Visiting El-Funoun Dance Company in Palestine

Ever since I learned about El-Funoun, the oldest dance company in Palestine, I felt drawn to go there. Last spring I had the opportunity to visit the company with four NYU colleagues in music and dance. I got to see with my own eyes why this group has captivated audiences the world over.

Our driver took us from Tel Aviv to Ramallah. As we crossed into through Qalanida, the Israeli checkpoint, the scenery quickly became quite bleak. Rocks, stone, and dirt were everywhere, as though piles had accumulated on the way to building something that never got built.

Roadside shot, taken from the car window

Roadside shot, taken from the car window

Palestinians are living in occupied territory; their rights are trampled on and their access to water and electricity is limited. (Click here to see what Amnesty International characterizes the Israeli blockade and treatment of Palestinians.)

And yet, El-Funoun has survived for 38 years. When we arrived at El-Funoun’s dance center, Noora Baker, the young woman whom I had e-met through choreographer Yoshiko Chuma, welcomed us. As the director of training & productions, Noora described their situation with both grace and frankness. She took us into the office of executive director, Khaled Qatamesh.

El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe began as a small dabke group (dabke is the Arab circle dance native to the Middle East) and grew into a large group that tours internationally. The many awards and trophies from all around the world, crammed into one shelf in Khaled’s office, attest to their popularity.

A performance of El-Funoun, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh

A performance of El-Funoun, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh

In order to give us an idea of the hardships they face, Noora told us that most of the dancers in the company had been held in prison, some of them multiple times, often with no explanation. I tried to imagine living with that kind of constant threat.

Noora and Khaled are both passionate about El-Funoun’s mission, which they laid down for us in forceful language. I am going to quote some of the things Khaled said. (I am relying here on my scant notes as well as more thorough notes taken by a member of our group.)

“El-Funoun is about keeping the culture alive, when it’s constantly threatened to be erased. It’s an existential struggle. The organic growth of dance in Palestine is built on traditions. With our dancing, we connect with our past, with the land of our ancestors that has been taken away from us.

Noora is in green, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh.

Noora is in green, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh

“Our work is about our freedom. Everything we work toward is to resist any oppression. We work with our society to instigate change in behaviors that do not serve today’s Palestinian society and are related to religion and outdated social norms. We work for justice and equality. We feel that each artist has a political responsibility.”

Khaled made it clear that he thinks the role of artists, everywhere in the world, is to stand up for the oppressed. I understand that. It brings to mind the famous saying of Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

In my mind, however, art has many possible goals and methods, and we should each be free to live and work as an artist in the way we choose. Although…if I lived under the difficult circumstances the Palestinians face daily, I too might feel that art should have the single goal of fighting oppression.

In reply to Khaled, I gave the example of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which built its repertory on the Black experience. However, the Ailey rep only occasionally hints at discrimination or oppression. A recent example is Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America for Ailey, which has a soundtrack of people talking about relatives who are incarcerated. In the U. S., mass incarceration one of the major issues of social justice.

Noora joined El-Funoun when she was 7, so doing the dabke steps is like home for her. In this YouTube clip, she says, “We try to be not the victims, but the ambassadors of this art… The dabke has given me a way out of helplessness.”

Noora explained that there are about 20 dabke steps and all of El-Funoun’s work is based on that. As with tap and ballet, the choreography comes in how the steps are put together, and each choreographer does that differently.

“We are one of the rare organizations in Arab world that depend on volunteer work. We bring people together who believe music and dance can liberate us from our oppressors. We do one new production every three or four years. Every production has a theme based on social justice.

“We try to set a good example, to be role models in society, to show how to stay positive and effective. Folklore is a living thing that we are part of. Folklore is not sacred for a museum. El-Funoun is part of regional networks, viewed as an important issue in Palestine. We ask everyone, ‘What are you doing in your community?’  ph by Rana Khalil square

After these explanations, Khaled and Noora led us to a studio—the same studio you see in the YouTube clip above—where we watched choreographer Ata Khatab working on a new piece. Ata’s father, Mohammad Ata, was a co-founder of El-Funoun. About 25 dancers ranging in age from about 19 to 40, were raring to go. They are mostly volunteers, but some have jobs in the building, maintaining the facilities or helping with administrative chores. One young man had performed dabke as a guest with Yoshiko Chuma at LaMama a few years ago, and I remembered him in that performance.

As part of the rehearsal, Ata led the dancers in a discussion, asking, How are you a warrior in your everyday life? Each one spoke up in a strong, clear way. (Noora quietly translated for us.) I felt, in that room, that everyone wanted to be there, that this opportunity to dance was essential for their well-being (though what I came to understand is that even the mere concept of well-being is a privilege).

We saw terrific, direct, forceful choreography. The dancers were bursting with spirit and energy. There is an undeniable collective power in their work. In one section, they stand and eye the audience while the percussion kicks in, then lift shoulders in time to the beat. In another section, they are circling each other in pairs, hands vibrating as though electrifying each other. As Noora had said, “Culture is in the body itself. We are the result of our own experience.”

Choreographer Ata Khatab

Choreographer Ata Khatab

As we watched, Ata made a new section. About 10 dancers slowly put a hand on another’s shoulder, then lower themselves to the floor. From a squatting position, they thrust their legs out in a few rhythmic dabke steps. jabbing the floor with their feet. Then they slowly rise and drop their hands away from each other.

After working on the new choreography, they showed us one of their signature dabke dances—and blew us away. They tore across the floor in full throttle with joyous camaraderie. This was not a “folk dance,” but an amped up, fierce celebration of their own power. Their lack of consistent training was irrelevant; they danced with great fervor, knowing they were reclaiming the dance of their culture. It was kinetically and choreographically exciting. As I watched them throw themselves into the dancing, I was thinking of what their lives were like. While witnessing this tremendous heart and spirit, I was choking back tears.

After the rehearsal, Noora, Khaled and his family, and Ata brought us to a terrific restaurant, where we all had a great time. And I realized that all my favorite Israeli foods are actually Arab foods. We went from having a wonderful, celebratory time with our new friends, to a desolate, Kafkaesque border-crossing experience on our way out of Ramallah. (But that’s another story.)

Noora and me outside restaurant

With Noora in the restaurant

In any case, Khaled’s question, “What are you doing in your community?” lingers with me.



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A Tornado of Music & Dance Hits MOMA

It wasn’t a dance performance. It wasn’t a music concert. It wasn’t an art exhibit. But Work/Travail/Arbeid combined elements of all three to create a rousing, immersive experience.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker took her magnificent Vortex Temporum, to the late Gérard Grisey’s gorgeously textured music of the same title, and stretched it out over five days, six or eight hours a day, for the installation at the Museum of Modern Art from March 29 to April 2.

From above the atrium, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

Work/Travail/Arbeid, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

Her original Vortex Temporum, which was a smash hit at BAM’s Next Wave Festival last fall, sent dancers and musicians careening around in crazily intersecting orbits. It was such a tour de force that it topped my “Best of 2016” list.

I was skeptical that this choreography, now broken up into many parts, could generate the excitement of the original stage piece. But it did—even more so because of the unpredictability of being in the museum environment. Grisey’s “spectral” music, as performed by seven members of the band Ictus, filled the second-floor Marron Atrium. On entering the museum, one could hear the plaintive sighs, the ominous washes of sound, the fairytale plucking sounds, coming from above.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker “Work/Travail/Arbeid” The Museum of Modern Art New York, N.Y. March 29, 2017 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Rosas dancer, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

Once inside the Atrium, you were swept up at peak moments by dancers from Rosas, De Keersmaeker’s company, dashing around, activated either the chalk circles on the floor or by the soundings of a specific instrument. Or you might be sitting in the path of the piano as it came rolling along its arc.

Viollinist of Ictus, at MoMA, photo by WP

Violinist of Ictus, at MoMA, photo by WP

In quieter moments, you could see the curiosity of the dancers and the musicians about what their instruments could do. A single male dancer seemed to be impulsively speeding up and slowing down, winding into and out of intricate knots of movement, loosely following the circles drawn on the floor. Meanwhile the violinist reversed the usual action: He held the bow steady while lifting and lowering his instrument to contact the bow. Sometimes the wind players just blew into their reeds.

Grisey wanted to both expand and condense the experience of time and space. He wrote that his three temporal modes were “the time of humans…the time of whales…and the time of the insects.” The MoMA brochure explains these as “relating to breathing and heartbeat…a sense of expanded time…a sense of contracted time.” Likewise the dancers expanded and contracted space. Sometimes they loped around in large, carefree circles, other times they made circles within their own bodies, corkscrewing in place with flashes of furious energy.

The interplay between dancers and musicians became more intimate, more in-you-face, than it had been at the opera house at BAM. I’ve never felt the heartbeat of dance in a museum the way I did with Work/Travail/Arbeid.

Rosas dancers re-drew the chalk circles evey hour at MoMA, photo @ Julieta Cervantes The Museum of Modern Art New York, N.Y. March 29, 2017 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Rosas dancers re-drew the chalk circles every hour at MoMA, photo @ Julieta Cervantes

The stimulating crossover of sound and movement, listening and watching, caught people’s attention. As curator Ana Janevski said while introducing a talk between De Keersmaeker and MoMA’s associate director Kathy Halbreich on March 29, an exhibit’s success is too often measured by the numbers of viewers who show up. But a better measure may lie in the quality of attention paid. And for Work/Travail/Arbeid, people were captivated.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker “Work/Travail/Arbeid” The Museum of Modern Art New York, N.Y. March 29, 2017 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

From above, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

The sense of interdisciplinary contagion, of energy whipping through the dancers’ circles and musicians’ circles, and the visibility of fellow visitors as part of the configuration, part of the show, contributed to the attraction. So did the knowledge that these dancers, who sometimes had to thread their way through the crowd, have been at it for hours.

Endurance has long been a signature of De Keersmaeker’s work. As she said at the MoMA talk, doing something for a long time changes the body. Halbreich described the endurance of the dancers this way: “Exquisite precision gives way to exquisite fragility.”

De Keersmaeker dedicated the MoMA performances to Trisha Brown, who died just before the run. (Here is my farewell to her.) It’s easy to see the affinity. They both have a faith that formal elements can stand alone, without the overlay of narrative, character, or theatricality. And Trisha’s work has always fit comfortably in museums, in terms of both artistic milieu and design. One could say Trisha did lines and Anne Teresa did circles. Both of them have taught us how to see. And with Work/Travail/Arbeid, we also learn about hearing.


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The Halprin-Forti-Rainer Postmodern Sweep

The “Radical Bodies” weekend at UC Santa Barbara turned out to be a profound experience for everyone involved. I am flooded with thoughts and feelings about the exhibit, performances, and conference. This was a momentous conclusion to a three-year project—and it’s not over. The exhibit comes to the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts on May 24 and will be up until September 16.

Yvonne, Anna, and Simone come together at UCSB.

Yvonne Rainer, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti come together at UCSB. All photos by Ellen Crane unless otherwise noted.

“Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972,” opened on January 27 at the Art, Design and Architecture Museum of UC Santa Barbara, kicked off by a full-day conference. The museum director, Bruce Robertson, is one of the curators; another is dance historian Ninotchka Bennahum, and the third is me. Bruce and Nina are both professors at UCSB and I was brought in because of my knowledge of the period.

The Exhibit
For me it was a revelation to realize, through our research, how much influence Anna Halprin had on Judson Dance Theater, widely known as the incubator of postmodern dance in the early 1960s. Her improvisations in nature, task dances, and use of scores—all these things were embraced by her student Simone Forti, who transported these ideas, contained—concealed?—in Forti’s own luscious dancing and dance-as-art concepts, to New York in 1960. Yvonne Rainer (along with Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton) was enthralled by Forti’s improvised dancing. Working on this project, I gained an appreciation of the sweep from West Coast to East Coast of some of these ideas.

The exhibit includes more than 150 photos, drawings, scores, and objects, plus rare footage of ’60s rehearsals and performances. Visitors can glean how each of the three dance artists redefined performance. The boldness of Halprin’s outdoor experiments, Forti’s affinity for animals in motion and her Zen-inflected drawings, and Rainer’s will to mess up the stage with boxes, mattresses, and human labor are all visible. Different styles of simplicity and different styles of defiance arise from these photos.

Yvonne Rainer in Three Seascapes, 1963 at Judson Church, photo © Al Giese

Yvonne Rainer in “Three Seascapes,” 1963 at Judson Church, photo © Al Giese, in the exhibit.

Anna, Simone, and Yvonne visited the UCSB dance department to prepare students to perform their work. Everyone was bristling with the awareness of this historic reunion. Some of the students said that this opportunity was the high point of their four years in college. After seeing the exhibit, Yvonne, who was famously influenced by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, said she never realized how much she had learned from Anna. We curators had been realizing the same thing—and how instrumental Simone was in intermingling Anna’s West Coast ideas with John Cage’s East Coast ideas. (Then again, Cage himself was from Los Angeles.) Actually, and uncannily, some of Halprin’s and Cage’s renegade ideas were very close, for instance, that art and life should be inseparable, and that everyday tasks have their own aesthetic and need no decoration.

I’ve been fascinated for decades with Judson Dance Theater. But when I embarked on the Bennington College Judson Project as a teacher 35 years ago (a project similar to “Radical Bodies” that included an exhibit, reconstructions, and a series of video interviews) I did not realize the huge influence of Anna Halprin. “Radical Bodies” balances out my former assumptions. It was Anna who immersed her students in improvisation, introduced speaking while dancing, and thrust the dancing body into natural and public spaces—very free-love, very California. When Simone came up with her breakthrough dance constructions in 1961, she was drawing on elements of both Halprin and Cage. (For more on Simone, see my essay on her in the Radical Bodies catalog/book co-published by UC Press.)

Students in Forti's Slant Board, at the opening of Radical Bodies exhibit, photo by WP

Students in Forti’s “Slant Board” at the opening of Radical Bodies exhibit, photo by WP

Judson in a Nutshell
In 1960 Robert Dunn, a disciple of John Cage, started teaching a course in choreography at the Merce Cunningham studio. His assignments were based on Cage’s notions of indeterminacy and chance. Among his first students were Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton. Not long after, Trisha Brown (along with Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Rudy Perez and others) joined the class. Dunn was midwife to an explosion of experimental work that defied the rules of modern dance and became…postmodern dance. (To get an insight into Judson, read this article by Jack Anderson, written for The New York Times on the occasion of the Bennington reconstructions.)

However, “Improvisation was not on the grid in New York,” Trisha Brown observed. “Bob Dunn thought it was not acceptable as an answer to a compositional assignment.” (See page 32 in Susan Rosenberg’s new book, Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art.) It was outside of class that Simone and Trisha got together to play. Or Simone and Yvonne and Nancy Meehan. Or Simone and Steve Paxton. When the exploratory improvisation à la Halprin came up against John Cage’s chance procedures as introduced by Bob Dunn, the encounter erupted into Judson Dance Theater.

Concept of Dust: Continuous Project–Altered Annually, by Rainer, with, left to right: Rainer, Patrici Hoffbauer, Pat Catterson, David Thomson, Keith Sabado (falling), and Emily Coates

Rainer’s “Concept of Dust: Continuous Project–Altered Annually,” with, left to right: Rainer, Patricia Hoffbauer, Pat Catterson, David Thomson, Keith Sabado (falling), and Emily Coates

The two nights of performances at UCSB included several works by Yvonne and her “Raindears,” a News Animation by Simone, and the students performing Chair Pillow by Yvonne and Anna’s Paper Dance from Parades and Changes. This last was utterly beautiful and deeply moving. (More about this later.)

The Conference
The daylong conference, conceived and organized by Ninotchka, began with a conversation between Anna, Simone, and Yvonne. I was over-the-moon happy to serve as moderator for these three extraordinary dance artists. I cannot give you the arc of the conversation, but I will say a few things I remember.

Talking about the 1960 workshop on Anna’s deck on Mt. Tamalpais, Simone recalled how very particular Anna was in guiding exploratory activity. The famous moment when Trisha Brown was sweeping the deck and suddenly thrust the broom out until she was almost flying in the air, stemmed from an assignment on momentum. (Again, see Susan Rosenberg’s book, page 23, to read the vivid memories of both Simone and Yvonne about Trisha’s low-flying episode. Also I’ve written about how this moment on the deck engendered many more instances of what I call Trisha’s Horizontal Dreaming.)

Anna, me, Yvonne at conference

Anna, me, Yvonne at conference

When I asked each of them if they felt they were pre-feminist (since feminism didn’t surge until the 1970s), Yvonne allowed as how she and Simone had, over the years, an ongoing argument about this. Yvonne said she embraced feminism but didn’t feel she had the right to call herself that because she wasn’t an activist. Simone, on the other hand, said she did not feel drawn to feminism. Her father had told her she could be whatever she wanted, and her first husband, minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, had encouraged her and helped her become an artist.

radbodscoverPrompted by something in Simone’s poignant letters to Anna, 1960-61, which are published for the first time in our catalog/book, I asked whether ideas circulated differently on the West Coast and East Coast. I suggested that perhaps in New York artists were more concerned with “owning” ideas than people in California.

Simone at conference

Simone at conference

In response, Simone said she felt New York was more influenced by Duchamp and Europe, whereas California was more influenced by Suzuki and Zen. (This is a major insight that some scholar should follow up on.) And Anna blurted out, “I was annoyed. People from New York called me ‘touchy-feely,’ and what’s wrong with that?” Yvonne said something like, “That’s because Minimalism was against all that!” I pointed out that Anna’s sense of touch in dance—touching the earth, touching other bodies—infiltrated NYC via Simone, influencing Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown, and leading to Contact Improvisation.

My last question to our three graces was, What can an artist do in this new world disorder? Anna expressed outrage that the White House is now telling women what to do with our bodies. She also described her annual Planetary Dance, which originally led to the capture of a killer on Mt. Tamalpais. Simone said that in her News Animations she tries to bring in an awareness of politics. In her performance the next night, she made sly references to both Trump and Mussolini.

Simone in her News Animation at UCSB

Simone in her “News Animation” at UCSB

In other conference presentations, Janice Ross, author of Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, called Anna’s use of nudity “silent unpeeling.” She traced the use of nudity back to 19th-century Germany’s physical culture, and to Anna’s teacher, Margaret H’Doubler, who took her University of Wisconsin students to a lakeside where they danced nude. Scholar Peggy Phelan zeroed in on words, for example comparing Trump’s use of “move on her” in the infamous lewd sound bite from 2005 to a military sense of the phrase. “Moving on” as conquering, raping.

My co-curator Bruce Robertson juxtaposed Yvonne’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965) with the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress starring Carol Burnett. Although there were also scholarly nuggets about Rainer’s influence on the art world, it served as an apt prelude to Yvonne’s talk, “What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins.” In this hilarious and scholarly lecture, her main point was “One person’s funny bone is another’s yawn.” In one part, Yvonne read, verbatim, a wondrously incoherent rant from Trump on his good genes. She concluded her lecture by showing, on video, the section of her dance Assisted Living (2012), in which Pat Catterson instigates a laughing fit that is seemingly uncontrollable and contagious. You can’t help but giggle when you see it.

Ralph Lemon, flanked by Ninotchka and me

Ralph Lemon, flanked by me and Ninotchka

Ralph Lemon’s presentation blew me away. In his talk, “Circling around post-modernism like weather,” he put our slice of dance history into context by saying how much he’s learned from the “white women” of modern dance. He started the talk by showing an archival video of Mary Wigman’s fierce 1913 Hexentanz, onto which he superimposed Carol Jones’ 1968 funk-soul song “Don’t Destroy Me.” The pairing was perfectly, uncannily synced, beat for beat. It was like he was saying, “This is how I locate myself in postmodern dance.” A brilliant juxtapositon. By labeling the lineage of modern-to-postmodern dance “white women,” he underscored the homogeneity of the early years of the genre. His first modern dance teacher was Nancy Hauser, who studied with Hanya Holm, the star student of Wigman who brought her technique to this country.

Wigman's Hexentanz

Wigman’s “Hexentanz”

How does Ralph, who was recently honored by President Obama with a National Medal of Arts, fit into this lineage? The answer is through his work with Hauser, then with Meredith Monk, then starting his own company with dancers who had studied the same somatic techniques that Trisha Brown relied on. But for Geography, his monumental, poetic trilogy that spanned ten years, he went searching for dance roots in Africa, Asia, and the American South, while keeping aspects of his unique blend of postmodern improvisation intact. His last work at Brooklyn Academy of Music, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010) went so far beyond the decorum of concert dance in its physical and emotional exhaustion that it was its own No Manifesto—at least in my eyes.

After listening to Ralph’s Circling lecture and thinking back to his work of the last 20 years, this is what I realized: Ralph is taking postmodernism where it needs to go. It started as a formalistic stripping down to essentials at Judson Dance Theater in the ’60s; it opened up to complexity of movement and narrative in the ’80s and ’90s, and it has evolved to explore cultural and racial terrain.

And another thing: Hexentanz means “Witch Dance.” In some way, Halprin, Forti and Rainer are witches—the good kind of course. But also the kind that make people uneasy. Watching their performances at UCSB, it occurred to me that, had they been in Europe in the Middle Ages, they all might have been burned as witches. They all possess a certain divine madness. (See addendum* for Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s definition of witch.) Anna’s ability to create a healing kind of beauty out of something as mundane as paper; Simone’s luminous presence and slippery pathways between movement and words in her News Animations, and Yvonne’s refusal of performance conventions in Trio A, the screaming fit Three Seascapes, the droll humor and random readings in Concept of Dust: Continuous Project—Altered Annually, would have gotten them into trouble.

Patricia Hoffbauer in Rainer's Three Seascapes

Patricia Hoffbauer in Rainer’s “Three Seascapes”

And one could say they put a spell on the students. We heard over and over how much the students were enchanted by working with them. (They had learned Simone’s dance constructions Huddle and Slant Board, Yvonne’s Chair Pillow, and Anna’s Paper Dance.) One said she wished Simone could be her grandma. Another who was taking Ninotchka’s course on Dance As Social Protest said she’s become obsessed with Halprin. Another said the experience changed her life. Many students as well as outsiders thronged to see the exhibit, which is up at UCSB’s AD&A Museum until April 30.

For me a heart-stopping moment came when Yvonne, in the middle of Concept of Dust (which I had seen twice before) suddenly cut loose and improvised an eccentric, top-speed, self-interrupting solo that thread through space. All I can say is, at 82, she’s still got it.

Yvonne rehearsing UCSB students in Chair Pillow

Yvonne rehearsing UCSB students in “Chair Pillow”

The Paper Dance
When the UCSB student dance company performed the Paper Dance from Halprin’s Parades and Changes (1965-67), we all realized this went way beyond an educational experience. The dance is an artistic experience that cuts across dance, sculpture, and the human condition. Anna dedicated this edition to North Dakota Pipe Line struggle.

In Anna’s ritual pacing, the 12 dancers entered from the back of the auditorium, walking and whistling. After making their way to the stage of the Hatlen Theater, they slowly removed their clothing while keeping their eyes fixed on a point of their choice. Once they started ripping up rolls of brown paper, we hardly noticed their nudity, so blended were their bodies with the shapes of the paper.

Paper Dance, performed by UCSB students

Anna Halprin’s “Paper Dance,” performed by UCSB students

The sound of the tearing, the melding of skin and paper, the floating quality of the paper wafting in air, all made a living sculpture of great beauty. Add to that the ceremonial quality, the sensitive timing of the group, the exquisite vulnerability of these young people exposing themselves—well, it made some of us cry.

They built to a climax of tossing shreds of paper high into the air with whoops of glee—from solemnity to exuberance in 12 minutes! Then they gathered up clumps of torn paper, held them close to their bodies almost like shields, and stepped downstage. Returning to the ritual pacing, they spread out in a long line, and—still holding the clusters close to themselves—they slowly bowed to us. We in the audience were stunned by the humble beauty of the whole sequence.

Students bowing in Paper Dance

Students bowing in “Paper Dance”

Anna told me later that this was a symbolic bow, asking forgiveness of the Native American water protectors for destroying their environment. Brooke Smiley, the young woman who staged the Paper Dance, had just been at Standing Rock. She led the dancers through the rehearsal process, guided by her sense of responsibility of the body in the environment.

Stay tuned, because the Radical Bodies exhibit** comes to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center from May 24 to September 16. We will have a slate of related events including the UCSB group repeating Paper Dance and Chair Pillow.

Curators Ninotchka Bennahum, me, and Bruce Robertson. All photos by Ellen Crane unless otherwise indicated.

Curators Ninotchka Bennahum, me, and Bruce Robertson at reception for “Radical Bodies.”

*Definition of witch, as given to me by dance writer extraordinaire, Eva Yaa Asantewaa: “A witch is someone grounded in ancient and worldwide philosophies and practices of connection to the forces of nature and Spirit, ways of being, thinking and relating that predate monotheistic religion and critique it. A witch is someone who loves and respects the power of forces outside of and within the self, someone capable of awe and instructed by it. Someone who works with all these ideas and energies through physical, mental and spiritual means, using physical or metaphysical tools and symbols. A witch might be trained in a tradition, a lineage, but is often self-identified, self-trained, self-directed and self-determined. There are many traditions and lineages—Celtic, Strega, Norse, Afro-Atlantic; old and tied to specific cultures or contemporary or hybrid. A witch is confident within a certain marginal, outsider status, can be skeptical, heretical, does not need the hierarchical structure or physical structures of patriarchal religion. Can acknowledge one or any number of god/desses or none at all, really. A witch is nobody’s cult member or slave. Is mobile and crafty. Makes, heals, blesses, nourishes, teaches, dances, sings, protects, speaks, challenges, celebrates.”

** Radical Bodies is organized by the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara, and generous support is provided by the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc., the Ceil and Michael Pulitzer Foundation, the Metabolic Studio, and Jody Gottfried Arnhold.

I couldn't resist: Here I am with old dance pal Wendy Rogers climbing the Slant Board. Photo by Linda Murray

We couldn’t resist: Here I am with old dance pal Wendy Rogers climbing the “Slant Board.” Photo by Linda Murray, Curator, Dance Division of NYPL for the Performing Arts



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Best Dance Books of 2016—and Others


This list is in two parts: first, the books I think are of high quality, and second, the books I’ve received that seem to be noteworthy but I haven’t read them.

bolshoiconfidentialBolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today
By Simon Morrison
Liveright, a subsidiary of W. W. Norton

Prompted by the acid-throwing nightmare of 2013, Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison has researched the history of mismanaged and vengeful acts since the Bolshoi’s beginnings 240 years ago. From a British magician’s pet project in 1780s Moscow to the lavish restoration of its theater in 2011, the Bolshoi has been through many reincarnations—some ridiculous, some sublime. You will learn how Ekaterina Sankovskaya in the mid-1800s was compared to Tagioni, how Adam Glushkovsky fled Moscow with his students in a cart during the Russian Revolution, how Alexander Gorsky’s exuberant Don Quixote brought in a new audience, how dancers were fined for infringements as far back as the 1920s, how the now-powerful Yuri Grigorovich was accused of fomenting gay activities in the 1970s, and how the KGB plagued Maya Plisetskaya. All through it the Bolshoi represented national identity and something more elusive—“Russian soul.” Morrison, a wonderful and witty writer, gives political context to every triumph and defeat of the Bolshoi. Bolshoi Confidential is a fun, quick, and informative ride through Russia’s past.


trishabrowncovreTrisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art
By Susan Rosenberg
Wesleyan University Press, distributed by University Press of New England
A long awaited analysis of Trisha Brown’s work, this book discusses her process and thinking in detail. Rosenberg’s research has yielded a plethora of insights into the work of this great American choreographer. Rosenberg bridges the gap between Brown’s early work in galleries and museums and the later work in theaters. For instance 1977’s Line Up (which I was in and helped to create) laid the conceptual foundation for her masterwork Set and Reset (1983). Rosenberg, an art historian, highlights the role of drawing in Brown’s choreography and her affinity with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt. She takes you on a tour through Brown’s improvisational pieces, equipment pieces, accumulations, artistic collaborations, and scores. Aided by quotes from former dancers like Steven Petronio, Diane Madden, and Vicky Shick, the writing is serious and detailed without being overly academic. A terrific resource for anyone who is curious about Brown’s vast oeuvre or about the ideological connections between art and dance.


cagecoverThe Selected Letters of John Cage
Laura Kuhn, editor
Wesleyan University Press, distributed by University Press of New England
Possibly the most influential artist-philosopher of the 20th century, Cage is revealed here as a normally harried but playful person. As a composer he cracked open the idea of what music could be (sounds and silence) and how music and dance could be created independently of each other. His partner in this was, of course, Merce Cunningham, and Cage’s devotion to his work and life partner comes through in many letters. This generous volume includes letters to Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan, Leonard Bernstein (to raise funds for Cunningham’s company!), composer Pierre Boulez, and many others. Mixed in with everyday, practical considerations are thoughts about silence, Buddhism, and the composing of music. But of course we are most interested in Cage’s letters to Merce—love letters, some of them. In 1943 he writes, “My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.” (For more on Cage, see my 2014 posting about the book John Cage Was.)

zadiesmith-swing-timeSwing Time
By Zadie Smith
Penguin, Random House 

I have not yet read this novel, so I offer this quick quote from a colleague:

“Zadie Smith’s wonderful Swing Time—about two English girls who dream of dancing professionally—isn’t a dance book per se. It covers a lot of ground, including race and class divisions, and the perils of young womanhood in 1980s London and beyond. But Smith uses dance as a thread to stitch these themes together, and memorably makes the point that even if you don’t stick with dance, dance never really leaves you.” —Heather Wisner, managing editor, Dance Studio Life.


At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I include this book/catalog, which I co-wrote and co-edited:

radbodscoverRadical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972
By Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson
University of California Press
In this book we expand the story of the birth of postmodern dance to include Anna Halprin’s huge influence on the West Coast. Her approach to improvisation was ferried to New York by Simone Forti, who then influenced Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton. As co-curator, I wrote the essay on Forti, who was a catalyst in the creation of Judson Dance Theater. Her earthy, poetic letters to Halprin from 1960-61, when she is still dreaming of California while transplanted to New York, are printed here for the first time. Essays by dance historian Ninotchka Bennahum and art historian Bruce Robertson, plus brief memoirs by Morton Subotnick (composer of Halprin’s 1965-67 Parades and Changes) and critic John Rockwell (who worked with Halprin in the 60s) complete the writings. A catalog for the Radical Bodies exhibit, the book has more than a hundred rarely seen photographs.


Books Received

This was a breakout year for academic writers on Asian-American dance studies. I begin this part of the list with three of them:

flowerscrackconcreteFlowers Cracking Concrete: Eiko & Koma’s Asian/American Choreographies
By Rosemary Candelario
Wesleyan University Press and distributed by University Press of New England
An account of four decades of that formidable artistic duo, Eiko & Koma.



Chinese Dance: In the Vast Land & Beyondchinesedancecover
By Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn E. Frederiksen
Wesleyan University Press and distributed by University Press of New England
Includes interviews with current Chinese dance artists in the U.S. like Nai-Ni Chen, Lily Cai, Yin Mei, and Jin-Wen Yu.


wong-contemporary-directions-in-asian-american-dance-cContemporary Directions in Asian American Dance
Edited by Yutian Wong
Essays by or about artists familiar to Americans such as Shen Wei, Kun-Yang Lin, Yasuko Yokoshi, Eiko & Koma, Maura Nguyen Donohue, and Roko Kawai.
University of Wisconsin Press



concretebodycoverThe Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci
By Elise Archias
Yale University Press
Focuses on the crossover between dance, visual art and performance art of the 1960s.


cover_showingangelasterlingphoto_rgb_72Out There: Jonathan Porretta’s Life in Dance
By Marcie Sillman, photography by Angela Sterling
Seattle Scriptorium
Available at Amusements, the Gift Shop of Pacific Northwest Ballet
A photo book focusing on longtime PNB principal dancer, with some commentary and a list of leading roles. Porretta’s Prodigal Son made my Best of 2016 list.


For other 2016 picture books, see my posting at 


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My Tribute to Deborah Jowitt

My presentation to Deborah Jowitt on the occasion of her receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Martha Hill Awards Gala, held on November 21, 2016.

One quality that is harder and harder to come by in our world is trust. And this is what I find in Deborah Jowitt. I felt it when I was a dancer in her choreography. I felt it when I took the workshop in dance writing from her and Marcia Siegel. And I feel it every time I read her writing—or have a conversation with her.

When I read most dance critics, I either agree or I disagree. But with Deborah Jowitt, I learn something. She notices things—little things, big things— that had escaped me. She enlarges it, she makes it more relevant. She ties each detail to an image that helps you picture it.

Photo by Tony Powell. 2016 Martha Hill Awards Gala. November 21, 2016

From left: Vernon Scott, president of the board; Deborah Jowitt; me. Photos by Tony Powell.

Deborah has been a beacon of light for dancers like me, who wanted to write. But she has also been a beacon to the whole field. Her current blog a; her two collections of reviews; her decades of writing for the Village Voice that many of us grew up on, her book Time and the Dancing Image, which is like no other book because it tracks changing ideals over time; and her comprehensive biography of Jerome Robbins, are written from love and from curiosity. That’s why she is essential to our field. She has grace, courage, experience, and wisdom. I wish some of the other critics would listen to her words in the introduction to Dance in Mind, one of her collections of reviews: “Long ago I decided that it was pointless to use heavy artillery on small targets.”

Her writing style is conversational, yet also poetic. About Kate Weare’s Marksman, she wrote: “Julian De Leon shapes his body around her, against her, intersecting with her, as if trying—in a dreamy yet probing way— to sense what she’s like.”

Deborah lets you know how perceptions of something onstage change during a performance. Reviewing John Jasperse’s Remains at BAM, she sets up the mood with a lone figure in dimness and then says: “Now in the silence, we see a small miracle. In the muted beam of light, the figure onstage—lying on its side, one leg crossed over the other, its face hidden—begins to glitter with tiny, erratic points of light. What had seemed like a discarded object becomes a treasure.”

Deborah doesn’t announce her opinions. She doesn’t say, “This is bad gender politics.” But the way she writes it, you catch her drift. About Danish Dance Theatre performing Tim Rushton’s Black Diamond, she wrote: “There’s a scene in which Alessandro Sousa Pereira and Stefanos Bizas get Lucia Pasquini between them and start pulling her around—lifting her, swinging her, dragging her. A couple more men arrive to help. There’s a puzzle built into this kind of a scene. The men are nominally in charge, but the woman—while looking desperate and unhappy—actually has to run to them so they can maul her some more.”

She can write about strong emotions with exquisite detail. Here she talks about the dawning of jealousy and revenge in Christopher Wheeldon’s A Winter’s Tale, with the National Ballet of Canada: This is about the dancer portraying Leontes: “When he beats one foot against his other ankle in ballet’s frappé, the move is almost sinister. He crouches and slithers… His fingers creep up his body like spiders ready to infiltrate his brain.”

And she lets the real world in. This is from a very recent posting: “Being at the Joyce the day after the election was an unsettling experience. There were more empty seats than you’d expect at an opening night. I hope Kate Weare understands that many were out protesting or at home mourning, and that those of us in the audience felt our spirits lift a little.”

Deborah’s knowledge of dance is so vast that she can easily link a dance artist to the past, giving us a sense of continuity. Whom or what period does this hark back to? For that reason, and all of the above, she is beloved by choreographers. When Ohad Naharin accepted the Dance Magazine Award in 2013, he wrote an off-the-cuff “Advice to critics” list. Included is this piece of advice: “Make sure you have lunch with Deborah Jowitt at least once in your lifetime.”

I was lucky to inherit Deborah’s Graduate Seminar at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She has built this course to last. The assigned readings and actions—in a variety of different modes —stimulate the students to be critical thinkers. I always keep in mind, the goal, as she stated it to me: to have the students see deeply into dance.

I will end by quoting from Deborah’s landmark essay “Beyond Description: Writing beneath the Surface.” This essay suggests that you don’t have to superimpose ideas on top of description, that description itself can contain ideas. She writes: “Analogy is rooted in observation—as fluid as the transactions between pond water and fish. In such an ecosystem, everything nourishes everything else. And ideas spring like water lilies.”

Thank you Deborah.

All awardees and presenters at Martha Hill Fund gala. Standing: Jowitt, Terhesa Dickinson, Reed Hansen, Jacqueline Z. Davis, Ann Hutchinson Guest, Tina Curran, Matthew Rushing. Kneeling: Me, Fredrick Earl Mosley, Matthew Rushing2016

Awardees and presenters at Martha Hill Fund gala. Standing: Jowitt, Terese Capucilli, Reed Hansen, Jacqueline Z. Davis, Ann Hutchinson Guest, Tina Curran, Matthew Rushing. Kneeling: Me, Fredrick Earl Mosley, Eric Parra.





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A Fresh Breeze: Galassos and de Groat

On the occasion of get dancing being nominated for a Bessie, I wanted to say why this evening, by Catherine Galasso and Andy de Groat, prompted thoughts and reveries. Well, now it turns out that it won’t actually win a Bessie (the revivals category winner has already been announced, pre-event). So I will just thank the Bessie committee for the nudge and go ahead with these thoughts anyway.

Andy de Groat, photo © Lois Greenfield

Andy de Groat in Rope Dance Translations, late 1970s, photo © Lois Greenfield

The evening, a combination of reconstructions of Andy de Groat’s work and a new work by Catherine Galssso, captured something elusive about the ’70s. The only way I can describe it is that things at that time were unforced. There was a sense that people were finding ways to let choreography happen rather than willing it to happen. This was reflected in all parts of her program last December at Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church. Catherine’s new piece, notes on de groat, was in tune with that spirit but with an added dose of athletic energy. The experience was like following a string back through time and finding some sort of treasure. What she found wasn’t flashy or transgressive, but an enchanted meeting of movement and music, so different from the high-concept or technology-laden performances I sometimes see today.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Catherine Galasso, photo by Jacob Burckhardt

Catherine Galasso’s father, Michael Galasso, was a composer of such intriguing, beautiful music that I’m surprised it hasn’t been used by more choreographers. He died in 2009, and get dancing is his daughter’s collaboration with de Groat, the choreographer most associated with his music. They worked together in the ’70s, at first under the direction of Robert Wilson. This was before the days of the Joyce and BAM’s Next Wave Festival, when downtown choreographers weren’t thinking in terms of proscenium. Andy was a regular at Danspace, where lighting genius Carol Mullins was in residence even back then. Luckily, Mullins, who toured with de Groat before coming to Danspace in 1982, was on hand to light Galasso’s evening too.

The rebuilding of de Groat’s work brought a fresh breeze into Danspace. Simplicity, visual beauty, and the spirituality of minimalism were all there to be savored. The performers ranged from Charles Dennis and Frank Conversano, two heroes of “pedestrian dance” who were in the original works, to current freelance dancers Meg Weeks, Madeline Wilcox, Chris deVita, and Kristopher K.Q. Pourzal.

This project grew from Catherine’s love, curiosity, and a wish for continuity. In a posting on the Danspace website, she says about these works, “I felt that if I didn’t bring them…de Groat’s history with this city might disappear. This is archiving through re-performance. It’s my way of passing this choreographer’s work on to a new generation.”

Film and Reconstruction
The 1979 black-and-white film of Rope Dance Translations, with Michael Galasso’s spiraling violin music, set the tone. Each of the five spinning dancers had a three-strand rope that whipped outward or looped overhead depending on their arm and torso movement. To my eye, they had an affinity with Simone Forti’s 1961 “dance constructions,” wherein the movement and visual objects were inextricably bound. Watching these sculpture-dancers in John Meaney and Andrew Horn’s film, spinning with slight variations in how the rope extended the body, gave a focus to our senses and our thoughts. The union of motion, object, and sound was hypnotic. Toward the end, the two-dimensional film expanded into three dimensions when four dancers stepped into the space for a live rope dance. We had just seen three of them on screen, 36 years younger: Ritty Ann Burchfield, Frank Conversano, and Charles Dennis.

Fan Dance—Good for Mental Health
Michael Galasso’s music for fan dance (1978) is hauntingly beautiful—celestial really. De Groat paired it with purposeful walking and simple gestures, fans in hands. According to Weeks, he had counted the music in an odd way.

“That music is counted in a traditional 4/4 timing, but Andy came up with this really different time signature for it, which was two 4s, two 5s, two 6s, two 7s, two 11s, two 4s, and two 11s. It’s that set repeated four times. The music is this sort of sweeping grandiose music for strings and it’s uplifting. At first the counting sequence was difficult to learn…but after a while I didn’t have to count anymore. It just kind of worked…That dance is really special, I feel like everyone should do it for their mental health.”

MEg Weeks and Kristopher Purzal in Fan Dance, all photos by Victoria Sendra

fan dance, all current photos by Victoria Sendra

That night in December, I felt my own mental health infused with peace, just watching and listening to it.

get wreck
Another piece, get wreck (1978) had an intergenerational cast. Older dancers like Kathryn Ray, Burchfield, and Conversano, who were part of the original cast, commingled with younger dancers. They all possessed the unmannered, gently energized demeanor necessary for negotiating the complex patterns. At that time, downtown people were challenging the virtuosity of concert dance with pedestrian movements, just as Andy Warhol challenged the ideal of artistic beauty by presenting everyday soup cans as art. The aesthetic of the ordinary permeated much of downtown.

Part of the inspiration for get wreck sprang from artist and wordsmith Christopher Knowles. Sometimes considered autistic in his early years, he started working with Robert Wilson when he was 13. (For a New Yorker article on Knowles click here.) De Groat also worked with Knowles and took the title get wreck from a poem of his that was set to music.

a section of the original get wreck poem by Christopher Knowles, courtesy Carol Mullins

a section of get wreck poem by Christopher Knowles, courtesy Carol Mullins

For Knowles, repetition was about rhythm and pattern. It seemed like he’d get lost in the words and find his way through. Viewers had to pay close attention to perceive each small change—not unlike Trisha Brown’s accumulation series. Knowles figured out his own way of accumulating words.

Bridging Past and Present
Catherine’s new piece is specifically about the process of reconstructing. I usually don’t like dances that explain themselves, but her notes on de groat was done with such clarity, love, and sly wit that it won me over. You felt a tug from the past, but more than that, an exchange with the past.

While Catherine speaks at a microphone, Weeks, deVita, and Pourzal pass through a limited vocabulary of spins, jogs, and crouches with their own personal flair. Reciting her text, the narrator (now switched to Pourzal), says, “This process, while partly about re-creation, is also about how the dancers and I find our own voices within Andy’s aesthetic in an attempt to bridge past and present.”

Pourzal, Weeks, and deVita in Note on De Groat

Pourzal, Weeks, and deVita in notes on de groat

The text, which you can hear in its entirety in this Vimeo, includes passages from her correspondence with de Groat. For instance, she let him know that she didn’t like his idea of starting the evening with the film. “Your proposal for program order is making less and less sense to me,” she wrote. She thought that starting with a long and uninflected film might put people to sleep. She was torn between honoring his wishes and her own theatrical instincts. But in the spirit of cooperation, she told him, “I’m ready to get behind it and will embrace it as an experiment.”

“Catherine,” he wrote back, “life is an experiment….If I was doing what I do for people who zap [change the TV channels quickly], are in a hurry, don’t have time, I would’ve stopped a long time ago…Looking for what is considered success is so totally smoky and subjective as to be dangerous.”

This is kind of a key to that unforced thing. De Groat had a clear progression in mind and refused to force it into a format that might be more convenient for the audiences.

There’s a point, after Andy is quoted saying “Explications can be misleading,” when Galasso’s music surges into circular riffs (a bit like Philip Glass, but the two were contemporaries, not one following the other) that carry the dancers into their next, more rambunctious section. Together the music and dance seem to be saying that they don’t need any explanations.

Repetition Then and Now
In my memory, the use of repetition by New York choreographers during the 70s—de Groat, Laura Dean, Barbara Dilley, Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Harry Sheppard (who danced in the original get wreck)—invited viewers into a meditative state of mind.

These days the repetition I see is more like a display of endurance. The energy is often pushed. I admire the stamina of the dancers and the boldness of the choreographic mind behind it, but it makes me wonder, When did the tone of repetition change? Maybe Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker was a transitional figure. Influenced by Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, her dancers also have to count a lot, but there’s more force in her repetitions. With her intricate gestures and fierce physicality, she gave repetition a certain drama. And now I’m seeing a trend that’s even more hard-edged—generating drama from sheer stamina.

I am indebted to two dancers from Galasso’s evening for shedding light on this trend. In my phone conversation with Weeks, who also danced with Donna Uchizono, she compared today’s attitude with that of de Groat:

“I feel like an interest in duration today has to do with exhaustion and rendering physical exertion legible to an audience…It’s maybe redefining virtuosity, independent from a ballet context, where virtuosity is defined by the ability to do tricks, obviously stylized and in context. Maybe some of the contemporary interest in examining virtuosity is from a more pedestrian angle.”

Weeks and Pourzal in Fan Dance

Weeks and Pourzal in Fan Dance

Madeline Wilcox performed in the final reconstruction of the get dancing evening. It was an excerpt of de Groat’s Swan Lac, which was the last show de Groat produced in New York before moving to France. The dancers’ aerobic phrases reminded me that by 1982 Andy was speeding up his pacing (the music is the Talking Heads). Wilcox said the cardio workout was the most challenging part of performing it. But she said that, naturally, she has a more complex engagement when she is part of the making process. When talking about her work with current choreographers like Sarah Michelson and Jillian Peña, Wilcox said this:

“It’s more about research of each movement, asking questions inside that movement so that it is fresh every time, even though to the outside eye it might just look like repetition… looking at the complication inside the task of what we’re doing so that it is no longer the old repetition. You work on it for a year and you form an attachment to it.”

The emotional aspect of repetition, for both the dancer and the viewer, can range anywhere from meditation to obsession. I think the tone of it, the timbre, the state of mind it induces, changes according to the heartbeat of the choreographer—and of the times. And the feeling of today’s arts and media is definitely more bombarded, almost under siege, and therefore more forceful in its counterattack. Maybe that’s why the Galasso/de Groat/Galasso evening was such an oasis.

Michael O'Rourke and de Groat in the first Swan Lac, Aix-en-Provence, early 1980s, photo by Christiane Robin

Michael O’Rourke and de Groat in the first Swan Lac, Aix-en-Provence, early 1980s, photo by Christiane Robin

Spinning… in between
In notes on de groat, Catherine describes seeing an archival film of Andy spinning in Iran in 1972, “nonstop, light on his feet, as if floating in the air.” She continues: “Spinning seems strangely transporting, both virtuosic and pedestrian, spiritual without being religious. It so perfectly encapsulates that era…”

And then Catherine quotes Andy: “Spinning and all dance concerns the mind state between waking and sleeping, life and dreams, the conscious and the unconscious. With spinning, all movement is generated from a basic walk around in place, like taking a walk with nowhere to go.”

There is something about that in-between place that means to me an acceptance of where you are. It’s about giving yourself the time to dwell on one thing. And I would translate “nowhere to go” closer to, having nothing to prove.

For Catherine, this project began as a way to enter de Groat’s work and to find a balance between her voice and his. In following her personal quest, she revealed a whole different aesthetic, an aesthetic of task lifted by beautiful music, of circles of the mind, of patience and poetry.





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Trisha Brown’s Horizontal Dreaming

Every time she started choreographing, Trisha Brown tried to come up with a new vocabulary. But I want to talk about something that stayed the same: Trisha’s love for the body horizontal. Whether it was lying on the ground or being thrust flat out into space (I call it Trisha’s magic carpet), it’s a way to undercut expectations as well as to honor a certain kind of sensuality.

As you can see in this video from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, I enjoy recalling this image that recurred over the years. Back in 1960 on Anna Halprin’s deck, she whisked a broom handle out so suddenly and forcefully that her body followed it, flying parallel to the deck for an instant. In Walking on the Wall (1971), we got a visceral jolt from seeing bodies, with the aid of harnesses, walking perpendicular to the wall. That image was reprised in the beginning of Set and Reset (1983), when one dancer was held aloft by four others so that she could walk on the vertical surfaces surrounding the stage. Elsewhere in Set and Reset, which slyly camouflaged choreographic preparation, there were startling moments of sudden horizontality.

Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio in Set and Reset, © estate of Jack Mitchell

Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio in “Set and Reset” © estate of Jack Mitchell

But when we taped this interview at Pew last fall, I wasn’t remembering all the examples of her use of the horizontal. And now they are coming back to me, starting with O zlozony / O composite, a trio originally commissioned by Paris Opera Ballet in 2004 that was performed by Pennsylvania Ballet June 9–12.

The piece begins and ends with a strong image: The two men find different ways of keeping the woman (in this case Lillian DiPiazza) aloft, and yet it is nothing like a standard ballet lift. As you can see from this rehearsal clip, they work together to maneuver her into an orbiting motion in the air, parallel to the ground. Associate artistic director Carolyn Lucas told me that they call it the rotisserie. But to me, it’s like DiPiazza is dreaming her airborne dream. She could be a slow-motion Superwoman, with cape flying behind her. It’s especially evocative because during this section Laurie Anderson’s sound score has a mesmerizing sensuousness, with a woman’s soft, wistful voice reciting a poem in Polish.

Lillian DiPIazza with Ian Hussey and Aaron Akbar of PAB in O zlozony/O composite, photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Lillian DiPIazza with Ian Hussey and Aaron Anker of PAB in “O zlozony/O composite,” photo by Alexander Iziliaev

There was the time in Lateral Pass (1985) when Randy Warshaw was harnessed to hover over the other dancers, among them but horizontal in midair. Almost like a Chagall figure in the sky twisting his head around to see people on land.

During that performance at the Whitney in 1971, Trisha brought Skymap (1969). In this performer-free piece, the whole audience lay down while listening to her voice speaking on tape. Like stargazers at night, we looked up to the ceiling in the darkened gallery and let our imaginations respond to Trisha’s fanciful riff. With her richly multi-timbered voice, she gave words personalities and we “saw” the word h-o-r-s-e gallop across the “map” on the ceiling. We were participating in Trisha’s wittily imagined cross-country trek where words and names had personalities.

Group Primary Accumulation in Minneapolis, photo by Boyd Hagen

“Group Primary Accumulation” on Loring Pond in Minneapolis, photo by Boyd Hagen

Two other examples of being horizontal on the ground—or on water—are further examples of her synergy between rigor and sensuality. In Group Primary Accumulation (1973), four women on their backs accumulate simple gestures for arms, legs, and head. In Minneapolis, she sent those dancers out on rafts in a pond. In her opera L’Orfeo (1998), baritone Simon Keenlyside sang an aria from a prone position. I doubt if any opera singer before has done that before. But, psychically and poetically, Trisha loved the relaxation of the body that let the mind wander.

I recently was struck by similarities between the way Trisha challenged us to see the body from unusual angles and the exhibit of the Hungarian Bauhaus photographer/painter/etc now at the Guggenheim. In the photo on the left, taken on a ship in 1928, he looks up through the feet to the rest of the body, similar to the kind of angle I’ve seen in O composite, Newark (1987), and other Brown works.

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1928

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1928

Trisha Brown, 1982, photographer unknown

Trisha Brown, 1982, photographed by Guy Delahaye









Another Moholy-Nagy photo, where we see a woman lying prone where you wouldn’t expect it, reminds me of Trisha’s ability to place a magic carpet in an otherwise formalist context.

Moholy-Nagy, 1928

Moholy-Nagy, 1928










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Eiko: Mourning Becomes Exhilarating

How could an evening devoted to grief be so uplifting? That was true of “Precarious: Guest Solos 1,” a collection of invited solos at Danspace Project on the Lower East Side. But it was also true of the entire month-long Platform 2016: A Body in Places, which included performances, workshops, photograph exhibits, talks and other wanderings from February 17 to March 23.

The answer is Eiko Otake, recently redefined as a solo dance artist. When you’re in the presence of her dancing, her aura fills time and space. You lose track of what century or country you’re in. She seems to transform the very air she occupies. You tap into a whole world of grief that, like a beautiful poem, makes you want to be near it.

Eiko at local shop, photo by Ian Douglas

Eiko at local shop, photo by Ian Douglas

As a duo, Eiko and Koma could change the way you looked at the world. When you watched them inch along with their archetypal slowness, whether in a theater, a pool of water, or a museum, you might get the eerie feeling that a Japanese painting from a previous century was coming to life. Maybe you felt you were witnessing a primordial world that has no beginning or end.

During the Platform, Eiko’s stature grew from large to huge. It’s not only that Eiko herself expanded as an artist, but that her ideas and presence radiated like moonbeams, connecting to the luminous darkness in other artists and issues. It’s like the long and deep connection she had with Koma imploded, then exploded into a scintillas flying in different directions.

The Platform provided an Eiko-a-day infusion of spirit somewhere on the Lower East Side. I attended 3 of the 25 or so events and participated in one “Bearing Witness” talk session. Eiko brought her dancing, like a breeze of sorrow, into different sites. She might lurk in the shadows and then appear on the balcony, threatening to drop her kimono over the edge; she might whip her carefully collected reeds against a wall. Just when you thought she would fade away and die, she erupted with a burst of anger, rage, or subhuman moaning as though suddenly remembering all her children were dead. She included audience members by offering a stalk, or beckoning us to follow her.

Eiko, connecting with the audience, photo by Ian Douglas

Eiko, connecting with the audience, photo by Ian Douglas

A new element since her barefoot days with Koma was a pair of wooden sandals. She clomped around in them, teetered, and almost fell out of them. You were sure she would twist an ankle. (She didn’t, but she did sprain a wrist the first week and performed the rest of the Platform with a bandaged hand.)

A typical beginning of one of her solos: Nestled close to the ground, she doesn’t budge for minutes. We see the swirling designs of her kimono move before we see her shift underneath. Her fingers and the soles of her feet look so fragile. Brian Seibert in his New York Times review of March 2, described the startling sight:

“At 9 a.m. on Monday, if you had peeked through the storefront window of Dashwood Books on Bond Street in Manhattan, you would have seen a body on the floor, sleeping or possibly dead. Slowly, out of tattered Japanese robes emerged whitened feet, gnarled and aged and terribly exposed.”

Seibert also wrote about the powerful effect of looking into her eyes:

“When her gaze briefly meets yours, it’s still unclear whether she sees you, but the possibility is enough to be harrowing. It’s a look you might have seen on a homeless person or a refugee, a piercing look that reminds you of your sins and makes you count your blessings.”

I too received that piercing look and was transfixed by it. I had actually seen her just before the show started, when she happily confessed that she was nervous. Minutes later, she became a completely different creature.

Talking Duets with Davdi Brick and John Kelly, curator Lydia Bell is at left, photo by Ian Douglas

Talking Duets with David Brick and John Kelly (curator Lydia Bell is at left), photo by Ian Douglas

But in some ways her work partnering other dancers was even more startling. As Siobhan Burke pointed out in The New York Times, during “Talking Duets I” many got a whiff of Eiko’s sense of humor for the first time. Instead of an ancient goddess in whiteface, she became a downtown denizen with delightful witticisms of body and voice. She danced with Emmanuelle Huynh, leading off a series of duets. To give some shape to these chance encounters, Danspace director Judy Hussie-Taylor posed questions from a table. I remember David Brick carrying John Kelly and, in answer to a question, Kelly was singing a lovely Irish ditty.

Eiko’s playful timing and natural warmth seemed to be contagious. I’d never seen Bebe Miller be so funny.

Koma, in his solo on the porch, photo by Ian Douglas

Koma, in his solo on the porch, photo by Ian Douglas

But to return to the grief evening, or rather the invited solos inspired by grief (Judy Hussie-Taylor had given each artist a quote from Judith Butler), the diversity of interpretations was  part of what was uplifting. Koma chose to perform his solo, “Dancing with My Painting and Lion,” outside in the cold, lurching from dirt ground to stone lion statue while tango music played. Beth Gill, inspired by Eiko and Koma’s Husk (1987), oozed along the carpeted risers in the Sanctuary during almost the whole three hours. And Donna Uchizono quietly interviewed audience members in the Parish Hall about a remembered loved one before improvising with that information. After being deep in conversation with audience member Ralph Lemon, she immersed herself in a remarkably evocative improvisation.

Donna Uchizono with Ralph Lemon, in prelude to her solo improvisation, photo by me

Donna Uchizono with Ralph Lemon, in prelude to her solo improvisation, photo by me

Part of the inspiration for the Platform can be traced back to Eiko’s harrowing project with photographer William Johnston, A Body Fukushima (2014). Together they traveled to irradiated areas in and around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. These images of Eiko, even more “terribly exposed,” yet fitting in harmoniously to those godforsaken landscapes, are uncannily beautiful.

Near Fukushima, 2014, photo by William Johnston

Near Fukushima, 2014, photo by William Johnston

After one of the solos in the neighborhood, I was overwhelmed. I visited Eiko “backstage.” I said to her, “Your body carries all the sadness of the world.” Her immediate response was, “Don’t we all?”

I participated in a “Bearing Witness” event as a commemoration of five years since the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Prompted by the idea of the artist as wanderer, scholars and performers spoke about various ramifications of Eiko’s work. Yoshiko Chuma, fresh from a work period with dancers in Palestine, talked about the dangers facing people there. Both Yoshiko and Eiko are fearless wanderers who enter dangerous territories without a second thought.

Eiko expressed her worry that the Body in Fukushima images were merely beautiful and did not prompt action. But I expressed my thought that the photos go beyond beauty and reach into the observer’s feelings. They create a connection with the unfortunate people from Fukushima who are living in exile, and by extension, with all refugees.

This Platform provided a long, lingering look at a monumental artist, one who is willing to embody the sorrows of life on this earth. With Eiko’s generous spirit, the Platform shed light on other artists’ experience as well. Kudos to Danspace, to Hussie-Taylor, and to Platform curator Lydia Bell for choosing and shaping this deeply moving and thought-provoking experience.

Although the Platform ended in March, you can still see some of Eiko’s solos in this video collage.

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Are Women Dancers Still Discriminated Against?

I co-wrote the article below forty years ago. Since the issue has come up again (actually it never went away) I decided to post it. This diatribe was useful back in 2000 when a group of choreographers called the Gender Project got together to address discrimination against women in dance. Reading this article from 1976, they were appalled at how familiar it sounded.

 Although I basically stand by what we said and the data we gathered, I now feel some distance from the strident tone. During the ’80s and ’90s, AIDS devastated the dance community. So many of my male colleagues were dying that I dropped all my anger about how hard it was for women to get a gig. At least we were alive. We were dancing, we were having babies. I’ve written about this change of heart in my book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer.

Back in the 1970s, Stephanie Woodard and I were collaborating on choreographic projects, and our rehearsal-break conversations led to a desire to expose the discrimination against women. Because we were both teaching at Trinity College in Hartford, we had ample opportunity to observe the difference in male and female student behavior. (At that time there were only two genders, nothing in between.) Stephanie, a dance ethnologist, knew about ballet history, so all the references to Taglioni et al are hers. Sorry for the lousy reproduction of the chart here; it’s from a xerox of a xerox. The chart is based on data we gathered, but I can’t vouch for the sources, because I just don’t remember. 

Reading this over so many years later, I don’t completely agree with all our statements. So, in the manner of Yvonne Rainer’s “A Manifesto Reconsidered,” I am inserting my current reactions and updates in double brackets.

∞∞ When a Woman Dances, Nobody Cares ∞∞

Co-written by Wendy Perron and Stephanie Woodard
Village Voice, March 1, 1976

“When a woman dances nobody cares. All women can dance. But when a man dances, now that’s something.” —a high school dance teacher in California in 1963

In the dance business, men are in the minority. But not the usual sort of minority. Instead of being abused and ridiculed in their attempts to be accepted, they are praised and encouraged. [[Whoa! Of course, male dancers were abused and ridiculed routinely by other boys when they were students.]]

Dancers and critics alike are proud of the ever-increasing numbers of men in dance because their presence has legitimized it. No art is recognized as an art until men do it, from cooking to medicine to dance. And then it becomes dignified, arduous, skilled.

From an artistic point of view, American modern dance is the achievement of women. Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller discovered it, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey explored it, and the excitement of it unfolds today through women like Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp. Over the years women have pushed back the boundaries of dance, extending the movement vocabulary, creating new modes of performance, revolutionizing concepts of composition.

Dance critic Marcia B. Siegel recently wrote: “With the exception of [Charles] Weidman and [Ted] Shawn [[those are huge exceptions!]], men didn’t begin making significant choreographic efforts outside classical ballet [[what about tap?]] until the mid-1930s, when modern dance had attained artistic recognition, built its own audience, and begun training future dancers. Now that there is something to be won, more men are entering the field and taking over.” [[That’s a bit harsh—and I don’t agree with the sentiment.]]

Ballet has allowed women as well as men to hold influential positions as performers and choreographers. It is popular today to show disdain for ballet in the nineteenth century, when women were its focus. Contemporary critics are impatient with the contrived plots and the affected acting and are embarrassed to think that male dancers had only secondary roles and were called “porteurs” or “carriers.” Walter Terry, renowned ballet critic, lectured at Harvard Summer School Dance Center last year [[I was teaching there that summer]], extolling the ascendancy of men in dance—to a lukewarm student audience of a hundred women and eight men.

However, the technique of ballet, with its feather-light leaps, its long balances, its mercurial changes of quality from one kind of step to another, was developed by women largely to appear ethereal. Of course, it was sexism—ranging from a desire to idealize women as fairies and nymphs to a desire to watch women’s bodies—which allowed the ballerinas center stage. But once there, women, with their more pliant bodies, gave ballet its fleet, supple style.

Today an increasing dance audience goes hand in hand with increasing commercial success for men. Male dancers are getting hired and male choreographers are getting grants way out of proportion to their numbers.

In the chart that accompanies this article, we compiled data on 1,900 students, scholarship students, and company members of six major New York City modern dance and ballet companies with affiliated schools (almost all asked not to be named). In addition we obtained data on 316 grants given by the National Endowment for the Arts (1974–1975) and the New York State Council on the Arts (1971–1974). We included only companies that depend on the choreographic influence of a single man or a woman, for example, the New York City Ballet or Dan Wagoner and Dancers. Grants to companies that featured several choreographers, e.g., American Ballet Theatre, or collaborative choreography, e.g., Grand Union, were omitted. The resulting data show a clear relationship between gender and success in dance.

Success in dance

Behind these figures lies a wealth of stories, like that of the dancer who counted only two women choreographers out of the fifteen he had worked with during his four years with the Joffrey Ballet. Or the woman who could run down a list of auditions where she’d been good enough but not man enough for the job.

We interviewed fifteen young professional dancers and choreographers to find out how this situation affects their careers, what happens when a man or a woman tries to get a performing or teaching job, how men and women are treated in class, whether there are separate standards for men and women, and whether both women and men contribute to the problem. Because of the sensitive nature of their disclosures, the interviews quoted below are pseudonymous.

Most dance companies are equally composed of men and women, which gives the impression that dance is one of those rare places where equality and fairness are the order of the day. But as the chart shows, many more women than men are competing for about the same numbers of places. At a typical audition ten times more women than men will appear. For example, at Rudy Perez’s recent audition, six men and fifty-five women tried out. All six men, but only fifteen (or less than one third) of the women, were called back. [[This was when Perez still lived in NYC, before he moved to Los Angeles. I was dancing with him a couple years before writing this article.]] 

Untrained men with a modicum of athletic ability tend to have a physical assertiveness that passes for performing skill. Such men are often accepted with barely a passing thought as to how they actually dance. One Connecticut dance company, whose women each had seven to twenty years of training, was forced to accept men with two or three years of training each because a female guest choreographer refused to do a large-scale piece only for women. We know of a young athlete, who, during one of his first dance classes in the Midwest, was spotted by a renowned choreographer and invited to dance with his New York company…Another was picked up at a discothèque. [[But there is something to be said for outsider dancers. Larry Keigwin was a club dancer before becoming a postmodern dancer.]]

The growing number of men has increased competition among them somewhat. An administrator in the school of one of New York’s leading ballet companies said, “Four years ago we would have given a scholarship to any boy who walked in the door.” He went on to say that nowadays they could be more selective, but were nevertheless still supporting boys with less training than their female scholarship students.

Now that we have men in dance, we have dance in the colleges, too. And college administrators are eager to preserve this connection, making sure that dance at their schools doesn’t slip back into being “women’s work.” “When are you girls going to hire a man?” the dance department chairwoman of a prestigious New England college was asked by a dean. [[This was at Trinity College, where Stephanie and I were both teaching; it was said to the director of the department in our presence.]]

Another dance department chairwoman felt obliged, since she had an all-woman faculty, to hire men to give master classes. She thought this would please the administration by making dance look more serious, and hoped it would attract more male students. One teacher, in telling a dean that dance enrollments were up, was asked, “But how many of them are boys?”

“Amy,” a charismatic performer and teacher who applied for a guest position in a college summer program, was rejected and then asked if she could suggest a good man. She says, “I tried to think of one who was available, but all the men I knew were knee-deep in jobs. They finally found someone. He’d been dancing half as many years as I had.”

Things look different through a man’s eyes. Every male dancer we spoke to vehemently defended the work he had put into his success. Ballet dancers point out that because present-day technique is heavily influenced by the characteristics of women’s bodies, they have a hard time mastering it. (Although men can generally jump higher, are stronger and have straighter torsos, women have the crucial advantage of being freer in the hips and upper back and having suppler feet.) [[This parenthetical statement may be irrefutable, but the generalizations still make me cringe.]] Also women have more often danced since childhood, giving them a head start in their technique. This may account for the feeling among many male dancers that they are victims in a “woman’s world.”

Despite this no one can deny that men have more opportunities. “Don,” a talented and vibrant modern dancer, admitted, “I couldn’t be where I am professionally if I weren’t a man.” He started dancing three years ago at the suggestion of a dramatic coach. With a little army discipline behind him and a natural ease of movement, he was asked to dance professionally after eight months. He quickly saw that there was more room for him in dance than in theatre. Much attention came his way in dance classes and although he knew the reason was simply a dearth of men, he made the most of it. “I get offered a lot of jobs,” he says. “I always take the one I can learn the most from.” He is fed up with women saying, “Oh, you’re a man, that’s different,” because he feels he chose his goal wisely and worked to make it happen.

Men are becoming a top attraction because they sell at the box office and they sell on stage. The Martha Graham Dance Company, whose repertoire traditionally features female protagonists, has begun to take in male dancers who have never even studied the technique. This is quite a change from the days when the Graham technique was sacred and a dancer was profane until she or he had spent years getting it under the belt.

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, 1920s or '30s

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, 1920s or ’30s

And if a man sells, an undiluted flock of them sells better. The American prototype is Ted Shawn’s muscular, spectacular all-male company of the 1930s. Today’s counterpart is Pilobolus, a group of gymnasts whose debut in 1972 as an all-male dance company was greeted with near-hysterical acclaim.

All-male groups are praised for their virility, whereas all-female groups are seen as somehow deficient. The insinuation, whether vocalized or not, is “Couldn’t they find a man?” [[I think this has changed. It seems to me that all-woman groups and works often attain some measure of acclaim.]]

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Women have undeniably contributed to this syndrome. If resistance to women’s success did not exist, women would probably create it. “Sheila,” a beautifully sharp-featured woman who has danced for several well-known choreographers, has rarely chosen to dance for a woman. Looking back, she analyses it this way: “Women like having a man around…it’s like choosing a doctor. You want to be led by a man, get the attention of a man. Deep down inside, you think he knows something and you don’t.” [[Arrrgggghhhh.]]

Asked why success in dance comes more easily for men than women, one woman answered, “Both men and women have doubts. Women let their doubts stop them, and men don’t.”

We have both taught beginning dance classes. Time and time again, we’ve seen that, in a new and possibly intimidating situation, men will be generally more aggressive, physically and personally. As a dance teacher, you see the whole problem embodied before your eyes.

“Scott,” a contemporary danseur noble, has guested with several international ballet companies. He readily claims that women ballet dancers are, hands down, technically superior in almost every company. “Scott” resents the low standards expected of men. “They can always throw a man out there to hold a woman up and he’ll look good, but he can’t dance.”

“Scott” himself loves partnering women; he takes pride in being the catalyst, the gallant guy who assists her to new heights. But, as he says, “When you lift all day long, you tighten up—not just your arm muscles, but your legs and back also. When I don’t have to lift, I become freer in my musculature.” (A more bitter young dancer complains that he is being used as a professional weight lifter rather than an artist.)

After working with many choreographers of both sexes, “Scott” reached a conclusion that surprised even him. “I get the feeling that when women do something it’s almost like fighting…fighting for women’s rights. It’s do or die. Total involvement. We (men) have been conditioned to be the breadwinners and they have to fight to show they can do it. It’s more intense.”

What women dancers have been able to do all along is to be spectacular and subtle at the same time. The exquisite feats that audiences marvel at are accomplished not by strength alone, but with sensitivity and skill. From Camargo to Taglioni to Cynthia Gregory, and from Duncan to the best of our contemporary dancers—Sara Rudner [[who is still a terrific dancer]], Jennifer Muller [[she no longer dances but her company has been going since 1974]], Carolyn Lord [[a ballet dancer turned downtown choreographer who now runs the Construction Company space]]—women have achieved a formidable mastery of the art and a range any performer would aspire to.

However, the quality of the dancing isn’t always what catches the audience’s fancy. Sometimes it’s the (undeniable) sexuality of the dancers. In the right cultural milieu—and this is it—men can become sex objects as easily as women. As Siegel says, “The featuring of men in ballet has created a new theatrical meat market.”

The only way to remove dance from the realm of sex-objectism is to become more familiar with it, so that we are comfortable watching the dancers, and their sexuality is not the overriding concern, eclipsing all other pleasures. [[I wish we’d come up with a more activist ending. If you think of something, please write it in the comments box below.]]

Photo of Martha Graham on homepage by Imogen Cunningham.


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Martha Graham and the Asian Connection

I wrote this in April 2014 for Dance Magazine’s website. Recently, when searching for it to recommend to a student, I noticed it was missing from the site, so I decided to re-post it here. These musings were prompted by the 2014 season of the Martha Graham Dance Company, but they had been brewing for some time. I thank the late Blondell Cummings for helping to jog my memory.

Although the Graham season this weekend emphasized Martha’s Greek connection, it got me thinking about her Asian connection. From the legendary Yuriko in the 1940s on down to the latest star, Xin Ying, these dancers have each been breath-taking interpreters of Graham’s vision.

I’ve read that Graham cultivated an Eastern look herself and that she felt flattered whenever anyone mistook her for Asian. It’s possible that, since she had a long torso and short legs, her close-to-the-floor technique was particularly suited to Asian bodies. And of course, she had a great affinity with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose sets for many of her pieces gave them a spare, Eastern look. About the relationship between Graham and Noguchi, Takako Asakawa once said, “In art, they were like husband and wife.”

Whatever the reason, more Asian dancers have found a home in her work than in any other modern dance company—and many of them have been brilliant. By the way, Graham’s interest in Asian forms goes back to Michio Ito, the early modern dancer with whom she had danced in the Greenwich Village Follies in 1924.

Here are the Asian dancers I remember:

Yuriko, Dance Magazine Archives

Yuriko, Dance Magazine Archives

Yuriko Kikuchi — Known simply as Yuriko, this legendary dancer started as a seamstress for Martha. As Japanese Americans during World War II, her family was forced to live in an internment camp. (These camps were recently brought to light in the Broadway musical Allegiance.) Yuriko danced with Graham from 1944 to 1967 and continued to appear as a guest artist. As a stager, she set the glorious stampede known as Panorama (1935) on the company. (She also played Eliza in the original Broadway musical The King and I (1951) as well as in the movie (1956), both choreographed by Jerome Robbins.


Takako Asakawa — As the woman in red in Diversion of Angels, she would cross the front of the stage, relevé with one leg lifted, and contract in a spasm of joy at the peak of the relevé. I’ve never seen any dancer, in a modern or ballet company, perform this passage with the same slicing, gripping electricity that Asakawa had.



Yriko Kimura as Clytemnestra, 1970s, photo by Max Waldman

Yuriko Kimura as Clytemnestra, 1970s, photo by Max Waldman

Yuriko Kimura — Known as “Little Yuriko” and also from Japan, she danced with the company in the 1960s and 70s. Onstage she was both vulnerable and strong, with exquisite sensitivity, like a filament in a light bulb—unforgettable! I believe she still teaches in Japan.




Dawn Suzuki — A strong and rooted dancer, she used to demonstrate for the classes I took at the Graham studio in the 60s.



Miki Orihara, photo by John Deane

Miki Orihara — As a mainstay of the company from 1987 until recently, she has excelled in lead roles in Appalachian Spring, Errand Into the Maze, and Satyric Festival Song. She teaches in Japan and the U. S. and has also served as Yuriko’s assistant. In 2018 she presented a solo concert that celebrated generations of Asian American dancers.



Rika Okamoto — She had a keen sense of drama when she danced with the company in the 1990s. She also danced with Pearl Lang and later became one of the original Tharpettes in Come Fly Away. Her charisma led to her stealing the show of Tharp’s 50th-anniversary tour.



Feng-Yi Sheu, photo by John Deane

Feng-Yi Sheu, photo by John Deane

Fang-Yi Sheu  Around 2004, when it seemed the Graham company would go under, Feng-Yi became the reigning star, galvanizing the public with her forcefulness and uncanny Martha-like presence. Trained in Taiwan by former Graham dancer Ross Parkes, she graced the January 2005 Dance Magazine cover as a “25 to Watch.” She has also worked with Christopher Wheeldon, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and Akram Khan, and co-founded her own company in Taiwan. You can see her on the big screen in The Assassins.



Xiaochuan Xie, Dance Magazine cover, NOvember 2013, photo by Nathan Sayers

Xiaochuan Xie, Dance Magazine cover, November 2013, photo by Nathan Sayers

Xiaochuan Xie — Trained in China, “Chuan” is another powerhouse dancer who can be as delicate as she is forceful. Although she has the visceral fire in her belly that marks a Graham dancer, she can also radiate sunshine and sweetness in roles like Creon’s daughter in Cave of the Heart. In November 2013 she landed on Dance Magazine’s cover. Last season she followed in Yuriko’s footsteps, dancing a radiant Eliza in The King and I at Lincoln Center.




OeuHu Chien-Pott in Depak Ine, photo by Yi-Chun Wu

PeiJu Chien-Pott — An astonishing performer, Chien-Pott, originally from Taiwan, is a current star of the Graham company. Not only is she powerful in the Graham classics, but she has mastered the fluid, whipping-around choreography of Andonis Foniadakis in Echo and the animal-like strangeness of the lead solo in Nacho Duato’s Depak Ine. She danced with the company from 2011 to 2016. She gave a powerhouse performance in the kung-fu musical Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise with choreography by Akram Khan at the Shed in 2019.



Akiko Kanda in 1961, ph Zachary Freyman for Dance Magazine

I just learned about was Akiko Kanda, profiled in the Aug. 1961 Dance Magazine in “Brief Biographies: Dancers you should know.” Along with Takako and Little Yuriko, she attended Graham’s lec-dem in Tokyo in 1955. Seeing Martha in a red dress demonstrate her work galvanized her to decide to come to NYC to study with Martha, which she did the following year. She joined the company in 1958 and danced featured roles for years. She returned to Japan in the early 60s to teach and choreograph.


Xin Ying

Since 2011, Xin Ying has performed major roles. She is also very active on Instagram where you can see her beguiling improvisations. Here in Grahams Satyric Festival Song (1935)



Did I miss anyone?


Equal time for male dancers: When I first posted this almost two years ago, one reader pointed out that females were not the only gender of Asians in Graham’s company over the years. Click here to read my post-posting on Asian men in the group.



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