibliography; and a wealth of meticulously arranged, relevant visual treasure seized from the past—in color or black-and-white, as appropriate to the source. Running through each volume are Hodson’s colorful drawings, derived from archival materials, that suggest how moments from the dances might have looked. The pleasure of the books is in no small measure owing to the layouts and design choices of Elizabeth Kiem, who runs Trapeze Press; however, the ultimate pleasure they give is owing to the editorial choices of Hodson and Archer and to their integrity in providing abundant evidence for their proposals of how the ballets lived on stage and why they remain haunting.


Ruth Page: The Woman in the Work
By Joellen A. Meglin
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Lynn Colburn Shapiro

Ruth Page: The Woman in the Work begins as an academic pilgrimage into the late 19th- to mid 20th-century dance in Chicago through the lens of Page’s life and career. Eventually, this lengthy tome (429 jam-packed pages) blossoms into a delicious dive into the imagination and artistic journey of a gutsy innovator.

The book’s exhaustive detail across a wide range of inquiry demonstrates just how significant a force Ruth Page was. Like George Gershwin, with whom she collaborated, she combined classical and jazz forms into a style that was distinctly American. Page was determined to make dance relevant and accessible to a broader population, not just the elite few.

For a slew of reasons, not the least of which was her anchor in the Midwest, Page never received the recognition she deserved. Meglin’s book sets the record straight. As a 20th-century pioneer of theater dance, she collaborated with some of the greatest artists of her time, including Adolph Bolm, Frederic Franklin, Harald Kreutzberg, and Isamu Noguchi (with whom she had a love affair). She was extremely well-read and multi-talented as a musician, writer, and actress. She poured all this into her company, Chicago Opera Ballet, which was the resident ballet of Chicago’s Lyric Opera Company and toured independently under Columbia Artists Management during the early 1960s.

That she employed and choreographed for Black dancers, notably Katherine Dunham, when racial integration onstage was considered scandalous; that she developed themes in her ballets that tackled socially relevant subjects, sexuality, and controversial personalities; and that she had the daring to ridicule social norms, such as in Billy Sunday (1948), made her a stand-out among her peers. In 1938, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, Page and Bentley Stone created a feminist ballet, Frankie and Johnnie, inspired by the popular song.

Meglin offers the reader a visceral understanding of Page’s creative process. This includes casting, the dancers’ input, nuanced description of Page’s movement that defines character and relationship, and choreography that is insistently in service of storytelling.

Two of her colleagues, Bentley Stone and Walter Camryn, and after them, Dolores Lipinski and Larry Long, became the bedrock of ballet training in Chicago. Page’s legacy continues today through the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, which she founded as a ballet school and performance venue.

Meglin’s colorful depiction of Ruth Page’s determination includes detailing of obstacles she faced, such as financial restraints, public criticism of her daring use of sexually explicit themes, personality clashes, political in-fighting among artists, and racial integration on stage resulting in outrage in the press. Quotes from reviews throughout the 20th century give perspective on the evolution of aesthetics in the context of historic events, mores, and styles.

Page clearly had an impact on concert dance in America. Ruth Page: The Woman in the Work will inspire and inform ballet devotees, scholars, and practitioners who have the stamina to stay with it long enough to reap its rewards!


A Guide to Somatic Movement Practice: The Anatomy of Center
By Nancy Topf, with Hetty King
University Press of Florida
Reviewed by Barbara Forbes

Dancer, choreographer, and innovative somatic educator Nancy Topf had written the first draft of her book when she died in a plane crash in 1998. The manuscript, now lovingly re-worked by long-time student and colleague Hetty King, is a potent handbook for easeful, intelligent self-use. King learned from Topf how to embody thought, feeling, sensation, and intuition while moving. Along the way, she discovered that during her years of injurious dance training, “what had been left out was me.”

Topf agrees with psychologist James Hillman’s statement that “Consciousness has more to do with images than with will.” She uses conscious imagery to induce sensations that internalize anatomical principles of alignment.  She guides us to imagine cycles of energy flowing along complementary lines of force. An attitude of kindness and curiosity invites reflection around a more nuanced perception of movement. “When I open a dialogue with my body,” says Topf, “I stop trying to manipulate it.”

She begins by introducing herself to her imaginary student “Italica,” the reader who will learn anatomical structure and function by applying meditative visualizations.  Each element in their playful conversation is given an italicized voice with which to describe its role as a collaborator within the entire bodily system. For example, Clavicle says: “OK, Scapula, you are really my partner.” This uniquely personal process, based on Topf’s studies with somatic pioneer Barbara Clark, lies at the heart of her method, Topf Technique/Dynamic Anatomy.

So, too, does understanding the psoas muscle, which connects the legs to the spine. Topf offers practices for understanding deep developmental patterns so that we can experience the psoas as pathway, muscle, energy, structure, and also as a place of anti-gravitational upward thrust. We find grace and strength by visualizing the spine’s harmonious curves carrying our weight, one curve balancing upon the other with support from the flow of breath. We say “ ‘Yes’ to gravity’s force.”

For this reader, all discomfort from an old hip injury was relieved while walking and visualizing the relationship between psoas as suspension cables for the bridge of lumbar spine, and the crura muscles, which anchor the diaphragm to the lumbar spine, lengthening on exhalation. Thank you, Nancy Topf!


Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World
By Rupert Christiansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Robert Johnson

More than an artistic director, Serge Diaghilev was a Prometheus. Early in the 20th century, his Ballets Russes set Europe ablaze and kindled a mania for ballet around the globe. Now dance writer Rupert Christiansen is carrying the torch in Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World.

The author is a dogged researcher. To tell his story, Christiansen aggregates the latest scholarship, extracts tidbits from obscure memoirs, and rummages in the attic of Diaghilev biographer Richard Buckle. Christiansen’s judgments can be intemperate: In contrast with the Ballets Russes, he writes, the repertoire of Anna Pavlova’s company was “garbage.” He lapses into slang, telling us that Diaghilev wished to “cock a snook”—whatever that means—at his critics back home. Christiansen is also parochial in that tiresome British way, sneering at supposedly “obligatory” Russian hysterics. He remains consistently entertaining, however, and offers a detailed introduction to his subject that may excite a new generation of balletgoers.

Christiansen’s best bits derive from the research of Diaghilev biographer Sjeng Scheijen, who broke new ground in 2009, and from the observations of Diaghilev’s contemporaries. Diaghilev’s Empire profitably quotes Marie Rambert’s description of Nijinsky’s technique, and Léon Bakst’s remarks on color as a powerful element in design. On the other hand, Christiansen shows himself gullible when repeating accusations that Diaghilev sought only to shock the public, and that Diaghilev knew nothing about dancing. The evidence of the Ballets Russes repertoire, even when imperfectly performed, demolishes both those claims.

Like some dance specialists, Christiansen has a weak grasp of art history. Thus, he misses the way Symbolism and the trend toward abstraction influenced ballets from Fokine’s Petrouchka to Nijinska’s Les Noces and beyond. He ignores, for instance, the spiritual character of Les Noces, and the self-conscious theatricality that ties Nijinska’s Romeo and Juliet to early Ballets Russes aesthetics and to its novel, Surrealist milieu. Romeo was not an idle provocation.

It has become fashionable in the age of Jeff Koons to discuss the marketplace for modern art, rather than the principles and aims of modern artists. Yet one winces at the suggestion that the Ballets Russes was merely a “shop window” for the likes of Picasso. Diaghilev’s activities were never crassly commercial. He had an aristocrat’s contempt for money and died penniless, after vastly enriching the world.


A History of Butô
By Bruce Baird
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Bonnie Sue Stein

Note: Japanese names in the article are stated last name first, as Baird, a fluent Japanese speaker, has done in his book (e.g. Tanaka Min is more commonly known in the U.S. as Min Tanaka).

Butô has become one of the most influential dance forms of the 20th century, and Bruce Baird’s new book traces and confirms that history and influence.

Butô, the avant-garde dance form, originated in Japan with the first performance probably in 1959, with the two founders, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. The literal definition of the word butô is “dance step or stomp.” However the term now commonly refers to the entire form, originally called “ankoku butô,” or “dance of darkness.” It is also thought of as a reaction against Western influence in Japanese politics and culture that is purely Japanese in nature. Most of the butô dancers wear white body makeup and torn or messy clothing, and they might alter their body form with fabric and costume. But there is more to the form than that. The first time many Western critics saw butô, it was remarked that the bombing of Hiroshima and the resulting human deformities were a direct influence.

The movements in butô are mostly based on deeply inhaled and subconscious imagery, such as imagining a thousand ants crawling up your legs, or butterflies behind your eyelids. These imagistic prompts result in physical embodiments that may appear to the outside eye to be awkward, spastic, or out of control—like watching a body in space reacting to outside forces. However a butô dance score might be composed of hundreds of these images and be as carefully constructed as any formal ballet.

In an article for TDR in 1986, I wrote that butô artists work beyond self-imposed boundaries, passing through the gates of limitation into undiscovered territory. Whether their gestures are slow and deliberate as with Ashikawa Yoko, or wild and self-effacing as with Tanaka Min, the artists share a dedication to transformation. The strength of their commitment is an extension of the samurai, never-give-up spirit that is essentially Japanese.

With this new publication, scholar Bruce Baird makes an enormous contribution to the dance field, offering an in-depth study following the work of ten key dance artists. All of these artists have used the term butô and/or re-defined butô, moved on to other genres, or for some, dropped the term altogether as a conscious act to free themselves from a pigeonholed definition. In fact, Baird deftly acknowledges this troubled definition in the book’s conclusion. One example is Maro Akaji (b. 1943), the famed director/actor/dancer and spectacle genius of Dairakudakan (Great Camel Battleship). The company, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was the first butô seen in the U.S. at American Dance Festival in 1982. Though Maro keenly traverses dance and theater definitions. Dairakudakan’s early member, Amagatsu Ushio, went on to found Sankaijuku (School of Mountain and Sea), probably the most famous butô company worldwide.

Choosing some famous and some not so famous dancers, ranging from artists from Japan to those whose work developed outside Japan, Baird shows a number of facets of the dance form that might not have been exposed before. He eventually states that butô is beyond definition while continuing to be a major dance influence.

Baird’s book is a welcome historical resource and commentary. His knowledge and first-hand research highlight the expansive nature of butô’s place in the 21st century.


The Choreography of Everyday Life
By Annie-B Parson
Verso Books
Reviewed by Morgan Griffin

A slim book at 96 pages, Annie-B Parson’s The Choreography of Everyday Life walks the reader through a winding trail of strung-together thoughts, metaphors, images, and daily occurrences. It’s on one hand deeply personal, and on the other hand applicable to many. Parson takes us on a journey of conversations, memories, questions, and observations that seem to make up one single day. These “acts of dailiness” carefully weave themselves around a conversation on The Odyssey, tying characters and moments in Homer’s tale to simple everyday experiences. The writing defies a linear narrative (as only a post-modern choreographer can), but recurring themes are roped together and circle back. Somehow everything makes sense, and all roads lead to dance and choreography: the dance of conversation, the dance of arriving at conclusions, the choreography of protests and celebrations, the collaboration of our two lungs, the small hand duet of letter-writing….everything for Parson becomes a stage.

Even the book itself is a careful choreography. The spacing, brackets, punctuation, and images denote pauses, pairings, emphases, and visual cues. Verbs grow muscles, and metaphors become great choreographic tools. And though Parson appears to be an avid fan of Trisha Brown’s rejection of fanfare, there remains a healthy dose of drama throughout.

A simple stroll down the sidewalk turns into a collective tempo agreement, laden with dramatic pauses and spatial considerations; political rallies are choreographic decisions of bodies in space; nouns are post-modern; Instagram is a “theater of images;” and the pandemic is perhaps the greatest collective dance of all time. Parsons demonstrates that, “We are space makers, we are natural choreographers as we craft our paths and proximities” through life.

And as I read this small but mighty book, I add my own choreography of underlines, asterisks, page creases, and arrows, creating my own emphases and moments in time that weren’t there before, all the while wondering if everyone else who is reading this is doing the same.


Making Broadway Dance
By Liza Gennaro
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Rosemary Novellino-Mearns

Never take it for granted that the people onstage who are making your heart race have an easy job getting you, the audience, where they want you. As told in this richly researched yet entertaining book, the skill, training, and hard work that go into creating musical numbers for a Broadway show are mind bending.

Liza Gennaro has done an impressive job of research on the history of dance in Broadway musicals. The reader will get a full education on how it was and is done, with wins and failures. Gennaro delves not only into different choreographers’ specific styles but also the unique way they prepare to face the task. As the reader, you experience that first day of rehearsal when the choreographer has a group of dancers/actors waiting for them to be creative. You quickly realize the serious preparation necessary to handle all that is expected of the choreographer. The rehearsal studio is filled with different personalities that can get in the way, including those ever-expanding egos that can wreak havoc with every drop of sweat.

This book covers choreographers from the beginning of the Broadway musical to today’s innovative creators. The process of Agnes de Mille’s characterization of “The Postcard Girls” in Oklahoma! (1943) was spot on for a dream/nightmare ballet. These dance hall girls with a complete lack of emotion on their faces set the mood immediately. Twenty years later Bob Fosse used almost the same sense of detachment with his sexy taxi dancers in Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender.” Jerome Robbins searches for authenticity of the character and why they need to express themselves with dance. He uses the Stanislavsky method, expecting the dancers/actors to dig into themselves for this kind of motivation.

From the intensity of Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line in the 1970s to the cleverness of Andy Blankenbuehler’s work on Hamilton, to current innovators like Sergio Trujillo and Camille A. Brown, theater and choreography are ever changing. Working with non-dancers presents its own challenge and—if you “get it right”—its own rewards. Steven Hoggett’s work on The Last Ship was powerful and organic, and done with actors, rather than trained dancers. (A Beautiful Noise, with choreography by Hoggett, is on Broadway now.)

I enjoyed some of the history about Liza’s father, Peter Gennaro, who I was lucky enough to work with as a dancer. The revelation that Jerome Robbins was not the sole choreographer of West Side Story should set the record straight. Peter’s huge contribution to the Sharks’ choreography, uncredited, will surprise and shock today’s generation. I, for one, am happy that Liza Gennaro and her brother, attorney Michael Gennaro, are correcting this erasure by insisting that all future productions give credit for Peter Gennaro.

For anyone who wants to know what it takes to make Broadway dances, read Making Broadway Dance.


Keith Haring, Muna Tseng & Tseng Kwong Chi: Boundless Minds & Moving Bodies in 80’s New York
Schunk Museum
Nai010 publishers
Order at artbook.com
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This book captures the wild and wooly East Village club scene of the 1980s, flourishing even while AIDS was devastating the arts. Previously defined categories were blurring, and Keith Haring was redefining graffiti as art. This book traces the connections between three artists who were crossing boundaries: Haring, choreographer Muna Tseng, and her brother, the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. The only one of the three who survived the AIDS plague is Muna Tseng.

Muna had danced with Jean Erdman, and when she started making her own mythic stories, she collaborated with Haring. His drawings for Epochal Songs (1982), generously displayed in this book, are powerful, reflecting the horror of the nuclear arms race and other social ills—in an upbeat way. Together they invented a new piece of equipment: a special carousel that could travel while projecting the drawings. “We were so inventive,” Muna said, “because we had no money.” Her brother designed the compelling posters.

The following year Haring designed the sets for Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s trippy Secret Pastures at Brooklyn Academy of Music, which upped the notoriety for all players. (For more on how Secret Pastures burst on the scene, see my essay on thirty-five years of the Next Wave Festival.) Jones and Haring had already collaborated on an iconic series of “Body Paintings.”

An existential quote from Keith Haring in the age of AIDS: “I can be made permanent by a camera.” That camera belonged to Tseng Kwong Chi, who documented Haring’s astounding creativity all over the city. Kwong Chi had his own surreal series called “East Meets West,” where he photographed himself in a variety of cryptic Chinese guises, complicating what it meant to be Asian American.

Somehow it’s fitting that in the midst of today’s pandemic, we would learn about artists of the ’80s club culture lost to us in the scourge of a former pandemic. In addition to the feast of visual images —street scenes, club scenes, Muna Tseng’s lovely dancing, Haring’s dynamic drawings — the book contains an interview with Muna plus essays by Bill T. Jones and Joshua Chambers-Letson. In this last, Chambers-Letson uses the word “queerness” to describe something larger than sexual preference, namely a social milieu “that is collectively produced on the margins of social, sexual, and aesthetic norms.”

During the ’80s and ’90s, it was wrenching to witness so many artists lost to AIDS. At the end of Bill T. Jones’ essay, “Thoughts/Recall,” he asks, “What Survives?” His answer: Relationship, memories and love of art.”


Red Star White Nights: The Life and Death of Yuri Soloviev
By Joel Lobenthal and Lisa Whitaker
Ballet Review Books
Available at Amazon
Reviewed by Marina Harss

Joel Lobenthal and Lisa Whitaker’s book Red Star White Nights is many things at once: biography and scrapbook, reminiscence and cultural history. Its central subject is the Soviet ballet dancer Yuri Soloviev (1940–1977), member of the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet) and model to both Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Amongst his former colleagues and friends, as Lobenthal and Whitaker convincingly lay out, Soloviev was considered perhaps the greatest male classical dancer of his generation. In the West, where he was seen all too infrequently, he was overshadowed by flashier stars, like Nureyev, and by their headline-grabbing defections. Soloviev was the one who stayed, who persevered behind the Iron Curtain, dancing not only the classical repertory but idealized roles in Soviet ballets by Yuri Grigorovich, Leonid Yakobson, and Igor Belsky.

As history records, and Lobenthal and Whitaker describe in this deeply sympathetic portrait, Soloviev was also a tragic figure: isolated, “elusive,” depressed, sometimes exploited, and eventually “filled with despair.” During a particularly low period, when he was feeling underappreciated by the Kirov and at a loss about what would become of him after he stopped dancing, Soloviev left his home in St. Petersburg for a beloved dacha in the countryside and shot himself. He was only 37.

All suicides are an enigma, and Soloviev’s was no less so, but Lobenthal and Whitaker trace the depressing arc of the career of an artist of rare sincerity and vulnerability, utterly committed to his art and profession, and seemingly unable to shore up his defenses enough to survive in the harsh reality of the Soviet ballet world. Soloviev refused to join the Communist Party. Joining would have assured him greater access to foreign travel—and the fresh air, friendships, and new ideas that came with it—as well as better treatment by the ballet’s administration. And at the same time, he never considered defection, lacking the personal ambition and drive to take such a step.

The book derives depth from Whitaker’s friendship with Soloviev, the result of a brief but intense acquaintance that came about when Soloviev was on tour in Australia, Whitaker’s home at the time. Their touchingly sincere epistolary friendship is among the most revealing strands in the book, particularly a devastating letter dated 1969, in which he writes, “You must be able to understand how bad things are for me…everything has turned out so badly.” After that cry in the dark, she never heard from him again.

The final section of the book traces Whitaker’s efforts, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to connect with Soloviev’s friends and family and make some sense of his death. Red Star White Nights is built out of fifty-five short, sometimes very short chapters, exploring everything from Soloviev’s “personal style” to his partnering skills; his sexuality; his relationship with the leadership of the Kirov; Soviet “drambalet”; the Russian tendency to categorize dancers by physical type, or “emploi”; and the seismic effects caused by the defections of Baryshnikov and Nureyev. Lobenthal and Whitaker’s story is complemented by a huge number of photographs and documents. Its structure is sometimes choppy, but this is made up for by the impressive volume of material gathered and discussed. Red Star White Nights is clearly a labor of love.


Democracy Moving: Bill T. Jones Contemporary American Performance and the Racial Past
By Ariel Nereson
University of Michigan Press
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

Taking the position that artists are public intellectuals, Ariel Nereson aims to “think with artists.” Bill T. Jones is indeed a public intellectual, and his work involves a lot of thinking and researching. An assistant professor of dance studies at the University of Buffalo, Nereson offers a multi-layered understanding of a particularly research-heavy stretch of Jones’ work, the Abraham Lincoln series. In this trilogy, made by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company from 2008 to 2013, Jones set out to dismantle the simplistic reputation of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Nereson, in alignment with that goal, delves into America’s racial past that Lincoln was inevitably part of, educating us about Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, the Civil War, and Jones’ collaborative process.

Jones poses these questions at the outset: What does history mean to us? What does dance mean? What can dance do? One answer, for Jones, is that dance can thrust us into an unsettling quandary that pries open our understanding of history. He is so resistant to people’s assumptions—about Lincoln as well as about himself—that this trilogy, according to Nereson, emerges “excessive, opaque, ambivalent,” meaning nothing in this work is easily digestible.

Nereson points out that a concrete monument fixes history in time, whereas a dance is a more fluid way to commemorate a legacy. In the piece, Jones refers to Thomas Ball’s Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Memorial (1876), which depicts Lincoln reaching down toward a kneeling enslaved man. Jones offers an alternative in two ways. First, he adds a kneeling woman, thus acknowledging that the first donation toward the statue was given by a freed woman. Second, through a choreographic sequence in which Paul Matteson, who represents Lincoln, not only reaches toward two Black people, but also touches their foreheads. He then he presses their heads downward, suggesting, in Nereso’s words, “persistent constraints on Black mobility.”

While Nereson’s effort to meet Jones where he stands as a challenging, uncompromising figure is laudable, she chases a veritable maze of theory that sometimes ties her into knots. Her objection to pure movement and postmodern dance as racialized is hard to take seriously when she cites Yvonne Rainer’s iconic Trio A as being full of repetition, when a hallmark of that solo is that it has zero repetition. So she seems to be making claims based on a piece she hasn’t even seen.

However the book is notable because it gives weight to an artist who interrogates our most cherished heroes and beliefs. Bill T. Jones’ life as a constantly questioning public intellectual is inseparable to his life as a constantly experimenting artist.


Milestones in Dance in the USA
Edited by Elizabeth McPherson
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

Dance historian Elizabeth McPherson has gathered ten essays that tell a complex lineage emphasizing BIPOC artists and social justice movements specifically in the United States. Reading this de-colonized dance history rooted in our home country can be revelatory.

In the first chapter Robin Prichard takes us through Native American dance, touching on the Hoop dance, the healing Jingle dress dance as well as pan-Indian identity. In Chapter 2, Dawn Lille gives an expansive view of ballet in this country, concluding with an eye to the future, especially in questioning gender roles in ballet. In the third chapter, on Black women in jazz and tap, Alesondra Christmas brings to the fore dancers like Alice Whitman, Josephine Baker, Jeni LeGon, Norma Miller, as well as current luminaries Debbie Allen, Dianne Walker, Dormeshia, and Chloe Arnold. In the next chapter, Julie Kerr-Berry applies a lens of gendered politics to historical figures like Duncan, St. Denis, Graham, Humphrey, Dunham, and Rainer. In Chapter 5 Miriam Giguere teases apart the differences between inspiration, borrowing and appropriation.

Hannah Kosstrin contributes Chapter 6, a kind of survey of dancing for social change. In addition to Anna Halprin, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, the late H.T. Chen, she brings in some less obvious choices. For example, have you ever heard of Anna Sokolow’s 1938 piece Filibuster, about the Senate’s resistance to passing an anti-lynching bill? In her discussion of the American Indian Movement, Kosstrin introduces in Daystar Rosalie Jones, a dancer/choreographer who draws on her Native heritage.

Joanna Dee Das challenges the supposedly opposite categories of art and entertainment in Chapter 7, revealing the racism inherent in the separation of high art and popular art. French-Cambodian dancer Emmanuèle Phuon contributes Chapter 8 on postmodern dance. She discusses not only Halprin, Judson Dance Theater, and Grand Union, but also the surrounding visual and theater arts that made that period, in her words, a “laboratory of rupture.” In Chapter 9, Carl Paris looks at the contested term “Black dance” and its relationship to postmodern dance. In his view, the latter includes Alvin Ailey and Eleo Pomare, as well as Rennie Harris, Thomas DeFrantz, and Ni’ja Whitson.

For the final chapter, Jody Sperling traces the lineage of dance-related technology from Loie Fuller’s magic lantern and Thomas Edison’s 1894 film of three Black men in a buck dance challenge to the ingenious ways that dance artists have utilized technology and media during the pandemic. Along this route, Sperling points out the invisibilization of Blacks on televisions and video games.

Each chapter challenges existing definitions, and each chapter concludes with suggestions for Further Reading. An extensive timeline at the end connects landmarks in U. S. History with what was happening in the national dance world. For those of us who teach dance history, there’s a bounty of inclusive information here.


Critique Is Creative: The Critical Response Process in Theory and Action
By Liz Lerman & John Borstel
Wesleyan University Press
Reviewed by Emily Macel Theys

Liz Lerman, who founded Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange (now simply Dance Exchange), started her long career by asking questions: Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is the dancing about? Why does it matter? Along the way, another set of questions got sparked: How to receive criticism for a work in progress without letting it derail the creative process? How to exchange feedback without making assumptions? In the 1990s, Lerman, along with John Borstel, formulated a process for giving feedback that has filled a need in the international dance world.

The new book, Critique is Creative: The Critical Response Process in Theory and Action, gives an overview of the process. The session often begins with an artist sharing a work that is at a point in the creative process where feedback can still help to shape it. The artist and viewers then gather in a circle for the four-step feedback process. Step one: Statements of Meaning; Step Two: Artist as Questioner; Step Three: Responders Ask Questions; and Step Four: Permissioned Opinions. This is a conversation among peers with a facilitator who gently guides responders back to the rules and agreements if they stray in their feedback.

Throughout the book, Lerman and Borstel share anecdotes of when the process has worked well (and hurdles they’ve experienced). They delve into CRP’s origin story, the ways it has evolved, and how it has helped both of them in their careers and lives. Then they widen the circle, inviting others into the conversation. Twenty-one artists, culture workers, educators, writers, and institutional partners share how they use Critical Response Process in their worlds. They include artists and alums from the Dance Exchange (where I am development director) like Elizabeth Johnson Levine, Gesel Mason, Bimbola Akinbola, Cassie Meador, as well as jazz musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, scholars, actors, poets, professors, scientists, and arts administrators. The essays cover topics like making dance work in communities, undoing racism, communicating better with teens, and applying the process across disciplines.

“Part of what makes it successful,” Lerman writes, “is its capacity to live with both rigorous hairsplitting orthodoxy and flexible structure that promotes a vigorous diversity of practice.” It can be applied to situations in and beyond the arts, and as a way of communicating through discord. (I use a less formal version of CRP at home when I’m helping my kids with their crafts or navigating challenging conversations with my spouse.)

Having worked with both Lerman and Borstel, I found great joy in learning more from them through their storytelling and seeing how far this process has stretched into corners of the world.

Ida Rubinstein: Revolutionary Dancer, Actress, and Impresario
By Judith Chazin-Bennahum
SUNY Press
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

Why would Diaghilev choose a non-professional dancer for the lead in Fokine’s most sensational ballet—Schéhérazade? The answer is simple: Ida Rubinstein (1883–1960) had caused a sensation with her portrayal of Salomé in St. Petersburg. Sensual, alluring, and transgressive, she concluded her “Dance of the Seven Veils” in partial nudity. Always savvy about publicity, Diaghilev invited Rubinstein to join the Ballets Russes, which she did for its first two seasons. When she played Cléopâtre in 1909, a critic described her as “suffocating in her beauty, strange, enigmatic astonishing.” Adored by the public and fascinating to the intelligentsia, she was one of the most photographed, drawn, and written about women of the period.

Rubinstein was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Ukraine at the time of violent pogroms against Jewish communities. By the time she was 8, both parents had died of illness and she moved to St. Petersburg to live with an aunt. She often attended the Imperial ballet performances but was focused on acting.

Bennahum points out how Rubinstein blurred gender expectations in both her stage life— she occasionally played male roles—and her personal life—she became involved with “Paris-Lesbos.” This was part of her overall transgressiveness. It’s also part of what Bennahum calls “a stunning confidence in her body’s emotionality.”

During World War I, and again in World War II, Rubinstein turned her emotional, financial, and organizational resources to helping the war effort. She contributed ambulances, helped build hospitals, and spent time nursing wounded soldiers.

Rubinstein was a secular Jew who channeled her spirituality into art. “Art is truly a revelation,” she wrote. “Dance delivers us from heaviness, while music and poetry provide wings for our imagination.” She poured her money into the arts by forming her own company in 1928, commissioning choreographers like Fokine (who had choreographed her Salomé and had given her private lessons), Nijinska, and Jooss and composers like Stravinsky and Ravel, whose famous Bolero was written for Rubinstein. And always, her ally in the visual arts—Léon Bakst—who had created the first lavishly risqué costumes for her Salomé. 

Rubinstein encountered plenty of anti-Semitism in the press. As a Jew in France in the late 1930s, she was vulnerable. But she stayed in Paris until May, 1941, when the Nazis were actually crossing the border into France. She flew to Algeria and made her way to London. All of her belongings in Paris were seized by the Nazis, which is why there are so few letters and other documents are available for research.

But Bennahum (with the help of previous research by Lynn Garafola) does a good job of reconstructing a life that contributed so much to the performing arts. Rubinstein had privilege in terms of money, beauty, and talent—none of which protected her from the steamroller of anti-Semitism.


Books received or announced

The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Dance Studies
Edited by Mary Fogarty and Imani Kai Johnson
Oxford University Press

Dark Matter in Breaking Cyphers: The Life of Africanist Aesthetics in Global Hip Hop
Imani Kai Johnson
Oxford University Press

Dance and Ethics: Moving Towards a More Humane Dance Culture
By Naomi M. Jackson
Intellect Books

An Empty Room: Imagining Butoh and the Social Body in Crisis
By Michael Sakamoto
Wesleyan University Press

Putting My Heels Down: A memoir of having a dream…and a day job
By Kara Tatelbaum
Motina Books

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Highlights of an Emergent Season

Last fall, after we’d been cooped up with our screens for a year and a half, theaters started opening up. I sprang back into theater-going, happy to experience live dance again. There was nothing tentative or just-getting-back-into-it about these ventures, and much to get excited about. As always, this list is limited by what I was able to see. I organized this by categories rather than chronologically. (A short version of it appears in the Berlin-based Tanz magazine Yearbook.)


Bill T. Jones’ Deep Blue Sea looms as an epic work. From the solitary figure of an aging man (Jones) in the vast space of the Park Avenue Armory, to the spectacular rendering of an engulfing sea (design by Elizabeth Diller and Peter Nigrini), to the literary references (Martin Luther King and Herman Melville), to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s intricate groupings, plus about a hundred community participants swarming into the space, this work was overwhelming. It summoned the rage, sadness, and fierce clarity of resisting systemic racism.

For Ballet Hispanico at New York City Center, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa created Doña Perón, a full-length ballet about the short, tumultuous life of the first lady of 1940s Argentina. The corps embodied Evita’s passionate working-class supporters as they powered through striking choreography. The heroine’s most emotional moments tore through the silence between Peter Salem’s musical sections.

Compañía Nacional de Danza, now directed by Joaquin De Luz, received a warm welcome at the Joyce Theater. The company brought Johan Inger’s visually stunning Carmen, a tale about innocence vs. violence told from a child’s point of view. Dark, lurking (human) shadows crept around the doomed characters, suggesting that violence comes from within as well as from without.

Dance Theatre of Harlem brought an extended version of Balamouk, a rousing celebration, to City Center. The combination of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography, the Klezmatics’ infectious beat, and Mark Zappone’s colorful non-binary costumes make for a festive piece. It felt like a village parade that everyone wanted to join.

DTH’s Balamouk, ph Paula Lobo


In Cave, Hofesh Schechter’s new work for the Martha Graham Dance Company, also at City Center, the dancers threw themselves into wild club dancing. Their tribal, pulsating movements trod the line between joy and despair. The “creative producer” of this work was Daniil Simkin, a principal with both Staatsballett Berlin and American Ballet Theatre; he joined in their ecstatic gyrations, throwing in a few multiple pirouettes. (Good news: Cave will return to City Center for Fall for Dance.)

Hofesh Shechter’s Cave, ph Chris Jones

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, also at City Center, had to shut down mid-season due to Covid. Luckily, they had already presented a program of works by artistic director Robert Battle—and it revealed how masterfully his choreography balances restraint and explosiveness. I was so taken with this program that I wrote about it here.

Cloud Study, ph Steven Pisano

On a more intimate scale came Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s witty duet Cloud Study, choreographed by company director John Scott as part of La Mama Moves. Effervescent but infused with an ominous sense of danger, it seemed to be about searching and finding something different than what was expected. Both physical and metaphysical, it was danced and spoken by New Yorker Jamie Scott and Nigerian-Irish Mufutau Yusuf, two terrific contemporary dancers with a wondrous, subtle, spontaneous rapport.



From London, Candoco Dance Company brought their version of Trisha Brown’s masterful Set and Reset and Jeanine Durning’s improvisational Last Shelter to Brooklyn Academy of Music. Both pieces benefitted from the mix of differently abled bodies. Last Shelter sees the dancers applying Durning’s method of “nonstopping” to tasks like placing and replacing tables and chairs. A quality of rhythmic alertness made the choreography (improvising?) constantly engaging.

A jolt of astonishing body-slamming came from Abby Z and the New Utility to New York Live Arts. In Abby Zbikowski’s Radioactive Practice, six dancers thudded to the floor, sprang upward with no preparation, or whacked an arm to the ground, over and over. Like hard-driving athletes, they grunted and groaned with exertion. But this was no game. They seemed to be telling us that this kind of violence is what it will take to survive in these times.

At Jacob’s Pillow’s 90th-anniversary gala, we were treated to a kind of fantasy piece with two airborne figures from Kinetic Light. In There, Found, Here by Alice Sheppard in collaboration we Laurel Lawson, the two rose up high, somersaulted in the air, and swung across the upper space holding hands—all in wheelchairs. With gleaming lights in the darkness, the duet could have been titled Alice and Laurel in the Sky with Diamonds.

Plot Point, ph Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet brought a refreshing program of contemporary ballet to Lincoln Center, sponsored by the Joyce. Crystal Pite’s Plot Point, with its faux plot (a street brawl? a murder? an adulterous affair? all of the above?) and creepy music from the movie Psycho, was spooky fun. Each character had a double, so the whole mimed drama was played out with simultaneous two-ness: human vs. robotic, real vs. unreal.


Calvin Royal III in Single Eye, ph Marty Sohl

American Ballet Theatre premiered Single Eye, by Alonzo King (of LINES Ballet), at the Metropolitan Opera House. King’s sinuous style looked great on these dancers, pulling them into new territory: less frontal, more dimensional, more entwined with each other. Special mention: In a sublime oneness of dancer and choreography, Calvin Royal III held me rapt in his lithe, torqueing solo.




For the chamber company New York Theatre Ballet, Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer created a world of impressionist paintings come to life. Based on the famous French painter, Toulouse’s Dream was a dance-and-video mix in which Diana Byer, founder of the company, played the painter as though a Diaghilev type character. She wielded a wand like a paintbrush, activating all sorts of magical images.

Joshua Culbreath, ph Steven Pisano

Rennie Harris Puremovement’s LIFTED transformed the stage of the Joyce into a space of the Black church: a community of song and dance, love and forgiveness. The use of stopped action and backward action was arresting, so to speak. The choir (Alonzo Chadwick & Friends) filled the space with soaring voices. Special mention: Joshua Culbreath sped through astonishing break-dance spins and pretzel twists that were more than just tricks. His moves expressed the despair of his character, a lost orphan who wanted to be found. Sometimes an amazing head spin would end with a sudden splat on the back. For the audience, awe intermingled with sorrow.

Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet finally came to New York, performing at City Center. The setting was a dark, abandoned factory, represented by a huge grey wall that mysteriously disappeared and reappeared. The love duets were inventive, the ruling class costumes were outrageous, and the Wilis wielded long, threatening sticks. Special mention: Company director Tamara Rojo as a vulnerable Giselle, and then as a Wili, hovering on pointe, seemingly about to levitate into a spirit world.

Even before Liz Lerman’s Wicked Bodies started, we were all part of it. We were invited to write our own spells and post on an altar on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow; we were asked what we were each the witch “of.” Lerman and her team created an environment complete with claps of thunder, a smoky stage for casting spells, and verbal explanations, e.g. why witches are associated with broomsticks. But it was the scene where King James tortures a woman to elicit a confession that stays in my mind. Each of the eight witch-dancers was totally individual, but most haunting of all was the dreamlike figure of the 80-something Martha Wittman wafting through the film (projection design by  Olivia Sebesky); you could imagine her possessing the qualities that got women into trouble: wise, weary, and wielding magic.

Wicked Bodies ph Jamie Kraus

At Japan Society, Yoshiko Chuma, impish yet masterful, led us through a sixties-style happening during the exhibit of Kazuko Miyamoto’s celestial sculptures. In Tipping Utopia Toward Kazuko Miyamoto, she communed with the art work, some of it made of thousands of strings. Clusters of people parted as Chuma glided, strode, or stomped through three galleries. The musicians, never in the same gallery at the same time, were double bassist Robert Black, violinist Jason Kao Hwang, and trombonist Christopher McIntyre. Chuma defiantly made mischief by pulling the double bass away from Black or sitting on the video monitor to cover the image of herself dancing almost 40 years ago.

Christopher Williams reimagined Les Sylphides as a queer reverie, and it was every bit as sensitive to Chopin as Fokine was in 1907. Special mention: In the role of the poet/dreamer, the vibrant Mac Twining twisted mid-leap and entwined lovingly with the sylphaderos.


Music at New York City Ballet

Two peak moments at New York City Ballet came from the music: The first was during the Stravinsky Festival when the orchestra rose up on a platform above the pit so we were almost face-to-face with the musicians. Andrew Litton conducted the Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra, which has four parts: a fanfare-like march, a bird-chirping waltz, a giddy polka, and a loping gallop. This special occasion made one realize how rarely we see the people who make the music.

The second moment came with Justin Peck’s new Partita, with music by Caroline Shaw for Roomful of Teeth, who sang live. Verbal fragments burst into other-worldly chanting, and other sounds, including something I can only call a steam engine of exhales, whizzed by. I’d never heard anything like this as accompaniment for a ballet, and it seemed to bring Justin Peck into fresh rhythmic territory.


Lisa Giobbi in Herstory of the Universe

Richard Move’s Herstory of the Universe at Governors’ Island portrayed, with a wild imagination, six goddesses from different eras in sites all over the island. It culminated with aerial dancer Lisa Giobbi, as Greek tree nymph Hamadryad, plunging between branches at Picnic Point.

Trisha Brown Dance Company at Rockaway Beach

The “In Plain Site” series of early Trisha Brown works came to Beach Sessions at Rockaway Beach, attracting a growing crowd of beach-goers. As I was standing on the shore line with the water lapping around my ankles, and watching the softly gestural Group Primary Accumulation, I felt a double dose of blissful sensuality.


Broadway, Roaring Back to Life

Some of the new musicals like Paradise Square, MJ the Musical, The Music Man, and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf were bursting with dance. For dance history fans, Paradise Square’s depiction of the cross section of Irish and Africanist dance in the Five Points Neighborhood hit the spot. Choreography by Bill T. Jones with Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus showed the gradual integration of Africanist dance forms with Irish stepping into what evolved into tap dance. Special mentions: Jared Grimes in Funny Girl, infusing astonishing steps with high-wattage energy; A. J. Shively in Paradise Square, buoyant and unstoppable as the Irish step dancer.

NYCB Divas as Curators

Tiler Peck’s program at City Center included an exhilarating in-person version of William Forsythe’s Barre Project, Blake Works II, the astounding physicality of Alonzo King’s duet Swift Arrow, and a sculptural group work by Peck herself. The evening was topped off by Time Spell, a giddy collaboration with tapper Michelle Dorrance and L.A. dancer Jillian Meyers, utilizing a pool of diverse dancers. Ballet and tap merged when Peck and Dorrance danced the same complex rhythms on a small, miked platform. Their high spirits made it sheer fun for the audience.

In “Dichotomous Being,” Taylor Stanley (who recently changed their pronouns) showed the deepening of a performer’s artistry. In a solo from Balanchine’s 1957 Square Dance, they were pristine in placement and feathery in the lightness of port de bras. The commission for Jodi Melnick, These Five, allowed subtle emotional connections to emerge through a sense of touch. Toward the end, Taylor faced the audience and gesticulated in some kind of hieroglyphics, as though daring us to read their inner life. The program concluded with Shamel Pitts’ Redness, a solo for Stanley of alternating explosiveness and soft openness. Special mention: Ashton Edwards in Andrea Miller’s Mango (a renamed section of her sky to hold for NYCB). With a delicate upper body and strong pointework, they had total abandon in the role that was originally Sara Mearns’. With their beguiling non-binary physicality, Edwards made Mango into quite a different romance.

Ashton Edwards held by Taylor Stanley in Mango, ph Jamie Kraus

Collectivity in Pandemic Times

Necessity is the mother of cooperation, and more groups are sharing resources now. Last summer, five major NYC companies— New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Ballet Hispanico—came together to meet, give support, and produce the BAAND Together series outdoors at Lincoln Center. This summer, they went a step farther and commissioned a piece that members of all five companies danced. That piece was the snazzy, jazzy One for All, to music by Funky Lowlives/Dizzy Gillespie, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who devised the chic non-binary costumes herself.

One for All ph Erin Baiano

Revivals — Gems of Dance History

Taylor Stanley in Mourner’s Bench ph Danica Paulos

In his program at the Pillow, Taylor Stanley gave a stirring rendition of Talley Beatty’s Mourner’s Bench (1948). In the opening move they seemed to melt upward. The dance was spare and taut, typical of the days of early modern dance when every movement was essential to the core idea. Not a single move was extraneous, all communicating so clearly the state of the performer. On the day I saw it, we were inside the Perles Studio, and just when Stanley was reaching out, thunder rocked the studio. Cosmic.

The Limón Dance Company performed Air for the G String (1928) by Doris Humphrey, restaged by Gail Corbin, at the Joyce. It’s a cool, stately dance, performed to cool, stately Bach music. But the saturated reddish environment (lighting reconstruction by Al Crawford) gave it a feeling of molten copper. Five women wearing long, draped gowns, glided in elegant groupings, sometimes opening like a flower.

Paul Taylor Dance Company went minimal with a selection of early works at the Joyce. In Events II (1957), two women just stand, takes steps, or squat, to the sound of the wind. A gentle breeze rippled through their dresses slightly. Perhaps one woman was waiting by a lamp post, perhaps the other was looking into a puddle. A poetic everyday-ness, performed by Eran Bugge and Jada Pearlman.

Dance (1979) by Lucinda Childs, with music by Philip Glass and film by Sol Lewitt, at the Joyce, proved once again that human bodies creating line, energy, and momentum can rise to the level of transcendence.

Not a choreographic gem, but a ritual gem: At Jacob’s Pillow’s 90th anniversary gala, people who’ve made the Pillow what it is, lined up onstage in a sort of parade of dance history. It started with Carmen de Lavallade, who first danced there in 1953, and Deborah Jowitt, who danced there in 1954. Many others were represented (Graham, Taylor, Cunningham, Pilobolus, etc), but those two great women were there in-person for us to show our gratitude.



Two strong women will soon be leading two of our greatest ballet companies. In the fall, Tamara Rojo, straight from her ten years at English National Ballet, takes the reins of San Francisco Ballet, replacing Helgi Tomasson after his thirty-seven years as director. Susan Jaffe, after leading Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for two years, will become artistic director of ABT, which enjoyed thirty years with Kevin McKenzie at the helm. For Jaffe it will be a homecoming, as she was a principal dancer at ABT for two decades. Both Rojo and Jaffe have proven themselves as world class ballerinas as well as adventurous leaders. In these achievements, they match Wendy Whelan, who has been associate artistic director of New York City Ballet since 2019. Change is in the air.










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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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