Hemsley Winfield (1907–1934)

Photo by Martinus Anderson

Who was the first African American to start a modern dance company? Who was the first Black performer to be cast in a Metropolitan Opera production? And which pioneer of American modern dance died tragically young at 26?

The answer to all three questions is Hemsley Winfield. Starting out as an actor who choreographed for plays, he extended his abilities to directing, producing, teaching, performing, and choreographing. He shone as a dancer, garnering adjectives like “startling” and mesmerizing.” In the last four years of his life he made valiant efforts to sustain a Black modern dance company. This was during the Harlem Renaissance, which celebrated Black literature, visual art, music and theater.

We have very little in the way of photographs or descriptions of Winfield as either a dancer or choreographer. We do know he was tireless in getting gigs for his group, whether it was a theater group or dance group. And we have evidence from reviews that he was promising, courageous, and charismatic.

Winfield was born in Yonkers, New York, and attended public schools. His father co-owned a construction business and his mother was a nurse, educator, and playwright. He was athletic as a child. His parents owned their own home, and he lived with them his whole life, so he was relatively insulated from the poverty that befell many in the Depression.

All God’s Chillun Got Wings, with Paul Robeson and Mary Blair c. 1924

Leadership came naturally to Winfield. Almost as soon as he became an actor, he also became a director. He trained with the National Ethiopian Art Theatre School, which offered classes in Isadora-like “esthetic dancing” (Perpener 30) as well as in acting. At the age of 17, he found himself directing an offshoot group called Mariarden Players that seems to have functioned as a student group (Neal 11-12). That summer, he landed a minor role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about a mixed-race couple starring Paul Robeson, at the Provincetown Playhouse (Perpener 29). A photo of the white actress Mary Blair kissing the hand of Robeson circulated in the press, igniting a prolonged uproar that included a bomb threat (Duberman 58-59), which can’t have been lost on the young Winfield.

At 18 Winfield started directing his own troupe, the Sekondi Players, as part of the “little theatre” movement, analogous to community theater, that took hold around the country. He later incorporated the Sekondi players into his larger group, the New Negro Art Theatre (Neal 31). After directing many productions in small theaters in and around New York City, he was called an “outstanding leader” in the little theatre movement. As Joe Nash said, “Filled with the hype and hope fostered by the proliferation of the “new”—New Masses, New Era, New Science, New Woman—this group of dancers was anxious to wrestle with the negative images popularized by decades of minstrelsy to create a New Negro dance” (Nash, Free to Dance).

But let’s go back.

Lulu Belle
While directing his theater group, Winfield often took acting roles in other productions. When the controversial Lulu Belle, written by white men (Edward Sheldon and Charles MacArthur) and produced by a white man (David Belasco), opened at the Belasco Theater in February 1926, Winfield played the minor character of Joe. In a cast of 115, 100 were black, but the top roles went to whites who wore blackface. The character Lulu Belle was a Black woman who was sexually provocative, wantonly independent, and unfaithful. Like Carmen, she ended up murdered. The third act took place in a fictional gay nightclub where Lulu Belle had a dancing gig. So, although there were no gay characters, Lulu Belle glamorized what was called the Pansy Craze.

A scene from Belasco’s Lulu Belle, probably in Act I.

White critics and Black critics had different reasons for not liking the play: Black critics found it “disturbing” for its appalling portrayal of Harlem, white critics found it immoral. But theater goers—most of them white—came flooding in. As scholar James F. Wilson as written, “Harlem’s appeal for whites was its promise that all regulations of polite society would indeed be broken.” He called Lulu Belle “one of Broadway’s biggest hits of the 1920s” (Wilson 81-82).

Another scene from Lulu Belle. Belasco’s settings were always as realistic as possible.

According to Wilson, the character of Lulu Belle was subversive for more reasons than her loose sexuality:

(T)he hypersexual Lulu Belle is controversial not for her erotic desire, but for her representations of class and race. As responses to the play and drag balls lay bare, the visible homosexual (that is, the cross-dressed man or woman) and the sexually unrestrained black woman, both associated with the working class, were particularly contentious figures to the African American communities in the Harlem Renaissance. They each posed a perilous threat to the advancement of the race because of their “low-class” morality, and mocked the ideals of the middle-class family toward which the communities strove (Wilson 81-82).

The tension between the goals of the elder artists and the wishes of the younger ones continued throughout the Renaissance.

Lulu Belle ran for 461 performances on Broadway, providing Winfield and many other Black performers with thirteen months of work (Playbill).

Salome
Perhaps it was Lulu Belle that gave Winfield a taste for provocative plays written by white men. His next project was to direct Oscar Wilde’s Salome for his own group, the New Negro Art Theatre. At that time Wilde’s play was enjoying coast-to-coast popularity, partly because of the Orientalist fad and partly for the opportunity it afforded female actors. As Black dance scholar John Perpener has pointed out, the role had been played by Ida Rubinstein, Loie Fuller, and Maud Allen (Perpener 34). In fact, Salome had been produced by the original, Chicago-based Ethiopian Art Theatre in 1923. [The New York–based National Ethiopian Art Theatre School, where Winfield trained, started in 1924.]

Winfield first directed his own version at the Philipsburgh Hall in Yonkers in 1926. Two years later, his company performed it at the Alhambra Theater, a major Harlem hot spot, at midnight.

Although the idea of the Harlem Renaissance was to cultivate Black artists, there was also a feeling that a “serious” play meant a play written by a white person (Poueymirou 204). That if Black actors could play roles not designated as Black characters, the play would be deemed more universal (Poueymirou 202). And yet what appealed to the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance artists about Wilde’s play was its sensuousness and decadence. They didn’t want to have to be “high-minded” all the time.

When the production returned to Yonkers, the leading lady took sick and Winfield stepped in to dance Salome himself. He continued to dance the role when, in 1929, the production moved to the Cherry Lane Theatre, located in Greenwich Village, which was, even back then, a haven for gay men. Apparently Winfield wore not much more than a beaded curtain (Perpener 34) and reveled in the movement. One of his dancers, Richard Bruce Nugent, remembers him in that role:

He, for instance, did a show . . . in which he played the role of Salome. And, well, it sounds like a laugh, but it wasn’t a laugh because he was Salome. There was nothing camp about it. He just was Salome. He was absolutely dedicated to what he was doing (Perpener 35).

Nugent became so obsessed with Winfield in the Dance of the Seven Veils that he made a series of drawings depicting Salome dancing.

Nugent’s drawing of Salome dancing, late 1920s

Perpener and others have opined that Winfield’s performing of Salome turned him toward concentrating on dance rather than theater (Perpener 33-34). But something else was happening too.

Run-in with Du Bois
The great civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, the inspiration behind the Harlem Renaissance, published an article in 1926 in The Crisis, the magazine he co-founded and edited. In this article, he laid down what Black theater should be:

The plays of a real Negro theatre must be 1. About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. For us. That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. 4. Near us. The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood and near the mass of ordinary people (Perpener 28).

The Crisis, Jan. 1927 issue, art by Aaron Douglas

Along these lines, Du Bois established his own group, the Krigwa Players, in the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library on 135th Street (later named the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). And there is evidence that the Krigwa Players had actually collaborated with Winfield as an actor and director in a program of one-act plays (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers).

According to correspondence revealed by Winfield biographer Nelson D. Neal, Winfield and Du Bois were planning, starting in January 1927, to share the basement space for rehearsal and performance. Apparently Winfield’s group did perform there in February. Then, in August, the Amsterdam News printed an item announcing that the New Negro Art Theatre, directed by Winfield, would move into the Harlem library basement “permanently.” Du Bois hit the ceiling. He had not extended the space on a permanent basis. When told that the item was in error, he was not assuaged. On September 12, 1927, he sent a letter to the librarian threatening to withdraw the Krigwa Players if they went ahead with (or continued with) housing Winfield’s New Negro Art Theatre (which now contained the Sekondi Players). The reason? “They are not at all up to our standard.”

When you consider Du Bois’ definition of Negro Theatre, it’s easy to see why Winfield didn’t measure up: his choice of playwrights were mostly white: Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill, Ridgely Torrence. At that point, Winfield had not yet done his drag act in Salome, but he had produced Wilde’s play in Yonkers and as a radio play. This may have bothered Du Bois, as he considered the Wildean aesthetic decadent, thus undermining the goals of the Harlem Renaissance (Wirth in Nugent 47).

I suspect that his brush with Du Bois steered Winfield away from theater and toward dance. Perhaps he envisioned greater independence as a dance artist. After all, no one was laying down the rules for Negro dance.

Shunned by Harlem Renaissance Journals
While the Amsterdam News called Winfield’s performance as Salome “startling” and “worth seeing,” the official Harlem Renaissance mouthpieces, i.e. The Crisis and Opportunity (the publication of the National Urban League), ignored it, possibly reflecting Du Bois’ influence. Harlem Renaissance scholar Margaux Poueymirou connects the shunning of Winfield’s Salome with the Renaissance elite’s disdain for the gay culture within Harlem:

Their silence is telling indeed . . . their unwillingness to acknowledge Winfield’s performance was consistent with their reaction to the aesthetic culture that now contained a writer like Wilde and a play like Salome . . . Winfield’s performance of Salome may have suggested the culture surrounding Harlem’s notorious drag balls of the 1920s and early 1930s, spectacles in themselves that drew blacks and non-blacks and gays and straights together . . . But the critical reception of the New Negro Art Theatre’s production of Salome also recalled earlier discourses that wove in and out of “Salomania” where Salome was a thing to be gazed at, a fascination that both reflected and contributed to the period’s interest in Orientalia, above all a trope of otherness which, in Winfield’s case, unfolded in relation to race, gender and sexuality and the idea of the self as always self-fashioned (Poueymirou 215).

Opportunity, Feb. 1926, art by Richard Bruce Nugent

Winfield’s familiarity with queer Harlem likely stemmed from his friendship with Nugent, who later became a celebrated gay writer, his writings collected in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance. In a manuscript for a novel titled Geisha Man, Nugent writes about an all-male party where everyone was drinking: “The men became amorous, and public caresses became more and more frequent. Hemsley was dancing nude in the front room” (Nugent 96).

Tantalizing. Was there any basis in reality or was this pure fiction? Remembering that Nugent admired Winfield’s scantily clad portrayal of Salome to the point of obsession, I find this vision of Winfield to be equally believable as memory or fantasy. Nugent frequently attended drag balls at the Savoy Ballroom and Rockland Palace (Cass) and could have easily been accompanied by Winfield—or could have imagined him being present.

Henry Louis Gates, in his Foreword to Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, writes, “The list of gay and lesbian African Americans is impressive and long, but it is surely headed by Bruce Nugent. Nugent was boldly and proudly gay. He was the most openly homosexual of the Harlem Renaissance writers” (Gates in Nugent, xii).

Playbill for Fast and Furious, Sept. 1932

Another event that suggests Winfield’s familiarity with Harlem’s queer world was his role in “Pansies,” one of the thirty-seven skits in the over-stuffed, ill-fated revue Fast and Furious. With ninety cast members, twenty-four musicians, and nine sketch writers including Zora Neale Hurston and comedian Jackie (later “Moms”) Mabley—both of whom also performed—Fast and Furious lasted only one week at the New Yorker Theatre in September 1931. Winfield danced, acted, and sang, taking part in “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Boomerang,” and “Dance of the Moon,” in which he danced alone, covered in bronze. But the scene that was called the funniest was the Pansies skit (Neal 79), with the song “Pansies on Parade” by Porter Grainger. This no doubt parodied the flamboyant ritual at drag balls where each beauty contestant would strut their stuff before the competition (Wilson 86). Sometimes they’d be named for a flower. In Fast and Furious, the Flowers included Orchid, Violet, Lily, Daffydill [sic], and a quartet of Dancing Pansies. Winfield, however, was not a Flower but was cast as the Young Man (Neal 103–107).

The First Black Modern Dance Company
On March 6, 1931, Winfield debuted his dance group, calling it the Bronze Ballet Plastique. The name was probably influenced by Mikhail Mordkin, with whom he was studying. A former Bolshoi Ballet star whose company made possible the formation of Ballet Theatre, Mordkin often used the word “plastique.” It’s a word that’s been popular in Russia to this day, to describe a sinuous kind of expressiveness. Winfield may have also studied with Helen Tamiris, who taught in Harlem, and he may have seen early performances by the German expressionist dancer Harald Kreutzberg or by Ted Shawn (Perpener 41).

Hemsley Winfield, below center, in his Life and Death 1931 Joe Nash Collection

The Bronze Ballet Plastique gave one performance at the Saunders Trade School in Yonkers as a benefit for the Colored Citizens Unemployment Relief Committee. The program of works choreographed by Winfield included the following, with my shortened versions of Winfield’s own notations (Neal 88–95):

Jungle Wedding with Winfield and Frances Atkins 1931, Joe Nash Collection

Jungle Wedding: a ritual in Africa in which a chief gives his daughter to a prince, tom-toms beating, with authentic African masks and costumes.

Prohibition: a man drinks himself into a stupor. The police enter, beat the man until they, the police, are exhausted. The man rises, discovers his old gin bottle, drinks, and laughs hysterically.

Life and Death: (originally a scene from Wade in de Water, a play produced as a pageant by his mother, Jeroline Hemsley): Life is a solo figure in the center of the stage. Death, a group of fifteen men, swoops down from the four corners of the earth and pours upon Life deadly diseases. Life fights desperately, freeing itself momentarily. Death claws Life in a mass movement, rising in triumph.

St. James Infirmary: Eight figures, one at a time, come downstage in silence to perform one step, e.g., a kick step, a shake, a Charleston. Each time the rhythm starts in the feet and continues through the body to the fingertips, which then stiffen. A girl enters, doing “modernistic” movements. The men place her on a hearse, cover her with a red cloth, and bury her.

Negro: A sole figure dances to slow blues that accelerates to become barbaric and more negro [sic].

Work Song: A chain gang. A guard strikes a worker who is not working fast enough. That worker ends up tugging on the guard’s legs.

From his own notes, these seem like harshly stereotypical depictions.  Even more reason to wonder how Winfield might have evolved as an artist.

After that first performance, he changed the name of the group, re-embracing the New Negro but adding the word “dance,” so it became the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Group (Neal 68). I suspect that the name change also resulted from having second thoughts about including word “ballet.” Winfield was seeing early, as yet unnamed modern dance during that period, and he may have felt more aligned artistically with this new form. Mary Wigman was touring the United States from 1931 to 1933; Harald Kreutzburg was touring, Some of Winfield’s work, certainly the photo of Life and Death, is reminiscent of the group dynamics of German Ausdruckstanz.

Jungle Wedding ph Soichi Sunami

With this new/old name, the company gave the “First Negro Dance Recital in America,” presented by Winfield and Edna Guy, who had studied with Ruth St. Denis for six years. The venue was the “Theatre in the Clouds” on the fiftieth floor of the Chanin Building in midtown. Subtitled “a programme of primitive-modern dances,” it included eighteen dancers, eight singers, and a pianist. Winfield contributed most of the thirteen works, including Ritual, Bronze Study (which had been described by Mary Watkins of the New York Herald Tribune as mere reveling in his fine physique), Black Foundation, Plastique, Camp Meeting (a scene from Wade in de Water), and Life and Death. As a guest artist, Guy performed Ruth St. Denis’ A Figure from Angkor-Wat and her own Spirituals.

Edna Guy in A Figure in Angkor-Wat by Ruth St. Denis, 1931

John Martin, the dance critic of The New York Times, proclaimed the program “the outstanding novelty of the dance season” (Nash, Free to dance; also Neal, 157). Dance writer Charles Isaacson lauded the company, predicting that “within the next five years the biggest development in dancing will come from the Negro.” He was more favorable toward the group’s dancing than the choreography. However, he wrote,

Such numbers as Camp Meeting, Life and Death, [and] Ritual may be looked upon as the beginnings of great and important choreographic creations—compositions which in time will rival the production of the Russian Ballet. Praise is due Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield (Neal, 72-73).

The program was repeated at the slightly larger Mansfield Theatre in midtown in May.

Other Dance Performances
Although a whole evening of the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Group was rare, the company gave their energies to many benefits. Some examples: 1) the “Monster Benefit” for the Dancers’ Club relief and scholarship fund, directed by the unlikely trifecta of Michel Fokine, Ruth St. Denis, and Ned Wayburn which took place at the Mecca Temple (now New York City Center). Among those on a crowded program were Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Charles Weidman, and Fred Astaire. 2) the Pullman Porters Brotherhood at the Lafayette Theatre at midnight in a cast that included Duke Ellington, Ethel Water, and Small’s Paradise Revue. 3) A benefit for the cruelly framed Scottsboro Boys that involved W. C. Handy, the star tappers Buck and Bubbles, and others.

Other venues included the Harlem Academy (Neal 113), Roerich Hall, Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, the Abyssinian Baptist Church (Neal 142), City College, Dunbar Palace (during which Winfield premiered a dance cheekily titled The Sensation of Marihuana [sic]), and outdoors at the Lido Terrace with three Black composers: Duke Ellington, Alston Burleigh, and William Grant Still (Perpener 52).

As part of the Let Freedom Ring spectacular at the Roxy in Feb 1932, headlined by Will Rogers, Winfield and thirty dancers joined with the Hall Johnson singers. The story took the audience from slave ships to the cotton fields to Lincoln the Great Emancipator. The “Hot Cotton” number involved the Roxyettes, precursor to the Radio City Rockettes. One critic commented that “Hall Johnson’s chorus of two hundred and Hemsley Winfield and his New Negro Art Theatre dance group are drawing many curtain calls at the Roxy” (Neal 82-83).

Although Winfield was welcomed as a performer and teacher in many places, he came up against American racism quite close to home. When he tried to open a school in the nearby Dunwoodie section of Yonkers, people protested with sticks and stones and signs saying things like “We want white tenants in our white community.” The residents sent letters to the Yonkers Statesman. One letter read, “The colored people weren’t wanted in Dunwoodie. They’ll be lynched if they try to stay here” (Neal 14). Headlines reported, “Dunwoodie Is Aroused Over Near Race Riot, Threats Make Colored Folk Abandon Plans for Little Theatre: Mob in Demonstration Before Old Church” (Neal, Forgotten Pioneer). Undaunted, Winfield set up a school in Harlem.

Artistic Growth
At a certain point, John Martin of The New York Times noted that Winfield had grown artistically. He wrote that Winfield managed to avoid two traps of Black dance artists of the period: producing stereotypes and imitating white choreographers (Perpener 46-47). (To which Joe Nash responded in a 1976 article, “How quickly we forget the lessons of history. Who did the copying, borrowing, and stealing of dance styles, patterns, and steps in the first place?” [Nash, Drums 8]) Martin admired Winfield’s integrity, saying that the dancer refused to associate himself “with the amusement business of Harlem, where the Negro with his proverbial good nature presents himself as what the white amusement seekers like to think he is” (Martin). Presumably he’s talking about venues like the Cotton Club, where entertainers like the joyful Nicholas Brothers and the sexy Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker—and even Duke Ellington and his “jungle music”—gave white audiences what they expected.

Like Martha Graham, whose company debuted in 1926, Winfield regarded dance as an art that deserved to be put on the concert stage. It’s a sad irony that he was devoted to the larger mission of the Harlem Renaissance to celebrate Black arts, but his particular discipline—dance—was not respected by Du Bois and others (Perron 35). As Perpener has pointed out, the low esteem that Harlem elites had for dance stemmed from their view of vernacular dance as lower class (Perpener 17).

Workers Dance League

A poster showing Edith Segal’s Black and White with Add Bates in foreground.

In Winfield’s last year, the Workers Dance League, a consortium of leftist dance groups, held a series of forums at the 135th Street YWCA. The first one addressed this question: What Direction Shall the Negro Dance Take?” (Some versions say the question was “What Shall the Negro Dance About?”) It was co-led by Augusta Savage, well known Negro sculptress (who had supported Edna Guy’s work in the past), and Winfield (Neal 143).

The performance component comprised Winfield’s Red Lacquer and Jade and Edith Segal’s Black and White (1930). The first was reviewed as showing “a fine feeling for the music” as well as “imagination and fantasy, emotional lucidity and restraint” (Manning 57). Segal’s piece was a short agitprop duet for a white man and a Black man alternating swings of the hammer, suggesting that laborers of different races could work together.

During the discussion Winfield was low-key. His opening statement was measured:

The Negro has primitive African material that he should never lose. The Negro has his work songs of the South which he alone can express. It’s hard for me to say what the Negro should dance about. What has anyone to dance about? (Manning 58).

The dancer Add Bates, who had just performed Segal’s Black and White, spoke up from the audience: “A young Negro should dance about the things that are vital to him. There should be a militant direction there. There should be some fights.” One young woman added,

We have come to a newer type of dance, a dance that has social significance. Since we recognize the Negro as an exploited race, our dance should express the strivings of the new Negro. It should express our struggle for social, economic, and political equality, and our part in the struggle against war (Perpener 53).

Winfield listened to these comments, which seem to be harbingers of the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives Matter. But, from his summarizing statement—“I have heard things tonight that have made me think” (Manning 58)—we don’t know if he was swayed at all. My guess is that, having felt scolded (or scalded) by Du Bois’ written rules for Negro theater, Winfield did not want to subject himself to a new set of rules about Negro dance.

The Emperor Jones
Opportunities to perform kept coming to Winfield and his company. In January 1933, when he was cast as the Congo Witch Doctor in Louis Gruenberg’s operatic version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Winfield became the first African American to be contracted by the Metropolitan Opera. (It’s often said that the singer Marian Anderson was the first, in 1955. But actually, Winfield was, and the second was ballet dancer Janet Collins in 1951 [Cheatham, 172].)

(Note: Another landmark set by Winfield’s appearance at the Metropolitan Opera had to do with dance rather than race: Not since 1910, when Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin took the audience by storm with their first performance in America, did the Met host a dance company.)

As the Witch Doctor, he was the fourth lead in Emperor Jones. The famous baritone Lawrence Tibbett, playing the Emperor in blackface, had insisted that Winfield be chosen for the role and that his company play the natives. He met with resistance from the management, which, according to Joe Nash, had planned to put the Met singer and dancers in blackface, as they had done for Dance in the Place Congo in 1918. Tibbett threatened to quit unless the Winfield group appeared. The Met finally agreed but retaliated by dropping the dancers’ names—and even the name of the group—from the Playbill.

Like Katherine Dunham a few years later, Winfield had traveled to the Caribbean to study African diasporic dance forms there, which probably helped him choreograph his role of the Witch Doctor as well as the ensemble numbers. Mary Watkins’ review in the New York Herald Tribune attests to how transporting his performance was, even within the stereotype of the “primitive” native:

Mr. Winfield was… after Mr. Tibbett, the hero of the occasion . . . his sinister and frantic caperings as the Witch Doctor made even the most sluggish, opera-infected blood run cold. His company, members of the New Negro Art Theatre Group, approached its work in much the same vein, renewing with no apparent difficulty, the racial traces of savagery long sublimated in the elegant sophistication of Harlem . . . The scene as the curtain fell was a vortex of horrid gayety [sic], a bloody revel for which Death beat the intoxicating rhythms. For one miraculous moment Broadway receded from consciousness, leaving the audience stranded in the midst of a too realistic nightmare. That this has been accomplished at the Metropolitan Opera it is a privilege to record, a matter of fair congratulations to whomever was inspired to seek out Mr. Winfield and to make his achievement possible (Neal 118-19).

Bruce Gulden of Dance Culture was equally excited by Winfield. He did not review the production favorably but wrote that,

Hemsley Winfield as the witch-doctor gave a thrilling exhibition of savage dancing. His body swayed, turned and twisted, and with jerky staccato yet rhythmic movements, he swung his arms about full of expression and emotion. His dance became more frantic and violent as the music increased in intensity. He seemed to cast a spell upon the audience. His scene was by far the most magnetic and pulsating scene in the entire work (Neal 119).

Screen grab of Winfield as Witch Doctor, 1933

Winfield’s last performance of Emperor Jones was March 18, 1933. He was scheduled to appear when the opera was reprised in January 1934, but by then he was too sick with pneumonia. His mother said it was brought on by overwork and over worry about his company’s future. From a hospital bed, he designated his dancer Leonard Barros to replace him as the Witch Doctor and to oversee the company. He died January 15, 1934. One hundred and fifty people attended the memorial service that was held three weeks later in his last Harlem dance studio. In tribute, Augusta Savage created a mixed-media art work.

Legacy
For an artist whose life was cut short at 26, Winfield made a remarkable contribution. It’s enticing/agonizing to imagine what he could have accomplished if he’d lived longer. He might have sustained a Black dance company well before Katherine Dunham. He might have become a choreographer for musicals as did George Faison, Donald McKayle, and Geoffrey Holder. He might have choreographed enduring works. He might have expanded his vision of Blacks in dance.

John Martin, looking back, characterized the early Black pioneers as “full of energy and experimentation” and wrote that its leaders, specifically Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy, were “fairly indomitable” (Martin 179).

Perpener has written,

The regularity with which critics had mentioned his leadership, discipline, dedication and blossoming artistry pointed toward a special promise, the promise of continued development of his individual aesthetic, even greater artistic output, and the codification of a dance technique that took into account the cultural roots of black artists (Perpener 54).

In her obituary, Watkins wrote that Winfield “was regarded in dancing circles as the initiator and chief exponent of Negro concert dancing in the Unites States” (Neal 159).

After his death, two of his dancers, Juanita Baker and Leonard Barros, reformed the group into the Modern Negro Dance Group. As Susan Manning points out, it was the only group to use both “Modern” and “Negro” in its title, thus combining two identities that were usually perceived as separate (Manning 64). The Modern Negro Dance Group shared a concert with the Workers Dance League at Brooklyn Academy of Music, reprising Life and Death, and then disbanded. Both Baker and Barros found work in the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, which gave work to artists during the Depression (Manning 65).

Archie Savage

Though his life was tragically short, Winfield planted seeds that continued to grow. Randolph Sawyer went on to dance with Asadata Dafora and in Billy Rose’s Carmen Jones on Broadway, working with the choreographer Eugene Loring (Perpener 72-73). Archie Savage became a leading dancer with Katherine Dunham and had his own group for a while. Olga (Ollie) Burgoyne, a vaudeville performer who met Winfield during Lulu Belle, continued dancing freelance, including in Run Little Chillun, which Doris Humphrey choreographed. Edna Guy continued organizing; it was she who brought Dunham to New York to perform in the “Negro Dance Evening” in 1937.

Richard Nugent was also cast in Run Little Chillun (and was delighted when José Limón replaced Doris Humphrey as his coach); he later danced with Dafora (Wirth in Nugent 31) and Wilson Williams (Wirth 33). Decades later, as co-chair of Harlem Cultural Council, Nugent was instrumental in organizing the DanceMobile, the flatbed truck that brought dance artists like Eleo Pomare and Syvilla Fort to inner city neighborhoods.

Toward the end of his life, Winfield told his dancers, “We’re building a foundation that will make people take black dance seriously” (Nash, Drums 9, and Free to Dance).

Augusta Savage’s mixed media painting

¶¶¶

This essay is dedicated to Joe Nash, an Unsung Hero himself. I wish we could keep talking about all of this.

¶¶¶

Works Cited

Books

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. London: Pan Books, 1989.

Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Face in Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Martin, John. John Martin’s Book of the Dance. New York: Tudor Publishing Company 1963, 1970.

Neal, Nelson. Hemsley Winfield: Pioneer of Modern Dance. Self-published, 2020.

Nugent, Richard Bruce. Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, Ed. and Intro by Thomas H. Wirth, Foreword by Henry Louis Gates. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Perpener, John O, III. African-American Concert Dance : the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Wilson, James F. Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, Accessed as ebook Feb. 15, 2021.

 

Articles and Essays

Gauss, Rebecca G. “O’Neill, Gruenberg, and “The Emperor Jones.” The Eugene O’Neill Review, Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (Spring/Fall 1994), pp. 38–44.

McBreen, Ellen. “Biblical Gender Bending in Harlem: The Queer Performance of Nugent’s Salome.” Art Journal, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 22–28.

Nash, Joe. “Dancing Many Drums.” The Birmingham Times, National Scene Magazine Supplement, September–October, 1976, pp. 1–12.

Perron, Wendy. “Dance in the Harlem Renaissance: Sowing Seeds.” EmBODYing Liberation: The Black Body in American Dance, Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Alison D. Goaler, eds. Forecaast, Vol. 4, 2001, pp. 23–39.

Poueymirou, Margaux. “The Race to Perform: Salome and the Wilde Harlem Renaissance.” Refiguring Oscar Wilde’s Salome, volume ed. Michael Y. Bennett, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 201–209, accessed Feb. 20, 2021.

 

Internet Sources

Playbill

Hemsley Winfield: The Forgotten Pioneer of Modern Dance, by Nelson D. Neal, Ed.D.

Nash, Joe. “Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931–1937,” PBS Free to Dance, Historic Essays.

W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Credo Collection, UMass), accessed Feb. 26, 2021.

Cass, “Harlem’s Drag Ball History,” Harlem World, accessed Feb. 27, 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Pavlova and Mordkin in his 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

Ruth Beckford (1925–2019)

Beckford, 1961, Ruth Beckford Papers, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library (AAMLO)

The only dancer to have performed with both Katherine Dunham and Anna Halprin, Ruth Beckford developed a modern dance program for the whole city of Oakland, California. She trained and mentored countless young women in dance and in life, teaching with equal parts discipline and joy. Known as the “Mother of Black Dance” in the Bay Area, or just “The Dance Lady” in the East Bay, she also toured with her own African-Haitian dance company. A lifelong activist, Beckford broken color barriers wherever she went: as a child in dance lessons, in college, and in modern dance companies.

Beckford’s community was a family. Among her “daughters” were Naima Lewis, Deborah Vaughan, and Halifu Osumare. She called Maya Angelou and Anna Halprin her “sisters.” She was named Oakland’s “Mother of the Year” in 2018.

Beckford received many accolades: She was inducted into the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards (Izzies) Hall of Fame in 1985 and was honored by Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a hub of the Black Arts Movement, the year before she died. As a visual tribute, the Alice Street mural in Oakland’s arts district features Beckford as a towering figure overlooking African American arts.

Early life

Ruth, photo courtesy Joyce Gordon Gallery

Born in Oakland, Ruth showed an urge to dance from the beginning. “My mother said that in the crib, if music played, I would start kicking in time with the music.” The youngest of four children, she was taking dance lessons with Florelle Batsford at the age of 3—the only black child there. She studied ballet, tap, and acrobatics — with a flurry of flamenco, hula, baton, toe-tap — for the next 14 years. To pay for the lessons her mother would clean the studio, and, as she got older, Ruth would pitch in too.

Comfortable in a split, Joyce Gordon Gallery

At 8, Ruth was earning money as an acrobatic dancer with her brother in local vaudeville houses, as well as winning a slew of solo dance competitions. Her father was an entrepreneur who owned his own taxi cab, then a simonizing business, and finally his own miniature golf course. As an active member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, he passed down black pride to his daughter. He would always tell her, “You are a fine young black woman.” This was a source of great security for her: “When you went out into the world with that on your back, nothing bothered you because you knew you could come home to those loving arms.” Ruth felt her integrated neighborhood in West Oakland was harmonious. “There were wonderful Black businesses all up and down Seventh Street,” she has said. (This was before it was gentrified.)

The young acrobat, Joyce Gordon Gallery

At 14, she started teaching in her garage: “For a quarter you could come and get 15 minutes of tap and 15 minutes of ballet.”

Her life coincided with great moments in history. Her sweet 16 birthday was celebrated on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. “We all went to the movie,” she recalled. “We’re sitting in the movie eating milk duds … and on the screen the movie stopped, and it said all military personnel report to your bases, the United States is at war with Japan, and we are getting bombed.” One of the tragedies of the war for her was the loss of some of her friends to internment camps, a shamelessly racist chapter in America’s past. “Our best friends were Japanese kids. Then, when they got evacuated to their camps, we all cried; our friends were gone.”

Ruth, second from left, always loved a party, c. 1940s, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Dancing with Miss Dunham

In Rite de Passage, Katherine Dunham Dance Company, 1943, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Like the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Katherine Dunham would give impromptu auditions while on tour. Egged on by her brothers, 17-year-old Ruth went to see the Dunham troupe in Cabin in the Sky at the San Francisco Curran Theater, where Dunham was co-starring with Ethel Waters. In her memory of that day in 1943, Ruth and her mother went backstage to meet Miss Dunham, who right away—in between the matinee and evening performances—arranged for her to perform for some of her cast members on the stage. “Accompanying myself with round metal discs on my fingers, I performed an acrobatic finger cymbal dance consisting of splits, flips, bends, and stretches, all done in slow motion to show strength, control, and a sense of rhythm.”

She was accepted into the company for its six-week West Coast tour. After obtaining a leave from Oakland Technical High School, Ruth started a three-week immersion:

Each morning I studied Dunham technique and each afternoon repertoire. Since Miss D always traveled with at least three complete shows, the challenge was tremendous. I can remember moving my feet to rehearse a new step while sitting on the “C” Key System train during my daily commute from Oakland.

Because Ruth was so young, Dunham invited Ruth’s mother to go along on this tour, which traveled up the West Coast to Canada and back down to San Francisco. Mrs. Beckford became a kind of den mother for the company. The tour was Ruth’s first time leaving California, first time on a ship, and first time seeing snow—not to mention her first time dancing Dunham’s works. At the end of the tour, Dunham offered the teenager a seven-year contract. It was tempting particularly because the company was on its way to Hollywood to shoot Stormy Weather. However, Ruth’s family valued education, and she finally decided to go to college instead of committing to a life on the road. As she said to Miss Dunham, “If I hurt myself, I’ll just be a dumb ex-dancer.” Dunham respected her decision, and the two women remained friends for life. Beckford even threw a 90th birthday party for her mentor in St. Louis.

Workshop with Dunham dancers, St, Louis, 1993. Clockwise from top left: Albirda Rose, Cleo Parker, Ruth Beckford, Tommy Gomes, and Lucile Ellis, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

A string of firsts

Ruth became the first Black member of UC Berkeley’s chapter of Orchesis, the modern dance society that had branches all over the country. When they would meet in larger gatherings, with other local schools like Stanford and Mills, there could be a hundred girls in a room. “The pressure of being the only black walking into a room with all white girls and all white teachers—if I hadn’t had the kind of support at home where I knew who I was and proud in being black—I  don’t know what I would have done.”

Ruth in 1952, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

UC Berkeley faculty member Carly Cuddeback had attended the Bennington School of the Dance in the summers of 1936 and ’37. She had studied composition with Martha Hill and Bessie Schönberg and had appeared in the premiere of Hanya Holm’s Trend (1937). She was so impressed by Beckford’s talent that she brought her to the Halprin-Lathrop School in San Francisco, where Anna Halprin taught Humphrey-Weidman technique and Welland Lathrop gave Graham-based classes. Halprin and Lathrop invited Beckford into their company, which was a top-tier West Coast modern dance group at the time—before the Civil Rights era. “Everywhere we went,” Beckford said, “people weren’t prepared for a black dancer and they gasped. It was courageous for them to open the doors to an African American dancer back then.”

Beckford kept in touch with Halprin the rest of her life. When Halprin was working on her controversial, inter-racial work Ceremony of Us in 1969, she arranged for the black performers to study with Beckford. When I was working on a different research project in 2018, I was lucky to speak with Beckford on the phone. When I asked about Halrpin, she said, “Anna and I are still like sisters.”

Beckford in center, Merce Cunningham at left, Anna Halprin at right, on Halprin’s deck, Kentfield, CA, 1957 @Ted Shreshinsky for Dance Magazine

The First City-Wide Dance Program

1955, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

After graduating UC Berkeley, Beckford took a job with the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department. She turned that minimal program into the first city-funded dance department in the country: the Oakland Recreation Department’s Division of Modern Dance. She set up classes at community centers all over the city for ages six up through high school. Her mission was less about training girls to be professional dancers and more about teaching to the whole child. As black dance scholar Halifu Osumare has written,

Her primary goal was to create productive, self-respecting young women through dance in social context, following one of Katherine Dunham’s primary philosophical concepts, ‘Socialization through the Arts.’ Here was a community dance teacher who had strict, graduated levels of technique with “dance exams” that had to be passed in order to go from one level to the next.

Beckford had a realistic view of her mission:

Only one will be a dancer out of all these hundreds of girls, but they all have to be women. So life skills I would always slip into the dance classes. The girls learned to stand straight, to have self-confidence, to not curse, not fight, and I tried to expose them to many new things.

First concert at New Century Recreation Center, 1947, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Deborah Vaughan, director of Dimensions Dance Theater, told me in a phone interview how much Beckford’s students admired her:

She had a very infectious personality and was a fantastic dancer. But another thing that was impactful for us young Black girls: she was stunningly beautiful and she was very dark skinned and had a close-cropped natural. For so many young black girls, even today, with the wigs, with getting their hair pressed, often not accepting often who they are . . . We said, ‘Omigod, look at her, she’s beautiful.’

The program was so successful that people from around the country were sent to Oakland to observe the classes. It’s been said that other cities modeled their parks department dance programs on Beckford’s. This is probably true, but the only one I know of is in nearby San Mateo, where the Parks & Recreation Department Dance Program was started by Mary Joyce, who had taught with Beckford in Oakland. The program is still going strong, offering scores of live streaming virtual classes in the pandemic.

Undated photo of girls in the Rec program, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

In 1968, after 21 years at the helm, Beckford hand-picked her successor, Naima Lewis. In fact, she waited until Lewis finished her masters’ degree in dance from Mills College to pass the torch. Lewis, who is now an internationally certified yoga therapist, had come to the Rec program as an 11-year-old and joined her company (see next section) at 15.

Naima Lewis teaches a class at McClimonds High School Gym, 1971, Newsprint photo courtesy Dr. Lewis

When she took over the program, it was the beginning of the Black Power Movement. So she decided to bring African-Haitian dance into the Recreation program, whereas Beckford had taught African-Haitian separately, in private studios. About the period when she inherited the program from Beckford, Lewis told me this:

It was the 1960s, and everybody was turning to Africa. The Oakland Rec Department was wide open for it. Miss B had nurtured in me the strength and the courage to step forward and say, “Now the revolution needs to be shown through black dance.’ It allowed young people to have a sense of ethnic identity. Without being too dogmatic, dance has this way of massaging consciousness into those that are participating. It was an opportunity to expand awareness of your own self and your own history, much like what is occurring now.

At that point the program was serving 350 students a week, from 6-year-olds up. “They could take dance for one dollar a year,” Dr. Lewis recalled. “When I took over, we tripled the staff, with Deborah Vaughan, Shirley Brown, and Elender Barnes.

After Lewis left in 1978, the program was led by the late Raymond Johnson and then Jacqui Birdsong James. By 1988, when Denise Pate took over the program—by then called City-Wide Dance program— it served thousands of children, from kindergarten through high school, in sixty sites, employed eight to ten musicians, and more than twenty dance teachers. But in 1993 the program was split up and the full-time position director position was eliminated. Pate, who is now the city’s Cultural Funding Coordinator, says that the “remnants of the dance program” can be found in a few classes at the Oakland Sports and Aquatics Center and many more classes at the Malonga Casquelourd Arts Center, which is the hub of Oakland’s performing arts community. Deborah Vaughan’s Dimensions Dance Theater, Axis Dance Company (a mixed-ability group), and Diamano Coura West African Dance Company are housed there. (Originally called the Alice Art Center, it was renamed after Congolese dancer/drummer Malonga Casquelourd was killed in a car accident in 2003.)

The Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company

In 1954 Dunham invited Beckford to New York to teach at her famed midtown school. Beckford felt honored to be on the same faculty with Geoffrey Holder, Arthur Mitchell, and Louis Johnson. But the school’s days were numbered because the director,  Syvilla Fort, left to start her own school. So, after two months, Beckford returned to California.

Beckford, second from left, and three dancers in Haitian dress, 1956, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Energized by her experience in New York, Beckford opened her own studios of African Haitian dance—one in Oakland and the other in the Peters Wright studio in San Francisco—while still directing the Rec program. Drawing on her advanced students, she formed a company based on the Dunham model. She went to Haiti to study voodoo, as Dunham had done, and condensed the ritual all-night dances she saw there. Although her company was active for only eight years, some of its members, like Deborah Vaughan and Naima Lewis, went on to distinguish themselves as leaders in dance.

Undated photo, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

“Ruth Beckford was the hub for the serious black dancer,” Osumare wrote, “and those white dancers who felt the call of ‘a different drummer,’ ” She called Beckford the “regional transmitter” of Dunham technique on the West Coast.

Her classes, like Dunham’s, were physically demanding. As you can see from this clip of her teaching in 1968, she is talking about Damballa, the snake god, and her spine undulations are extreme. Osumare, who is actually in this video (tall and slim with an Afro), recalls the technical challenges:

Every one of Miss Beckford classes were strenuous, with a meticulous approach to learning the Dunham technique and Haitian dance, all leading to nothing short of self mastery. The Dunham barre . . . that left one’s thighs screaming, required exact body placement, endurance, flexibility, and musicality.

For Osumare and many in the black cultural district of Oakland, the power of the drums drew them in:

The most revolutionary aspect of Miss B’s classes, for me, was that drummers accompanied them, not a pianist playing Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. The 6/8 and 4/4 rhythms of Afro-Haitian music were riveting, with the battery of drummers often led by Bay Area drummer Butch Haynes. These rhythms began to open an inner cultural ear that I didn’t even know existed. After the dance barre warm-up, we had center-floor isolations — learning to separate the head, shoulders, rib cage, and hips from each other in order to play the drums’ polyrhythms in the body. Never before had I been expected to be so masterful with my center torso. Sure, I had learned to lock my spine in exact placement for ballet, contract it from the pelvis for Graham, and relax it from the waist for Limon swings. But to carry two or three rhythms in the torso at once was definitely a different cultural experience.

UC Berkeley, 1961, Ruth Beckford Papers, AAMLO

Perhaps because of her vaudeville days as an entertainer, Beckford preferred to tour the college and university circuit. “I had done a great amount of research on our dances, and I thought it would be wasted if it was not in colleges or theater houses where people were accustomed to come and see serious performing. I could’ve gone to Vegas and put on a tassel and made a fortune.”

Beckford at right, undated photo, Ruth Beckford papers, AAMLO

(As an aside, I will add that in one of Beckford’s short bios for program notes, she mentioned that in 1958 she toured with Ruth St. Denis in her Religious Dances.)

Beckford also taught at Mills College, where Trisha Brown and Elendar Barnes, co-founder with Vaughan of Dimensions Dance Theater, were among her students. This video shows her leading a large class at Mills with three drummers in 1974.

Community involvement

In 1968, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, enlisted Beckford’s help to start the Free Breakfasts for Children program. Its first location was St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, where Beckford was a member. (Although she was christened there, she has said that her spiritual practice was more about reading Daily Word at home.) She consulted a nutritionist, helped procure food from local businesses (“Every morning at 6:00 I’d go with my begging bowl and get stuff donated”), recruited parents, and set standards of behavior for the volunteers. Not to mention that she brought in her students to help serve. Vaughan, a teenager at the time, remembers, “She invited us to participate, saying, ‘This is something you all need to know about and be involved in because this is what’s happening in the community.’ So some of us went along to help serve breakfast to kids in the community that didn’t have enough food.”

Beckford knew the program was a success when the first school principal reported the children had become alert and focused. The program grew from a handful of kids at St. Augustine’s to hundreds, then thousands, and quickly expanded to cities across the country. The free breakfasts became a model for the Panthers’ other programs like free health clinics and community ambulances.

(At the time, the Black Panthers were reviled in the white press, which portrayed them as violent radicals. But the aspect of the Panthers that was most threatening to the FBI was the free food program because it was obviously successful. It posed such a national “threat” that the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, ordered it to be destroyed by whatever means necessary. A few years later, the government took a page from the Panthers’ playbook and expanded its own program to provide free food.)

Beckford gave unstintingly to her community in many other ways as well. She helped found the Oakland Dance Association as well as the Cultural Ethnic Affairs Guild. She founded the oral history program at the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, interviewing older black people in the work force. She helped the homeless and gave talks in women’s prisons. (“I tell them, ‘You are special’ because I felt those women did not come from loving homes.”) She worked with victims of the 1989 earthquake and counseled people in job training. In 1997, she created her own awards, the Ruth Beckford Award to Extraordinary People in the Field of Dance. As Vaughan told me, “Whatever she thought, she put into action.”

Life after dance

In 1974 Dunham sent Beckford a letter asking her to write her life story. Beckford’s response: “No, no, no. Let me get my sister friend Maya Angelou to write your book.” But Dunham insisted. Even though Beckford had never written a book, Dunham wanted someone who knew and understood her work to take on this task. (“After the initial shock, I understood the degree of her trust in our friendship. My pride began to swell.”) Beckford ultimately agreed, and she enjoyed spending time with Miss Dunham in East St. Louis and in Haiti interviewing her. Many books about or by Dunham have been written since then, but Katherine Dunham, A Biography, is the first authorized biography. Beckford knew her subject well enough to have a little fun with it. In a chapter titled “True, False and Other Myths,” she asks intimate questions like, Do you ever drink before a performance? And Is it true that you were intimately associated with Haitian presidents?

Dunham as a guest teacher at UC Berkeley, assisted by Backford, 1976, photo Francine Jamison

After publishing her first book, Beckford wrote, starred in, and produced a three-part play, “Tis the Morning of my Life,” about an older woman’s relationship with a younger man, presented by the Oakland Ensemble Theatre Company. Her book Still Groovin’: Affirmations for Women in the Second Half of Life offers spiritual and practical advice for older women. She also wrote two cookbooks and co-wrote The Picture Man, about Bay Area photographer E.F. Joseph.

In addition to her writing life, she appeared in several movies, including My Funny Valentine with Alfre Woodard and Loretta Divine, and two PBS films directed by Maya Angelou.

Beckford in later life, wearing stained glass earrings she made herself

At the opening of “The Ruth Beckford Museum” at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in 2018, she said, “I choreographed my life. Step by step, year by year.” Sounds very orderly. But there was another part of her personality too:

I’m a risk taker: If it don’t work, it’s OK. I say you should never die and not having done your secret ambition. If you have to go sneak off into the mountains and do it, accomplish your secret ambition.

Hers was to be a lounge singer. She took up voice lessons at a community college and, well past her retirement from dancing, sang as part of the class recital at the end of the semester. Her song was “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” and she had a ball doing it.

She was bursting with energy till the end. Perhaps Vaughan said it best: “Miss Beckford rode life until the wheels came off.”

Legacy

Although Beckford moved away from dance in her later life, her influence has been continually felt. Vaughan has said, “Miss Beckford broke the ceiling for black dance artists in the Bay Area.” Osumare points out that the profusion of African diaspora groups included local groups like Vaughan’s own group, Dimensions Dance Theater (the oldest  oldest African American dance company on the West Coast), and Nontzisi Cayou and her Wajumbe Performance Ensemble. as well as performers emigrating from Ghana (C. K. Ladzekpo), Congo (Malonga Casquelourd), and Senegal (Zak Diouf and the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company).

In 2014, a visual tribute to Beckford appeared as a part of the famous Alice Street mural, titled “Universal Language,” in which she was featured as a towering joy-spreading figure.

Alice Street mural with Beckford as the central figure

But after a battle with gentrification, that mural was obscured. In a compromise solution, a new mural, called “AscenDance,” rose up last summer during Covid. Although Beckford is no longer as large and central a figure as she was in the first mural, she is visible off to the left, still wearing her signature white Haitian dress.

When the late Congolese dancer Malonga Casquelourd was presented with the Ruth Beckford Award in 1997, he spoke for many: “She made the ground fertile for us to land here!”

For all these reasons, last year the African American Museum & Library at Oakland of Oakland Public Library mounted an exhibit called “Ruth Beckford: Visionary Woman,” which has supplied many of the photos here.

 

¶¶¶

 

Special thanks to Deborah Vaughan, Dr. Naima Lewis, Dr. Halifu Osumare, Denise Pate, Tamara Sparkles and the Izzies team; Joyce Gordon and Eric Murphy of the Joyce Gordon Gallery; Sean Dickerson, archivist at the African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library; Risa Jaroslow, Ann Murphy, Joanna Harris, and Liam O’Donoghue.

 

Other Sources

Library collection

Finding AID for Ruth Beckford Papers at Online Archive of California

Books

Katherine Dunham: A Biography
By Ruth Beckford

Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir
By Halifu Osumare

Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1915-1965
By Joanna Gewertz Harris

Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance
By Janice Ross

Hot Feet and Social Change: African Dance and Diaspora Communities
Eds. Kariamu Welsh, Esailama G. A. Diouf, and Yvonne Daniel

Articles

“Dimensions Dance Theater: For Decades Strong”
By Latanya Tigner

“Obituary: Ruth Beckford, legendary dancer, choreographer”
By Brenda Payton, East Bay Times, May 9, 2019

“Forthcoming Documentary Fights Cultural Erasure in Oakland”
By Arielle Swedback
June 16, 2016

“How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government”
By Erin Blakemore
Feb. 6, 2018

“Ruth Beckford, 93”
By Brenda Payton Jones
May 10, 2019

“From Guns to Butter: Ruth Beckford-Smith”
By Joshua Bloom and Martin E. Waldo
March 18, 2017

Video interviews
Interview for African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library
2007

The Woman’s Connection
2011

Audio interviews
“I enjoyed every day”: A Tribute to Ruth Beckford
East Bay Yesterday
2019

Films of dance classes
African/Haitian Dance with Ruth Beckford, 1968, available for viewing in the Archive Collection at Medgar Evers College

Black dance in action, Ruth Beckford workshop at Mills College,1974 (African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Ruth Beckford Papers

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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

 

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Syvilla Fort (1917–1975)

A young Syvilla Fort,1940 in Seattle, photo by Ernst Kassowitz, Courtesy Glory Van Scott.

 

 

 

A rare talent who danced with both Merce Cunningham and Katherine Dunham, Syvilla Fort was a leader as an educator. She was a force of nature, inspiring generations of students at both the Dunham School and her own school. She was a technical powerhouse in the Dunham style and one of the great teachers in New York. Writing in The New York Times, Jennifer Dunning called Fort “a choreographer and dance theorist of imagination and taste.” Alvin Ailey called her “our inspiration.”

Fort grew up in Seattle, Washington, the oldest of three children. From the age of three, she was bursting with the desire to dance—specifically ballet. Her mother took her to a number of ballet teachers in the area, all of whom abided by the racist practices of the day and turned her down. But several teachers agreed to give her private lessons, including Fred Christensen, the uncle of the more famous balletic brothers—Willam, Harold, and Lew. She was so avid about ballet that, at age 13, she gave free lessons to younger children in her neighborhood. She also performed in musical and dramatic productions in high school.

 

 

The Cornish School
In the early 1930s, Fort found a home for her love of dance at the Cornish School in Seattle. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for Nellie Cornish, who took an interest in her children and allowed Syvilla to enroll free of charge. Fort was one of three top students in Cornish’s modern dance program, which was under the leadership of former Graham dancer Bonnie Bird. One of the others was Mercier Cunningham (known as Merce only to his friends), and the third was Dorothy Herrmann, who soon left the dance field.

Bonnie Bird, Merce Cunningham, Syvilla Fort, and Dorothy Herrmann, in Three Inventories for Casey Jones, photo by Phyllis Dearborn, Courtesy the Cornish College of the Arts Archives.

In 1939, the dance department produced an evening called “Hilarious Dance Concert.” Bird choreographed Three Inventories of Casey Jones for herself and the three favored students. Also on the program was Skinny Structures, a collaboration by the three students in which they played silly characters: Cunningham spoofed a bellhop that had been a popular figure in a cigarette ad, Fort did a take-off on “The Good Ship Lollipop,” and Herrmann played a kind of streetwalker. This work had premiered the previous year as a benefit for the cause of the Spanish Civil War. It was originally site-specific, occupying three “skinny” row houses on the campus.

Skinny Structures with Fort, Cunningham, and Herrmann, Courtesy Cornish College of the Arts Archives.

Another activity of Syvilla’s at that time was modeling for student artists. Below is a watercolor made by Ruth M. Kreps, who was part of a group of serious women artists, probably in 1936.

Watercolor by Ruth M. Kreps, Courtesy Glenn Airgood.

The Invention of the Prepared Piano
In 1938, Bonnie Bird hired John Cage as an accompanist, teacher of experimental music and choreography, and composer for dance works. For her piece Bacchanale (1940), Fort asked Cage to write something with an African “inflection.” Cage envisioned a percussion ensemble, but there wasn’t enough room to accommodate it in the performance space. All he had was a piano. So he lifted the lid and stuck things like screws and bolts and paper clips in between the strings. This was Cage’s first experiment with the “prepared piano.” Thus altered, it sounded like an entirely different instrument—sometimes reminiscent of a gamelan orchestra— and it’s one of the inventions Cage is known for. (The actual idea of altering the piano’s inner strings is attributed to Henry Cowell, but he did not develop it into a compositional element as Cage did.)

Making Training Available to All
After four productive years at Cornish (which did not become accredited as a college until 1986), Fort attended the University of Washington, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in two years.

She moved to Harlem to dance with Katherine Dunham around 1941. According to Talley Beatty, she was “a very sensational dancer;” other sources say she received rave reviews. While touring to her home city in 1943, Fort was interviewed by the Seattle Times. She spoke out about the lack of opportunity for students of color: “A fight that a lot of young people have, especially if they are of a minority race, is to get the training they want.”

Dunham dancers: Lucille Ellis, Marie Bryant, Laverne French, Lavinia Williams, Claude Marchant, Roger Ohardieno, Tommy Gomez, and Syvilla Fort. Photo, Armand’s Photography, San Francisco.

She also expressed a dream that soon came true: “Through the Katherine Dunham group of dancers and other groups, things are happening. Maybe it will finally bring about a school or a place of training which would be open to all for artistic or cultural training.”

At the time of the article, the movie Stormy Weather—with Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, and the Dunham troupe—had been shot but not yet released. Fort had this to say about the filming process: “It is much more difficult to sustain the mood when dancing before cameras than before an audience. When dancing before an audience they sort of ‘warm up’ to you and you to them at least before you’re halfway through the program.”

Fort in a Dunham work, photo by Carmine Schiavone, Joe Nash Collection.

Dunham opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre on West 43rd Street in 1945. Not only were there classes in Dunham technique, ballet, and modern dance, but also classes in percussion, dance notation, classic Spanish technique, dance history, acting (with master teachers like Herbert Berghof and Paula  Strasberg), visual design, voice and speech, French, Spanish, music appreciation, psychology, and philosophy of religion. Writing in The New York Times in 1946, critic John Martin was clearly impressed with the range of offerings, the rigor of the pre-professional programs, and the inter-racial mix of the 400 students. But he also noted that it was financially precarious. Almost every student who wasn’t on the GI bill was on scholarship.

The Dunham school, however, made a huge impact. Dunham biographer Joanna Dee Das credits it with “desegregating the space of dance in New York and in promoting diaspora as a model for a peaceful postwar global order.” It was a central hub of many genres of dance. This is where Arthur Mitchell met the ballet teacher Karel Shook, years before the two formed Dance Theatre of Harlem.

When she wasn’t on tour, Fort taught both Dunham technique and ballet there. Two of her students, Marion Cuyjet and Sydney King, asked her to guest teach at their studios in Philadelphia. She did teach in Philly during the 1947–48 school year but stopped in 1948, when she took on the responsibilities of dance director of the Dunham school. That same year, her mother died, making her the legal guardian of her 8-year-old brother, John Dill (together, at right). He joined her in Harlem and eventually became a drummer.

The Phillips-Fort Studio of Theatre Dance
Although Fort was devoted to Dunham, she wanted to be independent. (Some sources say there was a falling out between the two women.) She had met tap dancer and war veteran Buddy Phillips at the Dunham school, and they married in the early 50s. In 1954, they opened their own school, which was to offer his style of Jazz Tap and her Dunham-based style of Modern-Afro, one block north of the Dunham school. Many students followed her to the new school, especially her children’s group, which included Walter Nicks, Julie Robinson (who later married Harry Belafonte) and Joan Peters. As with Dunham’s school, the Phillips-Fort Dance Studio offered a wide array of dance classes, adding tap classes led by Cholly Atkins, Honi Coles, and of course, Buddy Phillips.

Eartha Kitt foreground, James Dean, background, most likely shot by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

Alvin Ailey, Chuck Davis, Eartha Kitt, Brenda Bufalino, and Yvonne Rainer all studied at the new school. So did James Dean, Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, James Earl Jones, and Geoffrey Holder. As current dance artist Katiti King said, “If you were an actor, she was the movement teacher to go to.”

Fort correcting James Dean, most likely taken by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

Fort’s presence remains vivid in the minds of those who studied with her. Joan Peters, who has been chair for the Dunham technique at The Ailey School since 1978, was part of her special children’s group. “When you were around her, she gave you such a warm feeling,” Peters said recently. “There was a certain softness there so you were never afraid to try things in front of her.” As the children grew, more was expected of them. “She was more critical; she wanted you to be constantly thinking of what you were doing and not just sliding by.” This loving yet demanding approach created an incentive to do well. “You poured your heart out because you wanted her to be satisfied with what she saw.” And Peters had one more memory: “She had the most beautiful arms and hands, and we always tried to imitate that.”

Fort, 1940, photo by Ernst Kassowitz, Courtesy Cornish College of Arts.

Dr. Glory Van Scott, the triple-threat star who was invited to join New York City Ballet by Balanchine (she turned him down), devoted a chapter in her autobiography to Fort. Here is an excerpt:

There were times in her studio . . . when everyone was so synchronized, so spiritually in tune, that it seemed that the walls moved back and forth with us . . . Miss Fort plied her magic. We grew, we thrived, and went out to conquer Broadway, dance companies, and the concert world. We held Boule Blanches—white dress balls—talent showcases and performances at the Diplomat Hotel and other theatres in and out of town. We had a world where those who taught us cared, shared, and nurtured us—so much so that no matter where you were, you always returned to 153 West 44th Street to take classes and recount your travels . . . The studio was really home to us. . . Whenever Miss Fort walked into the room to teach class, there was an air of excitement and expectation, an almost holding-your-breath waiting to hear her say, “Good Afternoon, now let’s begin” . . . She had such beautiful, large, doe-shaped eyes—they seemed to mesmerize you into wanting to do everything right . . . When you said her name, it conjured up the feeling of comfort, of well being, of a mother’s quiet, steady, loving touch.

In a recent phone conversation, Van Scott recalled Fridays with special fervor:

On Fridays after classes ended at 7:00, we’d rush home and get ready for the Bambouche at 10:00. People would flood that studio, and you’d sign up on a list to show your work. Miss Fort and Buddy would both be there, and there was always food. There were kids of all languages. I remember Chinese acrobats wearing beautiful costumes. Sometimes we would dance until three in the morning.

When I asked Van Scott to describe Fort’s own dancing, she said, “She moved like a feather—light and flowing. When she danced her role in Danza, you’d be mesmerized. It was Spanish with a Moorish accent.”

In a completely different vein, Fort choreographed for Langston Hughes’s Prodigal Son in 1958, directed by Vinnette Carroll. Van Scott played the lead female role of Jezebel. “That was hot choreography!” she blurted out on the phone.

Langston Hughes’ Prodigal Son (1965) with Philip Stamps and Glory Van Scott, photo by Bert Andrews, Courtesy Van Scott.

Tap dance master Brenda Bufalino (and choreographer/director of The American Tap Dance Orchestra), also had a sense of uncontainable activity at the studio. “The studio was very small,” she told me, “and sometimes so crowded you felt like you might end up out in the street.”

Bufalino felt challenged and strengthened by the classes. “Syvilla gave a strong barre. Lots of hinging. You needed strong thighs and good knees. She really prepared you to dance. You felt ready to do whatever you needed to do.” Then Bufalino, who is 83 and still dancing, added, “which is what made me last so long.” The tapper also felt that Fort was sensitive to the fact that she was one of the few white dancers there. “Even when I was taking class with another teacher at the studio, like Talley Beatty or Walter Nicks, or ‘Chino,’ who taught Afro-Cuban, I felt she was watching over me.”

Children were captivated by Fort. Katiti King, who was a child when Fort died but whose parents shared the same artistic milieu as Fort, was also struck by her: “I remember her being kind, thoughtful, articulate, super intelligent. When she looked into your eyes, it didn’t matter your age or how you danced.”

A tango with Peter Gennaro and Fort, likely taken by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

Buddy Phillips passed away in 1963. After paying for the funeral, according to her stepson, Sabur Abdul-Salaam, Fort was strapped. Luckily, just then Harry Belafonte recommended her for the position of helping develop a national dance company in the country of Guinea. She spent a few months there, giving the dancers a solid foundation in Dunham technique and other forms. According to Van Scott, she was so successful that the organizer in Guinea wanted to keep her longer. When returned, she resumed running her school. In 1967, she took an additional part-time job at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Because of the past discrimination she faced as a child, Fort was passionate about keeping her school open to everyone. “In the violent sixties,” wrote Van Scott, “she refused to bow to radical pressure to have only Blacks in her workshop group, for she felt that dance was universal.”

And yet she was committed to a Black dance aesthetic. As scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz has noted, Syvilla Fort was part of the sweep of African American artists aligned with the Black Power Movement, a precursor to Black Lives Matter. They recognized “the political need for a coherent ‘black aesthetic’ . . . outside traditional structures of dance performance.” These artists, who included Nanette Beardon, Chuck Davis, Louis Johnson, Joan Miller, Walter Nicks, Eleo Pomare, and Rod Rodgers, “sought to invest ‘black dance’ with the proclamation of self-representation, to use it as a tool . . . to create work relevant to African American audiences.”

A Starry Gala Tribute
Around 1974, this beloved teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer. As her strength faded, the Black Theatre Alliance produced a celebration of her life in 1975. Titled “Dance Genesis: Three Generations Salute Syvilla Fort,” it was held at the Majestic Theatre, where The Wiz was playing. Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie, a lead Dunham dancer who had trained under Fort, hosted.

In this clip from the Black Theatre Alliance, we see glamorous audience members singing her praises. James Baldwin, who was friends with Eleo Pomare and other dancers, said, “I’ve seen the results of her work, and she’s a very important woman.” Harry Belafonte said, “More silently, more tenaciously and more graciously than almost anybody else I know on the face of the earth, she made one of the most powerful contributions to the field of dance, to the field of theater.”

Tributes continued onstage that night. Alvin Ailey: “She is our mother, our inspiration . . . She taught us to de­velop a beautiful philosophy of how to live and  how to love. She taught dance as a positive expres­sion of the human spirit.” Dunham, who was in the hospital at the time, sent a message, calling Fort “one of the greatest people who ever honored the Dunham com­pany with her presence.”

Dianne McIntyre’s Shadows, with Phillip Bond. Photo by Bert Andrews, Courtesy BAM Archives

The performances were stellar. Charles Moore performed Asadata Dafora’s classic Ostrich; Dyane Harvey danced what Don McDonagh of the New York Times called a “razor sharp” rendition of Pomare’s Roots; Chuck Davis’s troupe gave a rousing performance of the South African Boot Dance; Dianne McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion premiered Shadows, with music by Cecil Taylor. There were numbers by Peter Gennaro, who adored Miss Fort, and George Faison, the choreographer of The Wiz.

Fortunately, Miss Fort was feeling well enough to leave the hospital to come enjoy the evening with her friends and former students. Sadly, she left this world five days later.

After Her Passing
About a year after Fort’s death, Joan Peters resuscitated the Syvilla Fort Dance Company. It gradually morphed into the Joan Peters Dance Company. Van Scott produced the company’s programs of Fort’s works at Symphony Space in 1992 and ’93. Afro-Caribbean works like Yanvalou (1940), Rhumba (1954) and Carnival (1950), as well as Danza (1955) were staged. In 1992, Jennifer Dunning wrote that Danza “a delicately perfumed yet sturdy abstraction of the stylized Spanish “school” of dance. . . was performed to the hilt by Dr. Scott, Hope Clarke and Loretta Abbott.” In a 1993 New York Times review, Jack Anderson wrote that “What made Yanvalou (1940) striking was the way the cast conveyed a sense of communal solidarity and awe in the presence of divine powers.”

Glory Van Scott in Danza, 1992 Carmine Schiavone, Courtesy Van Scott.

Community builder, dynamic dancer, intriguing choreographer, beloved teacher, Syvilla Fort was lionized by the Black community. In a 1979 article in The Black Scholar, Ntozake Shange grouped her along with superstars Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Charlie Parker and Katherine Dunham as the giants who “moved the world outta their way” and made art that reflected their lives.

Lastly, some good news: First: the documentary Syvilla: They Dance to Her Drum, made by notable filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira in 1979, is being digitized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (timeline unknown). Second: Glory Van Scott and Joan Peters plan to mount some of Syvilla’s work next year (or whenever possible) at Symphony Space. Van Scott will produce and direct, and Peters will stage the dances. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Portrait of Fort, 1940s, by Carmine Schiavone, Joe Nash Collection

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Special thanks to Dr. Glory Van Scott, Joan Peters, Katiti King, Lee Gretenstein, Brenda Bufalino, Ayoka Chenzira, Glenn Airgood, and Bridget Nowlin, Director of Library Services, Cornish College of the Arts.

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1 person likes this Unsung Heroes of Dance History 14

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 person likes this Uncategorized Unsung Heroes of Dance History 7

Eleo Pomare (1937–2008)

I’m starting a new series devoted to outstanding dance artists who have either faded from memory, had too short a dance life, or are left out of the dance books. I’ve been around long enough to witness absolutely unique people getting lost in the mists of time. I plan to add one person each month, drawn from the long list of people I’ve either seen myself or heard about and am curious about. Some of them were praised at the height of their careers but gained no permanent traction. Others were never fully recognized for their contributions. This series is an attempt to rebalance the books—the dance books.

First up is Eleo Pomare. Recently, when I mentioned him in my dance history class, no one knew his name. But when the students saw a clip of his work on YouTube, they said, “Why haven’t we heard of him?”

¶¶¶

Eleo Pomare was one of New York City’s unforgettable dance artists of the 1960s. When I saw him in a DanceMobile show (basically a flatbed truck that toured inner-city neighborhoods), he performed a drastic solo from Over Here (1968). While the American anthem was playing, Pomare was mimicking retching. It was so real, so alarmingly visceral, that you could practically see his innards thrusting up through his throat. This remains the most extreme public response to our nation’s injustices I’ve ever seen—long before Colin Kaepernick took the knee.

Pomare was a prolific choreographer whose work was too raw for prime time. As Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times, “Eleo Pomare’s dances always have a special gutsy quality.” His performances were hyper-realistic; indeed he was accused of being “too real.” Although he wasn’t invited to go on State Department–sponsored international tours like Alvin Ailey or to choreograph Broadway musicals like Donald McKayle, he kept making dances—118 in all. His courage and imagination were inspiring; his febrile physicality was startling. As dance historian Katrina Hazzard Donald says in the PBS special Free to Dance, Pomare “imparts a new validity to Black life in much the same way that Malcolm X does.”

For this article, I have relied on two main sources: A cover story in the November 1968 issue of Dance Magazine and a recent phone interview with Dyane Harvey-Salaam, the well-known dancer who started working with the Eleo Pomare Dance Company in 1969. A complete list of sources is at the end.

Beginnings

Born in Colombia, South America, Eleo Pomare sailed with his father, who was of Haitian and French extraction, to join his mother in Panama when he was six. This was during World War II, and his boat was torpedoed by the Germans. Although he was rescued, his father was never found. The trauma of that tragedy gave him a dread of water for the rest of his life. When he was ten, he emigrated to New York to live with his mother.

Pomare in photo shoot with David Fullard, courtesy Jill Williams

Pomare was always drawn to music. When he reached Harlem, the sounds coming out of churches reminded him of Carnival back in Colombia and Panama. About attending the church events, he said, “At the time I didn’t realize I was studying theater.”

Pomare enrolled in the High School of Performing Arts for its theater program, but after a year he switched to dance. Fellow student Cora Cahan (co-founder of The Joyce Theater and now president of Baryshnikov Arts Center) remembers him vividly: “He was true to his own voice at an early age. He couldn’t conform; it wasn’t in his DNA. He was highly original.” He studied composition with Louis Horst; he also sought out teachers of color, attending the New Dance Group to study with Asadata Dafora and Pearl Primus, and also studied with Syvilla Fort and José Limón. After he graduated in 1958, he co-started a small dance company with fellow student Dudley Williams.

In 1962, he accepted a scholarship to study with Kurt Jooss in his school in Essen, Germany. But he hated it there, likening the school to “a convent or prison.” He started choreographing with students from the school, which rubbed Jooss the wrong way, and he was expelled. He moved to Amsterdam with his dancers and performed his experimental work in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, receiving good reviews.

In 1963, fate intervened. As the Civil Rights movement in America heated up and the March on Washington approached, the writer James Baldwin, a good friend of Pomare’s, called him. “Eleo,” Baldwin commanded, “you are going to be there.”

He was ready to leave Europe anyway. “Eventually, I felt Europe wasn’t for me,” he said in 1968. “A Negro dancer is to them a ‘wild thing,’ exotic.” On a later occasion he explained his disaffection further: “I believed the myths that one had to study in Europe to be really educated, and that Europe was more sensitive to Black people. I was looking for a place to work where my complexion didn’t come before my product.”

Artistic Range

The March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous “I have a dream” speech, galvanized Pomare to put Black life forward in his work. His work Blues for the Jungle (1966) included a preacher, a couple involved in domestic abuse, a prison inmate dreaming of freedom, a prostitute, a cop, a nun, and, most famously, a junkie. Pomare performed the junkie himself, writhing, convulsing, desperate for a fix, basically self-destructing—in the most riveting way. According to Thomas de Frantz, Blues for the Jungle “included a cast of desperate characters who spilled from the stage as they shouted slogans and physically confronted the audience, accusing them of complicity in the construction of the American ghetto.” (The beginning of this segment of “Free to Dance: Episode 3: Go for What You Know” shows part of Jungle including “Junkie.”)

Narcissus Rising

His signature solo, Narcissus Rising (1968), was possibly even more harrowing. Pomare, as an S & M biker, wearing a leather jockstrap, bare chest, sunglasses and rakish cap, revved his imaginary motorcycle, declaring his right to be a rebel. The character, whom we might define today as intersectional, was described by Don McDonagh as “menacing”—until he is hunted down by police searchlights.

Spanning five decades, Pomare’s work explored many other themes as well. Some, like Sombras (1980) and Conaqua (1987), were based on his Hispanic heritage. Others were based on literature, like Still Here (1982), inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, and Tabernacle (1989), inspired by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Still others were mostly musical, like Back to Bach (1983).

Conagua (1987) with , L: Stanley Joseph and R: Maxine Steinman, photo by David Fullard, courtesy Harvey-Salaam and Martial Roumain

A more hard-edged portrayal, along the lines of Blues for the Jungle, was High Times (1967). McDonagh recalled that in the “Up Tight” section of this ballet, “a snarling speakeasy atmosphere vividly came alive to convey skillfully the unhappiness of the people trapped within.”

And then there was the high drama of the literary sort: Las Desenamoradas (1967) an interpretation of Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba.” About this enduring work, Dyane Harvey-Salaam says, “This situation deals with the human condition, how human beings interact with one another. Everybody in the piece is suffering, except the suitor who married into the family. All of the women are frustrated, and you get a chance to dig into personalities and interactions.”

About his grittier work, Harvey-Salaam says, “It doesn’t bother me to depict these powerful atrocities because if we don’t show them, if we don’t dig into them, how will we ever be able to appeal to anyone else’s humanity?”

But she also appreciates the gentler, imagistic side of her mentor’s oeuvre: “Along with all the global consciousness, the human suffering, the struggle against injustice, he was very intrigued with the beauty of life itself.” She described scenes from De la Tierra (1975), which is based on images from his youth: “He created a cricket by using dancers with poles as the legs,” recounted Harvey-Salaam. “A little boy was dancing around the cricket, searching for his voice. In another scene I portrayed a little girl playing/dancing in the street as a funeral passed by. These were haunting yet beautiful images.”

Pomare was ahead of his time in exploring gender. As mentioned, Narcissus Rising claimed his right to be Black, queer, and self-defined. In “Ode to Prophet Jones,” which was originally part of Radiance of the Dark (1969), he played a prophet in drag. But he also knew how to give women dancers their power. McDonagh, writing in The New York Times, described the solo Hex (1964) as “a study of a woman bursting with venom and magic.”

Pomare in Cantos from a Monastery (1956)

 The music for Pomare’s choreography ranged from Coltrane to Vivaldi, Steve Reich to a Congolese Mass, Miles Davis to the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Other companies that have performed Pomare’s works include Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Philadanceo, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cincinnati Ballet, the Cleo Parker-Robinson Dance Company in Denver, Alpha and Omega Dance Company in New York, and companies in Holland, Norway, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and Brazil. He has mounted works for students at Southern Methodist University, Howard University, Florida A&M, The Ailey School, and Hofstra, where Harvey-Salaam has been an adjunct for years.

Pomare in South Africa, with Diane Johnson of African Arts Fund, 1992, photo by Anthony Rodale

In the Studio

 Elizabeth Dalman, an early dance collaborator in Pomare’s European company (Dansgroep Eleo Pomare) in the ’60s, said this about working on his piece Gin.Woman.Distress (1966): “My body was in such turmoil, and he would say, ‘Push the leg more, the arm more,’ … the shape being the feeling for the viewer.”

In the early 70s, as Harvey-Salaam told me, “The Black Arts Movement was on fire. Everyone was finding their voices, developing their expression.” It was in this context that she started working with Pomare. “He made me think about what I was doing. He made me investigate what kind of energy I needed to achieve the movement or the shape or the concept.” She watched him nurture other dancers too. “Depending on what you brought to him, he would adapt and adjust and then go full steam ahead on you. He did that with your mind as well as your body.”

In 1972, the same year that Ailey choreographed Cry for Judith Jamison, Pomare made Roots for Lillian Olubayo Coleman. A fifteen-minute solo in three sections, it started in Africa with African sculptures, went to the song “Strange Fruit” with Billie Holiday singing about the horror of lynchings, and ended up with Nikki Giovanni’s poem “The Great Pax Whitie,” an indictment of systemic racism. For Harvey-Salaam, who stepped into the solo later, Roots made a statement: “We have to honor ourselves. We have to see life for what it is and acknowledge our greatness, our ability to survive, achieve, and thrive.”

Lillian Olubayo Williams in High Times, photographer unknown, courtesy Havey-Salaam and Martial Roumain

Angry or Alert?

Although Pomare was often called the “angry Black man of dance,” his own preferred adjective was “alert.” He was alert to the ways in which the Black community was marginalized. He was also alert to how some white critics tried to marginalize him. When asked to respond to critics who called his work “too real” or “too un­disciplined,” he replied, “Whites see things only in terms of their own values — they feel too little for the Negro.” As for discipline, “How many critics really understand the discip­line it takes to erase all white influences, and yet dramatize precisely the world the Black artist is struggling to escape from?”

Pomare had no wish to seduce or appease a white audience. “I don’t create works to amuse white crowds,” he said in 1968. “Nor do I wish to show them how charming, strong, and folksy Negro people are—as whites imagine them—Negroes dancing in the manner of Jerome Robbins or Martha Graham. Instead I’m showing them the Negro experience from inside: what it’s like to live in Harlem, to be hung-up and up­tight and trapped and Black and wanting to get out. And I’m saying it in a dance language that originates in Harlem itself.”

The novelist Toni Morrison has also said that she did not write for a white audience. Of course, Morrison’s novels do attract many white people. So too did Pomare’s forceful and imaginative works.

In “Free to Dance,” he stated clearly his view of the artist’s role. “What the choreographer should do is to instigate or to be forecasters of things to come.”

Pomare, 1968, photo by Sigrid Estrada for Dance Magazine

This attitude sometimes caused controversy. At the Adelaide International Festival for the Arts in 1972, he railed against being marginalized by the choice of venue, making headlines. In the meantime, his main dancer, Carole Johnson had taught classes in advance of the performance to a group of Aboriginal dancers. To the dismay of the white presenter, he gave out free tickets to these indigenous dancers. While the white audience was indifferent, it was his new friends who really took to the work.

Creativity in All Directions

Harvey-Salaam notes how Pomare defined his art. At school lecture-demonstrations, he would explain to the children, “I’m a choreographer. A choreographer uses bodies to paint pictures to tell stories.” She recalled that his drive for artistic expression was constant and varied. When he wasn’t choreographing—or painting or writing poems—he could be stringing beads, sewing a shirt, or cooking a special dish—or he’d say, “Let’s go to the museum.” (An example of his paintings can be seen here.)

The poet in him came out when describing his own dancers. In 1966, two of his longtime female dancers performed in his Gin.Woman.Distress. to songs by Bessie Smith. They were Elizabeth Dalman, a white dancer from Australia, and Carole Johnson, an African American who later stayed in Australia to work with the Aboriginal dancers. “When Lizzie does it, it’s as if she swallows the heat and you feel that the heat is burning from the inside out, that she’s not going to let it explode. Carole ices it; she’s like a block of ice until you see the cracks when it starts melting.”

In the 1980s and ’90s Pomare’s home base was the Vital Arts Center on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he moved to a larger venue, with four or five studios, he presented work of younger artists like Harvey-Salaam. Pomare and his group kept performing at venues like Marymount Manhattan Theater, Hunter Playhouse, the DanceMobile, and the Delacorte. Sometimes the program included works by other choreographers like Anna Sokolow and George Faison. And he taught in many public schools. In this video where he is giving a lecture-demonstration, you can get a sense of how spontaneous and irrepressible he is, and of his unique, androgynous way of moving. He is showing the ditty bop walk of Harlem, and saying, “I want my dancers to be people.”

Morning Without Sunrise, with Charles Grant, photo by David Fullard

Pomare never accepted being wedged into any racial or cultural hierarchy. Even when he was invited to South Africa by Nelson Mandela in 1992, he did things his own way. Harvey-Salaam recalls, “He went to South Africa and was supposed to teach in Soweto. They told him they wanted him to teach ballet and he said, ‘No that’s not going happen. I’m going to see what the people move like. I’m going to have them teach me how they move. I’m not interested in imposing a European model. I want to give them tools to explore their own language.’ When he came back he created Morning Without Sunrise (1986), a work to music by Max Roach that was dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

He was also committed to community projects and co-founded the DanceMobile series. Sponsored by the Harlem Cultural Council, this flatbed truck took modern dance performances into underserved communities in the ’60s and ’70s. As its first artistic director, Pomare planned programs that would appeal to children who had never seen dance.

Pomare with children in Harlem, photo by Sigrid Estrada for Dance Magazine, 1968

Pomare remained friends with James Baldwin. According to Harvey-Salaam, “Whenever Eleo mentioned James Baldwin, his heart was warm. He had a deep, deep brotherly camaraderie with Mr. Baldwin. I believe they were kindred spirits in terms of how they used language and how they were deeply committed to discussing this problem with global injustice. They both had had experiences in the U.S. growing up in Harlem, feeling displaced, going to Europe and hoping that this would be the place where they could simply do their art, but realizing that  . . . this is the place where racism began, the seeds of racism.”

Eleo Pomare Dance Company in an undated publicity shot by David Fullard, courtesy Anthony Rodale

Sparking the Next Generation

Always outspoken, Pomare was the boldest voice on a panel presented by American Dance Festival’s landmark project The Black Tradition in American Dance, in 1988. He posed a question—“What are we going to do now?”—that sparked at least one younger Black artist into action. I had read that Halifu Osumare, author of Dancing in Blackness, was influenced by his question that day, so I asked her in an email to clarify, and she did:

As he was often called “the bad boy” of New York Black concert dance, he was never afraid to explore the underbelly of New York and its reflection of systemic racism and homophobia. One need only revisit his choreographic works Blues for the Jungle (1966) and Narcissus Rising (1968). His artistic themes reflected his vision of the world: one had to challenge injustice and call it out directly. Therefore, when all of the choreographers in ADF’s historic Black Traditions in American Dance project were acknowledging historic racism and attempted invisibilizing of Black dance artists, he wanted to focus on contemporary activism—what could be done at the time to ensure the field of dance was challenged and changed. Although he recognized ADF’s effort and was glad to be a part of the project with his Las Desenamoradas set on Dayton Contemporary Dance Theater, he felt more needed to be done.

When he challenged the ADF choreographers and panelists to think about “What are we going to do now?,” I knew my charge. I felt I had to make a major statement about the then young Black choreographers’ recognition and how they were perceived. Hence, I began to work on a mission statement and the first grant to the NEA for Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, a national dance initiative that premiered in 1989 at Theater Artaud in San Francisco and Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. My project continued for five years under the presentation of Theater Artaud, First Impressions Performances (LA), and later Sushi Performance Gallery (San Diego). Tens of artists were showcased and appeared on panels, such as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Nia Love, Lula Washington, Cleo Parker Robinson. I consider it to be the Black Lives Matter initiative in dance during the last decade of the 20th century.

Portrait by Anthony Rodale

Recognition

Although the name Pomare is not imprinted on our dance-history brains, he did receive accolades in his time. New York City Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins (later to become mayor) declared January 7, 1987 “Eleo Pomare Day” in honor of his contributions to the city’s cultural life. In addition to the John Hay Whitney Fellowship that sent him to Germany, the young choreographer received a Guggenheim Fellowship, regular funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous other awards. The Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company celebrated him with a Salute to Living Legends in 1993, and the International Conference of Blacks in Dance bestowed him with an Outstanding Achievements in Dance Award in 1994. The American Dance Guild gave him a Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Dyane Harvey-Salaam in Hex, 2018, photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy American Dance Guild

Continuing On

In 2001, the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company presented Narcissus Rising with a woman, Donna Clark—the biker dude turned to biker chick, complete with boots, G-string, and oiled thighs. Karyn D. Collins, reviewing in Dance Magazine, characterized Donna Clark’s performance as “all defiant glare and stalking feminist power.” This was quite an achievement considering some critics had claimed that this solo relied so much on Pomare’s own magnetism that it might not survive a transfer to another dancer.

In the 12 years since his passing several of his works have been reprised. In 2009, Hex and Roots were performed at a symposium in Paris sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. Harvey-Salaam and Robin Becker remounted Des Desenamoradas on Hofstra students in 2018.

Also in 2018, Loris Beckles, who had danced with Pomare for 18 years, mounted a tribute concert called Pomare Plus, with his group, Beckles Dancing Company. The program included a selection of Pomare’s solo works.

Longtime Pomare dancer Carole Johnson, who had stayed in Australia to teach indigenous peoples, co-founded of Bangarra Dance Theater in 1989. According to Rachel Fensham in “Breakin’ the Rules: Eleo Pomare and the Transcultural Choreographies of Black Modernity,” this company carries on some of his influence.

Looking back, Harvey-Salaam says, “Eleo wanted us to see ourselves in all of our pain and beauty, and to let his audiences know, ‘I see you, we are together in this.’”

Portrait by David Fullard, courtesy Jill Williams

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Special thanks to Dyane Harvey-Salaam, Cora Cahan, Jill Williams, Anthony Rodale, Halifu Osumare, Martial Roumain, and David Fullard. Thanks also to Rashida Ismaili for factual corrections given on August 3.

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