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,

Simone

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.]

¶¶¶

Endnotes

[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, https://community.contactquarterly.com/journal/view/onallfours.

[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, Artforum.com, 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,” Frieze.com, Issue 168, January-February 2015, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/join-the-movement/.

[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.” http://dancecapsules.mercecunningham.org/overview.cfm?capid=46113

[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, Artforum.com.

[xc] See Rainer’s description of War in Banes Democracy’s Body, 101, and Morris’ explanation of War in “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” Artforum.com, June 8, 2012, http://www.artforum.com/words/id=31187

[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, Artforum.com, “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” August 2012 http://artforum.com/video/id=36989&mode=large

[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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Golden Advice for Dance Writers

Like many of you, I’m taking the time at home to burrow into boxes of old stuff to see what I can get rid of. One of the treasures I found was a set of handwritten corrections on my first wobbly attempts at writing. In 1971, I was taking a weekly workshop in dance criticism led by two formidable women: Deborah Jowitt and Marcia B. Siegel. At that time Deborah was a dancer/choreographer as well as the dance critic for The Village Voice. Marcia has written for many publications, including the Boston Phoenix for sixteen years. Currently, Deborah has a regular “DanceBeat” on ArtsJournal.com, and Marcia posts on the ArtsFuse.org. Both are brilliant writers, and I’m always interested in what they have to say and how they say it.

Deborah Jowitt c. 1972

Those six-week workshops were given under the auspices of Dance Theater Workshop (which morphed into New York Live Arts in 2011). A small group of us gathered either in Deborah’s living room in Greenwich Village or Rosalind Newman’s loft in Tribeca. Sitting on the floor, we read our reviews aloud and responded to each other’s offerings.

At the time, my main effort was choreography, but I liked the workshop so much that I took three cycles of it. I’ve said that the workshop appealed to me because I just wanted to keep talking about dance. But upon discovering these old papers, I see another reason I kept signing up for the course: I was serious about writing.

In addition to correcting the usual errors like redundancies and verb tenses gone awry, Deborah and Marcia challenged us to be tough on ourselves. Their critiques, sometimes accompanied by biting humor, strengthened my perceptions as well as my prose. They taught me to hear the writing.

Marcia Siegel by Nat Tileston, 1970s

Keep in mind, this was decades before YouTube. Dance reviews were pretty much the only tracings of a performance available to the public at large.

In this entry, I am extending my hand to the past, in gratitude to Deborah and Marcia, while also extending a hand toward future dance writers. According to my colleague Siobhan Burke, who teaches at Barnard, more students than ever before have signed up for her annual course in dance criticism. So, despite the recent evaporation of live performance, maybe this is a good time to help cultivate a new generation of dance critics.

Below are examples from six of my attempts from 1971–72. I tried to give just enough of my own words for you to see the point of my teachers’ comments. I also tried to retain the casual—yet very different from each other—styles of their corrections.

¶¶¶

  • The performance: Two choreographers at the Cunningham Studio, Oct. 1, 1971.

What I wrote: “…along with an expanded sense of space and time.”
Deborah: “a little confusing if you don’t plan to say how they did this pretty soon.”

What I wrote: “After a while of this…”
Deborah: “No! Maybe, After doing this for a while.”

What I wrote: “This led to the poignant question, ‘Do you sense me?’ ”
Deborah: “How is this poignant?”

What I wrote: “The dancer doesn’t use his own impetus.”
Deborah: “What gives this impression? In other words, what do you mean by impetus?”

What I wrote: “…this adds to the effect of cerebralism.”
Deborah: “Do you mean cerebralism? Or just cool, detached, etc?”

What I wrote: “…was presented…were done…was…was…”
Deborah: “Too many blah verbs.”
Marcia’s final comment: “You can make everything stronger by using more specific words & tightening up the conversational diffuseness, e.g. ‘showed the smoothness and casualness with which she moves’ could be ‘moving smoothly and casually.’ Also you may find that consciously pulling it together will sharpen your perceptions. Once you condense or delete “a film…that took a little too long,” you’ll start thinking about what to really say about the film, why it took too long. . . . Especially pay attention to verbs—use descriptive, specific ones instead of plain ones like go, do (I won’t embarrass you by underlining the do’s, but . . .) or the auxiliaries—is, was, etc. This will improve your writing enormously. . . . I find you usually describe things accurately but sometimes miss the point. Try to think beyond the dance’s physicality to its shape or sensibility. Also consider the dynamic qualities more—the best line in your piece is about the Cunningham quality of ‘fast, disconnected movements and unexpected calms.’  These kinds of words carry their own emotional weight & if they’re accurately and carefully chosen can convey the atmosphere of the dance better than how many steps to the right etc.”

  • The Performance: Ritual Acrobats of Persia at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nov. 9–14, 1971 (I wrote this one in my messy penmanship.)

What I wrote: a section on the dancers’ spectacular feats and the audience reactions.
Deborah: “These two paragraphs cut into the middle of another kind of thinking. Surely the paragraph that begins ‘All the group’ and the one that begins ‘A point of interest, for me’ belong together. With a little reworking, they might fit.”

What I wrote: “group unison”
Deborah: “redundant”
Marcia’s final comment: “You saw all the right things but didn’t dig into why they made you react. I think you can avoid some of the rather choppy feeling your writing has by combining ideas. Take the essential facts of this sentence ‘older but more sprightly’ and put them in the next sentence. Also putting two slightly different ideas in one sentence will help you vary your sentence structure, using subordinate clauses (although, however, since, while etc) and other constructions. . . . Pay more attention to the sound of your writing. It gets monotonous, just like music, when every phrase is built the same way, gives the same kind of information, has the same mood. . . . Did you get The Elements of Style?” [the classic book about writing by Strunk and White]
Deborah’s final comment: “I like your observation about the ways the different men execute the various stunts. You saw some things clearly and wrote vigorously about them. . . . The organization of the review is pretty dreadful. A lot of skipping around etc. . . .By the way, you’ve got a splendid catchy lead if you had used it as such: ‘Are they dancers? Soldiers? Circus entertainers? Or monks?’ Then you can explain why you wonder, What makes them a little like all of these and yet not wholly like any of them? And you’re off and running with your remarks about the walk, the few spectacular tricks, the daily chore-look, etc. . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER? UGH!”

  • The performance: A single dancer/choreographer “with friends,” Cunningham Studio, Nov. 19–20, 1971.

What I wrote: “Beautiful dancers don’t necessarily make beautiful dances.”
Marcia: “This would be a good lead for the article you wrote. (Perhaps better than your nice metaphor, since the metaphor is only true partly, i.e. she’s not always enigmatic.)”

What I wrote: “…the sweeping backbends are breath-taking…M is divinely ordained to dance…”
Marcia: “This borders on fan-mag style, but you are specific enough to get away with it.”

What I wrote: “Unfortunately, the exquisiteness of her dancing does not conceal the mediocrity of her choreography.”
Marcia: “Brutally abrupt shift!”

What I wrote: “The bulk of the dance…”
Marcia: “Awkward, sounds like something to do with digestion.”

What I wrote: “Miss M and two cohorts”
Marcia: “Has a slightly different connotation than you mean—more conspiratorial.”
Marcia’s final comment: “As I said in class, the first two graphs is the strongest writing I’ve seen you do. It happens because you really have empathized and have contributed your feelings to the event without obliterating the event. Do it more!”

  • The performance: Three Choreographers at Cunningham Studio, April 30, 1972.

What I wrote: “…was a treat for all of us who have admired…”
Marcia: “In-group sounding”

What I wrote: “It also includes some unnecessary running around:”
Deborah: “to whom?”

What I wrote: “…being punctuated with smiles of guileless guile.”
Deborah: “Agnew-esque” [Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, had a penchant for derogatory alliteration; he later resigned because of corruption.]

What I wrote: “Pure movement invention need not be bolstered by props and lighting.”
Deborah: “Last sentence sounds sort of preachy.”
Marcia’s final comment: “This article presented a real problem — you might have solved it better by not trying to tell what the choreographers are like as dancers, since none of them danced here. Or set up the structure so that you described each dance first & then made some comment on its relation to the choreographer’s own movement style. . . . I feel it was an interesting concert but I wouldn’t have cared about the stuff you spent the most time describing: how the performer & choreographers look & move. It’s a useful observation and sometimes unusually good but doesn’t tell me what I want to know about 3 first choreographies.”

  • The performance: Two choreographers, Minor Latham Playhouse, Dance Uptown, May 12, 1972.

What I wrote: “…walking hurriedly…”
Marcia: “Opportunity to use one terrific verb: rushing? zooming? sprinting?”

What I wrote: “…they seem to get caught up in a whirlwind without changing their steps.”
Marcia: “What make you feel this? acceleration? intensity? space?”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Marcia: “Theme of this article? Then you don’t need to state it, just make the article illustrate it.”
Deborah’s final comment: “Beginning (1st first para) excellent. I like description of how they look. Captured feel of the dance.”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Deborah’s additional final comment: “Stop THESE PRISSY ENDINGS.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Wendy, I really feel like you’re making progress, slow but sure. Please pay more attention to your writing persona. Who are you talking to? yourself? me and Debby? an anonymous reader? the class? Decide, then tell everything that person needs to know. It’s a kind of performance if you like, it has to begin & end, give a complete account of itself. Put the first person singular in place of all the “we” and “you” etc. Say more about how they moved than what they looked like. Be aware that we readers need some continuity — if dance doesn’t have a plot or music etc, what is the structure? The dynamic form? Here you seem to skip around, picking out phrases or images to talk about — are they random choices? Because the dance is random? Why did you happen to think of them? Are they the most important things?”

• The performance: A composer and dancer at The Kitchen, Broadway Central Hotel, May 19, 1972.

What I wrote: “…proved to be equally at home…”
Marcia: “cliché”

What I wrote: “The novelty of the loveliness of her dancing…”
Marcia: “wordy construction”

What I wrote: “It seems unfortunate that so little of this long and dancey dance sticks in my memory. Choreographers must learn not to flood their audiences. If S had edited out parts of the dance, I’m sure the remaining segments would have remembered themselves to me more vividly.”
Deborah: “Ugh! Double ugh. You’ve made your point. Find an ending that doesn’t sound like advice from Your Dance Doctor.”
Deborah’s final comment: “I like the whole review for its reflective, friendly tone, but feel the need for just a few more specific details.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Now that you know something about form, maybe we better start working on syntax. You need to write more tightly, less discursively. Avoid weak verbs — get more directly at the action, e.g. ‘she walks’ is better than ‘it is to walk.’ But ‘she paces,’ ‘she stalks,’ ‘she staggers,’ ‘she marches’ are better than ‘she walks.’ . . . ‘Another was when’ is almost never O.K. . . .I like this best in the beginning when you describe qualities. Later you talk a lot about positions & floor patters & I don’t get any feeling what the dancer was doing.”

  • The performance: A dancer/choreographer whose work I had danced in, May 24, 1972 (Woe is me, cuz this is also handwritten.)

What I wrote: “F is on a things trip.”
Marcia: “good lead”

What I wrote: “One man combs a woman’s breast as though scooping the last of some soup into his spoon.”
Deborah: “very neat”

What I wrote: “I remember the opening of the piece.”
Deborah: “clumsy”

What I wrote: “strange”
Deborah: “If it’s all that strange, tell us about it.”

What I wrote: “…escapes my memory.”
Deborah: “a cliché”

What I wrote: “I felt that too often, an intriguing image like that one was dropped instead of being allowed to evolve.”
Deborah: “roundabout language”

What I wrote: “She marvels at assorted items in her basket and then sings a wilted rendition of ‘Lavender Blues’ to a plastic rose.”
Marcia: “nice”
Deborah: “Your last para, on p. 1, which summed up your opinion, might be better as a close — perhaps with a less equivocal last sentence. Beware of passive verbs. They’re weak. ‘Man holds rope’ better than ‘rope is held.’ Review unbalanced — like dance. What else happened, what did group do? Incomplete article. . . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER?”
Marcia’s final comment: “This is better— yr getting a sense of the color & sound of words! I don’t feel a whole evening, if that’s what it was. The things you choose as unifying factors are fine, but you should also look for what the choreographer thought was keeping it together, and tell us that, even if briefly . . .(Some of the ways you describe the pc. & especially F seem inconsistent with what I know about her style. Could the ‘serenity,’ ‘liquid flowing’ and ‘resilience’ be things you feel because you like her? You have to be very sure of these things when writing about a close friend or colleague.)”

¶¶¶

I realize that I am still learning these lessons. Marcia and Deborah sit on my shoulder, compelling me to pay close attention to my choices. I’ve brought them with me as I edited other writers’ work at Dance Magazine, and now as a teacher, correcting papers.

Marcia and Deborah, Bournonville Festival, Copenhagen, 2005

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Mikhail Mordkin (1880–1944)

Mordkin in his Bacchanale, collection of Val Golovitser

The name has disappeared from view, but it was Mikhail Mordkin who was the lead dancer in Diaghilev’s first season of the Ballets Russes. It was Mordkin whose partnership with Anna Pavlova caused a sensation in her 1910 United States debut. And it was Mordkin, twenty-nine years later, whose modest little company morphed into American Ballet Theatre.

Born into a family of musicians, Mordkin was accepted to the Imperial Ballet School of Moscow.  While still a student, he was so advanced that he was asked to partner top ballerinas like Ekaterina Geltzer. After graduating, he went into the Bolshoi immediately as a soloist—a rare distinction accorded Nureyev and Baryshnikov as well. He was appointed regisseur in 1904 and assistant ballet master the following year.

According to Russian dance historian Elizabeth Souritz,

Mordkin was the romantic hero of the Moscow stage. Of magnificent physique, with a beautiful, refined face and an inspired gaze, he danced in the Bolshoi Theater from 1900 to 1908 . . . . His dancing was passionate and powerful, and his poses and gesture were expressive. The fusion of dance and pantomime, something not all ballet artists can achieve, was his specialty.

Because of these qualities, Mordkin embodied the newly emotional male characterizations of Alexander Gorsky, the Bolshoi Ballet director who was influenced by both Stanislavsky and Isadora Duncan. Gorsky updated the Bolshoi classics by making them more dramatic and less reliant on symmetrical patterns. As a premier danseur, Mordkin originated the lead male roles in Gorsky’s productions of Raymonda, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, and Giselle.

During the Bolshoi’s first trip abroad, at the invitation of Kaiser Wilhelm to Berlin in 1908—predating Diaghilev’s big splash in Paris by a year—Mordkin served as both premier danseur and ballet master.

The Russian dancer/choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov wrote that Mordkin had “a striking dramatic gift . . . .Like no one else, he was able to  fill the huge Bolshoi stage with movements as powerful as a Greek god’s, arousing a storm of applause.” He goes on to say he felt that Diaghilev’s promotion of Nijinsky in Paris robbed Mordkin of the superstar status he deserved.

Le Pavillon d’Armide by Fokine, the opening ballet of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1909, dress rehearsal with Mordkin and Vera Karalli

 

Partnership with Pavlova

The first time Mordkin danced with Pavlova was for a special occasion in 1906 for which Pavlova was invited from St. Petersburg to join him in The Pharaoh’s Daughter. They had both just reached the highest rank, she with the Maryinsky and he with the Bolshoi.

Pavlova and Mordkin in Pharaoh’s Daughter, c. 1906, Astor, Tilden and Lenox Fndns

Three years later they performed starring roles in Diaghilev’s inaugural season of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet, but they did not dance together. After the season was over, however, on July 25, 1909, they performed a duet at a benefit for earthquake victims at the Grand Opera. It was probably their version of Michel Fokine’s Bacchanale, which was described by Pavlova’s biographer, Keith Money, as “a torrid chase [that] ended with Pavlova falling to the ground in a state of ecstatic exhaustion.”

Going into greater detail, Money wrote:

The two ran on stage under a veil and, amid much rushing about, occasionally froze in sensual poses during an adagio section. . . . [They] ducked and twisted with almost animal vigor, and even went into kissing clinches. Mordkin was wildly extroverted and untrammeled, and his sheer physicality brought out the vamp in Pavlova. Together they struck gold.

Pavlova and Mordkin in Valse Caprice

Otto Kahn, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera House, was in the audience that night and was as swept away as everyone else. He invited the two stars to come to New York and perform at the Met the following year. When they arrived, since they were unknown in New York, they were given a late-night slot after a four-act opera. Even so, they stunned the audience with a two-act Coppélia, and their bows lasted till 1:00 in the morning.

As part of that tour, they brought their Bacchanale to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this time after Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Reading an article in the local Brooklyn Citizen, one gets the picture of what a male ballet dancer was up against:

Michel Mordkine [sic] is the only male dancer who has been able to overcome a certain . . . repugnance in America to male ballet dancers . . . . A Bacchanale dance in the end brought their performance to a whirlwind finish amid thunders of applause.

Since critics in the U. S. and the U. K. had not yet seen Nijinsky, Mordkin was, according to Jane Pritchard, “acclaimed as the greatest male dancer of his time.”

It was said Pavlova and Mordkin were in love with each other, but the budding romance ended suddenly. Both tempestuous, they each had an episode of walking out on each other, she in San Francisco, and he a year later in London. Jealousies brewed as one or the other received more glowing press attention. Once at a performance at the Palace Theatre in London, as the curtain descended,  Pavlova slapped Mordkin.

Mordkin and Pavlova in Bacchanale

“Everybody is talking about the quarrel,” reported The Tatler, “which prevents these two artists dancing together in those pieces which were the sensational joy of the last London season.” Keith Money believed it had to do with a partnering mishap that they blamed on each other. Another theory was that she was angry that he received more applause.

Dance writer Jennifer Dunning names the 1910 season at the Met as the beginning of America’s love affair with Russian Ballet. Although Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had astonished Paris in 1909, that splendid company did not arrive on these shores until 1916.

Although Pavlova generally got better notices, Mordkin was also favored in the American press. The New York Telegraph wrote, “While Mme. Pavlova, whose fame preceded her appearance in New York by many months, quite fulfilled expectations, it was Mordkin who took us entirely by storm and created by far the greater sensation.” Dorothy Barrett, describing him in Dance Magazine years later, wrote, “Neither prince nor pirate, he had the appeal of both. Handsome, with a physique that Tarzan might envy, his masculinity belied the flowers in his hair.” (You can see in the costume at the top, the Tarzan effect.)

Mordkin’s popular Bow and Arrow dance, according to Money, “broke through the audience’s reserve.” Yet a critic writing in The Telegraph mocked him for appearing with bare legs painted brown.

Pavlova and Mordkin in Valse Caprice 1912, Dance Collection

Another source of mockery was their two-act Giselle, deemed an “uphill battle” by one syndicated columnist. However, the performers shone through, according to a critic who wrote, “Giselle . . . which began the program, is a weariness in the flesh. Yet, over all these obstacles, the art of the two dancers triumphed.”

Their combativeness continued through two long tours that criss-crossed the United States from 1910 to 1912. By the end of that time, both Pavlova and Mordkin chose new partners. According to Gennady Smakov, Pavlova often regretted the break with Mordkin and later advised the male dancers in her company to emulate his dramatic abandon.

Pavlova and Mordin in Russian Dance, 1910, collection of Cyril Beaumont, V & A Museum

Mordkin’s acting ability created excitement, but sometimes he went too far. As Conrad in Le Corsaire, he would suddenly scream. The critic Akim Volynsky, quoted by Smakov, found his “outbursts of temperament and frenzied enthusiasm hardly appropriate in the frame of traditional presentation.”

 

Return to Russia

In 1912 Mordkin returned to Moscow and resumed dancing as a Bolshoi principal for the next six years. He toured throughout Russia with a group he called All-Star Russian Imperial Ballet, which included his new wife, Bronislava Pojitskaya, a fellow dancer from the Imperial School. Because of his ability to express emotion through movement, he also became involved with the experimental Kamerny Theatre of Moscow, leading to an invitation from Konsantin Stanislavsky to teach students at Moscow Art Theatre in “plastique” and rhythmics. (Stanislavsky’s pioneering approach, known as method acting, was an influence on the Bolshoi as well as on Lee Strasberg and his Actors Studio in New York.)

Exempted from military service during World War I, Mordkin had to entertain the troops in addition to his other touring commitments. After the outbreak of the October Revolution in 1917, he choreographed his first large group piece. This was The Legend of Aziade, created under the influence of the popular Orientalism of the Fokine/Bakst Schéhérazade (1910). The following year he staged this work for the Nikitin Circus, pulling out all the stops. The cast included soloists from the Bolshoi as well as about 200 supers. Performers broke the fourth wall and danced into the house. Colored lights were projected onto some scenes, and horses trotted onstage in another scene. The audience ate it up. According to Souritz, so did Anatole Lunacharsky, the Soviet Culture minister who also championed Isadora Duncan.

Mordkin and Pavlova rehearsing Aziade in New York, 1910

In the fall of 1918 Mordkin went to Kiev, which had a thriving theater scene at that time. While staging Giselle and other classic ballets at the Kiev City Theater, he opened a studio that offered ballet, gymnastics, and social dances as well as classes in “expressive” movement.

In an essay on the period, Lynn Garafola quotes a young acting student, Stepan Bondarchuk, about Mordkin’s lessons in Kiev:

Work with Mikhail Mordkin inspired us with its originality, temperament and grand sense of plastic form. The exercises were not the standard classical ones we knew . . . Rather you could call them creative études. Mordkin would ‘sing’ with his beautiful body to music, and we would try to do the same.

He also had a school in Tblisi, and one of his projects there was an attempt at his own version of Fokine’s Les Sylphides. He seemed to be always remaking what had already been made.

In 1922 Mordkin returned to the Bolshoi as ballet master. With the school now under Communist rule, conflicts immediately arose and he felt it impossible to work there. He left after twelve days. He and his wife and small son traveled to the Caucasus and fell victim to a triple devastation: the typhus epidemic, the Russian Civil War and the ensuing famine. According to one account, the family was found on the edge of starvation in an abandoned boxcar by the American Near East Relief Com­mittee. This experience made Mordkin more determined than ever to leave Russia.

 

New York

Poster for the Mordkin Ballet, 1020s

The ballet master accepted an invitation from producer/agent Morris Gest to come to New York in 1924. Gest booked him into the Greenwich Village Follies at the Winter Garden (right around the same time Martha Graham was in the Follies!). For much of the 1926–27 season, Mordkin was on the road with a group he called the Mordkin Ballet. These dancers were mostly his students plus Vera Nemchinova, Pierre Vladimiroff, and Felia Doubrovska, all formerly with the Ballets Russes. He also taught at the Stanislavsky hub in midtown known as American Laboratory Theatre. There were times when he took a gig in Vaudeville that paid well but was less than artistically fulfilling.

An interesting cultural exchange was taking place that brought out Mordkin’s wicked sense of humor. While the American Isadora Duncan was performing in the Soviet Union, embracing the Communist ideal and proclaiming she would teach the Soviet children to dance, Mordkin was clearly preferring America, where he was paid better. According to Charles Payne (1929–1983), a longtime administrator of American Ballet Theatre, Duncan had “denounced Mordkin for deserting the Soviets.” To which Mordkin responded, “Miss Duncan cannot dance. That is why she has become a politician.”

In 1927 Mordkin opened his Studio of Dance Arts in Carnegie Hall. One of his students was Lucia Chase (1907–1986), a young widow who had initially wanted to be an actress. The recent death of her husband had plunged her into an abyss of grief that separated her from society. Attending Mordkin’s daily ballet class was her way of gradually coming back into the world. She appreciated the consistency, the rigor, and his emphasis on drama over technique (she had started lessons too late to develop strong technique anyway). And he noticed that she shone onstage in character roles. Chase, who had inherited a fortune, let him know she would help him develop a company. For starters, she offered him studio space at her summer home in Narragansett, Rhode Island, where the second floor of the stable was empty.

Chase’s biographer and son, Alex C. Ewing, described Mordkin from his mother’s point of view:

Mordkin was an exceptionally powerful figure, both physically and temperamentally, who combined a domineering personality with a colossal ego. With his proud bearing, his muscularity, his sudden unpredictable outbursts, he was like a magnificent animal that had to be accepted on his own terms.

In 1936, Mordkin produced a semi-professional, small-scale Sleeping Beauty at the Woman’s Club of Waterbury, Connecticut, Chase’s hometown. Chase was Aurora; Dimitri Romanoff, a dancer from Russia, was Siegfried; and Viola Essen, a teenage prodigy, danced the Bluebird as a solo. In publicity, Mordkin called Chase “The All-American Prima Ballerina.” He knew where his bread was buttered.

Lucia Chase with Dimitri Romanoff in Mordkin’s Sleeping Beauty, 1937, photo Delar

The next engagement, four months later at the Majestic Theater, included Mordkin’s Voices of Spring and The Goldfish (based on Gorsky’s ballet of the same name), as well as Giselle. The New York Times critic John Martin praised his performance as the old fisherman in The Goldfish, but barely mentioned Giselle, saying only, “Lucia Chase is by no means an ideal Giselle.”

Chase knew she wasn’t up to these starring roles and insisted they engage real ballerinas. The new managing director, Rudolf Orthwine, agreed. German emigré Rudolf Orthwine (1893–1970) had met Mordkin in 1935 and helped him set up the Mordkin Ballet. Together they set up Advanced Art Ballets, Inc. with Orthwine as managing director, Mordkin’s son Michael Jr. as business manager, Mordkin père as choreographer and director, and Lucia Chase as principal backer. (Orthwine soon became a publisher when he bought two dance publications and merged them in 1942 to become Dance Magazine.) They brought in Patricia Bowman, a Fokine protégée who became prima ballerina of Radio City Music Hall; Karen Conrad and Edward Caton, who’d been with the Philadelphia Ballet (previously the Littlefield Ballet); and Nina Stroganova and Vladimir Dokoudovsky from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The company became more professional, but all the choreography was still Mordkin’s.

Rehearsing Voices of Spring, from left: Stroganova, Mordkin, Bowman, Chase, and Conrad, ABT Archives

 

Enter Richard Pleasant, Architect of ABT

Richard Pleasant, Dance Magazine

Because Mordkin was on tour a lot, Orthwine decided they needed someone to manage the New York studio. Dimitri Romanoff told them about a smart young man he’d met in California when he was dancing in San Francisco Opera’s production of Le Coq d’Or. (This version of Le Coq d’Or, originally by Fokine, was choreographed by Adolph Bolm, who’d danced in the troupes of both Pavlova and Diaghilev.) Richard Pleasant had been a supernumerary in that show. With a degree in architecture from Princeton—which got him nowhere during the Great Depression—he’d had a string of jobs and was looking for something more permanent. He came to Chicago to see a Mordkin performance, and Romanoff introduced him to Chase and Orthwine.

Pleasant seemed to be capable in a general way, but he was a bit more dance-savvy than he first appeared: He had spent summers at the Perry-Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Colorado and had encountered Agnes de Mille in Hollywood. In fact, according to B. F. Giannini, de Mille “was amazed when this lanky twenty-six-year-old from Colorado announced that someday he would have a ballet company of his own.” Orthwine hired Pleasant for $260 a month to manage the studio.

Although his job description did not include any kind of artistic advisement, Dick Pleasant (1909–1961) could see that Mordkin’s touring enterprise was not top-notch. He started dreaming of a company of American dancers with a repertoire of the best international choreographers. Maybe it would be the Mordkin company, but expanded to include multiple choreographers. Or maybe it would be a consortium of companies, each led by a different choreographer. Pleasant’s ideas were evolving.

In the summer of 1939, Pleasant spent two days in Narragansett convincing Chase of his larger picture. He pointed out that if they had a more expansive and professional operation, it would be more likely to attract other backers. Once she gave him the green light, he called Carmelita Maracci and Ruth Page and tried to involve Mordkin as one of the group of choreographers.

Mordkin would have none of it. For one thing, he felt disdain for American choreographers working in classical ballet. For another, bigger reason, he was wary of anyone trying to take over his company. He knew what happened to Fokine, who was twice supplanted as choreographer by Diaghilev’s favorites—first by Nijinsky, and later by Lifar. So Mordkin’s paranoia, combined with his poor command of English, did not help the situation

 

A World War Opens the Door to Top Choreographers

Meanwhile, Pleasant’s attempts to recruit Fokine, Antony Tudor, and Anton Dolin at first came to naught. They were all too busy. But then, cataclysm: Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and war was declared in Europe. All the ballet companies shut down, and many artists wanted to flee Europe. Fokine, Tudor, and Dolin all pivoted to accept Pleasant’s offer. Fokine was considered the best living choreographer at the time—even by Mordkin. So when Fokine came on board, Mordkin saw the writing on the wall. He refused to speak to Pleasant, so communication had to be carried out through Mordkin’s son, Michael Jr. In this indirect manner, Pleasant requested a list of preferred ballets and dancers from Mordkin, but it never came. Although Pleasant had initially promised to include nine Mordkin productions, only one, Voices of Spring, was on the rehearsal schedule. Dolin, who had told Pleasant that Mordkin’s stagings of the classics were not authentic, took over the staging of Swan Lake and Giselle, and Bronislava Nijinska staged La Fille Mal Gardée—all three were ballets that Mordkin had set many times.

The new enterprise, now called Ballet Theatre, opened its inaugural three-week season at the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center on January 11, 1940. It was under the aegis of Advance Arts Ballets, the legal entity created by Orthwine and Mordkin. Orthwine was now president, Pleasant managing director, and Chase still the prime backer and principal dancer. Mordkin’s role was reduced to setting a single ballet.

Voices of Spring with Patricia Bowman and Nina Stroganova by Ira Hill

The repertoire was a dazzling array of the latest ballets by international choreographers including Tudor’s Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, de Mille’s Fall River Legend and Three Virgins and a Devil, Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Bluebeard, and Eugene Loring’s Great American Goof. Eleven choreographers, twenty-one ballets, fifty-six dancers (plus twelve in José Fernandez’s “Spanish unit” and fourteen in de Mille’s “Negro Unit”), and three conductors. Among the dancers were Chase, Conrad, Romanoff, Stroganova and Dokoudovsky from Morkin’s company as well as Nora Kaye, Donald Saddler, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, Diana Adams, Antony Tudor, and Hugh Laing. The company soon obtained works by Massine, Balanchine, Robbins, Ashton, and Bolm. Needless to say, Ballet Theatre, renamed American Ballet Theatre in 1957, has become one of the world’s great ballet companies. It couldn’t have happened without Mikhail Mordkin. He had cultivated Chase as a dancer and donor; he had involved Orthwine as chief administrator, he had hired Pleasant, and he had trained some of the dancers.

 

Mordkin as Ballet Master

From the time he was a teenager at the Imperial School in Moscow, Mordkin was always teaching somewhere. In New York, his notable students included not only Chase and Essen, but also Leon Danielian, Katherine Hepburn, and Hemsley Winfield (1907–1934), the African American man who started a Black dance company and then died tragically at age 26.

Even after being evicted from his own company, Mordkin remained a popular teacher. He continued to offer daily classes at the Masters Institute on Riverside Drive until he died in 1944.

Mordkin directing rehearsal of Giselle, 1936

Many years after his death, Mordkin was still a vivid presence for many. Julia Vincent Cross reminisced about his classes in the August 1956 issue of Dance Magazine:

I, like many others, was overwhelmed by his vivid personality. At first he almost frightened me by the whirlwind tempo of his classes. Mordkin, with his wonderful feeling for rhythm, sweep and emotion, would some­times start a movement slowly—then go quicker and quicker—until a climax was reached which would put me into great confusion. When this occurred, as it did on many occasions with all of his stu­dents, he would stop the whole class and ask to have a funeral march played.

Mordkin had a tendency to frighten his pupils or make fun of them. But this really grew out of a wonderful sense of humor. And his usual attitude was one of love and affection, especially for those he thought had talent. One of his rare quali­ties as a teacher was to consider each pupil as an individual and to try to bring out some special personal quality.

He loved his teaching and his pupils with a fervor and devotion which seemed to carry them forward as dancers without a great deal of concentration on form and technique. His lessons always depended on his mood of the moment. He never gave a dull class. He inspired one to move—to flow with the music. Even his barre exercises forced one to use the whole body rhythmically. He was never affected, self-conscious or false. His danc­ing stemmed from his heart.

After he died, his devoted wife Pojitskaya, who had been ballet mistress to his company, continued teaching at his studio until the late 1960s.

Students at Mordkin Studio preparing for a recital, Dance Magazine, c. 1940s

Legacy

Mordkin was essential in bringing Russian ballet to the U.S.  A compelling performer and invigorating teacher, he helped create the mold of the heroic Soviet male dancer at a time when women dominated the ballet stage. And he laid the foundation for ABT.

However, he was never considered a distinguished choreographer. Elizabeth Souritz, has this to say:

Mordkin did not have talent as an expressive choreographer; his subjective biases as an actor prompted him to dramatize dance along the lines of romantic melodrama. Moreover, he imitated Fokine and Gorsky but his works did not contain any new ideas at all.

Even Orthwine, who called Mordkin a genius as a dancer and mime, made no claims for him as a choreographer. My guess is that his style became outdated and Pleasant picked up on that. Smakov has written that the early films of his works look like silent movies, and that is borne out in this clip from The Legend of Aziade.

Nevertheless, Mordkin opened up the United States to ballet in ways that aren’t always obvious. The relative prosperity of the U.S. had something to do with it. “Why should we go back to Russia,” he once said, “when we can earn more money here in American in a year than we could earn in Russia in ten years?” As Dorothy Barrett wrote in Dance Magazine,

When reports reached Russia of the way ballet paid off in this country, the low salaried dancers in the Czar’s ballet grew restless. Nor did Mordkin forget that after eight years as soloist in the Moscow Ballet he had been able to save very little substance. He wrangled leaves for thirty artists from the Imperial Ballet and took them on his American tours. For many years afterwards Russian dancers rushed to this country as to the promised land.

Perhaps this last word from Barrett explains the secret to Mordkin’s magnetism: “Through it all, he com­municated a kind of mad passion for all that Russian ballet stood for.”

¶¶¶

Sources

Books

Bravura! Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre
By Alex C. Ewing
University Press of Florida, 2009

Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s
By Elizabeth Souritz
Duke University Press, 1990

Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art
By Keith Money
Knopf, 1982, out of print

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
By Lynn Garafola
Da Capo Press, 1989

Anna Pavlova: Twentieth Century Ballerina
By Jane Pritchard with Caroline Hamilton
Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2012

Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance
By Sharon Skeel
Oxford University Press, 2020

The Great Russian Dancers
By Gennady Smakov
Knopf, 1984, out of print

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today
By Simon Morrison
Liveright, Norton, 2016

But First a School: The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet
By Jennifer Dunning
Viking, 1985, out of print

 

Articles

“The Era of Mikhail Mordkin” by Charles Payne
American Ballet Theatre
Knopf, 1978, out of print

“Richard Pleasant: An American Dreamer”
By B. F. Giannini
Dance Magazine, Jan. 1990

“Mikhail Mordkin”
By Rudolf Orthwine
Dance Magazine, Feb. 1943

“Mikhail Mordkin: His Last Curtain Call”
By Rudolf Orthwine
Dance Magazine, Sept. 1944

“Mikhail Mordkin: Pioneer in the Ballet Bush Country”
By Dorothy Barrett
Dance Magazine, Sept. 1948

“A Class with Mikhail Mordkin”
Julia Vincent Cross
Dance Magazine, Aug. 1956

“Rudolf Orthwine (1893–1970)”
By William Como
Dance Magazine, Sept. 1970

“An Amazon of the Avant-Garde: Bronislava Nijinska in Revolutionary Russia”
By Lynn Garafola
Dance Research Journal, Winter 2011, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 109­–166, pub. Edinburgh University Press

“Stanislavski and America: A Critical Chronology”
By Paul Gray
Tulane Drama Review, Winter, 1964, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 21–60, pub. The MIT Press

“Mordkin, Mikhail”
The Oxford Dictionary of Dance

“Mordkine and Pavlowa Add Amazing Grace to Opera”
Brooklyn Citizen (no byline), April 5, 1910
http://levyarchive.bam.org/Detail/objects/4669
Via BAM Levy Archive

 

Films

Lucia Chase Tribute Film, a film by the 2018 Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame

Excerpt, The Legend of Aziade
With Mordkin and Pavlova, possibly from 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera House or later

Like this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 5

Notable Dance Books of 2020

It’s been a good year for dance history. Most of these books explore the past, deepening and broadening what we know and how we know it. Each is interesting in a different way. In cases where I didn’t have much to say, I’ve still tried to give a sense of the scope.

This was a big year for me because my own book was published, which you will see if you get to the end of this list.

Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance
By Ntozake Shange
Foreword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Beacon Press

The secret life of the famous playwright Ntozake Shange (1948–2018) was her dance life. When her dance play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976) exploded on Broadway in 1976, it was gritty, witty, and playful. The characters expressed themselves through both words and dance—with the help of choreographer Dianne McIntyre. Shange coined the term choreopoem to describe her equal passions for literature and dance.

As Alexis Pauline Gumbs explains in the foreword, Shange was working on this book while she was trying to recover from two strokes and a degenerative nerve disease. She had explored Black dance, not only as an element in her own productions, but by studying and performing with Dianne McIntyre and Halifu Osumare. As McIntyre says in these pages, Shange was at home in dance class. “In my dreams I can dance,” Shange wrote, even as her body was deteriorating. “Every night I fly.”

When auditioning for McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion in the 1970s, the young, dance-loving poet was asked to improvise for 32 counts. “I was scared to death because that was a long time. But I said, ‘Well hell, I am here.’ And we began. I danced my heart out.” Shange landed an internship with McIntyre—and friendship for life.

Shange tells a funny story about the time when, dressed as a bag lady for a performance choreographed by Osumare, she planned to make her entrance from outside the theater. Her guise was so convincing that an usher barred her from the building and threatened to call the police.

Shange follows her curiosity by interviewing Black dance artists, including McIntyre, Osumare, Eleo Pomare, and two from the younger generation: Camille A. Brown, who choreographed the last staging of colored girls, and Davalois Fearon, a dance artist who was in Stephen Petronio’s company. In these interviews, I found keys that unlock larger ideas:

Osumare: “I think that as we grow as a society, we have to become more literate in being able to read the body.”

Camille A. Brown: “If I’m eating, we’re all eating. If I get a door open, it’s my responsibility to make it wider.”

Osumare again: “Part of what I’ve been doing all my life is receiving ancestral messages and translating them in my art.”

 

Daniel Lewis: A Life in Choreography and the Art of Dance
By Donna H. Krasnow and Daniel E. Lewis
McFarland

So much of our lives happens by chance. For Daniel Lewis, a dance artist as well as a leader in dance training, it was the War in Vietnam that pushed him toward the Juilliard School. His plan was to become a Broadway dancer, but the draft board had other ideas. One of the accompanists at the Martha Graham school told him he could get a deferment by enrolling at Juilliard. There he met José Limón, who needed a male dancer just then, in 1963. At Juilliard he was taken under the wing of Martha Hill, who groomed him as a future dance educator. She sometimes asked him to fill in for Limón. It was Hill who ultimately recommended Danny to be the dean of dance at New World School of the Arts.
One of the dance world’s sunniest, most generous people, Lewis was also a performer who always revealed the humanity behind the role. A tap dancer as a child, he attended the High School of Performing Arts while also dancing in Yiddish theater. His career ride also included American Dance Festival, staging Limón works, directing his own repertory company, and finally Dean of Dance at the New World School of the Arts.

Limón’s dedication and artistry obviously made an impact on Lewis. The younger dancer was thrilled to perform Iago next to Limón’s Othello in The Moor’s Pavane. Perhaps his hardest role was the slave owner in Limón’s The Legend, about a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1830.

The book is chock full of entertaining stories about tours, teaching assignments, re-stagings, with side trips to Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, and Donald McKayle. Occasionally, with so many voices—those of Donna Krasnow, Lewis, and a slew of colleagues giving their memories—the narrative gets confusing.

Just as Lewis learned to be a leader from Martha Hill, Robert Battle learned from Lewis. As a student at New World School of the Arts, Battle, now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, would observe Lewis as director: “Sitting in the office talking with him was like watching a circus act. Danny would be doing multiple things at once—on the phone, solving problems, and making things possible…I call Danny ‘the conductor.’”

 

Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact
By Phil Chan with Michele Chase
Yellow Peril Press

Black Lives Matter has been front and center, rightly so. But Asian lives matter too, and it matters how they are portrayed in the dance world. Final Bow for Yellowface is a project co-founded by Phil Chan and New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, as well as the title of the book. Phil Chan exposes the demeaning stereotypes in classical ballet. Exactly why does the choreography for the Chinese dance in Nutcracker call for head-bobbing, finger-pointing and shuffling? What is the historical basis, and how can these stereotypes be changed?

Taking an activist stance, Chan met with Peter Martins, then the ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, to suggest changes. He convinced Martins to alter certain movements, but he didn’t stop there. He got 31 (and still counting) artistic directors of ballet companies around the world to sign the pledge to eliminate offensive stereotypes of Asians.

With sections titled “Caricature vs. Character” 58 or “Appropriation vs. Appreciation,” Chan provides informed, rich, and nuanced discussions. He asks questions like “Being Asian in America: Do We Belong?” “Who Gets to Decide?” “Did We Do Enough?”

Chan compares old ballets to bonsai trees, saying that in order for them to survive, we “have to give them a little delicate pruning . . . Once we acknowledge this, it becomes a little easier to be less precious with how we preserve dance . . . and more willing to take risks.”

 

Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy
By Victoria Phillips
Oxford University Press

Martha Graham is known as an uncompromising artist, a purist who is sometimes called the Picasso of dance. It was this very individuality that was the selling point for the U. S. State Department to send her abroad. So it’s a bit jarring to see her positioned as a creator of propaganda herself in the title. I find myself half-wishing the title were Martha Graham: A Pawn in the Cold War.

That said, this book thrusts the choreographer onto a larger world stage. Phillips helps us see how the idea of American originality is constructed and marketed. The vacillations of Graham’s career were controlled not only by the quality of her company’s performances and the response of the audience, but also by the dance panel advising the State Department on whom to send where. Along the way we learn that Eleanor Roosevelt’s favoring of Graham did not hurt her, that the Israeli audience responded well to Appalachian Spring because of its “pioneering spirit,” and that Graham cited the eroticism of her 1962 Phaedra to claim relevance well past her heyday.

Issues broached: Was Graham’s work too esoteric? Could people in poor countries enjoy it? When touring Europe, how did her rivalry with Germany’s Mary Wigman play out? How did Martha’s drinking affect her performances?

The revelations of dance history abound. For one, the narrative that modern dance was born in America only emerged after World War II. Between the world wars, it was accepted that Germany (home of Laban, Wigman, Kreutzberg) was the birthplace of modern dance. It was only after Hitler destroyed the arts in German that the idea emerged, via Margaret Lloyd’s 1949 Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, that modern dance originated in the U.S. with Graham. Another revelation is that it was Michio Ito, that shadowy figure who chose to be deported rather than confined to an internment camp, who introduced Graham to her most constant collaborator, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. A third revelation is that, as opposed to the understanding that Graham broke completely from the “orientalist” aesthetics of Denishawn, her first State Department tour of the Orient went to the same countries as the famous Denishawn tour of 1925–26 and she posed in front of some of the same landmarks. She soon broke with the coy exotica of St. Denis as she explored the American experience, but that took time.

 

The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation
By Mark Franko
Oxford University Press

Whenever the name Serge Lifar comes up, someone always says, “You know he was a Fascist, right?” Now, more than just rumor, we have the proof. Mark Franko has delved into the international archives to paint a complex picture of this mercurial dance artist who collaborated with the Nazis. The surrounding history is fascinating.

Lifar was the last favorite of Diaghilev, cultivated by him to shine as a performing and choreographing star. Cyril Beaumont described his movements as “graceful and lithe like those of a wild animal.” And yet he was also seen as an exemplar of classicism. Lifar’s sensibility was seen to fit “the avant-garde interwar art scene and its queer dimension.” Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète, with Lifar in the lead role when it premiered in 1928, was often called the dawning of neo-classicism.

Because of Lifar connection to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had wowed the French elite for twenty years ending with Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the French authorities pinned their hopes on Lifar to resuscitate French ballet. He represented a reversal of sorts, in that Marius Petipa had brought ballet from France to Russia in the nineteenth century, making it thrive while ballet in France languished. So the French were eager to reverse the route and invite a Russian to revitalize the French ballet scene at the expense of Russia. Lifar did in fact bring Paris Opera Ballet into the “golden years,” which were also the war years.

In his voluminous writings, Lifar had espoused concepts that align with the Nazis, for instance, that pure classical ballet was fundamentally Aryan (as opposed to swing dance, which was banned). The Vichy government used the Opera (which then was producing more dance than music) as a public display of collaboration with the Nazi regime. In 1940, in the midst of World War II, Lifar personally showed Hitler around the Opera and had the lights turned on. When he was accused of being Jewish, he defended himself by disassociating himself from Jews and going further: “In my book La Danse (1937), I demonstrated that the Jewish culture is incompatible with omni-Aryan culture, that it has followed a distinctly different and destructive pathway while the omni-Aryan spirit symbolizes creation.” Always the opportunist, Lifar knew when white supremacy would come in handy.

After the war, for hazy reasons, Lifar was not penalized for collaborating with the Nazis as much as other public figures in France. Different factions of Paris Opera Ballet took different sides. The dancers stuck by him, but the theater electricians, who had been part of the Resistance, refused to work with him. They devised a plan to express their displeasure: In the first performance after the war, when Lifar appeared onstage, they plunged the entire theater into darkness!

There are other fun episodes, like the time Lifar challenged Massine to a duel in Central Park. (Massine declined.)

But this is the part that changed history: The general director of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouché, had planned to replace Lifar with Balanchine, who was at the time freelancing in movies and musicals in the U.S. But at the last minute, Rouché bowed to pressure and rehired Lifar. This was right before New York City Center offered to make Balanchine and Kirstein’s fledgling group a resident company, thus giving birth to New York City Ballet in 1948. It’s unreal to think how close we came to not having NYCB!

 

Corner
Douglas Dunn, Gibson + Recoder
Photographs by Paula Court, text by Douglas Dunn and Brice Brown, film stills by Gibson + Recoder, Design by Grenfell Press and
MAB Books

Douglas Dunn is an existential figure in post-modern dance. During 46 years of making dances, he has produced events wayyy outside the box. With photographs by Paula Court, this book documents Corner (1972), in which Dunn, dressed in black, creates shapes with a crisp outline against a freestanding white-walled corner. The individual as loner, as object, as part of the architecture, as a visitor from another planet.

But that’s only half the book. The other half, if you turn the book over and start from the flip side, shows images of these same positions, now burnished bronze, obliterating the contrast of the original photos. Like a ghost crawling among the pages, the hazy figures disperse into the grainy background. This haunting effect, taking minimalism into a dream world, is accomplished by visual artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder.

Included also is an essay by Dunn about the time he made Corner. His prose, like his dancing, is eloquent yet at times blunt. He aims “to emphasize the artificiality of delivering the body as art.” The surprise is that the further artificiality of the visual treatment brings these images into primal, almost animalistic territory.

 

The Legat Legacy
Ed. Mindy Aloff
Introduction by Robert Greskovic
Illustrations: Caricatures by Nicolas Legat
University Press of Florida

Master teacher and choreographer Nicolas Legat (1869–1937) was the link between Petipa and many of the Russians whose names we know; Pavlova, Fokine, Massine, Nijinsky, and Balanchine had all been his students. This book, which comprises Legat’s memoirs; testimonials from dancers like André Eglevsky, Alexandra Danilova, and Alicia Markova; and detailed lesson plans, brings the early twentieth-century Russian ballet alive for us.
Petipa is a giant in our eyes, but in Legat’s eyes, Christian Johanssen, was equally huge. Legat regarded these two men as deities. His writings show us that Russian ballet was an international blend, with influences from the French Petipa, the Swedish Johanssen (a disciple of Bournonville), and the Italian Cecchetti, who excelled in training for multiple pirouettes.

It was from Johanssen that Legat learned to be an exacting, demanding, and inventive teacher. Like Johanssen, he gave new combinations every class and tailored his corrections to individual bodies. He also learned to come five minutes early and water the floor himself before class. (In later years, a student or underling did the watering—with a garden-type watering can—the purpose being to provide friction, the result being constantly splintering wood planks.)

From Petipa, Legat learned about choreographing—but only for women. Apparently Petipa’s movement imagination did not extend to men. But Johanssen’s did. So Legat learned from him, although he felt Johanssen’s forte was in teaching rather than creating ballets.

Although Legat was sometimes open to new styles—for instance, he inserted a tap dance into Fairy Doll in 1903—he opposed the reforms of Fokine. While Fokine pushed for the story of a ballet to be danced rather than indicated through mime, Legat loved passing down Petipa’s pantomime passages to his students. These differences led to open conflicts between Legat and Fokine.

So many of the great Russian dancers—Pavlova, Karsavina, Massine—trusted Legat that Diaghilev hired him as ballet master for the Ballets Russes in 1925. But conflicts ensued, so Legat left to teach in Paris and then re-settled in London.

As Robert Greskovic writes in the introduction, Legat’s contribution as a teacher outweighed his output as a choreographer. None of his ballets since Fairy Doll in 1903, which he co-choreographed with his younger brother, has endured. In any case, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Russian-style ballet training.

 

Futures of Dance Studies
Edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross, and Rebecca Schneider
The University of Wisconsin Press

This book comprises 28 essays on a wide variety of subjects. It puts its faith in younger dance scholars to sustain the field of dance studies. The articles are divided into sub-sections: Archives, Desires, Sites, Politics, Economics, Virtuosities, and Circulations. I will summarize only two essays: the first, by Joanna Dee Das, in the Archives section; and the second, by Clare Croft, under Desires.

In “Dancing Dahomey at the World’s Fair: Revising the Archive of African Dance,” Joanna Dee Das makes the case that the exposition of the Dahomey Village (Dahomey is now the Republic of Benin) in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair spurred the later popularity of African dance in the U. S. The early Vaudeville team of George Walker and Bert Williams, also performing at the fair, watched the West African dancers and borrowed from them when they created In Dahomey, the 1902 hit that turned the Cakewalk into a national craze. It was also the inspiration for a Dahomean number in Ziegfeld’s groundbreaking 1927 musical Showboat. Bert Williams, the soulful blackface performer, was an inspiration to the first superstar tapper, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The World’s Fair was steeped in white supremacy, so it’s not surprising that journalists called the Dahomean dancers “savage,” describing them as both lazy and aggressive, “grinning” while swinging weapons. Dee Das looks to the 1930s films of Melville Herskovits for a more accurate version of the Dahomeans’ dances. She identifies a long-held duality: “The tension between black performance as object of an oppressive white gaze and black performance as a means of liberation.”

In “Lesbian Echoes in Activism and Writing: Jill Johnston’s Interventions,” Clare Croft applies a scholarly lens to Johnston’s wild ride as a dance critic turned lesbian chronicler. Johnston, who died in 2010, actually anticipated the ground-breaking Judson Dance Theater with her own explosive, raunchy, scarily insightful, convention-shattering prose. As Croft writes, “Johnson celebrates messiness, collision, and the dissolving of boundaries,” qualities that later apply to her writing as a lesbian feminist activist as well.

Croft quotes a magnificently prescient gender-diverse, Gertrude Stein–inflected statement by Johnston at the end of a review of a 1968 Lotte Goslar performance: “A queen is a queen is a boy is girl is a ballerina is a boy is a dyke is a fag is a butch is a boy is a girl is just a kinky son of a gun like the rest of us. Hello all you sexes. We’re too good to be true.”

After describing Johnston’s notorious public behavior (including a make-out session captured in the Pennebaker film Town Bloody Hall), Croft concludes the essay with gratitude: “She is here in our history to remind us again and again that there many ways to be a woman. To be a lesbian is to be a woman, with a body, with a mind—loud, brash, funny, and full of desire spilling forth.”

 

Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange
By Anne Searcy
Oxford University Press

In 1959, the Bolshoi dancers burst onto the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House, stoking excitement with their heroic leaps and hurling partnering. When they returned in September of 1962, they had two assets that promised to outdo their first triumph: the fierce ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and a new heroic Spartacus. Plisetskaya dazzled with every step, but Leonid Yacobson’s Spartacus—which expressed the Soviet Union’s revolutionary politics in grand manner, one-handed lifts and all—fell flat. Even worse, it was ridiculed. Critics compared it to kitschy Hollywood epics of the 1920s. It was called tasteless by New York critics, a charge that fit America’s disdain for Soviet “backwardness” while also marveling at the dancers’ virtuosity.

I was among the many American teenagers chosen to be supers in the production. In fact, author Anne Searcy quotes my blog entry My Spartacus as one of the people saying the ballet “did not cater to good taste.” It was only later, looking back, guessing why the eight scheduled performances were suddenly cut down to less, that I came up with that explanation. I adored the Khachaturian music, and being onstage with Plisetskaya, Rhyzhenko, and Vasiliev, was a thrill. Actually, I think the lore and lure of the Bolshoi was untouched by the charge of bad taste. Americans from Sascha Radetsky and Gabe Stone Shayer have studied there, and of course there was David Hallberg’s stint as a principle in the Bolshoi Ballet.

OK, enough of my opinion. Searcy recounts the reverse part of the exchange during the Cold War. When American Ballet Theatre went over in 1960, they defied common sense by including Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend— both about extremely violent characters (what else makes a ballet American?). These ballets, which violated the alleged idealism of the Communist regime, were not well received.

More successful was New York City Ballet’s tour to the Soviet Union the following month, October 1962, which coincided with the Cuban Missile crisis. Despite the aesthetic differences, Searcy posits that both the Soviet penchant for symphonic ballets and the Balanchine’s neo-classical works embrace the music, and therein lay the common ground. I’m not sure I agree, because the Soviet aesthetic was broader and more literal, and I think they recognized that Balanchine was taking ballet into the future.

 

Finding Balanchine’s Lost Ballets: Exploring the Early Choreography of a Master
By Elizabeth Kattner
University Press of Florida

In 2018, Elizabeth Kattner, an associate professor at Oakland University in Michigan, dared to reconstruct Balanchine’s first group ballet, which he made as a teenager in St. Petersburg. Performed at the Duma Auditorium on the Nevsky Prospect, Funeral March premiered in 1923, the year before Balanchine left the Soviet Union for Europe. At the time he was the head of a group called the Young Ballet.

Influenced by the splendid work that Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have done to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring and other Diaghilev-era ballets, Kattner restored (she uses the word “envision” rather than reconstruct) Balanchine’s eight-minute Funeral March for Grand Rapids Ballet. She feels that Funeral March foreshadows his later renowned works like Apollo, Prodigal Son and Serenade.

Inhabiting her double identity of dance artist and scholar, Kattner gathered the “remnants,” or traces of the work, and put them together like a puzzle. 46 She concludes that much of Balanchine’s genius was formed early on, in the cauldron of artistic influences of revolutionary Russia. These influences include sculptor Naom Gabo’s cubist ideas (Balanchine intended Funeral March to be seen from all four sides), the constructivist theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and experimental choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, who placed the action on different-leveled platforms.

An additional influence that we rarely hear about was Fokine’s Chopiniana. Balanchine loved the Chopin so much that he would imitate the different roles, so it’s no surprise that he chose the Polish composer’s music for this work.

Although Funeral March is the only ballet Kattner reconstructed, her Appendix lists nine other Balanchine ballets from 1920 to 1924 for which she supplies verbal “remnants.”

 

Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance
By Sharon Skeel
Oxford University Press

Before New York City Ballet, before American Ballet Theatre, there was the Catherine Littlefield Ballet Company, later the Philadelphia Ballet. Though it only lasted from 1934 to 1942, it produced the first full-scale Sleeping Beauty in the United States; toured Europe in 1937; and became resident company of the Chicago Civic Opera. Littlefield’s students joined the early groups of both George Balanchine and Mikhail Mordkin, whose company morphed into ABT.

Catherine Littlefield (1905–1951) performed in local musicals, in her own ballets, and in the Ziegfeld Follies, working with choreographers Ned Wayburn and Michel Fokine. (Sounds like Fokine make an Isadora Duncan–type piece with flowing tunics for the Ziegfeld girls.) She studied ballet seriously with Luigi Albertieri, a protégé of Cecchetti. She was friends with Zelda Fitzgerald, supplied numbers for TV shows, and she choreographed Sonja Henie’s ice-skating routines.

Catherine and her sister Dorothie Littlefield met Balanchine at the studio of Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska in Paris. Both sisters continued a friendship with Balanchine and sent their students to study with him to help him start his company. Among them were Todd Bolender, who later took over Kansas City Ballet, and Barbara Weisberger, who started Pennsylvania Ballet. Another Littlefield dancer, Holly Howard, was considered by some to be Balanchine’s first American muse.

This extensively researched book fills in the knowledge gap about America’s first independent ballet company (i.e. not affiliated with an opera house), which helped lay the groundwork for ballet to flourish in this country.

 

Moving and Being Moved
By Yvonne Rainer
Roma Publications

The last line of Yvonne Rainer’s infamous No manifesto of 1965 is “No to moving or being moved.” In “A Manifesto Reconsidered” (2008), she comments on that line with one word: “Unavoidable.” Thus, in some way, the essays in this collection issue forth from Rainer’s ability to change her mind.

The fluidity of her thinking makes this book stimulating to read. But the book also includes the flip side of that: the constancy of some of her ideas. In “Doing Nothing/Nothin’ Doin’: Revisiting a Minimal Approach to Performance,” she talks about doing nothing as a component in her piece The Concept of Dust or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? (2015): “My unattainable ideal (but aren’t all ideals unattainable?) of doing nothing is part of a continuum, an ongoing project in part aimed to upset the applecart of expectations of high energy virtuosic dancing . . . but with a twist: the acknowledgment that everyday movement can only be made intelligible dialectically, in relation to what it is not.” To show the “ongoing” aspect, the “revisiting,” she includes a photo of her Terrain (1963) in which William Davis and Steve Paxton are standing around, doing nothing except watching someone else.

With Rainer, every seed of an idea spreads out and deepens as she goes. In “What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins” while acknowledging various responses to a particular joke, she realizes, “One person’s funny bone is another’s yawn.” It’s not just laughter she’s interested in, but the cause of it: the absurdity of life—and death. The confounding enormity of her brother’s lifeless body descending into a hole in the ground makes her wonder, “Does one laugh to sidestep grief? Or do I laugh to circumvent my anger at the frustrating dancing around death that pervades our culture?”

For anyone interested in Judson Dance Theater, a highpoint in “What’s So Funny” is her memory of Alex Hay’s absurdist Prairie (1963), which he made in response to Charles Ross’s trapezoidal structure of metal pipes. Hay took two pillows high up on the pipe and tried to fall asleep up there while an audiotape of his own voice asked if he was comfortable.

Moving and Being Moved also contains contributions from three other writers including the late art critic/curator Douglas Crimp. Crimp’s 2012 essay “Pedagogical Vaudevillian” takes an astute look at the sources and issues of Rainer’s choreography over the years.

Rainer not only uses language in all her recent dances but seems to have a compulsion to write about the discoveries during the making of each dance. Lucky for us. These writings are companion pieces to Rainer’s choreography; if you’ve seen any of her works, they give you more to chew on.

 

Fringe: Maria Benitez’s Flamenco Enchantment
By Jaima Chevalier
Atomic City Lights Publishers
On Amazon

Fierce, charismatic Maria Benitez was a force onstage as well as off.  With her Santa Fe–based company, María Benítez Teatro Flamenco, she toured internationally from the ’70s to the ’90s. She was so popular in the Southwest that she held 12-week summer seasons at her own cabaret venue for four decades. She also had eight seasons at The Joyce Theater and choreographed for opera. Of Native American and Puerto Rican heritage, Benitez is one of the few Americans who, after studying in Spain, became a great Flamenco dancer. The Institute for Spanish Arts, which she formed with her husband Cecilio in 1970, kept Hispanic arts alive in Santa Fe for almost five decades.

Fringe is a loving tribute by a lifelong admirer, Jaima Chevalier, written in flowery language that one might call rambling cosmic conjecture. (I wish this book had an index and footnotes to ground the scholarship.) However one learns some basic points, for example that flamenco, like jazz, emerged from a persecuted people and includes improvisation riffing off of a theme.

This lavishly produced book showcases a variety of photographers’ pictures of the great dancer. Ruven Afanador shows Benitez’s drama, glamor, and cheekbones. Beverly Gile focuses her face while she’s performing. Winter Prather shot from the bottom up, emphasizing her statuesque quality. Jack Mitchell, the famed Dance Magazine and celebrity photographer, showed the fierce pride in her arched back. Brian Fishbine caught her in candid moments with musicians and some of the many young dancers who called her Flamenco Madre.

 

Reissues

Yvonne Rainer: Work 1961–1973
Primary Information

Rainer’s writing about the process of making dances has always been galvanizing. I enjoy her conceptual clarity, articulation of ambivalence, and eagerness to experiment. Challenge and defiance are her natural state. The title reminds me that choreographing is not something romantic but is mostly work. Rainer’s witty, blunt prose embraces complexity in a way I find exhilarating. At this point, Work 196-–1973 is kind of a post-modern bible.

 

Conversations with Meredith Monk
New, expanded edition
By Bonnie Marranca
PAJ Publications
Order at Amazon

These interviews reveal the depth and delight of Monk’s boundary-crossing work. “The essence of my philosophy,” says Monk, “is the integration and weaving together of many perceptual forms.” And yet we experience Monk’s performances as more than simply an integration of forms. It’s also a dig down into the unconscious, into dreams and histories. A place where, as Monk says, comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but qualities that infiltrate each other.

Monk says she’s interested in “cycles of time.” Case in point: When she talks about the sick child in Quarry, which is set in World War II, she says, “Her illness becomes a metaphor for the world descending into darkness.” This suddenly seems so apt, with Covid plunging us all into a kind of darkness.

 

Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance
By Marcia B. Siegel
University Press of Florida

From one of our best dance critics comes this 2006 work, detailing Tharp’s dances from her early rehearsals in the basement of Judson Memorial Church to full seasons on Broadway. Along the way are her landmark ballets for the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the movie Hair. The title, Howling Near Heaven, hints at the joining of opposites that Tharp was so good at: the primal and the divine co-exist in her best work. Siegel takes us through Tharp’s hunger to experiment, the staggering range of her output, and her goals for each project. She describes some of the dancers’ experiences and the potential obstacles to completing each work. Tharp’s intelligence sparkles on every page, Siegel’s in-depth treatment of one of America’s greatest choreographers is invigorating to read.

 

Other Books

ChoreoGraphics: Six Studies
Photographs and Interviews by Judith Stuart Boroson
Available at Judith Stuart Photography and Outskirts Press
This slim paperback contains interviews with six current choreographers, each talking about a particular work that has been photographed by Judith Stuart Boroson. Alexandra Beller, wanting to leave the familiar postmodern vocabulary behind, watches her toddlers for clues to something more connected to purpose. Janis Brenner works with people in war-torn Sarajevo to mine their family heritage. In her intense Memoirs of a…Unicorn, Marjani Forté-Saunders attempts to connect the vulnerability of Black men to her own body: “I’m wanting to feel a kind of delirium so that the inside eventually comes out.” Colleen Thomas is engaged in process, how she begins and begins again, opening up to new ideas. Nathan Trice has been working a malleable duet form that uses his method of “hand-body listening.” And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, along with Samantha Speis, created Walking with ’Trane to honor the traditions of exploratory improvisation in jazz music.

Transmissions
By Nick Mauss
Dancing Foxes Press
This is a lavish catalog for a 2018 exhibit at the Whitney Museum that celebrated the intersection of ballet, fashion, and art from the 1930s through the ’50s. With its photographs, flyers and other artifacts, the catalog sets forth a pre-queer, pre-camp sensibility. Painter Paul Cadmus, an associate of Lincoln Kirstein, is one of the central figures as a pre-Stonewall queer artist. The book contains artifacts reflecting work from Bakst and Goncharova to Man Ray, Elie Nadelman, Cadmus, and Pavel Tchelitchew, and glimpses of Ruth Page, Sono Osato, Alicia Markova, and Jacques d’Amboise. Photography was just coming into its own at this time. The homoerotic photos of George Platt Lynes, who was hired by Kirstein to photograph Balanchine’s dancers, seem to foreshadow Mapplethorpe’s sensibility. Carl Van Vechten’s photographic portraits, in their lush beauty with floral backgrounds, include a 1938 diptych of Al Bledger of the American Negro Ballet—one of Van Vechten’s portraits that were sometimes accused of “white naiveté.”

Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia
Edited by Katherine Mezur and Emily Wilcox
University of Michigan Press
One of a new spate of books featuring Asian dance scholarship, this anthology contains 16 chapters by different Asian and American dance scholars. Some of the essays focus on historical figures like Michio Ito, Dai Ailian, or Mei Lanfang. Others have great titles like “The Conflicted Monk” and “Cracking History’s Codes in Crocodile Time.” Half the contributors hail from universities in the U.S., the other half from Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, and Germany.

Moving Bodies, Navigating Conflict: Practicing Bharata Natyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka
By Ahalya Satkunaratnam
Wesleyan University Press
Sri Lanka, called a “hybrid island,” is a mix of religions, races, and languages. The author examines classical Indian dance practice in its capital, Colombo, during the long and violent civil war from 1983 to 2009. Ahalya Satkunaratnam, a dancer herself, traces how women dancers navigate the traumatic conditions of war, including performing bharata natyam on a TV competition show, and ultimately work toward peace.

The Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance
Edited by Vida L. Midgelow
Oxford University Press
With 43 entries by a wide range of improvisers and scholars including Ann Cooper Albright, Kent De Spain, Thomas DeFrantz, Janice Ross, Stephanie Skura, and Sheron Wray.

A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora
By Sarah Morelli
University of Illinois Press
This comprehensive look at the life of Chitresh Das (1944–2015), possibly the most accomplished Kathak dancer in the U. S., is a testament to his influence. He set up schools across the Bay Area and his followers are legion. The book also gives a welcome history of Indian dance in American since the 1880s, when Nautch dancers were deemed less than satisfactory and were replaced by white dancers willing to show more skin — skin that was bronzed in an attempt to look the part.

Lastly, my own book:
The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970–1976
By Wendy Perron
Wesleyan University Press
You probably know by now that I wouldn’t write a book unless I absolutely loved the subject matter. So, just the facts: This leaderless improvisation group, which has been called a “miracle” and “collective genius,” included Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Lincoln Scott and Becky Arnold. Watching them in the 1970s, and again recently via videotape, I marveled at how they retained their vivid, eccentric selves while meshing with the group—or refusing to mesh. I tried to reflect that mercurial reality—or as Dilley has said, surreal quality—while also giving a sense of the environment that made it possible: SoHo, a fledgling artists’ colony. Many readers (and viewers of my public zooming events) have been able to share my pleasure in Grand Union. And now that we are each reinventing ourselves in the pandemic, this radical concept of complete improvisation within a collective takes on new meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Valerie Bettis (1919–1982)

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

Bettis in The Desperate Heart, photo Gerda Peterich

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

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

Early Training

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

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

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

Bettis, photo by Nina Leen, 1948

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Desperate Heart

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

The Desperate Heart, photo by Barbara Morgan

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

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

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

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

Television, Broadway, and the Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bettis and Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad, Dance Magazine Archives

Bettis’s Hollywood publicity shot, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

First Modern Dancer to Choreograph for a Ballet Company

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

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

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

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

A Streetcar Named Desire

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

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

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

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

But Franklin himself was worried about the role:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dancers Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Dance Company

Bettis in As I Lay Dying

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

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

Posin and Larry Richardson in As I Lay Dying, 1964

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

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

Dance Theatre of Harlem Re-stages Streetcar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

Bettis portrait, 1939, Dance Magazine Archives

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

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

¶¶¶

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

 

Other sources: Books

Like this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 8

Mel Wong (1938–2003)

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

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

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

“Childhood Secrets” by Mel Wong, ph Kevin Bubriski

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

Early Life

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing with Merce

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

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

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

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

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

Choreographic Process

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

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

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

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

Undated photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images of experimentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian influence

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

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

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

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

Other Story-telling Solos 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

Critical and Funding Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wong as a Visual Artist

A painting by Wong, 1990s

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

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

Wong with light box, ph Johan Elbers

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

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

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

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

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

¶¶¶

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

Appendix I

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

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

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

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

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

Yoyo solo, ph Johan Elbers

Appendix II

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

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

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

environment

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting — spiritual illumination

Smoke — escape from time and space into eternal

Portrait by Paul Schraub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Queer Means More than Sexual Orientation

As participants in the Dance Studies Association conference at Northwestern University last weekend, we were getting acclimated to terms like transindividuated signature, Ashkenormativity, and socio-spatial tactics of de-familiarization. So you could imagine our relief when greeted by the drag hostess LaWhore Vagistan in full South Asian regalia at Links Hall in Chicago. She was brilliantly funny while flaunting non-binary gender as well as non-binary nationality. Her preferred pronouns, she announced, are “she, her, hers, and aunty.”  Bedecked in a glittering two-piece outfit and strutting in sparkly stiletto heels, she claimed that her aunties taught her that “sequins are for daytime.” She introduced the various acts of “Explode! Midwest Queer Dance Festival” with great generosity, and she applied Bollywood and Vegas skills to her own three numbers. (Check her out here. In the program notes she is identified as the alter ego of Kareem Khubchandani, assistant professor at Tufts University. )

All photos by Al Evangelista

 

Lee Na-Moo in Nostalgia

Not officially in drag but definitely androgynous, was Lee Na-Moo in his solo Nostalgia. Wearing a swirling ice-skating–type costume, he offered a display of astonishing articulation, combining filigree East Indian hands with ballet legs. A generous dose of pelvic bumps earned the genre name “contemporary bellydance fusion.” Lee Na-Moo seems not only a fusion of genders and genres but also a fusion of child/adult. There was something tender about this solo, both knowing and innocent.

Dedrick Gray performed aMoratorium: at the altar, it may not be my time, a deeply touching solo choreographed by JSun Howard. Starting on a chair, with his hand palpitating his heart, Gray allowed the movement to grow and evolve, punctuated by jolts like pouncing on top of the chair. He seemed so lost and desperate — not in a theatrical way, but in a way that made you feel you were right there with him. He staggered across the space, sometimes murmuring something like, “Why can’t you let me be myself.” After dragging himself on the ground, he clung to the chair with such a great need for touch, for warmth, that it brought tears to my eyes. This solo was a rare example of choreography and performance being unified as one.

Dedrick Gray in aMoratorium: at the altar, it may not be my time

When Jennifer Monson airs her absurdist side, all is right with the world. This supremely impulsive master improviser has met her match in Nibia Pastrana Santiago, a young dancer/scholar from San Juan. In Choreographies of Disaster, Installment 3, Monson posed the conundrum, “Is it possible to dance without referencing dance?” Santiago launched into a series of almost-nothing moves that were so sneaky and self-sabotaging that we erupted in laughter. Later Monson and Santiago, both topless, smashed into each other’s body parts with awkward aplomb. The next day, when scholar/dramaturg Katherine Profeta, in her paper titled “The Promise of Common Creation in Contact Improv and Improv Comedy” quoted Ishmael Houston-Jones’ pledge to “fuck with the flow,” to interrupt the flow, I thought of this duet.

Jennifer Monson and Nibia Pastrana Santiago

Pop Refuge, choreographed by Joel Valentin-Martinez, involved two young women, Keila Hamed-Ramos and Maddy Veitch, trying on different gender identities. The duet was notable mainly for the extravagantly, richly colored ground cloth (by Jeff Hancock) that wrapped around one woman or the other, allowing their fantasies to blossom.

We saw two habitually male Africanist forms taken over by women: a new one and a traditional one. In the former, MurdaMommy and Diamond Hardiman showed us the crazy fast scissoring of Chicago footwork. The latter was represented by the Chicago-based Ayodele Drum & Dance in Guinea Suite, choreographed and directed by artistic director T. Ayo Alston. This powerful all-woman group pounded out a storm of beats, with percussive dancing and beaded costumes to match. In the West African tradition, sometimes the drummers danced and the dancers drummed—another non-binary aspect for this LGBTQ celebration.

Ayodele Drum and Dance in Guinea Suite

I close with a quote from Clare Croft, founding curator of Explode!. In the book she edited, Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings, she writes:
“Dancing queerly, when we respect it as a politics that…eludes clear definition, challenges us to think of queer as social action consciously entangled with fantasy, desire, and physical practice. As we dance, dreaming and doing are not separate.”

 

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11 Notable Dance Books of 2018

I love books on dance; they are my friends. They share my sofa and my night table with me. I make new friends each year, but I do not have time to read every page of every book. However, I did read enough to absorb the scope and style of these eleven books. Loosely speaking, I would say that they all reside in the space where art meets culture. Each book deepens our understanding of what dance can be, where dance can go.

The list contains three engaging autobiographies, three gorgeous exhibition catalogs, a pair of anthologies that look at dance in an inclusive way, a quick-digest version of Jerome Robbins’ life, a re-examination of Anna Sokolow’s work, and an elegant sliver of a book of Steve Paxton’s musings. Lastly I offer a short list of other books received.

 

Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir
By Halifu Osumare
University Press of Florida

A lifelong dance artist, activist, and educator, Halifu Osumare takes us through her early training in the Bay Area, her teaching of “jazz ballet” in Copenhagen and Stockholm, and her growing consciousness of what it means to be a black dancer in a white world—and a dancer in a militant black world. In New York, she danced with Rod Rodgers in the early 70s, during the period when he dedicated one of his pieces to the inmates killed in the Attica prison uprising. The company performed in the ingenious DanceMobile, a kind of portable theater that brought dance to inner city neighborhoods. Back in Oakland, Osumare got involved in transcendental meditation and participated in an early version of Ntozake Shange’s celebrated play “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” (It was Shange who gave her her African name: Halifu is Swahili for “the shooting arrow” and Osumare is Yoruba for “the deity of the rainbow.”) She also created a lecture/performance called “The Evolution of Black Dance” that she toured to public schools.

Osumare went to Africa in search of her dance ancestry. While roughing it in a Ghanaian village, she saw, up close, how “the secular and the sacred are interwoven” in their lives. Although she was called a white woman in Ghana, when she danced with people there, she felt a sure connection.

During 12 years at Stanford (active in both the dance program and the Committee on Black Performing Arts), she was inspired to become a scholar, thinker and organizer. She earned her PhD and formed Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, always promoting dance as a unifying force.

Evident throughout the book is Osumare’s belief in the power of dance to address social justice issues. At every juncture, Osumare asks clusters of questions—about the fluidity of tradition, about the role of dance in different cultures, about how racism affects the dance world. She gives props to the women she learned from, including Ruth Beckford (a force for dance in Oakland), Katherine Dunham, and Dianne McIntyre. Dancing in Blackness is Osumare’s third book, after The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip-Hop (Palgrave 2013) and The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop Power Moves (Palgrave 2008).

 

Ballet for Life: A Pictorial Memoir
By Finis Jhung
New York: Ballet Dynamics, Inc

Most dance books have too few pictures, so it’s a treat to take in the bounty of photographs—more photo pages than text pages—that tell the story of master ballet teacher Finis Jhung. Ballet for Life is part autobiography, part testimonial. A small boy, growing up in Hawaii of partly Korean heritage, is so fidgety that he earns the nickname “monkey.” He becomes infatuated with ballet and performs locally. He attends the University of Utah, where he gets solid training from Willam Christensen. Although Jhung is told by classmate Michael Smuin that he will never make it as a dancer because he is Asian and has bowed legs, he rises to the top ranks in the dance department. After coming to New York to dance in the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, he takes class at the Ballet Theatre school, where Mme. Pereyaslavec forces his turnout and destabilizes his technique. He joins San Francisco Ballet for a spell and dances in the Hollywood version of Flower Drum Song. Then he returns to New York to dance with the Joffrey Ballet.

Robert Joffrey, an excellent teacher, gets Jhung back on his center. After two years in the Joffrey Ballet (1962–64) he goes, along with many others, to the Harkness Ballet, where he stays until 1969. Along with Lawrence Rhodes, Helgi Tomasson, Brunilda Ruiz, and Lone Isakson, he dances a repertoire of works by Brian Macdonald, John Butler, Norman Walker and the company’s director, George Skibine.

After a while, his muscles get all knotted up, and he decides to listen to his massage person and become a Buddhist. He enters a less than passionate marriage, which produces his son, Jason Akira Jhung, who later helps him produce his popular dance videos. During the ’70s, while developing his craft of teaching, he founds Chamber Ballet U.S.A., a small company of excellent dancers that brings ballet to small stages and schools. It is immediately successful but lands him in debt after five years. He returns to teaching, now with a savvy business sense. One of his later projects is directing the “Billy camps” for the young boys of technical prowess who feed into the Broadway musical Billy Elliot. Ballet for Life is very readable, and the photos are a history in themselves.

 

Ballet Matters: A Cultural Memoir of Ballet Dreams and Empowering Realities
By Jennifer Fisher
McFarland

Let’s face it. Only a small number of ballet students ever become professional. We’ve seen lots of memoirs by famous dancers, but how does a ballet lover turn her less-than-stellar potential into an artistically fulfilling life? Jennifer Fisher, now a full professor at UC Irvine, had to re-examine her love for dance and transform it into a related career. The valuable idea here is that ballet is not always lovely and ethereal: “Ballet is not a way to escape life; it’s a way to negotiate life by learning a valuable practice, by offering complexity, depth, and beauty.” Fisher grappled with ballet as a “life force” even though it didn’t elevate her to a professional level. But even as a hobby, she says, ballet “strengthens the backbone and nourishes the soul.” The book details her encounters with ballet in Russia, her participation in Baryshikov’s PastForward project commemorating Judson Dance Theater, and her stint as a TV critic. The final chapter on “Finding My Religion” describes moments in works by Petipa, Balanchine, Ulysses Dove, and Alonzo King as windows to spirituality.

 


Invocation of Beauty: The Life and Photography of Soichi Sunami
By David Martin
Cascadia Art Museum

This catalog is a visual feast for those of us who care about early modern dance. Amidst a wide range of subjects are rarely seen, luminous photographs of historic dance figures, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Ted Shawn, Agnes de Mille, Harald Kreutzerg, and Helen Tamiris. It also includes lesser known, but still intriguing, figures. One is Michio Ito, the modern dance pioneer who returned to Japan rather than be sent to internment camps during World War II. Another is Edna Guy, the young black woman who served as Ruth St. Denis’ assistant but was not accepted into Denishawn because of her race. (She later choreographed and organized key dance concerts for black dancers.) Some of the photos, like the one of Graham in Lamentation, seem to float in space.

Soichi Sunami (1885–1971) was born in Japan and came to the U. S. in 1905. He started photographing dance concerts at the Cornish School in Seattle and then invited dancers to be his models. He moved to New York in 1922, later becoming a photographer for the Museum of Modern Art. Living on the East Coast, he evaded the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. However, knowing of the government’s anti-Japanese policies, he burned his early nude studies just in case. Sunami’s photographs of landscapes are as dreamlike as impressionist paintings. His photographs of dancers make two-dimensional poetry of their dancing bodies. If you’re in Seattle, try to catch this exhibit before it closes on January 6, 2019.

 

William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects
Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston

Whether William Forsythe is creating movement, sculpture, video, or interactive environments, his work retains an edge of rawness. This catalog, with images that reveal that edgy sensibility, lends insight into the mind of this brilliant choreographer. Roslyn Sulcas’ lead essay explains how Forsythe’s destabilizing techniques for improvisation carry over into his installations, creating new possibilities of dance. Browsing the book will give you a multitude of ideas for choreography. If you go to the exhibit, which is up until February 21, 2019, you are sure to get pulled into these kinetically alluring environments. This choreographic playground has traveled to many countries but has a special place in Boston, now that Forsythe has embarked on a five-year partnership with Boston Ballet.

 

Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done
Edited by Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax
The Museum of Modern Art

Judson Dance Theater blasted the conventions of concert dance in the early 60s, expanding the possibilities for contemporary dance. This exhibit emphasizes the connections of Judson to the art world. It includes not only dancers like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, but also composers like Philip Corner and visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Carolee Schneemann. Essays by curators Thomas Lax and Ana Janevski lay out the various forms of experimentation, from outrageous to humdrum. Collaboration was in the air; so was the will to subvert authority.

The exhibit, which is up until February 3, 2018, shows the two main environments that gave rise to Judson: Anna Halprin’s workshops on her deck in California and Robert Dunn’s composition class at the Merce Cunningham studio in New York. Simone Forti’s dance constructions, bridging those two conceptual hotbeds, were a strong influence. Striking photographs from Peter Moore and Al Giese are evocative of the period, especially the sense of collectivity, the tolerance of chaos. The latter part of the catalog gives brief profiles of 34 participants and influencers, including people we don’t usually associate with Judson Dance Theater like choreographer Aileen Passloff and jazz composer Cecil Taylor. Although there are some factual errors, this catalog provides an excellent overview of a crucial period in dance history.

 

The following pair of books, which treats dance from different cultural points of view, is enlivening and enlarging.

Perspectives in American Dance: The Twentieth Century
Edited by Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young
University Press of Florida

This anthology of 13 essays looks at social aspects of various phenomena in dance in the United States. The entries include Julie Malnig on the racial aspects of ’50s TV shows like American Bandstand; Dara Milovanović’s connecting Fosse, fetishism and Fascism in the film Cabaret; Sara Wolf’s comparison of Isadora Duncan’s use of the flag in 1917 with Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A With Flags (1970); and Joellen A. Meglin on Ruth Page’s debt to African American jazz dance. An in-depth essay on Alonzo Kings’ LINES Ballet, by Jill Nunes Jensen, emphasizes the spiritual and global dimensions of his work. This collection reminds us that dance is everywhere—not just on a stage—and is often connected to world circumstances. Though most of the contributors are academics, they do not write in that overly pedantic way that is so annoying.

Perspectives in American Dance: The New Millennium
Edited by Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young
University Press of Florida

In this second volume of the series, noted dance scholars have contributed interesting essays that are somewhat anthropological. They include Kate Mattingly on flash mobs, Hannah Schwadron on the intersection of Judaism and porn, and Patsy Gay on the Brooklyn hipster aesthetic in the club scene. The only chapter that discusses an actual choreographer is Sally Sommer’s on site-specific dancemaker extraordinaire Noémi Lafrance. Sommer analyzes two of her major works: the beautifully haunting Descent in Tribeca’s Watchtower, and Agora, which invaded the massive abandoned McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn with a wild imagination.

 

Honest Bodies: Revolutionary Modernism in the Dances of Anna Sokolow
By Hannah Kosstrin
Oxford University Press, 2017

Note: This book was published in 2017, but it slipped past me last year.

Anna Sokolow was a fierce, uncompromising dance artist. Combining Martha Graham’s modernist technique, Louis Horst’s compositional rigor, and Stanislavsky’s method of inner motivation, she created dances of haunting intensity. A Jewish dancer from an immigrant family, Sokolow naturally participated in the pro-labor, anti-fascist, socialist movement of the ’30s through the ’50s. Sokolow’s dances, says Hannah Kosstrin, were equally revolutionary and Jewish.

Sokolow’s dissent was veiled rather than blatant. Kosstrin feels that “the thematic alienation of Lyric Suite, Rooms and Opus embodied criticism of anticommunism, anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia.” Beyond Sokolow’s own productions, she also supplied dances for communist events and pageants. “These projects evidenced her broad appeal as a communist artist who could move public masses.” She enjoyed long associations with Mexico and Israel, solidifying her alignment with the International Left.

Sokolow’s work was visceral and rebellious. As Kosstrin puts it, “Sokolow’s choreography disrupted 1950s quietism like sandpaper against a smooth surface.”

Her choreography came “from the gut.” Her endings were not final, as she wanted to allow the audience to finish the dance themselves. Says Kosstrin: “Her dances’ unresolved endings reflected Jewish modes of teaching through questioning.”

Honest Bodies is part of a recent surge of dance scholars exploring Jewishness that includes the writers Naomi Jackson, Rebecca Rossen, Judith Brin Ingber, and Hannah Schwadron. Kosstrin plunges us deep into the politics of Sokolow’s times, showing how her Jewishness is part of her idealism. I find the voices of Sokolow’s dancers are missing in this book. But Honest Bodies will acquaint you with this brilliant choreographer and the forces that shaped her.

 

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance
By Wendy Lesser
Jewish Lives Series, Yale University Press

Writer and editor Wendy Lesser has produced a short, engrossing biography of Jerome Robbins in this year of the Robbins centennial. Relying heavily on Deborah Jowitt’s Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (2004), this slim volume is more psychologically oriented. Your heart goes out to this master choreographer who often felt terrible about himself. Lesser makes a case for him being the equal of Balanchine (which some of us had already figured out), and of his ballets being as good as his phenomenal work on musicals (that, too, is no surprise). Lesser’s descriptions of ballets like The Cage, Dances at a Gathering, and Goldberg Variations make you crave to see them again. But she comes down hard on some of his greatest ballets, like Glass Pieces and In the Night. (I’m wondering if perhaps the videos she had access to just didn’t do the choreography justice.) The quotes from Emily Coates, a dancer who worked with Robbins at New York City Ballet the last six years of his life (and who went on to dance with Twyla Tharp and Yvonne Rainer) are terrifically insightful. If you don’t have time to read Jowitt’s excellent biography, then Lesser’s book is a good short cut.

 

Gravity
By Steve Paxton
Edited by Baptiste Andrien and Florence Corin
Contredanse Editions
Also available in French, tr. Denise Luccioni

This slim collection of Steve Paxton’s haiku-like writings hints at the poetic roots of Contact Improvisation. At the age of 6, he rode in a small airplane with his father, “looping and rolling in the air over Antelope Valley, Arizona.” He could see a herd of antelope below, but with the movement of the airplane, they appeared to be above or around him. Thus began the seed for the idea of spherical space that is so key to Contact Improvisation.

Paxton poses questions about the physics of the body in motion as well as the mystery of the unconscious. “I tried to catch myself behaving unconsciously, but…the perception was ruined by turning my consciousness to it…I was spying on myself. Self-hacking.” Dancers, he says, “must hack their basic movement programs in order to adapt to new movements.” One must let sensation, rather than rote memorization, be the teacher. In the Small Dance, well known to CI practitioners, he says, “Let the organs down into the bowl of the pelvis, let the spine rise to support the skull…”

 Other bon mots:

On awareness: “The consciousness can roam within the body.”

The essence of CI: “Two bodies leaning and sharing mass create one center.”

Paxton’s gentle humor: After his one and only dancing/flying dream, he writes, “If such dreams were to become common, I would reduce my working schedule and nap more often.”

A reason for activism: “I diagnose the societies of the 21st century as mad. Collectively we seem to be helpless to stop the slaughter and the degradation of the very planet on which we live.”

Alighting on a definition of gravity: “Your mass and the earth’s mass calling to each other.”

 

Books received:

Third edition of Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History, by Jack Anderson. Originally printed in 1986 and re-issued in 1992, this book is valuable because Jack Anderson is a dependable source of dance history. Princeton Book Company.

Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, by Kevin Winkler. Oxford University Press.

The Profitable Artist: A Handbook for All Artists in the Performing, Literary, and Visual Arts, edited by Peter Cobb, Felicity Hogan, and Michael Royce. New York Foundation for the Arts.

Writing and the Body in Motion: Awakening Voice Through Somatic Practice, by Cheryl Pallant. McFarland.

Lastly, this is not only a book received but a book I wrote for:
The Next Wave Festival
Edited by Steven Serafin and Susan Yung. Brooklyn Academy of Music. Available at Greenlight Bookstore at BAM and
Brooklyn Academy of Music in association with Print Matters Production

This book celebrates 35 years of the groundbreaking Next Wave Festival, with essays on dance, theater, music, and visual art. I had a great time digging into the rich past of Next Wave Festival. I wrote about the work of Pina Bausch, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, Ralph Lemon and other dance artists who have exploded our ideas about dance in many directions.

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Are Women Dancers Still Discriminated Against?

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

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

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

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

∞∞ When a Woman Dances, Nobody Cares ∞∞

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success in dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Martha Graham on homepage by Imogen Cunningham.

 

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Martha Graham and the Asian Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the Asian dancers I remember:

Yuriko, Dance Magazine Archives

Yuriko, Dance Magazine Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miki Orihara — As a mainstay of the company from 1987 until just recently, she has excelled in lead roles in Appalachian Spring, Errand Into the Maze, and Satyric Festival Song. She teaches in Japan and the U. S. and has also served as Yuriko’s assistant.

Miki Orihara, photo by John Deane

Miki Orihara, photo by John Deane

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

Feng-Yi Sheu, photo by John Deane

Feng-Yi Sheu, photo by John Deane

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

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

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

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

PeiJu Chien-Pott — An astonishing performer, Chien-Pott, originally from Taiwan, is the current star of the Graham company. Not only is she powerful in the Graham classics, but she has mastered the fluid, whipping-around choreography of Andonis Foniadakis in Echo and the animal-like strangeness of the lead solo in Nacho Duato’s Depak Ine. She is so animalistically heroic in this last piece that she reminds me of Little Yuriko.

Other Asian women serving Graham’s artistry have been Kazuko Hirabayashi, Akiko Kanda, and, currently, Xin Ying. Did I miss anyone?

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

 

 

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