Syvilla Fort, Gregory Hines, Pearl Primus, and Helen Tamiris

This was the first year that Dance Magazine Awards has given posthumous awards. After all, there are many worthy dance professionals who never were recognized in this way. (The list of past recipients is here.) For the 2023 awards event at the 92nd Street Y on Monday, December 6, I was asked to “present” these honors. This is what I said (with added links):

I’ve been so immersed in dance history, both in my teaching and in my writing, that for me, these four artists, are still very much alive.

Fort, 1930s, Courtesy Cornish School of Allied Arts

Syvilla Forte (1917-1975)

Like many Black girls who fell in love with ballet, she could not find a teacher in Seattle who would accept her into a class. But at 15, she was given a full scholarship to the Cornish School of Allied Arts, where she encountered a fellow student named Merce Cunningham and a music teacher named John Cage. When she asked Cage to compose music for her with an African inflection, his solution was the prepared piano—which developed into one of his most famous compositions.

After graduating, Syvilla went on to dance with Katherine Dunham—and you can see her for a split second in this clip of Stormy Weather  (go to 2 mins, 10 seconds in). Because she’d been turned away from ballet schools, she had a dream of a school where everyone was welcome. So when Dunham opened her school in New York City in 1945, the role of director and top teacher naturally went to Syvilla. She taught the Dunham technique, but when she opened her own school, she evolved it into what she called Modern-Afro Technique, which she felt was a freer form. She became such a beloved teacher that the Black Theatre Alliance organized a gala tribute to her in 1975, when she was ailing with cancer. Harry Belafonte, whose wife Julie had been Syvilla’s student, said, “More graciously than almost anybody else I know…she made one of the most powerful contributions to the field of dance, to the field of theater.” Alvin Ailey called her “our inspiration.” There’s more on Syvilla Fort here.


Hines in White Nights, ph Anthony Crickmay, DM

Gregory Hines (1946-2003)

Gregory Hines was a child tapper, professional by the time he was 5. He and his brother Maurice worked up a vaudeville act that took them around the country. The brothers practically grew up at the Apollo, where they saw tap greats like Honi Coles, the Nicholas Brothers, and Teddy Hale. Their childhood act led to television appearances and roles for Gregory in the musicals Eubie! (1978), Sophisticated Ladies (1981) and Jelly’s Last Jam, (1991) for which he won a Tony. He was in many films, and you can see the Hines brothers dance together in this great scene from The Cotton Club (1984). And who can forget the exhilaration of Hines and Baryshnikov, two competing virtuosos, in White Nights?!? (1985)

Dance historian Sally Sommer wrote the best description of his dancing in the New York Times: “Gregory Hines was a gracious and charming performer onstage… But he was also a dance revolutionary who took the upright tap tradition, bent it over and slammed it to the ground…. He recast the image of the black male tap-dancer and roughed up the rhythms…He obliterated the tempos, throwing down a cascade of taps like pebbles tossed across the floor.”

Hines was an influence on many tappers including Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, and Jason Samuels Smith, all of whom have received Dance Magazine Awards. He was also a lifetime advocate, lobbying in Washington to help establish the National Tap Dance Day.

In this interactive essay for Jacob’s Pillow, Brian Seibert discusses why Hines never smiled when he danced, how improvising was a mode of conversation, and his musical mind. Best of all is a clip of him dancing/entertaining at the Pillow Gala of 1996.


Primus, 1944

Pearl Primus (1919-1994),

The Trinidad-born dancer/choreographer,  anthropologist, and educator, was a magnetic performer with a fantastic jump. She debuted her choreography here, at the 92nd Street Y in 1943 and performed here every year for the next decade. She also appeared in nightclubs, rallies in Madison Square Garden, union meetings, and colleges, and later, she picked cotton with sharecroppers in the South. Her trip to Africa in 1948 was transformative for her. Especially in the villages of Nigeria and Liberia, she was welcomed as an ancestral spirit and learned their dances.

She spoke out against the racism of the Jim Crow South and danced for leftist and communist organizations, incurring the watchful eye of the FBI, which at one point confiscated her passport. But she never wavered from her mission to present Black heritage onstage with dignity.

Before all that, she went to Hunter College, and her first modern dance teacher was actually another student at Hunter who had started a modern dance club. This other student spotted her talent immediately and told her, You should go to the New Dance Group. The reason I know this, is that that other student was my mother.

When interviewed in Dance Magazine, November 1968, Primus said she wanted to “reach beyond the color of the skin and go into people’s souls and hearts and search out that part of them, black or white, which is common to all.” Primus’s legacy lives on with Philadanco, which holds in its rep, her solo Strange Fruit (one of my choice of Iconic Short Solos), depicting a horrified response to a lynching. And Urban Bush Women have paid tribute to her with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s intense, overwhelming work, Walking with Pearl.

Read John O. Perpener’s interactive essay on Primus in Jacob’s Pillow’s Dance Interactive here.


Helen Tamiris , photographed by Man Ray, 1925

Helen Tamiris (1905­–1966)

A force in the New York dance world from 1927 to 1964, was a bold, sensual dancer who choreographed more than 90 pieces for the concert stage. Her performances had a warmth and accessibility that were different from the works of her more strictly modernist peers. Always community minded, in 1930 she organized a cooperative venture with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman so that the four groups could perform on Broadway at an affordable cost. During the Depression, when President Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration to keep people working, it included the Federal Theater Project, and Tamiris lobbied for dance to be part of it. Her signature work How Long Brethren (1937) was the longest running show to come out of the Federal Dance Project. Performed to Black spirituals, it depicted scenes of Black oppression and poverty— (usually with a white cast, and that has fostered some current controversy.)

Tamiris also choreographed 18 Broadway musicals, including the 1946 revival of Showboat in which the top dancing role went to…Pearl Primus.

In her last decade, Tamiris teamed up with her husband, Daniel Nagrin, to direct the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company. During that period she choreographed Memoir, about her Jewish roots; and Women’s Song, about women’s roles in society and the devastation of the Holocaust. You can find out more about Tamiris in the Jewish Women’s Archives here.

The Dance Magazine Awards honor these four dancestors who continue to inspire us.




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Pina Bausch at Juilliard and in NYC 1959–1961

Before Pina Bausch (1940–2009) choreographed for Kurt Jooss’s Folkwang Tanzstudio, before she took over Wuppertal Ballet and renamed it Tanztheater Wuppertal, before she startled the world with her radical imagination, she had been to Juilliard and worked with choreographers in New York City. An artist who avidly embraced new experiences, she once defined her form of tanztheater as “a space where we can encounter each other.”[1] I maintain that the encounters during her two years in New York contributed more to her development than most Bausch scholars have acknowledged.

[Let me say right here that the footnotes are woefully out of order. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I made cuts some months ago, and it was confounding for me to try to re-order them in this format.]

Some scholars claim that American dance, with its formalist concerns supposedly in the forefront, had little effect on Bausch.[5] I attribute this view to a misunderstanding of what was considered “mainstream modern dance” in those years. The formalism of Merce Cunningham was quite marginal at the time, while Graham’s aesthetic—the emotional core of the modernist narrative—still held sway. The concert series at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, the stronghold for modern dance in New York, was packed with former Graham dancers including Pearl Lang, Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, Yuriko, and Sophie Maslow. Many of them were teaching at Juilliard. (Bausch herself performed there in December 1959 with Paul Sanasardo, in his work In View of God [6], more about this later).

Merce Cunningham was rarely invited to perform at the Y in the fifties, nor was he on the Juilliard faculty. He wasn’t widely accepted until the success of his 1964 world tour. (He too had danced with Graham, but his choreography departed so radically that it pushed beyond “modern dance” into another category that was called “contemporary dance” or sometimes “abstract” dance). Judson Dance Theater, which erupted with the bold experimentation that ushered in post-modern dance, didn’t emerge until 1962—and even then, it was below the radar. So the Juilliard dance department, with its director Martha Hill (herself a former Graham dancer), was basically aligned with the center of modern dance at the time.

The New York influence on Bausch was threefold. First, her Juilliard teachers, most of whom were international figures: Antony Tudor, Alfredo Corvino, José Limón, Graham (especially through company members Mary Hinkson and Donald McKayle) and to some extent, La Meri, Louis Horst, and Anna Sokolow. Second, the choreographers she worked with outside of Juilliard: Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer, Paul Taylor, and again, Tudor, at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Lastly, the sheer diversity of styles, ethnicities, and music genres that populated New York at the time.

Graham technique at Juilliard. From left: William Louther, Martha Hill, Donald McKayle (teaching the class), Dudley Williams, Mabel Robinson, and Pina Bausch. Photographer unknown, Courtesy Juilliard Archives.

My purpose is to open a window into that period of the young Pina Bausch in New York. I discuss the range of styles she participated in at Juilliard, her close—and fraught—relationship with Tudor, her performances in the year-end school concert, and her friendship with a diverse group of students. I also describe her immersion in the work with Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer in Chelsea; her brief time with Paul Taylor at Spoleto; her stint with the Metropolitan Opera; and her attraction to Sokolow’s work. Although it doesn’t fit into the two-year span, I also include her four weeks at Saratoga in 1972, where, through Sanasardo and the late Manuel Alum, she met two dancers who were essential to the creation and longevity of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.


Crossing the Atlantic

From the age of 14 to 18, Philippine (her given name) Bausch studied dance with Kurt Jooss, director of dance at the Folkwang School in Essen. Jooss was a proponent of Austruckstanz but veered off from Rudolf Laban’s movement choirs to develop tanztheater as a concert form. Jooss was a prolific choreographer; his company toured extensively throughout Europe before and after World War II. His anti-war ballet, The Green Table (1932), is one of the iconic works of the twentieth century. A leading educator as well, Jooss developed a training method that combined the strength and clarity of ballet with the weight and effort flow of Laban.

Pina benefited from the multi-arts nature of the school. In 2002, she told The Guardian, “At this time at the Folkwang, all the arts were together. It was not just the performing arts like music or acting or mime or dance, but there were also painters, sculptors, designers, photographers.”[8] At the end of her last year there, she won the Folkwang prize, possibly the first dancer to be so recognized. A grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) funded her sojourn to the Juilliard School of Music (now simply the Juilliard School).

Lucas Hoving teaching a Composition Materials class, Photo © Radford Bascome, courtesy of the Juilliard Archives.

Lucas Hoving, the Dutch dancer who had worked closely with both Jooss and Limón, was a link between the Folkwang School in Essen and Juilliard, having taught in both schools. Like Jooss, Hoving combined ballet and modern vocabularies in his technique classes. After her ship set sail from the port city of Cuxhaven to New York in the fall of 1959, the 18-year-old Pina wrote to Lucas, asking him to meet her at the New York harbor. Almost five decades later, when receiving a Dance Magazine Award, she told a poignant story about the way New York welcomed her, which I repeat at the end of this essay.


Friends, Classes, and Spirit at Juilliard

Pina loved the cultural and racial diversity at Juilliard. On the day she auditioned for placement levels, she met Rina Schenfeld, a young dancer who had sailed from Israel. Neither could speak much English, but they bonded immediately. The two shared the experience of outsiders who were welcomed. As Schenfeld told me, “We were both foreigners, and we were treated so beautiful, like real important guests.”[9]

Pina also made friends with a group of Black students that included Sylvia Waters, Mabel Robinson, William Louther, and Dudley Williams (all of whom became major figures in the New York dance world). Sylvia told me about a holiday dinner, probably in the fall of 1959:

I remember one Thanksgiving she [Pina] spent with me and Mabel Robinson and, I think, Dudley and Bill Louther. I’d never seen her eat so much! We all ate a lot, and we all fell asleep instantly, and woke up and ate again…We were young and just having fun… it was a new experience for her, to have a traditional Thanksgiving, especially with a Black family.[10]

The comfort she felt with African American dancers gives us a glimmer of her later commitment to diversity with her Wuppertal company.

Pina Bausch and Mercedes Ellington in rehearsal. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Juilliard Archives.

Pina was friendly with other students too. Carla De Sola, who had never taken ballet, remembers, “She would come to where I was at the barre and she would help me, give me pointers…on tendues, pliés, basic footwork…It was a kindness on her part.”[11] And Mercedes Ellington recalled, “Pina was teaching me German by body part: obershenckel [thigh] unterschenkel [lower leg].”[12]

Ellington was living in a room next to Bausch’s at International House, down the block from the Juilliard building, then on Claremont Avenue in the Columbia University neighborhood. They both worked in the cafeteria, alternating chores like tending the cash register and bussing tables. “Her favorite dessert was strawberry ice cream,” Ellington told me, “and she poured sugar over the ice cream and squeezed a lemon on top of that.” Did Pina smoke? “Smoking: always; everybody was smoking back then.”

Most students in the dance department had to choose between majoring in ballet or modern dance, and if the latter, between Graham and Limón. As a special student, Pina could take any classes she wanted.

Standing: William Louther, Donald McKayle. On knees: Mabel Robinson, Dudley Williams, and Pina Bausch, Photographer unknown, Courtesy Juilliard Archives.

The Graham technique, based on contraction and release initiated in the pelvis, is emotional—an expression of either ecstasy or despair— and yet the technique is modernist in its stark shapes. In a photo of Bausch’s early work Aktionen für Tänzer (1970-1971), she passes through a high contraction in the Graham style, very much like the photo above. In a more general way, the Graham influence can be seen in how deeply visceral the Bausch dancers’ solos are, how the movement is initiated in the center of the body. The Humphrey/Limón style is softer and more fluid, concentrating on fall and recovery (or fall and suspension), with a more lyrical flow.

Although these techniques were new to her, Pina entered them with the high level of artistry she attained at Jooss’s school. Sylvia Waters remembers, “She had very clean lines and she was unique. She rather shimmered onstage… quiet, strong, fluid…such clarity.”[13]

At Juilliard, Pina was totally focused on dance. “I never thought I would become a choreographer. I only wanted to dance,” she declared in a speech titled “What moves me” that she gave upon receiving the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy in 2007.[14] Schenfeld (who later became the magnetic star of the Batsheva Dance Company), confirms this, saying she was surprised when she learned that Pina was choreographing in Germany.[15]

That said, the German student was fully active in Louis Horst’s “Modern Forms” class at Juilliard. Horst, the composer who had mentored Martha Graham and given structure to her choreography, assigned studies for certain categories of dance styles. The Juilliard archive shows that in October Pina composed and danced “Girl In A Big City” to music by Gershwin, and for the December workshop she co-composed a “Whole Tone” study with music by Lothar Windsperger. This last was for an assignment called “Exercises in Space, Volume and Time.” For the showing in March, she created a solo in the “cerebral” category called “Mechanics on Parade,” with music by Ernst Toch, and in the “jazz” category, “Madison Avenue” to music by Edgar Fairchild.[16]

Janet Mansfield Soares, author of biographies on Martha Hill and Louis Horst and a former assistant to Horst, recalled that “Pina’s solutions were right on-point. She understood Horst’s assignments (ranging from linear to dissonant, cerebral to impressionist). I do believe his teaching gave her a strong aesthetic grounding for her lifetime of extraordinary work.” [17]

I agree that she may have absorbed Horst’s teachings insofar as he demanded rigor and cogency in the studies. However, the structure he taught was basically A-B-A, or theme-and-variations, whereas Bausch favored a collage-like structure in her work. A bonus in the classes with Horst, though, was that he would sometimes speak German with her.[18]

Bausch worked with non-white dancers every day at Juilliard. The Graham technique classes were taught by members of her company including notable Black dance artists Donald McKayle and Mary Hinkson. Pina took classes from Mexican-born José Limón and was probably directed by him in Doris Humphrey’s Passacaglia (1938). In Tudor’s Little Improvisations, she understudied Ellington, the granddaughter of Duke Ellington, and, in A Choreographer Comments, she danced alongside Japanese-born Chieko Kikuchi (no relation to Yuriko Kikuchi).

This diversity opened her eyes. Coming from a country whose führer committed genocide in order to narrow humanity down to a single genetic race, she valued (in my opinion) this more open world. When talking about New York, she said,

The people, the city, all embody something of now for me, where everything is mixed together, whether that’s different nationalities or interests or fashion, everything is just side by side.[19]

When she reshaped Wuppertal Ballet into Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1975, she started building an international company. By the 1990s, the Wuppertal dancers hailed from every continent except Antarctica.[20] Her group included Black, Asian, and LatinX dancers, as she said, “side by side.”

This diversity, and with it a sense of independence, reflected a spirit about Juilliard that Schenfeld feels helped shape Bausch, the artist: “What Juilliard gave us—it’s not the steps—it was an international, individualistic attitude, which is America, which is what New York was then. Freedom of individuality. It’s the essence of things…not teaching us to be soldiers. And that’s how she really developed and found herself.” [21]

Bausch and Schenfeld remained lifelong friends. Whenever Tanztheater Wuppertal performed in Israel, they had long visits, sometimes attending local celebrations together.[50]


The Tudor Connection — Deep and Long

Antony Tudor was known for his psychological ballets, for his ability to turn a well-timed gesture into a pivotal narrative moment. It was no secret that Pina was a favorite of Tudor’s. Ellington called her his muse: “There was a strong connection between her and Tudor, they spiritually understood each other.… she was acclimated to his style, so he paid a lot of attention to her.” He gave Pina leads in his ballets, even though pointework was not her forte. (He gave Ellington the lead in his Little Improvisations, which she danced with Bill Louther. Pina was in the second cast of this duet.)

Carla De Sola recalls a period when Tudor experimented with an improvisational component in class, which may have been part of his course called Ballet Production or Rehearsal or possibly Ballet Production and Arrangement:

Tudor had a tiny little composition class at the end of ballet class… and Pina Bausch was always spectacular. He would say, “Would you go across the floor and let us know where you are, what environment, by just how your body is? Is it moonlight? Is it sunlight?” And she would know how to do that! He was interested in someone who could convey something…not necessarily just through the steps but the way she carried herself, or her aura.[22]

Bausch believed in Tudor totally. The Tudor Centennial project (2008 to 2010) gave her an opportunity to look back and sing his praises:

His way of using and extending the classical dance technique was absolutely groundbreaking—for both classical and modern dance. He was the first to bring his Grandparents’ [sic] clothes onto the stage. He was in many things the first. I was of course full of admiration for him. His ballets were wonderful, but very, very hard to dance. In his pieces it needed a very special sensitivity for this fineness of feeling, accuracy, and humour. He was incredibly critical, especially about himself.”[23]

Although Pina was supremely classical in her balletic lines and port de bras, she did not have strong feet. About her efforts on pointe, Schenfeld remembers, “She didn’t feel she was doing the best for Tudor. She didn’t talk about it. I just saw her suffering.”[24] Viewing the archival film in the Juilliard archives, one can see that Pina could barely sustain pointework. Her ankles were so weak that, when on pointe, her supporting foot looked as if it could have crumpled at any moment. Bausch wrote in her Tudor reminiscence, “Once…while we were performing his piece A Choreographer Comments, I fell off pointe. I hardly dared to look him in the eye. I could have jumped into the Hudson River out of shame.”[25]

Antony Tudor rehearsing A Choreographer Comments with Koert Stuyf and Pina Bausch. Dance Division Scrapbook #4 (1959/60), p. 27. Photographer unknown.

But this film reveals that all the women students were weak on pointe. Knowing that Tudor choreographed the piece specifically for the students, I question the soundness of his decision to put them on toe before they were ready. I wonder if he even consulted with Margaret Craske, who taught pointe class.

It’s also no secret that Tudor could humiliate students. He had a knack for making cutting comments, ostensibly to toughen them up. He had nicknames for some of his students, and Bausch recalled that he had chosen a rather harsh one for her:

In the men’s class he simply called me Adolf and I had to come to terms with that. It was somehow quite clear. I had to take it. He knew that I liked him and I knew that he liked me so the German problem was settled between us…He called me Adolf. I was then Adolf. Adolf stood in the row.[26]

I was so confounded by this choice of nickname that I asked three people about it and got three different interpretations. When I told Rina Schenfeld, at first she was horrified. But after reading Pina’s full passage, she wrote this in an email to me:

It was for her [Pina] the answer about her guilt complex being German and me being an Israeli. Now I do understand. It was all there but in silence, the way my family were silenced about their family [members] being murdered by the Nazis. Nobody talked, [there was] only silence, and Tudor raised this up in a joke in a funny way, like trying to exorcise her guilt.[27]

Lance Westergard, who had been a favorite of Tudor’s at Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera, explained to me that Tudor insisted on honesty onstage, and poking fun at young dancers was part of his commitment to that goal.[28]

Former dancer Judith Chazin-Bennahum, author of The Ballets of Antony Tudor, tended to chalk it up to a compulsive urge to insult: “He was a very cruel guy. He was not only intimidating; he could scorch you.”[29] But in a later email, she tried to square it with his larger mission: “I suspect he was trying to wake up the rather numb quality in the ballet person at the time. We were so used to doing whatever we were told, he tried to snap us into thinking about what we were doing.”[30]

In Sweden, one of Tudor’s students, Gerd Andersson (sister of the actress Bibi Andersson), had figured this out in a similar way to Bausch: For her, Tudor was “a mixture of kindness, sarcasm, and seriousness…You had to make a personal choice whether to take a joke positively or negatively. Whatever the difficulties, we all knew that what we got back far exceeded them.”[31]

Clearly the teenage Pina could take whatever darts were thrown at her. Tudor’s toxic name-calling did not put a dent in her admiration for him. She later told an interviewer, “There was a reason if he was rude. He believed if people were too comfortable they couldn’t dance.”[32]

Screen grab of Bausch in The Green Table film, 1967

Bausch engaged in his work even after she returned to Germany. In 1962, he came to the Folkwang Ballet in Essen to stage Lilac Garden and she danced the role of Caroline.[33] And she played the Old Woman in the production of The Green Table that was filmed by the BBC in 1967. She was also once cast as the lady with the feather boa in his Judgment of Paris (1938–40)[34] (though I haven’t found out where or when). This satirical ballet surely influenced her; at least this was the opinion of New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff, who perceived, in a section of Bausch’s work Viktor (1986), a tribute to Judgment of Paris. Just as Tudor portrayed three over-the-hill women entertainers trying to interest one man, Bausch, in Viktor, choreographed three waitresses serving one male customer.[35]


Tudor, Sure. But La Meri—What a Surprise!

The concert of the Juilliard Dance Ensemble at the end of the 1959-60 school year comprised two programs: one in modern dance and one in ballet. The first, directed by Limón, was devoted to works by himself, Ruth Currier, and Doris Humphrey. Because Humphrey had died the previous December, Limón restaged Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1938) in tribute to her. Pina and Chester Wolenski, a visiting guest alum, were cast in the lead roles originally danced by Humphrey and Charles Weidman. One of the few Humphrey works that enjoyed a long life, Passacaglia is known for its arcing body shapes, architectural formations, relationship of individual to group, and noble vision of humanity. The Juilliard archive has photos, but unfortunately no film.

Juilliard Dance Ensemble in Doris Humphrey’s Passacaglia. Bausch in center with angled elbows; Schenfeld second from right; to her right is Steve Paxton (!) To her left (far right) is Alice Condodina. Photo © Impact Photos, courtesy of the Juilliard Archives.

The ballet program, directed by Tudor, included two reconstructions of works from the Baroque era, two works by Tudor, and one by La Meri. Pina danced lead roles in Tudor’s A Choreographer Comments and La Meri’s The Seasons, both of which were documented by a special afternoon filming in a light-filled studio, thanks to Martha Hill’s prescience.

As a current member of the Juilliard faculty, I have access to these digitized films. I offer descriptions simply because I felt privileged to witness Bausch’s dancing at a young age.[36] I am not contending that these particular works were transformative for her, but perhaps they helped build a foundation she could later break away from.

Bausch and Koert Stuyf in Tudor’s A Choreographer Comments, Photo © Impact Photos Inc., courtesy of the Juilliard Archives.

A Choreographer Comments had ten sections, each one demonstrating a different ballet step. The first, “587 Arabesques,” starts with Pina standing alone, her left foot crossed over the right ankle. In many lyrical but restrained forays, six women step into arabesque with three men intermittently supporting them. The section ends with Pina standing in exactly the same position she started in, left foot crossed over right ankle, but now she is enfolded in an embrace by Dutch student Koert Stuyf.

Pina is livelier in the third section, a duet titled “Pas de Bourrée.” She partners Stuyf in what dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen called a “snidely priggish exposition” of this little connecting step.[37] Pina’s footgear is now low heels, so she doesn’t have to worry about pointework. She holds her chin up as though looking at the world in disdain, but this haughty look could be just from trying to keep her hat, perched far back on her head, from falling off. At one point, the woman and man bump into each other, back to back, and she turns and gives him a mild nod. Tudor told an interviewer that he turned Pina “into a comedienne” during the making of this ballet.[38] I wonder if he was referring to this barely noticeable moment. It all seemed tame to my eye.

As Walter Terry pointed out in the Herald Tribune, Tudor’s Little Improvisations was more appealing. He called it “an enchanting duet, at times playful, occasionally ironic, again tender and touching.”[39] While he commended the first cast, Mercedes Ellington and William Louther, one wishes he had also seen the second cast, with Bausch. There’s a moment in the choreography when the young woman is cradling a scarf as though it’s a baby and the cloth falls to the floor. When Schenfeld described Pina performing this “sad but beautiful duet,” she felt that it caught something about Pina’s own lingering sense of loss.

In contrast to the pristine A Choreographer Comments, the tender Little Improvisations, and the massive Passacaglia, La Meri brought a very different flavor to the concert. A dance artist in the tradition of Ruth St. Denis, La Meri traveled to Asia, Latin America, and Europe to learn traditional dances that she performed and taught at Jacob’s Pillow. (For some, this might raise a red flag for cultural appropriation, but Nancy Wozny voices a more complex view in Dance Magazine.) Tudor had seen The Seasons when it premiered at Jacob’s Pillow in 1953 and was so impressed that he brought it to Juilliard. La Meri used motifs from Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian forms, for instance the lotus with fingertips floating upward, the sprinkling of seeds with fingertips dipping downward, the elbow pulling back to indicate archery. The “Primavera” section featured images of “birds, streams, storms, children, and a dreaming shepherdess.”[40] All these images illuminated Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with verve and imagination — and Pina was absolutely magisterial in it.

Screen grabs from archival film of The Seasons by La Meri. Pina and Carl Wolz.

As seen in the archival film, Bausch’s long neck and sculpted face give her a startling elegance. She creates space and light around her upper body. In the slow duet with Carl Wolz [3], subtitled “Largo: The Plants Grow and the Cowherd Dreams,” she is grounded and regal, as though she herself were rooted in the soil, ready to grow. Her focus on the hands forming lotus blossoms is transcendent. In a later section, “L’Autumno: Adagio Molto: The Drunkards Dreams after the Grape Harvest,” she dances a languid, audaciously sensual, hip-swaying solo with a veil over her face and shoulders. Reviewing for Dance Magazine, Doris Hering wrote that one of two “especially exciting” sections was a “melting solo for Philippine Bausch.”[41]

I found this 18-year-old dancing on film to be astonishing in her artistry.

Plunging into the Darkness of Sanasardo and Feuer

Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer 1961

Tudor knew that Pina wanted to dance more, and he had a hunch that she would be right for the work of Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer. Sanasardo had danced with Anna Sokolow, and Feuer had attended Juilliard a few years earlier. Their partnership was sparked by Feuer seeing Sanasardo in the original production of Sokolow’s Rooms (1955), that iconic drama of urban alienation. The two shared a three-floor loft in Chelsea—for only $250 a month![42] Called the Studio for Dance, the space became the hub of a highly theatrical form of dance exploration, a place where dancers dug deep into the human psyche. As dance scholar Mark Franko has written about their approach, “Intensity is indeed a crossing of the threshold in that it can confront us with ‘untamed’ areas of experience.”[43]

Sanasardo was teaching a rigorous modern dance class in his studio, and Tudor sent her to try it out. “She [Pina] came and took the class,” Sanasardo recalled. “She was gorgeous. She just decided we were going to work together.”[44] From Pina’s point of view, although she was still a student at Juilliard, the decision was a non-decision: “They talked to me. I couldn’t understand English, but I understood they wanted me to come to their studio. A lot of things just happened to me. I was also amazed—it was so new to me—that they had such late classes, that many people came, and the rehearsals that we did were at night. They took care of me. I never went home. I was kind of like in the family.”[45]

That she was “amazed” by people showing up at night reveals something about schedule. As mentioned by Nadine Meisner, on Bausch’s return to Essen she “found the pace in Germany lax.”[46] At both Juilliard and the Studio for Dance, classes and rehearsals had been nearly constant.

Sanasardo confirmed that “She more or less moved in.”[47] There was a daybed she could sleep on any time, so she didn’t have to travel back uptown.[48] Although Pina felt comfortable downtown, Feuer noticed that she “was very shy and cried a lot.”[49]

Sanasardo liked that Pina was a searcher: “She questioned a lot. And we used to talk a lot about, What was theater? Our early pieces were very concerned with breaking that boundary between dance and theater.” He also said, “She was spiritual. You saw her interior when she danced.” [51]

Sanasardo in Pain © Max Waldman, Archive, NY, 1970, All Rights Reserved.

Sanasardo’s work, with its extreme character portrayals, had as much an affinity for theater as for dance. He himself was a strong, expressionist performer who, according Doris Hering, could look “simultaneously evil and heroic.”[52] His choreography was equally intense. Mark Franko wrote that “Studio for Dance productions were personal and poetic, as well as provocative and disturbing.”[53] Sanasardo and Feuer worked together from 1955 to 1963, when Feuer moved to Sweden. (She collaborated closely with filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.) The only time Sanasardo and Feuer collaborated with a third dancer was for Phases of Madness—and that person was Pina Bausch.

Franko writes that the basis of Phases was “the idea that certain behaviors exceed the bounds of rationality and are most readily conveyed by dancing.”[54] About both Phases and its successor, Laughter After All, Sanasardo recalled, “There was a lot of violence in those ballets.” He drew a direct line of influence, saying, “You see it in Pina’s work.”

Franko’s description of Laughter reveals a twisted brutality in which laughter was equated with screaming, and a maniacal doctor (played by Sanasardo) tortured innocent people. Yet Feuer and others have extolled the freedom they felt at the Studio for Dance. Franko suggests that both Phases and Laughter (which was made after Pina returned to Germany) illuminate “the dialectic between madness and freedom.”[55]

This, to me, is a key connection to Bausch’s early work. The first piece for her Wuppertal company, Fritz, played on this dialectic. Bausch herself played the part of a monstrous, ungainly Grandmother. The following is a description by Josephine Ann Endicott, an unforgettably ferocious performer in Tanztheater Wuppertal:

Fritz seemed to me to be a kind of nightmare with figures out of Pina’s childhood… An extremely pale woman with a bald head, a small creepy looking woman wearing a wig with hairs on her chin, a stiff, tallish woman in a deep lilac chiffon dress with incredibly long wooden arms…a headless man in a heavy, dark winter coat, a male in a one-piece nude bodysuit wearing high stiletto shoes, false bosoms and tied around his waist a huge red pair of lips. In the silence, you could hear coughing, buzzing, panting and breathing sounds…“Father” unbuttoned “Mother’s” many-buttoned dress. She buttoned up afterward. He pushed her face forcefully into a white enamel washbowl. Grandma – all grey and old in an ugly, long, colourless dress – sat hunched in her armchair. Her legs lay over a dancer’s shoulders, which were hidden by her dress so that when she stood up she became gigantic. Pina played this part.[56]

These characters could almost have come out of a Sanasardo/Feuer production.

Many critics have described Pina Bausch’s darkness or obsessiveness as typically Germanic, but clearly Sanasardo and Feuer’s encouragement to explore the dark, bizarre side of the imagination was a key that opened inner doors for her.

Sokolow, who taught at Juilliard (mostly in the drama division), was also a potent influence. Sanasardo told me that Bausch loved Sokolow’s Rooms. While Rooms projected a bleak vision of humanity, it also brought forth vividly individual characterizations from the dancers. Ann Daly goes so far as to say that Rooms foreshadowed Bausch’s form of tanztheater.[57] While I think Rooms is too earnest, too lacking in irony, to be considered a precursor to Bausch’s work, I do agree that the portrayal of the societal harshness of Rooms could have struck a chord in Bausch.

Having been in the original cast of Rooms, Sanasardo said to me, “Of course Pina had a dark edge, which was very German Expressionist. I had a dark edge.”[58] In his work Pain (1971), he displayed his suffering lavishly. Meredith Palmer in the Harvard Crimson wrote:

With bound feet and shackled hands, lead dancer Sanasardo writhes chained to a bar, often assuming Christ-like positions, while the company screams, beats heels on the floor and squirms in sympathetic reaction. The horror of Sanasardo, knocking his head on the floor as he crosses the stage, causes gritted teeth and stifled cries in the audience.[59]

One might say that Sanasardo took Sokolow’s darkness to further extremes. Anna Kisselgoff put it succinctly: “No one leaves a Sanasardo concert laughing.”[60] Doris Hering described one section of Laughter After All in Dance Magazine: “Paul Sanasardo whacked Donya Feuer on the head,” and “she sank away from the impact, only to crawl back doggedly.”[61] That description of obsessiveness infused with masochism may sound familiar to Bausch-watchers.

Poster for performance at the Y, Dec. 1959; Woodcut by Isidor (Frank) Canner. Courtesy Pina Bausch Fndn.

Another Sanasardo/Feuer work that affected Bausch was the full-length In View of God: An Unspoken Drama in Three Acts (1959), in which Bausch performed the role of Mother, replacing Cynthia Steele. In View of God featured the remarkably solemn presence of eleven children as witnesses to erratic adult behavior. Reviewer Walter Sorell found the work frustrating but wrote that the dancers “set a morbid mood and, as they went along, achieved some stunning images that had color, poetry and inner drama.”[62]

About the children’s performance, Bausch commented, “There was nothing childish. There were like adults, only very young ones: young human beings. There was nothing cute. It was very simple.”[63] Fast forward to Bausch’s 2009 experiment of teaching the sexually combative Kontakthof to teenagers, captured in the documentary film Dancing Dreams, I’m reminded of her long-ago witnessing the self-possessed children of the Studio for Dance.

Critic Marcia B. Siegel believes that Bausch’s work resembles that of Anna Sokolow more than any other dance artist. I don’t know if Siegel was aware that Bausch had absorbed Sokolow’s aesthetic through Sanasardo. In 1986, Siegel wrote, “A Sokolow dance is a series of escalating and subsiding shocks powered by the ongoing, repetitive drive of constant motor activity, a direct expression of feeling carried to an extreme.”[64]

Magritte, Magritte by Anna Sokolow, with Juilliard students, photo © Beth Bergman, courtesy of the Juilliard Archives.

But Sokolow also possessed another, very different quality that captivated Bausch. Jim May, longtime Sokolow dancer and founder of the posthumous company, recalled Bausch’s reaction to the American choreographer’s Magritte, Magritte (1980), her tribute to the surrealist painter:

After the premiere of Magritte, Magritte the Sokolow Player’s Project went on an extensive European tour which included a performance at the Cologne Opera House where we presented Magritte. After the performance an excited Pina Bausch came running backstage… She came up to Anna and said, “Anna this is exactly what I want to do!”[65]

It seems to me that Bausch combined Sanasardo’s darkly obsessive quality and the surreal, dreamlike sensibility of Sokolow’s Magritte, Magritte—as well as other influences—into a style that was thought-provoking, absurdist, sometimes funny—or something like funny—while keeping a sharp psychological edge.

Needless to say, Jooss was a major part of Baush’s lineage, and she undoubtedly possessed what one critic called “Bausch’s ineradicable Germanness.”[66] But Sanasardo and Sokolow were also prominent threads in the tapestry of her sources.


Spoleto, June 1960

Paul Taylor’s Tablet with Dan Wagoner and Bausch, photo courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company.


After the year-end concert at Juilliard in the spring of 1960, Pina headed for the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, as a dancer with Paul Taylor. That summer Gian Carlo Menotti conceived a new (short-lived) company called New American Ballets that would perform both ballet and modern dance works. (I suspect that Menotti was trying to recreate the spectacular success of Jerome Robbins’ Ballets USA during the first summer of his festival in 1958.) The choreographers were Donald McKayle, Karel Shook (later to co-found Dance Theatre of Harlem with Arthur Mitchell), Herbert Ross, and Taylor. The company included Mabel Robinson, Dudley Williams, and Graham dancer Akiko Kanda (all of whom had been Pina’s classmates at Juilliard), as well as Mary Hinkson, and Arthur Mitchell—who was tasked by Menotti to organize the group. Bausch was able to continue her friendship with Mabel Robinson that she’d had at Juilliard.

Bausch and Wagoner in Tablet, photo courtesy PTDC.

Taylor was making a new duet for Bausch and Dan Wagoner (on leave from the Graham company) that was half of a quartet titled Tablet. In his autobiography, Taylor wrote that he was inspired by Bausch:

Pina…one of the thinnest human beings I’ve ever seen… is able to streak across the floor sharply, though a bit unevenly, like calipers across paper. She’s also able to move slower than a clogged up bicycle pump; I love watching her and suddenly have an idea for the duet—am eager to turn her into a black widow spider or praying mantis.”[67]

McKayle had a vivid memory of Bausch in Tablet:

Paul took advantage of Pina’s wafer-thin physique, clothing her in a white body suit and painting her face white except for a circle of orange encasing her eyes, nose, and lips [costume by Ellsworth Kelly]. When the lights came up on the motionless Bausch, there was a gasp from the audience and a woman’s voice spoke aloud, “Guarda la morte!” (Look at death!)… With her head tilted slightly to the side, the bones at the back of her neck glistened in pristine white, and a ghostly apparition took shape as she became la morte, the personification of death.[68]

Despite the ghastly, ghostly look, the public adored Bausch, along with the other two female leads of the company: Mary Hinkson (who had been one of Pina’s favorite teachers at Juilliard) and Akiko Kanda. McKayle writes that the three “were suddenly stars.”[69]

Wagoner, Bausch, Taylor and Konda in Taylor’s Tablet, Costumes and sets by Ellsworth Kelly, photo courtesy PTDC

Nevertheless, she grew homesick—whether for New York or Germany, Taylor did not know—and he, like Feuer, noticed that she often cried. It seems that melancholy was part of who she was.

Working with Taylor, Bausch learned a more subtle possibility in terms of subject matter. According to Isa Partsch-Bergsohn, “She liked his choreographic style very much. Paul Taylor did not state his subject matter, but implied the meaning in his choreography.” [70] His approach allowed her to edge away from an obviously stated theme and go toward greater ambiguity.

It’s worth noting, too, that McKayle’s Games (1951) was also on the Spoleto program. Since Pina’s close friend Mabel was in the cast, Pina likely saw it that summer. Games involved dancers playing children’s games as though outdoors on the street, and of course much of Bausch’s work involves game-like playing.


The Metropolitan Opera Ballet

Pina loved New York and wanted to stay on after her year at Juilliard was over. Tudor knew this, so he offered her a job dancing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, where he was director. Company class was given by the same three ballet teachers who taught at Juilliard: Tudor, Corvino, and Margaret Craske. Chazin-Bennahum, who was also in the Met Opera Ballet at the time, recalled the rigor of Tudor’s technique sessions:

His classes were brutal. They were choreographic artworks: He would have you turning one direction, right away turning in the other direction. They were terribly difficult, really really tough. Anybody who worked with Tudor had to pick up like that [snaps fingers].[71]

Between the fall of 1960 and the spring of 1961, Bausch performed in five operas, about eight performances each. She had featured roles in Alceste and Tannhauser, and was in the corps in Carmen, Turandot, and La Gioconda.[72] The old Met stage on Broadway at 39th Street was 86′ by 101′, no doubt bigger than anything Pina had encountered. As Chazin-Bennahum told me, there could be more than a hundred singers and dancers onstage, and even more musicians in the orchestra pit. Pina loved hearing the singers’ voices from backstage, “to learn to distinguish between voices. To listen very exactly.”[74]

Bausch, center, in Alceste, photo Louis Mélançon/Met Opera Archives.

Dancing with the Met Opera also gave her a chance to continuing taking class with Corvino, who was, like Hoving, a link between Folkwang and Juilliard. A ballet teacher at Juilliard for many years, he had also toured with Kurt Jooss’s company and had taught in Essen. Like Jooss, Corvino felt that ballet and modern dance could live in harmony in the training.”[75] Corvino taught body mechanics with a sense of harmony, generosity, and buoyancy. His daughter Ernesta, who took over some of his classes after he died, said, “He really understood the body in motion, the body in function; it wasn’t just about a certain balletic aesthetic.”[76] His presence was grounding and calming and full of wonder. Dawn Lille, Corvino’s biographer, felt he had “an almost childlike openness.” Developing sensitive feet, expressive hands, and a sense of weight was a central part of his approach. When he retired from Juilliard in 1994, Bausch invited him to Wuppertal to give company class. For the next decade, the elderly Corvino spent about six months a year touring with her company.[77]

Pina made an impression on the other dancers: Chazin-Bennahum remembers her “aristocratic look.” Bruce Marks compared her to the great Balanchine ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq: “Pina was a young modern version of Tanny, she had a spider-like feeling. She was fascinating to watch. She was a creature.”[73]

Dancing in New York widened the range of music Bausch was exposed to. At the Met, she danced to the operatic music of Wagner, Gluck, Bizet, Purcell. In her composition classes at Juilliard, her fellow students used Schoenberg, Scriabin, Bartok, Debussy, Satie, and jazz composer Mose Allison. Sanasardo sometimes used jazz music also. She had gained a sense of freedom as to her choices while living, working, and listening in New York. As Norbert Servos writes in his online biography, “The distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music, still firmly upheld in Germany, was of no significance to her. All music was afforded the same value, as long as it expressed genuine emotions.”[78]


Called Back to Essen

When Jooss invited Bausch to join his reconstituted Jooss Ballet in 1961, she felt torn:

After two years [in NYC] came a phone call from Kurt Jooss. He had the chance again to have another small ensemble at the school, the Folkwang Ballet. He needed me and asked me to come back. At the time I was wrestling with a great conflict between the desire to stay on in America, and the dream of being allowed to dance in Jooss’s choreographies. I wanted both of these things so much. I loved it so much being in New York; everything was going wonderfully well for me. However, I returned to Essen after all.[79]

So Bausch went back home to work with her mentor. She danced with the Folkwang Ballet (later called Folkwang Tanzstudio) as a soloist and assistant to Jooss.

Im Wind der Zeit, 1969, photo © Pina Bausch Foundation

But there’s another story about her return to Germany. Paul Sanasardo remembers it this way:

Pina got very, very thin, she was a little bit anorexic. We all got very concerned. We didn’t know quite what to do. I couldn’t act like her dogmatic father and tell her what to do…So I called Lucas Hoving, who I knew knew Jooss, and she was Jooss’s protégée. He came and looked at her and said, “Ohhh,” and he arranged for her to get back to Germany.[80]

According to John O’Mahony, writing in The Guardian, Pina did not conquer the eating disorder until Jooss gave her an ultimatum to gain weight or leave his company.[81]

In her Kyoto speech, Bausch talked about her eating habits as an eccentricity or as a way to save money, to stretch the one-year grant over two years. But she goes deeper to something that is spiritual:

However, I liked getting thinner. I paid more and more attention to the voice within me. To my movement. I had the feeling that something was becoming purer and purer, deeper and deeper. Perhaps it was all in the mind. But a transformation was taking place. Not only with my body.[82]

I felt that I witnessed that purity while watching the documentary film of Bausch in La Meri’s The Seasons. She danced the essence of spring, of a gradual blossoming. There was nothing extra. Her inner radiance shone through.


Back and Forth Between Germany and the U. S.

Bausch has said that Kurt Jooss was like a second father.[83] Similarly, Martha Hill at Juilliard may have been like a second mother—a role she played to many young hopefuls. After Pina returned to Germany in 1961, she sent Hill a postcard assuring her that she was in good hands. She wrote that she loved New York but it was good to be home and working with Jooss.

Bausch and Jean Cébron, Jacob’s Pillow 1968, photo John Van Lund, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.

Bausch began making dances at Folkwang Tanzstudio and soon became its leading choreographer. But she was pulled back to the States three times before taking the helm of Wuppertal Ballet Company in 1973. First, in 1968, she came to Jacob’s Pillow as the performing partner of French dancer Jean Cébron, who had been teaching at Folkwang School. Then in 1971, Lucas Hoving, who had a long association with Connecticut College Summer School of Dance (American Dance Festival), invited her to make her own solo within his new sextet, Zip Code. She titled it Philips 836 887 DSY.[84] In a review in Dance News, Frances Alenikoff described her as “a haunted, predatory creature stalking in deep crouches, spiralling turns, and angled, disjointed poses.” Doris Hering wrote in Dance Magazine that Bausch “stretched and curved like a mythological serpent, more beautiful than fearsome.”[85] It also made an impact on students who saw an informal showing as part of Hoving’s residency. Dancer/choreographer Gloria McLean remembers:

She did a solo which was a passage from one side of the (very wide) studio to the other in which she “climbed through herself” in movement, as I perceived it. She snaked and twisted and bent and curved across the space but smoothly and without too much change of dynamic, very intense—utterly plastic body… it was riveting.[86]

Screen grab of Bausch in solo at Saratoga, from the documentary “Understanding Pina,” dir. Kathryn Sullivan.

Third and most fateful, was the following summer, when Bausch was a guest artist in Sanasardo’s company for its four-week residency at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. She staged her piece Nachnull (Afterzero) (1970) for the women of his company. But it was again her solo, Philips 836887 DSY, that captivated the critics. Dance Magazine reviewer Judy Kahn wrote the following:

The highlight of the concert was German guest artist Pina Bausch. Her body designs contort in snake-pulling movements, travelling from large patterns to their smaller, more intricate extensions… choreographically unlike anything seen in this country. In her solo she releases her back in a knee-bent “S” and flexes her foot hard, peering at the audience with a poignant sense of humor and foreboding. Her creaturesque, humanoid forms hover in an abstract yet basic realm of human experience… communicating in images tucked away in the subconscious, in private dreams and public mythologies.[87]

Bausch’s solo was also the highlight for Dominique Mercy, who was dancing with Sanasardo that summer. In a 2018 interview, the French dancer recalled, “When she [Bausch] danced her solo performance I was completely in awe and felt…very close to it. I felt that it was something I belonged to. And I knew it was a very beautiful experience and we really connected.”[88]

Manuel Alum, photo Zachary Freyman for Dance Magazine, courtesy NYPL.

That summer Bausch stayed in a house with Manuel Alum, the powerfully expressive protegé of Sanasardo who had started to choreograph on his own. Mercy and another French dancer, Marie-Louise (Malou) Airaudo, who had met Alum in France, were also staying in the house. All four became quite close, and when Bausch was hired to lead the Wuppertal company the following year, she asked Manuel, Dominique, and Malou to join her. The last two did. Dominique danced with the company until her death and beyond. Malou stayed with the company till the mid 90s, then taught in Folkwang.

Mercy, in particular, helped define the Bausch aesthetic. With his beguiling deadpan, he revealed the comic underbelly of her work without losing the choreographic precision. As Ann Daly put it, he “carries her sense of existential isolation, and humor.”[89] Scholar Marcelo de Andrade Pereira contends that Mercy’s long relationship with Bausch made it possible to keep her legacy alive in the four years after her death, when Mercy was co-directing the company.[90] And that relationship has its roots in the Sanasardo work.

After Saratoga, Bausch and Alum remained close friends. Also a “foreigner,” Alum was from Puerto Rico. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bausch stayed at his loft in Tribeca whenever her company performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.[91] Alum died of AIDS-related causes in 1993—one of many losses in the dance community.


Last Thoughts

The American impact on Bausch was more than a series of exposures to challenging or provocative work. It was an emotional impact, partly because she was young and impressionable. As she told an interviewer, “I have a big feeling of connection to New York. When I think about New York, then I have what I otherwise never feel, that is a feeling of home. Of homesickness. That’s quite strange.”[92] Strange because New York was neither Solingen, where she was born and danced with the Solingen’s Children’s Ballet, nor Essen, where she trained at the Folkwang School. But New York was where she grew up as an artist, where she grappled with big personalities and big ideas. Juilliard was (and is) a community of dance artists striving to find a balance between discipline and freedom. Juilliard was where she encountered Tudor, Limón, Corvino, Sokolow, La Meri, McKayle, Hinkson, and Horst. Her extra-curricular life introduced her to Sanasardo, Feuer, Alum, Mercy, Airaudo, and Taylor.

When Bausch started choreographing, she drew on her experiences in New York: Tudor’s psychological ballets; Sokolow’s cultivation of the vivid individual; Sanasardo’s and Feuer’s depiction of the obsessive soul. And of course, the cultural expansiveness she found in the Big Apple. I believe that the scope and depth of her oeuvre would not have been possible without those two years in New York— and the decisive residency at Saratoga a decade later.

I leave you with these words from Bausch. They are her acceptance speech upon receiving a Dance Magazine Award, December 8, 2008, only seven months before she died:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I feel very moved to receive the Dance Magazine Award, 2008, in this city. What all happened to me in New York! All these incredible people I met and learned from. All these unforgettable memories which formed, influenced me forever. Especially, I thank Harvey Lichtenstein, who invited us at the very beginning, and of course the whole Brooklyn Academy family, Joe Mellilo, and not the least the wonderful New York audience.

When I was 18 years old, I was traveling all alone to America without being able to speak a word of English. My parents took me to the port of Cuxhaven. A brass band was playing as the ship was setting off, and everybody was crying. I went onto the ship and waved. My parents were also waving—and crying. And I was standing on the deck and crying too. It was terrible. I had the feeling we would never see each other again. Then I wrote a short letter to Lucas Hoving in New York and posted it on the way to Le Havre [sic]. Lucas has been one of the teachers in Folkwang School in Essen. I was very much hoping that he would pick me up in New York. Eight days later, when I arrived in New York, I didn’t have my health certificate in my bag, but it was in my suitcase. Therefore, I had to spend many hours on the ship waiting until the over thousand passengers had been dealt with. Finally, they took me to my suitcase. I no longer expected that Lucas would still be there, even if he had received my letter. Yet, when I walked off the ship thirteen hours later, he was still standing there. Hanging over his arm were flowers that had wilted in the meantime. Poor Lucas! He had been waiting for me all this time! This for me unforgettable memory shows how I was welcomed then, and how I feel welcomed each time I come to New York.

Thank you very much.[93]


Bausch and Hoving, 2000, shortly before his death, Courtesy Lucas Hoving Facebook page




Special thanks to Jeni Dahmus Farah, archivist of The Juilliard School. When she showed my dance history class a photo of Bausch with Tudor, she commented on how it revealed their close relationship. That led to my curiosity, which led to this research. Thanks also to Ismaël Dia, archivist of the Pina Bausch Foundation; Norton Owen, director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow, and Laura Vroom at the Metropolitan Opera. Gratitude to everyone who agreed to be interviewed: Paul Sanasardo, Rina Schenfeld, Judith Chazin-Bennahum, Carla De Sola, Ernesta Corvino, Mercedes Ellington, Diane Germaine, Janet Mansfield Soares, Sylvia Waters, Bruce Marks, Judith Canner Moss, Janet Panetta, Lance Westergard, Alice Condodina, and Rosalind Newman. Much thanks to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts for inviting me to present a version of this paper in 2022 as an episode of “The Dance Historian Is In.” Thanks also to Tanz for publishing the German-language version in their August 2023 edition.



BIG APOLOGY for the numbers being out of order. But they do match up with the numbers in the text.

[50] Rina mentioned that Pina had a cousin in the Aco neighborhood of Tel Aviv, who revealed that her mother—Pina’s aunt—was Jewish. Schenfeld has written about this in her online “Letter to Pina Bausch,” in 2014. However the archivist of the Bausch Foundation has corrected this to say it was about her grandmother’s sister, not her mother’s sister.

[3] Wolz became the Dean at the Dance Program at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. He started and led the World Dance Organization until his death in 2002.

[5] She danced in two duets by Cébron. Ritha Devi and Company of Indian Musicians were also on the program. See Jacob’s Pillow Archives

[1] Norbert Servos, “Talking about People through Dance—Pina Bausch Biography,” accessed November 2, 2022.

[5] Jay L. Kaplan, “Pina Bausch: Dancing Around the Issue,” Ballet Review, Spring 1987, 74–77; Susan Manning, “An American Perspective on Tanztheater,” TDR, Summer 1986, 57–79.

[6] Pina Bausch Online Archive, In View of God, 92nd Street Y, December 19, 1959.

[7] Meisner, 172.

[8] Quoted in Luke Jennings, “Pina Bausch: German choreographer whose bleak vision changed the face of European dance,” The Guardian, U.S. Edition, June 30, 2009. .

[9] Rina Schenfeld, Zoom interview with author, February 9, 2022.

[10] Sylvia Waters, phone interview with author, February 6, 2022.

[11] Carla De Sola, phone interview with author, November 28, 2021.

[12] Mercedes Ellington, phone interview with author, Dec. 22, 2021.

[13] Waters, phone interview.

[14] Pina Bausch, “What moves me,” 2007, on the occasion of receiving the Kyoto Prize, accessed February 2, 2022, published with permission the Inamori Foundation.

[15] Schenfeld, Zoom interview, February 9.

[16] Juilliard Dance Division Scrapbook, 1959/1960, 12, 23–25, 59–64, 71, 117.

=, accessed December 14, 2022.

[17] Mansfield Soares, email message to author, July 21, 2022.

[18] Mansfield Soares, email message to author, November 5, 2022.

[19] Quoted in Marion Meyer, Pina Bausch: dance, dance, otherwise we are lost, translated by Penny Black (London: Oberon Books, 2018), 20.

[20] Rita Felciano,“Pina Bausch Finds a Ray of Light,” Dance Magazine, November 2004, 34–40.

[21] Schenfeld, Zoom interview, February 9.

[22] Carla De Sola, phone interview and “Reminiscence,” Zoom panel of Juilliard alums, November 17, 2021.

[23] Quoted in Mark B. Bliss, ed. Antony Tudor Centennial (Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, 2010), 54.

[24] Schenfeld, Zoom interview, February 9.

[25] Quoted in Bliss, Antony Tudor Centennial, 53.

[26] Quoted in Bliss, Antony Tudor Centennial, 54.

[27] Schenfeld, email message to author, February 10, 2022.

[28] Lance Westergard, phone conversation with author, July 10, 2022.

[29] Judith Chazin-Bennahum, Zoom with author, March 3, 2022

[30] Judith Chazin-Bennahum, email message to author, July 11, 2022.

[31] Quoted in Donna Perlmutter, Shadowplay: The Life of Antony Tudor (New York: Viking, 1991), 270.

[32] Valerie Lawson, “Pina, queen of the deep,” The Pina Bausch Sourcebook, ed. Royd Climenhaga (London, Routledge, 2013), 221. Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald, July 17, 2000.

[33] Perlmutter, Shadowplay, 269.

[34] Bausch, “What moves me.”

[35] Kisselgoff, “Dance View: Pina Bausch Adds Humor to Her Palette,” New York Times, July 17, 1988.

[36] These documentary films are also available at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts, but they have not been digitized, so the image is slightly streaked with aging lines.

[37] Quoted in Judith Chazin-Bennahum, The Ballets of Antony Tudor: Studies in Psyche and Satire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 189.

[38] Quoted in Chazin-Bennahum, 189.

[39] Walter Terry, “Juilliard Dance Series, NY Herald Tribune, April 11, 1960.

[40] Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter, La Meri and her Life in Dance: Performing the World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019), 189.

[41] Juilliard Dance Division Scrapbook, 1959/1960, 92. Originally Doris Hering, “Concert Reviews,” in Dance Magazine, June 1960, 20.

[42] Paul Sanasardo, phone call with author, July 17, 2022.

[43] Mark Franko, Excursion for Miracles: Paul Sanasardo, Donya Feuer and Studio for Dance (1955–1964) (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), xviii.

[44] Sanasardo phone interview with author, December 26, 2021.

[45] Franko, Excursion, 2.

[46] Meisner, 168.

[47] Sanasardo, phone interview.

[48] Judith Canner Moss, email message to author, February 15, 2022.

[49] Quoted in Luke Jennings, “German choreographer whose bleak vision changed the face of European dance,” The Guardian, U.S. Edition, June 30, 2009.

[50] Rina mentioned that Pina had a cousin in the Aco neighborhood of Tel Aviv, who revealed that her mother—Pina’s aunt—was Jewish. Schenfeld has written about this in her online “Letter to Pina Bausch,” in 2014. However the archivist of the Bausch Foundation has corrected this to say it was about her grandmother’s sister, not her mother’s sister.

[51] Sanasardo, phone interview.

[52] Doris Hering, “A Darkening Pond: Paul Sanasardo Reviewed,” Dance Magazine, August 1971, 73-74.

[53] Franko, Excursion,10.

[54] Franko, Excursion, 7.

[55] Franko, Excursion, 134.

[56] Josephine Ann Endicott, “Dancing Back to Life: Dancing For Pina: The Days and Years of My Life With Tanztheater,” unpublished manuscript.

[57] Ann Daly, “Remembered Gesture,” Critical Gestures: Writing on Dance and Culture (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 28.

[58] Sanasardo, phone interview.

[59] Meredith A. Palmer, “Paul Sanasardo Dance Company,” The Harvard Crimson, October 12, 1971,  accessed November 21, 2022.

[60] Anna Kisselgoff, “Dance: Sanasardo Group,” New York Times, April 28, 1973.

[61] Doris Hering, “Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer in ‘Laughter After All,’ ” Dance Magazine, August, 1960, 24.

[62] Walter Sorell, “In View of God, a dance in three parts by Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer,” Dance Magazine, June, 1959.

[63] Franko, Excursion, 65.

[64] Marcia B. Siegel, “Carabosse in a Cocktail Dress,” The Hudson Review, Spring, 1986.

[65] Email message from Jim May to Samantha Geracht, forwarded to author, March 3, 2022.

[66] Johannes Birringer, “Pina Bausch: Dancing Across Borders,” TDR, Summer 1986, 85–97.

[67] Taylor, Private Domain, An Autobiography (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988), 97.

[68] Donald McKayle, Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life (London: Routledge, 2002), 128.

[69] McKayle, Transcending, 129.

[70] Isa Partsch-Bergsohn, “Dance Theatre from Rudolph Laban to Pina Bausch,” The Pina Bausch Sourcebook, ed. Royd Climenhaga (London: Routledge, 2013),16. Originally published in Dance Theatre Journal, October, 1987.

[71] Judith Chazin-Bennahum, Zoom interview with the author, March 3, 2022.

[72] Metopera Database, the online archive of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, accessed March 2, 2022 and follow-up emails with Laura Vroom, assistant archivist.

[73] Bruce Marks, phone interview with the author, December 23, 2021.

[74] Bausch, “What moves me.”

[75] Dawn Lille, Equipose: The Life and Work of Alfredo Corvino (New York: Dance Movement Press, 2010), 136.

[76] Ernesta Corvino, phone interview with the author, July 11, 2022.

[77] Lille, Equipose, 119–121.

[78] Servos, “Talking about People.”

[79] Bausch, “What moves me.”

[80] Sanasardo, phone interview.

[81] John O’Mahony, “Dancing in the Dark,” The Guardian, U.S. Edition, January 25, 2002.

[82] Bausch, “What moves me.”

[83] Bausch, “What moves me.”

[84] See Pina Bausch online archive at

[85] Quoted in Jack Anderson, The American Dance Festival (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 143.

[86] Gloria McLean, email to author, October 28, 2022.

[87] Judy Kahn, “The Paul Sanasardo Dance Company,” Dance Magazine, October 1972, 86.

[88] Marcelo de Andrade Pereira, “On Pina Bausch’s Legacy: An Interview with Dominique Mercy,” Brazilian Journal on Presence Studies, Originally in Rev. Bras. Estud. Presença, Porto Alegre, v. 8, n. 3, p. 539-554, July/Sept. 2018. Available here.

[89] Daly, “Remembered Gesture,” 29.

[90] Quoted in Pereira, “On Pina Bausch’s Legacy.”

[91] Judith Canner Moss, email message to author, February 15, 2022.

[92] Bausch, “What moves me.”

[93] Video recording of Dance Magazine Awards, December 8, 2008, Florence Gould Hall, unpublished.




2 people like this Historical Essays 8

What Was Judson Dance Theater, Who Was Against It and…

What Was Judson Dance Theater, Who Was Against It, and Did It Ever End?


Ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Judson Dance Theater (JDT), which started on July 6, 1962, the Danspace Project presented “Danspace Platform 2012: Judson Now.” I was invited to contribute an essay from my point of view. I told the origin story as I understood it, inserting my personal connections as “asides.” Now, on the 60th anniversary, I feel I want to emphasize the aspect that doesn’t get into the history books: how the dance establishment put up roadblocks to Judson. JDT is now a canonical part of dance history, taught in colleges across the country, so it’s hard to imagine that the Judson dancers were rejected by the dance establishment again and again. To mark the 60th year, I’ve augmented the title to reflect that resistance, and I’ve tweaked and updated the essay with current information.

Judson Dance Theater was a confluence of people and ideas that reflected the defiance of the 1960s. It questioned authority, challenged artistic assumptions, and favored “ordinary” over virtuosic. And it changed modern dance forever. 

Take Your Alligator With You, by Rudy Perez with Elaine Summers in Concert #7, ph Al Giese via MoMA

More specifically it was a collective of dance and other artists who showed their work at Judson Memorial Church in a series of sixteen numbered concerts from July 6, 1962 to April 29, 1964 (though not all of them were actually at the church). The group evolved out of weekly workshops taught by Robert Ellis Dunn, a protegé of John Cage, at the Merce Cunningham studio. Using Cage’s experimental approach, Dunn infused the proceedings with a sense of discovery. As Yvonne Rainer has said, “There was new ground to be broken and we were standing on it.”1

We look back today and see that Judson was the crucible for postmodern dance, Contact Improvisation, and a new way to look at dance/art collaborations. The influence of Judson is so pervasive that it affected almost everyone in the downtown scene, and it’s rippled outward nationally and internationally. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Past Forward project in 2000 gave us a chance to trace those beginnings and see work by Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, and Simone Forti. (When I interviewed Baryshnikov for an article about it he called them all “beautifully crazy.”2

Twenty years earlier, when I was on a college dance faculty, I initiated the Bennington College Judson Project, which comprised a series of residencies, video interviews, and a touring exhibit. I wanted students to know about Judson and catch the fervor of experimentation. We had residencies at the college where students performed Rainer’s We Shall Run and took workshops with Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton. Students were part of a team that interviewed about twenty Judson artists for the traveling exhibit.3

Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown during Bennington College Judson Project residencies, 1980, ph Tyler Resch

In 1982 we partnered with Danspace Project to produce two programs of reconstructions of works by most of those mentioned above as well as by Elaine Summers, Judith Dunn, Aileen Passloff, Remy Charlip, Philip Corner, Edward Bhartonn, and Carolee Schneemann. From Charlip’s sweetly bizarre Meditation, in which he distorted his facial expression in slow motion, to Bhartonn’s five-second back flip that popped a balloon, to Schneemann’s Lateral Splay, in which people ran headlong until they crashed into another person, a range of spirited work delighted the Danspace audience. I was grateful that Jack Anderson, who had been around in the early ’60s, wrote an illuminating advance story in The New York Times titled “How the Judson Theater Changed American Dance.”

Aside #1: The Bennington College Judson Project photo exhibit traveled internationally. We opened at Grey Art Gallery at NYU, and I remember Elaine Summers looking at the walls and saying, “Why is this considered history? It was only twenty years ago.” She was right, of course. But to me, who had missed the whole Judson era, it was history, and there was something compelling about that history to a young choreographer like myself.

Cover of Bennington College Judson Project catalog. Above: Random Breakfast by David Gordon with Valda Setterfield (1963) ph Peter Moore. Below, Waterman Switch by Robert Morris with Lucinda Childs, ph Peter Moore. Design by Linda Lawton.

Like earlier periods of interdisciplinary activity—the Diaghilev era, Dadaism, and the Bauhaus—Judson’s burst of experimentation was ignited by both strong individuals and an esprit de corps. As Elaine Summers said in the BCJP interview, they stimulated, challenged, and cross-pollinated with each other.4 The original Judson group eventually broke apart as each of the artists went their own way. Narrowly defined, Judson Dance Theater ended in 1964 or 1966, depending on whom you talk to. In a phone conversation with Paxton, he said that “Judson” never ended. He pointed out that some of his peers were still making dances and that Judson Church, thanks to Movement Research, was again presenting dance.5 

I took Steve to mean that Judson had a lasting effect and that the modern dance world didn’t snap back to where it was. Sure, the Martha Graham and José Limón companies soldiered on, reinventing themselves as repertory companies. But postmodern dance surged ahead, shaped by the troublemakers at Judson, continually changing and adapting to today’s world.

It’s in that spirit, the sense that Judson is still with us, that I offer the following account of how this explosion of experimentation came to be—and how it almost didn’t happen. 

Robert Dunn’s Workshops

Trisha Brown with Steve Paxton in her Lightfall (1963) ph Al Giese

In 1960, John Cage asked Robert Dunn to teach composition in the Merce Cunningham studio, which was then on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in a building owned by the Living Theatre. A pianist who accompanied classes at the Cunningham studio as well as at other dance centers including Juilliard (and a former tap dancer), Dunn had taken Cage’s famous course in experimental music at The New School for Social Research. Borrowing from Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy, he gave assignments in the form of scores. The idea was to get away from one’s own clichés in generating movement. They might be chance scores—for example one student used the rotation of the moon as a score6 —or they might be a simple time structure, as in “Make a three-minute dance.”7 

Dunn’s discussions in class were fueled by curiosity rather than judgment. He asked students about process rather than declaring whether a study was good or bad. Describing what he was aiming for as a teacher in those days, he wrote:

From Heidegger, Sartre, Far Eastern Buddhism, and Taoism, in some personal amalgam, I had the notion in teaching of making a “clearing,” a sort of “space for nothing,” in which things could appear and grow in their own nature. Before each class, I made the attempt to attain this state of mind.8 

He favored “the ordinary” as a way to mesh art and life (another Cagean concept) and to avoid the drama of modern dance and the vagaries of “personal taste.”9 Rainer, who was one of his first five students, caught on early:

His appreciation for the unpredictable and the unexpected in art was profound. “Do something that’s nothing special” was one of his challenging assignments. At that moment I got up from the floor and walked to an opposite corner of the studio while unbuttoning and removing my sweater, then returned and sat down as I put it back on. His approving, bemused gaze made my day.10 

Dunn’s approach departed sharply from that of Louis Horst, the reigning composition teacher of modern dance (and Graham’s musical director and sometime lover). Horst taught students to adhere to formal musical structures like a rondo or a sarabande and to give each study a theme. Dunn had accompanied both Horst’s and Doris Humphrey’s composition classes and felt the atmosphere was stifling.

With Dunn as catalyst, the group fairly erupted with creative solutions. After about a year and a half, the students set out to look for a place where they could show their short pieces.

A Clear “No” From the Dance Establishment 

The kind of heroic look that Graham and José Limón projected, while it was right for their times, did not speak to the downtown dancers of the ’60s. To them the early moderns appeared imperious, rigid, inflated. 

Nevertheless, Dunn’s students approached the 92nd Street Y, the stronghold of modern dance, to audition their studies for its series. David Gordon remembers that he, Rainer, and Paxton lined up, one by one, to show their dances, and he remembers that they were all rejected, one by one. (Update as of 2022: His memory was incomplete because Ruth Emerson, as well as Lucinda Childs, were accepted and did perform in the Young Choreographers series.) The jury panel included Marion Scott, who taught Humphrey-Weidman technique; choreographer Jack Moore, who had danced with Anna Sokolow and was a co-founder of Dance Theater Workshop in 1965; and Lucas Hoving, who had danced major roles with both Kurt Jooss and José Limón. The old guard, but not so old at that point. 

Years later, Jack Moore told Rainer, referring to the Y’s rejection of the Dunn Dunn group, “We made a mistake.” 

Aside #2: Not only did Jack regret their decision, but when he taught his own composition classes at Bennington in the late ’60s—which I attended—he seemed to have taken a page from Robert Dunn’s book. When responding to a student showing, he would always ask, “How did you make that? What was your process?” Even though Jack had been an assistant to Louis Horst, he later followed the Dunn route rather than the Horst route.

Steve Paxton in Music for Word Words (1963) ph Robert McElroy.

The Y’s rejection was a lucky “mistake.” It sent the young dancers looking for a more informal venue, and they found Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Rainer knew that the church was already hosting Judson Poets’ Theatre and Judson Art Gallery. It also had a long tradition of anti-war activism and other socially progressive programs like abortion counseling.11 Senior minister Al Carmines, backed by Reverend Howard Moody, welcomed the stray dancers with open arms and spaces. 

It was a time when the other arts were also breaking with the past. The Beat poets were extolling spontaneity and Andy Warhol was making pictures of soup cans instead of sunsets. Steve Paxton, who was influenced by the experimental, anarchistic Living Theatre, described his own sense of liberation: “The work that I did there was first of all to flush out my ‘why-nots’…‘Why not?’ was a catchword at that time. It was a very permissive time.”12

The first concert at Judson, a mixed-media marathon of twenty-three pieces by fourteen artists on July 6, 1962, lasted more than three hours. Jill Johnston, writing in the Village Voice, called it a “democratic evening of dance.” About both Yvonne Rainer and David Gordon, she wrote that they “did some movement nobody ever saw before.” In reaction to the whole evening, she said, “the audience responded tumultuously and we had good reason.” She concluded by prophesying that this group would be the exciting thing in dance in twenty years.13 

For Rainer, the first concert was momentous: “I remember the exhilaration afterward,” she said years later. “We found a genuine alternative to what had been happening.”14

Like Parents: Cunningham, Cage, and Halprin 

Some of the Judson artists were dancing in Cunningham’s company: Paxton, Judith Dunn (wife and assistant to Robert Dunn), Deborah Hay, and Valda Setterfield (who did not make dances herself but helped Gordon develop his work through her performances). Additionally, Cunningham dancers Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley (Lloyd), and Albert Reid occasionally performed and/or choreographed at Judson. 

Aside #3: I danced with Albert Reid in a trio he made in the early 70s. Long lines, clear shapes, and the recorded sound of a distant bagpipe. It was the Apollonian side of experimental dance.

Merce and John at Westbeth, 1972, ph James Klosty

Cunningham and Cage had shattered the usual A-B-A compositional structure, de-centered the stage space, and—most notoriously—severed the conventional relationship between dance and music. The simultaneity of unrelated sound (often deafeningly loud) and Cunningham’s all-over stage picture forced the audience to rely on itself. The music was one thing, the dance was another, and in your perception, you created a third thing. 

One of Cage’s basic tenets was that any sound could be music. Theoretically, that could extend to dance: Any movement could be dance, right? But Cunningham’s movement vocabulary stayed squarely within the realm of dance technique. It was left to the Judson group to pry open the vocabulary to include pedestrian or awkward movement. It was partly this difference that led Rainer to say ruefully in 2001, “As Cunningham always said, we were John’s children and not his.”15

Hay articulated another way they were Cage’s children. When I was on a panel with her many years later, I asked her what it was about Cage’s presence within the Cunningham company that had influenced her. “His sense of play” was her immediate reply. 

Aside #4: At a Danspace Project benefit in 1977, I saw Cage “play” a set of cactus plants. He plucked them with a look of loving concentration and listened to the amplified sounds they made with childlike glee. 

Halprin’s Branch Dance, c. 1957, with A. A. Leath, Halprin, and Simone Forti. Ph Warner Jepson, Jepson estate, via Museum of Performance + Design

If Merce and John were the artistic fathers of this motley crew, then Anna (known then as Ann) Halprin was the mother. Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Ruth Emerson, Sally Gross, and Meredith Monk all studied with her on her outdoor deck in Marin County, California. Halprin’s focus on task, collectivity, and communing with nature was absorbed as an alternative way to generate movement. Her strong connection to nature particularly influenced Forti and Brown. 

Aside #5: I finally got to take a class with Anna. In 2010, Movement Research sponsored a workshop at Judson Church, the first time she’d ever been there. At 93, she led the two-hour session without ever sitting down! In 2014, I participated in her Planetary Dance, a powerful community ritual, which I called “Anna Halprin’s Drugless Woodstock.”

Hints of Democracy 

Some of Paxton’s dances, for instance Flat (1964), consisted mostly of him walking and occasionally freezing mid-action. In Satisfyin Lover (1967), he extended his solo walking to a group. Jill Johnston rhapsodized over the vision of democracy that emerged from Paxton’s casting:

And here they all were in this concert in the last dance, 32 any old wonderful people in Satisfyin Lover walking one after the other across the gymnasium in their any old clothes. The fat, the skinny, the medium, the slouched and slumped, the straight and tall, the bowlegged and knock-kneed, the awkward, the elegant, the coarse, the delicate, the pregnant, the virginal, the you name it, by implication every postural possibility in the postural spectrum, that’s you and me in all our ordinary everyday who cares postural splendor.16 

Democracy was not only a value onstage but also backstage. Once the group moved into the church and Robert Dunn was no longer the guide, they held group meetings. Anyone who came to these meetings could show a work on the JDT programs. The discussions about each other’s works were led by a different person each time. Ruth Emerson introduced the Quaker idea of consensus to the proceedings, meaning a decision wasn’t made until everyone agreed.17 18

Composers, Poets, and Painters Jump In 

Pelican (1963) by Robert Rauschenberg, ph Terry Schutte.

The interdisciplinary seed had been planted at Black Mountain College in 1952— in the dining hall. That summer Cage organized Theater Piece No. 1, an event that Carolyn Brown called a “collaborative non-collaboration:” Cage gave a lecture with timed silences; Cunningham improvised in the aisles (followed by a frisky dog); Charles Olson read poetry from a ladder; David Tudor played the piano; and the young Robert Rauschenberg suspended paintings above the audience, which was seated in the middle of it all.19 This event is sometimes called the first happening, or a proto-happening. 

At Judson, Rauschenberg and other visual artists like Robert Morris and Alex Hay caught the performance bug. John Herbert McDowell, Philip Corner, and Malcolm Goldstein composed music for the dancers and also made their own performance pieces. Poet Jackson Mac Low, a member of Fluxus, worked closely with Forti (who, though an influential member of Dunn’s class, did not perform at Judson because of a personal issue). Schneemann created rambunctious, almost violent group works at Judson. Her Meat Joy (1964), with partially nude people rolling around on the floor amidst raw fish, chickens, and sausage, introduced a streak of hedonism. 

The most remarkable dance-art collaboration at Judson was initiated by sculptor Charles Ross, who had worked with Anna Halprin on the West Coast. Ross proposed to build a set for Concert #13 that the dancers could use as they wished. The result was a huge trapezoidal swing-set-type structure in the center plus a moving set (what Rauschenberg later called “live décor”), which was Ross himself piling up hundreds of chairs to create a raised platform at one end of the sanctuary. Each choreographer of that evening had to confront the new environment; they included Ruth Emerson, Rainer, Deborah Hay, Alex Hay, Lucinda Childs, Carla Blank, and Carolee Schneemann. Childs called it “a very beautiful environment to work in.”20 The periods of “free play” in between dances made it seem like the evening was one long piece.21

Lucinda Child’s Egg Deal in collaborative Concert #13, environment by Charles Ross, ph via MoMA

Tilting Toward Visual Art 

Even before JDT started, Forti, who had been a painter before studying with Halprin in San Francisco, thought of her dance work as sculptures. In this essay, I wrote about the ways that Forti carried Halprin’s body/mind philosophy from West to East, from the outdoor deck in the Bay Area to Dunn’s workshop in New York. When she was invited to present an evening at Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street in 1961, she came up with the concept of dance constructions. She designed objects that controlled how she moved—as though the object itself were the score. For instance, Slant Board (1961), required performers to walk (or stagger) across a steeply raked surface while holding ropes that were nailed at one end to the board. The construction of the wooden ramp and the physical task were essential to each other. The dance constructions merged Halprin’s idea of functional movement with Dunn’s idea of chance methods and ordinariness. It also put dance and art on an equal footing.

Aside #6: When I was touring with Trisha Brown in the mid-70s, audience members at our lec-dems would ask her, “Why don’t you use music?” She would quip, “Do you expect to hear music when you walk around a sculpture in a gallery?”  

Elizabeth Garren in Rummage Sale and Floor of the Forest, Minneapolis, 1979, ph Sweeney, via Garren

For Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest (1970), which has been reprised at several museums, the audience does indeed have to walk around to watch the dancers, strung out on horizontal cargo netting, from different angles. You catch sight of the two dancers slithering in and out of clothing only by changing your position. So the members of the audience, bending and stretching to be able to see, become part of the performance.

Aside #7: The first time I saw that piece, it was a variation called Rummage Sale and Floor of the Forest, in which people were selling off their old clothes while, above them, Trisha and Carmen Beuchat were crawling in and out of the clothing tied to the cargo net. It was a hilarious example of art and life meshing.

The Released Body 

Hand in hand with the favoring of ordinary movement came the ordinary body. In her chapter “Everyday Bodies” in Time and the Dancing Image (1988), Deborah Jowitt describes how Halprin’s less dancerly stance of the body fit with the task idea:

[She] utilized improvisation to get past dance clichés to more basic human responses. Such improvisations—“tasks”—had a forthrightness that helped set the tone of the ’60s; by casting the dancer as a decision-maker, intent on solving a particular problem, they inevitably presented him/her as a wily, alert individual…To the Judson generation, the body in all its states was acceptable. Clumsiness could figure in dance as well as adroitness, plumpness as well as trimness. Even weakness could play a part. (In 1967 Rainer performed Trio A while in the shaky state that followed a serious illness and called it Convalescent Dance.)22

Elaine Summers never studied with Halprin but had a strong affinity for her work: relaxed bodies, structured improvisations, and group awareness. Summers had gone to Juilliard as a special student but soon noticed pain creeping into her joints. She spent years developing a more easeful way of moving, which led her to the “ball work,” also known as kinetic awareness. Her approach to healing was consistent with the more “ordinary,” relaxed body of the Judson dancers. 

Aside #8: Trisha once told me that part of the reason she asked me to dance with her, sight unseen, was that she knew I had studied with Elaine. She trusted anyone who worked with Elaine. And P.S., I still do the ball work every day.

Demystifying the Making Process 

The seeds of JDT blew elsewhere and took root. Judith Dunn, who had assisted in Robert Dunn’s workshop and created many works for Judson, brought some of the concepts with her when she took a teaching position at Bennington College in 1968. One of the students, Susan Rethorst, took her tutorial in 1974. In her book on choreography, Rethorst describes how formative Judith Dunn’s class was for her:

The idea was to make and show a dance every day from September to June. We were given no starting points, no themes, no methods and no class time to work. Each day I had to find a way, and the time, to make a dance… I had many expectations going into this—I would run out of ideas (I did), that I would be intimidated by the task (I was), but mostly I was curious. I wasn’t able to imagine what the experience would be like, or what it would teach me. Well, it made me a choreographer. It rearranged all my assumptions about how dances get made. It showed me that my ideas will present themselves to me via dances; that my dances know more than me. The form of the class—the dailiness it necessitated—brought choreography, and indeed all art, down from the mountain I had found it on all through my suburban childhood. Art, I saw, was something done by people with all their limitations and messes.23

Another dance artist strongly influenced by Judith Dunn was Dianne McIntyre, who studied with Dunn and her partner, the Black jazz trumpeter Bill Dixon, at Ohio State University shortly before they came to Bennington. McIntyre felt the pair opened doors to improvisation. Dunn talked about “inner time consciousness,” and Dixon brought an awareness of the Black jazz traditions of improvisation.24

Aside #9: In 1971, I was knocked out by Day 1, a thrillingly kinetic—and suspenseful—performance by the Judith Dunn/Bill Dixon group at the Cunningham studio. The idea of this racially mixed group was that dance and music were equals but didn’t control each other. As in jazz music, the relationship between each individual and the group was kept in exquisite balance. 25

Radical Juxtaposition 

Lucinda Childs in Carnation (1964) ph Peter Moore, Bennington College Judson Project.

This term, used by Susan Sontag in her essay “Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition,”26 drew on the principle of collage: that two or more very different objects or images placed side by side would challenge habitual ways of seeing. When extended into a time-based art, this can mean simultaneous actions that are radically different. In Rainer’s full-evening work The Mind Is a Muscle (1966), her strictly planned movement episodes (including the now iconic solo, Trio A) were accompanied by wooden slats being hurled down from the balcony above, clattering to the floor with headache-inducing regularity.

Here are three other examples of radical juxtaposition from Judson and after: 1) Lucinda Childs’ Carnation (1964), in which she crowned her head with a colander and stuffed sponges into her mouth, all with a demeanor of utmost solemnity. 2) David Gordon’s Mannequin Dance (1962, reprised at Danspace Project as a part of “Platform 2012: Judson Now”), in which he wiggled his fingers and sang songs from musicals while James Waring (a major figure who influenced Gordon and others) passed out balloons for audience members to let the air out slowly, providing a squeaking accompaniment. 3) Rudy Perez’s Countdown (1966), in which he sat on a stool, streaked his face with war paint, then rose and smoked a cigarette, all in slow motion, to the operatic strains of “Songs of the Auvergne.” It was mesmerizing.

Rudy Perez in Countdown (1966).

Aside #10: I danced with Rudy from 1969 to 1970 and remember his flair for pairing movement with sound. At one point when we were inching along in tiny steps, the recorded sound of rain came on, seemingly unrelated, and Rudy had us look upward as though feeling the drops on our faces.






Nudity, Naturally

The ’60s were rife with “sexual liberation,” encounter groups, and general permissiveness, so it was almost inevitable that nudity would reach Judson Church. For the collaborative duet Word Words (1963), Rainer and Paxton chose to dispense with costumes because, as Rainer said later, “Nudity was in the air.” But the sanctity of being in a church brought on a sudden bout of modesty: She wore pasties and they both wore G-strings. 

Word Words (1963). Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. Photo by Al Giese, courtesy of Bennington College Judson Project.

In 1965, Robert Morris’s Waterman Switch set off a furor. In one section, Morris and Rainer were locked in nude embrace while taking baby steps. Word got out, causing a scandal, and Judson Church was almost ousted from the American Baptist Convention. Reverend Howard Moody asked Al Carmines to write a defense of nudity in the church, which was so eloquent that Moody called it “a primer for understanding the power of art.”27

That same year Halprin made Parades and Changes, in which the dancers slowly undress and dress again. This section is ritualistic rather than seductive. After performing the piece without incident in Europe, she brought it to the Hunter Playhouse in Manhattan. Because of the pre-performance buzz, a warrant for her arrest was issued, but Halprin left the city before she could be summoned.28 

Aside #11: At the 2004 Dance Magazine Awards, Clive Barnes told a funny story about being called in as a witness to testify under oath whether or not he had been aroused by the nudity in Parades and Changes.

Improvisation—Breaking the Hierarchy 

From Anna Halprin some of the Judson dancers had learned to love improvising. Not only did it free the body, it also broke the usual hierarchy of the choreographer telling the dancers what to do. Halprin gave structures or scores and let the dancers discover their own ways of fulfilling them. 

The fusion of improvisational task dance and the Cagean sense of play reached its peak—a very heady peak—with the Grand Union, performing their mayhem from 1970 to 1976. The gloriously idiosyncratic personalities (Rainer, Paxton, Gordon, Brown, Douglas Dunn, Barbara Dilley, Nancy Lewis [Greene], and, only early on, Lincoln Scott and Becky Arnold)29 combined spontaneity and planned maneuvers (the group hoist, the pillow business, the doctor-patient scenario), as they played out personal rebelliousness in a collective context. Intertwining fiction and fact, they were as nimble verbally as they were physically. 

Aside #12: Paxton would occasionally take the mic and spin a story about Trisha the Wild Child. It went something like this: “She grew up in the woods, was raised by coyotes, slept in trees, and could foretell the weather. By age 7, her teeth were broken and stained with blackberry juice.” 

Grand Union May 1971. From l,eft: David Gordon, Becky Arnold, Nancy Lewis, Lincoln Scott, Yvonne Rainer, ph James Klosty.

In every Grand Union performance, there was the potential for their spontaneous material, aka their “collective genius,”30 to fall flat or to soar. I loved their performances so much that I wrote a book about the group.

Recently, as a kind of adjunct to my book, I captured the voices of Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown talking about various aspects of JDT and Grand Union, for a Pillow Voices podcast called “Grand Union: Democracy or Anarchy?”

Ripples—and Chokings—in the Press 

The only two critics who covered the Judson scene regularly were Jill Johnston in the Village Voice and Allen Hughes in the New York Times. Johnston, whose dance writings are collected in Marmalade Me (1971), wrote in excited, witty, trippy, brilliant, insightful, prose. In critic George Jackson’s words, “What she had given her readers was the feeling of dance being born.”31 Hughes, a music critic new to dance, wrote that Judson was “creating a splendid chaos.”32 He was castigated by some in the dance establishment for his attention to Judson, which may have contributed to him being taken off the dance beat.33 

The most venerable dance critic on a daily paper at the time was Walter Terry, who had been at the New York Herald Tribune since 1936. Terry was generally dismissive of the avant-garde and did not often deign to cover it. About one concert at Judson in 1968, he wrote, “none of this is really new.”34

Diane Di Prima and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) , co-editors of The Floating Bear.

On the opposite end of publications was The Floating Bear, a homemade newsletter co-edited by Beat poets Diane Di Prima and LeRoi Jones. This free mimeographed dispatch, with contributions by other Beat writers like William Burroughs, was sent out to a small circle of subscribers. Its values were similar to those of JDT: experiment, try new forms, don’t worry about producing masterpieces. Among those who helped edit and deliver it were two dancers in the Judson circle: James Waring, and Fred Herko, who was Di Prima’s best friend and the ballet dancer of Judson. So it was almost familial when Di Prima reviewed the first Judson concert. (LeRoi Jones later became Amiri Baraka, a force in the Black Arts Movement.)35)

Last page of Jackson’s 1964 feature on the avant-garde for Dance Magazine, picturing Yvonne Rainer in Three Seascapes.

Dance critic George Jackson published an enthusiastic six-page cover story on JDT in the April 1964 issue of Dance Magazine, complete with striking photographs by Peter Moore. Titled “Naked in Its Native Beauty,” it spoke frankly, and with some awe, about the controversial nature of the experiments at Judson and other downtown dives. Jackson pointed out that these dancers and artists had no wish to assume a character or to create a theatrical arc, but they were devoted to “simply being themselves” in their “real virtues and vices.”36 

Aside #13: George told me that he actually wrote it in 1963 and submitted it to the Dance Observer, Louis Horst’s publication. He said that Horst became so angry that he slammed down the phone and never spoke to him again. (Horst had devoted his life to elevating modern dance as an art for the concert stage.)37 George then took his story to Lydia Joel, editor of Dance Magazine. She demurred because people in the dance establishment did not feel Judson warranted coverage. It was only at the urging of critics Edwin Denby, Doris Hering, Walter Sorell, and the German writer Horst Koegler that she finally decided to print it. 

Two months later, in the July 1964 issue, two letters to the editor attacked Jackson’s article. One of them, signed only with the initials L. T. R., wrote, “How can you waste all those pages on that so-called ‘avant-garde’ nonsense? . . . It has no present, no future, and above all, no merit . . .  Readers of your magazine buy it to read about dance not about remotely related idiocy.38

Silence as Both Rebellious and Spiritual 

The Zen-influenced Cage was so interested in silence that the word became the title of his first collection of writings in 1961, published by Wesleyan University Press. Cunningham created his dances in silence and added music at the last minute. Many of the Judsonites choreographed without music. As Jackson had written in his Dance Magazine feature, he saw “a freedom from the rhythms and forms imposed by music.”39 Rainer even wrote an amusing screed against music for dance:

The only remaining meaningful role for muzeek in relation to dance is to be totally absent or to mock itself. To use “serious” muzache simultaneously with dance is to give a glamorous “high art” aura to what is seen. To use “program” moosick or pop or rock is to generate excitement or coloration which the dance itself would not otherwise evoke. Why am I opposed to this kind of enhancement? One reason is that I love dancing and am jealous of encroachment upon it by any other element. I want my dancing to be the superstar and refuse to share the limelight with any form of collaboration or co-existence. Muzak does not accompany paintings in a gallery nor does it encroach on the dialogue in a stage play.40

The non-defiant, calm aspect of silence was appreciated by the Judson Memorial Church congregation. Al Carmines, the minister who had welcomed the dancers in the first place (and a brilliant composer/lyricist in his own right), wrote about the effect this new group of artists had on his services:

The influence on our worship has become increasingly clear. I doubt, for instance if we would have had the courage to have a period in our service which was simply opened up to the congregation for statements and concerns—had we not first seen the insouciance with which the dancers could allow the unexpected to enter their concerts. The importance of the gesture, the movement, of the congregation and of the liturgists, would have remained lost to us without them. And certainly, we would not have instituted the period of silence in our service had we not seen silence made profound and aesthetic in many concerts of dance in the sanctuary.41

Setting the Stage for Diversity 

It’s true that nearly all the players at Judson were white. Even looking at the many artists outside the core group, few people of color participated at Judson in the early ’60s. One of them was Rudy Perez, who grew up in Spanish Harlem; he participated as a dancer/choreographer from the first concert on. The jazz pianist Cecil Taylor played for a dance by Fred Herko. Later in the ’60s, Japan-born Suzushi Hanayagi was active, and Black composer/critic Carman Moore worked with Elaine Summers often.

As it happened, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had burst on the scene in 1958 and was already getting international touring while JDT was still under the radar. The Ailey gave Black dance artists opportunities in what is now considered a mainstream aesthetic—and it could pay. There was little crossover between the Cunningham/Judson world and the Ailey world. Gus Solomons jr in the ’60s, Blondell Cummings and Ulysses Dove in the ’70s, and Bill T. Jones in the ’80s, might have been the only New Yorkers who chose to participate in both the Black and white modern dance communities. 

I believe that, in their openness and frankness—not pretending to be royalty or Greek heroines—the Judson dancers created an environment that welcomed difference. Rainer noted that “Cage’s notions about democratizing art helped pave the way to the airing of all those issues around race, gender, sexuality, and class that have since burst through the palace gates of high white culture.”42

As we were reminded by “Danspace Platform 2012: Parallels,” it took Ishmael Houston-Jones to step into the breach in terms of race. His original Parallels in Black series in 1982 made a strong statement by bringing African American dancers into the postmodern fold of Danspace Project. Just as Judson Memorial Church opened its doors to a band of renegades who defied the rules of modern dance in 1962, Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church opened its doors to a band of unconventional Black dancers twenty years later. 

And the End of Judson? 

The numbered concerts of Judson Dance Theater  ended at #16 in April 1964. Jill Johnston wrote, “Their revolution, in its original delirium of a sprawling rebellion, is over. It all happened at Judson Memorial Church 1962–1964…In retrospect, it was a beautiful mess.43

After the numbered concerts, a new bunch of interesting young choreographers, including Kenneth King, Meredith Monk, Phoebe Neville, and Twyla Tharp, found their way to Judson. And slightly older dance artists, like James Waring and Aileen Passloff, who had influenced the Judson group, began mounting shows at the Church. These were often under the name Judson Dance Theater, which is why it’s confusing as to when JDT ended.

On the occasion of Baryshnikov’s Past Forward tour, Allen Hughes interviewed some of the Judsonites about their experiences, including how it ended.

Rainer felt that when the collective workshops held in the church basement stopped, that was the end of the group. Trisha Brown felt it had to do with the dancers wanting to go out on their own as choreographers. She said that the “free-spirited, free-wheeling, mad dash for information and discovery” of early Judson inevitably gave way to “thoughts of separate identities and separate careers.”

Although JDT itself ended in the 60s, the nucleus of it grew into the many-faceted phenomenon of postmodern dance—or post-Cunningham dance, to use the term that Paxton prefers. It is this spirit of experimentation that is carried forth by Danspace Project, Movement Research, New York Live Arts,44 Chez Bushwick, and countless other spaces in New York and elsewhere that were started by avid dance makers. 


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The Next Wave Festival — 35 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brooklyn: Portal to Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Epic Narrative

Praise House by Urban Bush Women, Ph Cylla van Tiedermann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Modern Takes Root and Branches Out

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

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

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

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

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


The Poetry of Motion and Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mark Morris: Merging Dance with Musicality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Growing Hybridization

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

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

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

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

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


Sarah Michelson’s DOGS, 2006. Ph Julieta Cervantes

Wendy Whelan in Hagoromo Ph Julieta Cervantes










Going Global

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

Moon Water 2003 Ph Teng Hui-En

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

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

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

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

Three, Batsheva Dance Company, 2007. Ph Richard Termine

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ralph Lemon: The Geography Trilogy

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

Ralph Lemon, Geography. 1997 Ph Tom Brazil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crossing Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Altered States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The New Wave: Transgressive, Gritty, Interactive

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

Kyle Abraham in his Pavement, 2016. Ph Ian Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Living with AIDS: 6 Dancers Share Their Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenberg in 2018, photo by Paula Lobo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie Dabney in John Taras’s Firebird

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

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

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

Joe Carman in ABT's Don Quixote, 1970s

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

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

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

Joe Carman now

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

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

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

Chris Dohse in a dance by Nancy Havlik

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

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

Christopher Pilafian with Argos, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gloria Fokine : Ballet in Havana

Gloria in Les Sylphides, Havana, 1937

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

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

(WP) Wendy Perron

(GF) Gloria Fokine


WP:  What are your earliest memories of seeing dance?

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

Alicia Alonso in Coppélia

WP:  And the audience was not just the parents?

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

WP:  Did Alicia play Swanilda?

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

Baronova and Paul Petroff in Aurora’s Wedding*

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

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

Toumanova and Massine in Three Cornered Hat

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

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

WP:  Did they had live music?

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

WP:  And what was your impression of Présages? 

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

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

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

WP: What other dancers did Pro-Arte bring?

Harald Kreutzberg, 1949

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

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

WP:  That’s very early for plastic.

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

WP:  Were you in other Yavorsky productions?

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

WP:  What other modern dance did you see?

Ted Shawn in Mevlevi Dervish, Jacob’s Pillow Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasinski in Cuba, 1933

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

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

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

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

Baronova in Les Sylphides*

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

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

WP:  And who choreographed these?

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

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

GF:  I stopped dancing.

WP: Why?

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

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

WP:  Where was she trained?

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

WP:  In Havana?

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

WP:  What was Fidel Castro like as a classmate?

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

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

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

Baranova practicing Choreartium in her dressing room, 1933*

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

WP:  So how did you get back into dancing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WP:  This is for Ballet Alicia Alonso?

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

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

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

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

Alexandra Fedorova in 1962

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

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

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

GF:  Looked for a job.

WP:  Did he do Radio City then?

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

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

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

WP: Yes, Bob was small too.

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

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

WP:  So you were on his side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis in an undated photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

GF:  Yes.

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

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

WP:  Yes, they’re defecting. Why?

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

WP: Where else have you taught?

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

WP:  When you teach, what do you emphasize?

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

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

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

WP: Did Leon stage any of the Fokine ballets?

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

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

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

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

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

Les Sylphide with Roman Jasinski 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcisse Matouchevsy and Yurek Lazowsky on the beach,1932*

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

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

GF:  I might not sleep tonight.

≠≠ END ≠≠

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

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

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


Like this Historical Essays 4

Simone Forti: BodyArtNature

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

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

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

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

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

Red Illumination drawing, 1972

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

An Arts Childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with Anna Halprin

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

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

Forti was invited by Halprin to study at her mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Away from Halprin, or The Call of Minimalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving in New York: Cunningham, Cage, Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defying Categories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dance Constructions — A Landmark in the Arts

Forti’s floor plan for the Dance Constructions

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

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

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

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

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

Forti in Huddle, Stedelijk Museum, 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forti recently described what actually happened:

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

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

Impact on Judson Dance Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Emotional Pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditions Nevertheless

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

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

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

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

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

Forti’s Planet, P. S. 1, 1976

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

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

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

Legacy, True and False

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Wendy,

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

[vii] Ibid., 7.

[viii] Forti, “Full Moves,” 7.

[ix] Oral History transcript, 8.

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

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

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

[xiii] Oral History transcript, 10.

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

[xv] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 32.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Forti, Oh Tongue,131.

[xviii] Ibid., 132.

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

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

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

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

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Forti, Oh Tongue, 132.

[xxv] Breitwieser, 21.

[xxvi] Oral History transcript, 24

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

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

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

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

[xxxi] Bennington College Judson Project.

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

[xxxiii] Oral History transcript, 25.

[xxxiv] Ross, 151.

[xxxv] Ibid.

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

[xxxvii] Bennington College Judson Project.

[xxxviii] Oral History transcript, 32.

[xxxix] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 53.

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

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

[xlii] Steffen, Patrick (2012), “Forti on All Fours,” Contact Quarterly Online Journal,

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

[xliv] Ross, 136.

[xlv] Oral History transcript, 22.

[xlvi] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[lvi] Breitwieser, 24.

[lvii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 117.

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

[lix] Ibid.

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

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

[lxii] Forti, “Full Moves,” 7.

[lxiii] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 35.

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

[lxv] Kaminski, Astrid, “Join the Movement,”, Issue 168, January-February 2015,

[lxvi] Forde, Gerard

[lxvii] Cypis, 10.

[lxviii] Oral History transcript, 51.

[lxix] Breitwieser, 24.

[lxx] Ibid., 30.

[lxxi] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 34.

[lxxii] Breitwieser, 65.

[lxxiii] Bennington College Judson Project.

[lxxiv] Ross, 145.

[lxxv] Oral History transcript, 67.

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

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

[lxxviii] Oral History transcript, 45.

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

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

[lxxxi] In the Dance Capsules section of the Cunningham Trust website, David Vaughan writes that La Monte Young’s 2 Sounds consisted of “the sound of ashtrays scraped against a mirror, and the other, that of pieces of wood rubbed against a Chinese gong.”

[lxxxii] Ibid.

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

[lxxxiv] Paxton, 61.

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

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

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 33.

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

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

[xc] See Rainer’s description of War in Banes Democracy’s Body, 101, and Morris’ explanation of War in “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,”, June 8, 2012,

[xci] Walsh, Jack.

[xcii] Ibid., 69.

[xciii] Banes, Democracy’s Body.

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

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

[xcvi] Ibid., 217.

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

[xcviii] Oral History transcript, 68

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

[c] Forde, 23.

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

[cii] Forde, 41.

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

[civ] Forti, Simone, video interview,, “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” August 2012

[cv] Ibid.

[cvi] Breitwieser, 27–28.

[cvii] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 100.

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

[cix] Forti, Oh Tongue, 125.

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

[cxi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[cxii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 133.

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

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

[cxv] Forti, Oh Tongue, 13.

[cxvi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[cxvii] Breitwieser, 201.

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

[cxix] Ibid., 116.

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

[cxxi] Breitwieser, 34–35.

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

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


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Katherine Dunham: One-Woman Revolution

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

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

Rara Tonga (1940)

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

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

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

Barrelhouse Blues (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

Syvilla Fort correcting James Dean











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

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

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

Dunham dancers, 1940s or’50s

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

Southland, with Julie Belafonte at right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everybody is an anthropologist,” Dunham says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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, 1930s

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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