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Acrobats of God — and of Teaching: Remembering Pearl Lang & Marian Horosko

Marian Lang twoLeft: Pearl Lang in Martha Graham’s “Diversion of Angels,” original costume, 1948. Photo by Chris Alexander. Right: Pearl Lang in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photos courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.

By Pearl Lang
Copyright 1991, 2002, and 2017 Marian Horosko

(Excerpted from Marian Horosko’s “Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training,” revised edition, University of Florida Press, 2002. Our dear colleague, editor, writer, scholar, teacher, and veteran New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera Ballet dancer Marian Horosko died on September 11 in the Bronx at the age of 92. As hard to believe as it was that she was already 70 when I first met her in the offices of Dance magazine — where she was education editor mais pas que — energetically bicycling on a stationary device, only pausing long enough to give a young editor a necessary correction. Marian represented that rare combination among journalists: A skeptic and a true believer. Marian’s other books include the 2005 biography, “May O’Donnell: Modern Dance Pioneer.” Special thanks to DL for the alert. First published on the DI, with the author’s permission, on March 10, 2009, on the occasion of the death of pioneering Martha Graham dancer, teacher, and choreographer Pearl Lang. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. DI subscribers get full access to the DI’s Martha Graham Archives with more news, reviews, and commentary. To subscribe for one year, just designate your PayPal payment of $29.95 to paulbenitzak@gmail.com or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I)

My mother was a great admirer of Isadora Duncan, and there were photos of her and her various companies in Russia and Germany on our walls. I come from Chicago, and she took me to see Harald Kreutzberg, as well as all the dance companies that played there. I especially remember a performance, when I must have been four years old, of “Hansel and Gretel,” the opera. In this production, when the children went to sleep at night, the angels came down a ladder from the sky two at a time. As they stepped down, each step lighted up and I thought that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I went right home, got my girlfriends together and did my first choreography, walking them downstairs with lights at every step!

I had lessons with a Duncan teacher and later, ballet lessons in Chicago. And when I was about 16 years old, I saw a Northwestern University series of American modern dancers that included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman. I took all their master classes and was invited by Martha and Humphrey to come to New York. I arrived when I was 19 years old.

The traditional Graham class begins with the bounces, but in the last years, in watching the company’s performances, the contraction is just not as apparent as I used to see it and the way we danced it. The contraction is Martha’s great gift to dance. I begin the class with it, along with some of the things that are usually done later in the class. The contraction is the most basic use of the center of the body. There is always a stretch before a contraction, which engages the interior muscles and reacts as in a cough, a sob, or a laugh — all violent physical reactions. In order for the contraction to be visual, you have to have a smooth plane before it can happen. I try to make my students aware of the contrast in these movements. I point out that before a contraction is visible, there has to be a stretch in the other direction to make it happen. Aesthetically, too, it pleases me more to see them sit down and do contractions rather than begin with bounces. Somehow, I don’t think Martha would have minded my changing the order.

Nothing in the system begins in the extremities. All the movements begin in the center of the body and move out. There is an overtone here from Duncan. In her book “My Life” (1928) she wrote that movement begins in the solar plexus, the diaphragm. When Martha devised her system, Duncan training was still around. Martha made a technique of the concept of a contraction beginning in the abdominals, while with Duncan it was a style, a quality of movement. Martha worked at a time when even painters were picturing the body in a cubist style. Picasso painted the body broken up into various planes, and choreographers of the time were emulating that kind of vision.

Martha saw Duncan dance in New York at Carnegie Hall and was enamored with her and absolutely ecstatic when she saw her dance. She wrote in her notebooks that she could hardly breathe during Duncan’s performance and that her own hair, combed into two buns, had become completely undone at the end of the performance. Ruth St. Denis and Duncan were dancing at the same time — two famous and unique dancers who influenced Martha. She never talked about Mary Wigman and probably never saw her dance.

Her early background in the Denishawn company provided her technique with a strong influence in ethnic dance since their repertoire was built upon ethnic dances. St. Denis was famous for her “Nautch Dance,” which bore little resemblance to the original, but ethnic dances were all very fashionable in those days.

I find that students lose sight of a movement phrase, especially at its beginning. Just as you write a sentence with a capital letter, the beginning of a dance has to have some authority to tell us what is going to happen, and it has to have an end. If it doesn’t have that finality, we don’t remember it. I try to convey that when I teach. There are those students who are naturally going to dance and need some technique, and you have those who study technique, technique, technique and nothing more than that ever happens.
I have been saying for years that, in addition to classes in ballet for all the students, male dancers, especially those studying Graham’s technique, should be required to study flamenco dance because Martha’s posture for men was macho.

Martha listened a great deal to Joseph Campbell [company member Jean Erdman’s husband and author of “Man and Myth”]. Martha was a Jungian [Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung (1875 – 1961) founded analytical psychology]. A lot of Jung’s psychiatry was built upon universal archetypes. The behavior of people interested Martha, so when Campbell made parallels to something in Hopi Indians and East Indian mythology, for instance, she absorbed those similarities. She didn’t want to be specific in her characterizations as much as she wanted them to resonate in other cultures.

For instance, Martha was fascinated with the beautiful Southwest, which was an artist colony in the 1930s and where Georgia O’Keeffe went to live and paint. There, the cross-culture of American Indians and Hispanic Catholics influenced her early work “Primitive Mysteries” (1931).

We are, after all, training dancers for the stage, and they have to have life in them. It can’t just be steps and technique. I see so many young choreographers walk to the front of the stage, look out to the audience, and seem to say, “I’m unhappy and it’s all your fault.” Every company director and teacher has the responsibility to develop the possibilities of a dancer. You have to know what those possibilities are and bring them out of each one. After every class I think about what the students will need in the next class. It takes the director or teacher and the student together to make this happen.
Every class is a prayer. Some of the movements are pious; there is a spirituality in dance. Martha claimed the studio was her church, just as the Asians bless the floor on which they perform. There are so many influences in our society that the student has to ignore — the vulgarity on the screen, on television, and even on stage. If a character is vulgar, then you have to play it that way, but when it becomes pervasive in a society, it makes you wonder how you can teach the subtleties, the refinements, and the nuances and beauty within the movements. There is little or no frame of reference for them. And so little time.

 

The DI Interview: Sara Rudner, Marathon Woman, talks to Philip W. Sandstrom

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007, 2017 Philip W. Sandstrom

(Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on May 10, 2007, is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. If you appreciate this kind of unique coverage of dance and dancers, please subscribe to the DI today at the rate of $29.95/year  by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to subscribe by check.)

NEW YORK — For “Dancing-on-View (Preview/Hindsight),” being presented this Sunday by Danspace Project and the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) at BAC, Sara Rudner revisits the concept of her 1975 marathon show in which her company danced non-stop for five hours. In the 2007 version of this idea of long distance dancing, her company will present mostly new and some historical material that Rudner has mined and fashioned from her years of studio movement studies, her dancers, and her 1975 show. By creating new work that reflects upon its own movement and patterns in real time while simultaneously following a pre-ordained trajectory and movement structure, Rudner plans to present a four-hour dance work that will reveal itself over time while continuing to be self-referential. All parts of the dance will represent the dance as a whole, she explains. The audience can come and go as it pleases and still get the essence of the dance. This work will be re-created in Ireland by the Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT), with a cast combining company members and dancers from the New York performance.

I interviewed Sara Rudner on April 22.

rudner

Going the distance: Sara Rudner’s company for “Dancing-on-VIew (Preview/Hindsight).” Adam McClelland photo copyright Adam McClelland and courtesy Danspace Project and Sara Rudner.

Philip W. Sandstrom: What sparked your interest in creating this, as you’ve described it, “long distance dancing” or “marathon dancing”?

Sara Rudner: My interest in doing this kind of work started in the mid-’70s. It was 1975, we did the first marathon; that was a five-hour event for four dancers. That was born of the ideas of context: where do you see dancing, how do you see dancing, what do dancers do, how does dancing fit into life in other ways other than going into the theater, sitting in a dark space and looking at dance?

(When she initially floated her idea of long-form dance works, Rudner explained, the existing standard was to perform two or three works per program.)

… When I told my management the kinds of projects I wanted to do — long continual pieces without a break — they said That’s not going to work, we can’t book you. So, I decided to be un-bookable, and continued to do the work that I wanted to do. (Consequently her bookings were few.) As you know, since then there has been a lot of thought on how to produce dancing and you well know how fashions come and go.

PWS: I’ve seen quite a few come and go.

SR: But I am still interested in this style, the same style (marathon-style), what I’m doing now, and what I have been doing, although I approach it differently than I did in 1975.

PWS: It sounds like you have created an installation dance of dancers commenting on dancing and choreography through the act of dancing. The genre of installation work and work such as yours has never gone in or out of style — it’s a constant.

SR: Exactly. At the time I did my first marathon, I had been thinking about Asian theater, and shows that go on all night. You bring your family, you bring your dinner, you fall asleep, you come and you go. I was thinking about various paradigms as well.

PWS: Did you derive any inspiration from Kei Takei?

SR: I don’t know Kei’s work very well.

PWS: Her “24 hours of Light” went on all day and into the night in the late ’70s early ’80s.

SR: Right, and then, Robert Wilson was also doing his lengthy shows. I think this idea was in the air, as these things tend to be.

PWS: What did you learn doing your five-hour dance “marathon”?

SR: It was a big challenge and that extra hour was even more challenging; you learn how to pace yourself, what it means to be in that paradigm. Now I am working with a number of young dancers, the oldest of whom might be 31 or 32. That’s about how old I was when I did the 1975 marathon. You learn different things as a choreographer; it was a different compositional challenge to work in that format. It’s a choice, not a popular choice, especially not financially; you can’t program something like this back to back, like a matinee and an evening. But I was very eager to pursue that again.

PWS: So how did you approach this project with this group of dancers?

SR: I start with the dancers and ask, what do you want to do? New material? Old material? What are you interested in? Then we go from there; we start having a dialogue. There will be a certain amount of improvisation; these dancers have resources that will reveal themselves in performance. Their solos will be their own, the making and the choosing.

PWS: When and where in the performance will this improvisation occur?

SR: Sometimes in the midst of other performance activity, because there will be a lot of multiple focus work going on throughout the entire event.

PWS: Do you have any sort of map of the structure of the dance or of the choreography?

SR: The entire event is mapped. We have a timekeeper, Gillian Vinton; it’s her job to keep track of who’s dancing what and when. It will be posted for all to see and given out in a program. It would be too hard to remember all of that and keep all of that in your mind. It’s like a score. It will be somewhat cryptic.

PWS: You mean the enigmatic phrases dancers use to identify the sections?

SR: Exactly.

PWS: So there will be some sort of artifact so we can follow?

SR: Yes, the audience will know what we call each section and where we are in real time — this will be important for the new audience members as they arrive. They’ll see that it’s 5:35 p.m., so the dancers must be at this point in the program. It’s literally a program.

PWS: How are you structuring the concert? For example, will you recap everything in the last hour for the lazy people who decided to only show up at the end?

SR: Essentially all the material in the dance will be constantly recycled in many forms, so we’re not going to do a re-cap. Everything is a variation on things that have come before. I like that. As a viewer I like my eye challenged. I like to see complex spatial organization, and rhythmic organization. I am VERY fond of making many variations on the same material. No one is expected to stay for four hours. We hope to convince people to leave and not stay so others may enter. It’s not going to be easy to look at.

PWS: Considering who’s in your cast — Rocky Bornstein, Megan Boyd, Linda Cohen, Erin Cornell, Erin Crawley-Woods, Laurel Dugan, Maria Earle, Liz Filbrun, Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, Patricia Hoffbauer, Rachel Lehrer, Merceditas Manago, yourself, Vicky Shick, Maggie Thom, and Lori Yuill — I think it will be very easy to look at.

SR: Oh well, that’s true; I’m talking choreographically. The audience should get the gist of it in about a half-hour to 45 minutes. We won’t have chairs for everyone so we hope that will help move people out after a certain period.

PWS: What’s your role on the day of the performance?

SR: My involvement will be that of the choreographer, although I will be doing some dancing.

PWS: So what’s it been like, putting all this together?

SR: It’s been a very lovely studio experience for all of us. Very good for all of us, very supportive, very intense. They have to learn a lot — it’s complicated, with intense movement — but it’s been a labor of love from just about everyone. It has context in the sense that we are all women and we are performing it on Mother’s Day.

PWS: So dancing with people that you like to dance with is a big part of the pleasure of doing this type of work?

SR: It’s a big part of the pleasure. It has a lot to do with why people stay and work with certain groups; the choreography has a great deal to do with it, but it’s relationships (as well). You can have all the smart ideas you want for choreography but you know who makes the dance?

PWS: And they never get thanked enough.

SR: Exactly.

PWS: You are choreographing “Dancing-on-View” for the upcoming four-hour performance at BAC, and for the Irish Modern Dance Theater. Are you setting the same piece in both places?

SR: I can’t. It’s the same idea and the same concept but I can’t because I don’t have (all) the same people, I have new dancers. The piece depends on who the dancers are and what they know. The dancers and what they know determine what the structure is and what is seen but the intention is the same and the concept is similar. The idea is that dancers dance and they are dancing whether they are seen or not.

Maybe it is born from my experience as a young practitioner working with Twyla (Tharp) in the ’60s. The studio process was essential and many of us, for many years, felt passionate about the work — performing really began to rely on the deep experience that we had in rehearsal. The spirit was there that working on the dance was sometimes as important and sometimes more important than the performance in those early years. Our performance ability and our early style rested on the fact that, even though we were dancing to Sinatra or Jelly Roll Morton, we were still the nerdy dancers. We weren’t the Broadway gypsies, so our performance style was slightly different.

The dancers here in New York, I’ve worked with very regularly in the studio, some for five years, and others, like Patricia Hoffbauer, Rocky Orenstein, and Vicki Shick, I’ve been involved with for a long time.

PWS: In the IMDT press release, you state, “My collaborators helped me experiment with the physical training principles that form the basis of my work.”

SR: That’s Peggy Gould and Anneke Hansen — of the group, we are the ones that have worked the most intensely together. We traveled to Ireland for the past two summers. There is a different cast for IMDT. Anneke and Peggy, who are in the New York cast, will also be in the IMDT cast. Others from New York may join us but that hasn’t been finalized yet. Peggy also works with me and teaches at Sarah Lawrence. We have been working on developing pedagogic ideas for quite a number of years, along with other Sarah Lawrence faculty. (Rudner chairs the Sarah Lawrence dance department.)

PWS: Where did you meet Anneke?

SR: At Sarah Lawrence. After her graduation, Anneke approached me about working together in the studio, so I said why not? If anyone is willing to go through this, I’m willing to mentor them through it. In this cast there are about six Sarah Lawrence alums. There are also three faculty members, Peggy Gould, Merceditas Manago, and myself, and the two musicians are from Sarah Lawrence.

PWS: Although this is a bit of a sidebar, I am curious: The IMDT press release also mentions a “somatic keeper”; what’s that?

SR: I don’t use videotape.

PWS: I don’t get it, what’s the root of somatic? What does that mean?

SR: She keeps the movement in her body; it’s mostly Anneke. She knows all of the material. She keeps it in the old-fashioned way, in her body.

PWS: No Labanotation? Videotape? Sketches?

SR: We do write ourselves some notes, and for this project I have looked at some videotape of our past projects. The last taping I was able to look at was before Anneke came along; she’s only been working with me for the last five years. So there is some material that we are revisiting that was made before she arrived.

PWS: When did this particular iteration of this marathon project begin?

SR: I’ve subtitled this work ‘Preview/Hindsight’; the thought of doing another marathon was on my mind. I knew when my sabbatical would be. At the same time, John Scott (who directs IMDT) was interested in my work. In order to test the waters, and to introduce his company to my work, we did a series of workshops over the last two years in Ireland.

PWS: Who are ‘we’?

SR: Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, and me. We went, we taught, we tried out material, we introduced working methods. A lot of this work is about how you go about stuff, how you do the hard work of splicing different phrases, coordinating arms and legs, and keeping that stuff in your mind and in your body. That’s the work I’m interested in. Both developing movement from the ground up and looking at it visually and how parts of the movement vocabulary resonate with others. What goes together, what doesn’t, do you want to present those that don’t go together, or those that do? How you organize the space and the time, the visual field, and how you deal with it in terms that are usually considered musical, in terms of harmonies, dissonances, repletion, development, etcetera.

Last summer John Scott started talking more seriously about a production. He took me around to look at spaces; we found a lovely one where a marathon would look good.

When I first started working on the BAC effort it was to be a preview of what we would do in Ireland. Then in terms of hindsight I knew that I had to look to my past, to what I have always been interested in, and find new variations on that and new points of view of what I have been interested in. So that’s why it’s named “Preview/Hindsight.”

PWS: So, the idea started with IMDT, which led to the BAC show.

SR: It started with IMDT but it also started with my sabbatical and knowing I would have the time to do studio work. I knew I was going to do something; John’s invitation gave me that extra kick. Even though I teach at Sarah Lawrence, I (have) work(ed) in the studio in the city every week for the past eight years.

PWS: Working…?

SR: Working with dancers once or twice a week, whenever they can make it. I produce a certain amount of work, although not to this extent. I knew the sabbatical was coming up, I knew I had already been doing that work. Then there was John’s invitation. All these things floated around and now will actually result in two very different works with some of the same material but with very different people.

PWS: Earlier you mentioned two musicians; what about music? Will there be any amplified sounds?

SR: The musicians (William Catanzaro and Jerome Morris) will start this week; they’ll have about two rehearsals with us before we have open rehearsals. They are great improvisers. It will be a give and take structure where they will try a variety of things. They are both classroom musicians at Sarah Lawrence; of course, they do other things. They’ve been around dancers forever. This is not like commissioning a score and making a piece. It’s not atmospheric. It’s all acoustic.

PWS: They’re percussionists?

SR: They are percussionists. What we need for dancing, since most of it is ensemble dancing, is unifying time. The musicians will help us with that. Unified time, because it’s tightly choreographed with intricate canon work, and choreographic monkeyshines. They support our work and add a dimension in what they choose. They are our collaborators in the true sense.

PWS: Have you ever chosen music for your work before you make the dance? Or do you make a work and then find music for it?

SR: I’ve worked with composers before, such as Michael Soll, and I have chosen classical music and made a dance to that music or I’ve chosen music and working with a metronome. I’ve worked against the music so the music stands on its own and we dance to a different tempo.

PWS: Do you have an internal musicality?

SR: I attempt to make dance that is musical and expressive and abstract and contextualized and whatever I can pull out of movement itself. The challenge is how to make movement do this. I know it can’t do it all on its own. But sometimes I think that it can, sometimes I operate that way. Huge chunks of this dance will be done in total silence. The big question is, are people going to miss music?

PWS: I don’t think so, certainly not in New York. So, in short, setting your work to music or music to your work is not part of your process, certainly not your current process.

SR: No. I’ve been trying to set dancing to dancing; a lot of the structures in this dance are made that way. The work is done in layers: a phrase is going on in one part of the space, and another phrase, that is built upon that same material, (is going on) in another part of the space. It is all presented in reference to the dance that you’re seeing, like a riff. Layers of riffing upon riffing, all on what you are seeing, with additional material added continuously and simultaneously. Dancing to dancing, just dancing to dancing.

Disclosure: Philip W. Sandstrom and Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, have had a near-familial relationship for a number of years.