I cannot imagine a better location than the 92nd St Y, to witness a program of Historic and Significant Female Solos. The program, performed by Jennifer Conley, Kim Jones, Ella Rosewood, and Meggi Sweeney Smith, was presented in the Y’s Buttenweiser Hall, Friday April 22, 2016 at noon. The Y has been a site of great significance to the New York dance community for decades. Many of the choreographers featured in the program, Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, Louise Kloepper, Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, and Jane Dudley, danced, taught, and created at the 92nd St Y during the early to mid 20th century.
As a regisseur myself, for the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and a teacher of the Martha Graham technique at Marymount Manhattan College, I live much of my life tethered between the past, present, and future of dance. As an ephemeral art form, dance history is a fragile subject, and modern dance history is particularly so. Unlike ballet, which as the language of the aristocracy is slow to transform, modern dance history is a rapid-fire evolution of the expressions of myriad brave individuals who were active in the social and political contexts of their time. Most early modern dancers were invested in making statements through dance that celebrated the underdogs of society, such as the working class, women, and people of color. Modern dance history is a history of struggle, resistance, and integrity. This creates a distinct carriage of the body in early modern dances, which is as essential to a reconstruction of classical choreography as are the individual steps.
Many of the artists who are now recognized as the pioneers of modern dance, created training methods to facilitate their distinct choreographic voices. These historic techniques are encoded not only with individual idiosyncrasy, but also with a distinct perspective on the ever-shifting cultural standards of posture, beauty, class, race, and gender. Hence, contemporary bodies that train in historic techniques are potentially given valuable insights into their own embodied context by enacting the ideals of a different time and place, and noting the juxtaposition to their own.
Women dancing alone on stage in the beginning of the 20th century were directly linked to the first wave of feminism. The ingenuity of many of the corset-less costume designs facilitates the agency of the female performers. In these works, the female body is seen, not as an object to be manipulated in the eyes of the audience, but as a vessel. All of the formidable women who performed in Historic and Significant Female Solos were not on stage to be objectified, but to make a statement. Their power came not through seduction but through channeling energy that connects historic struggles to contemporary ones and which allows each individual body to stand for the concerns of many. The ability of an individual to transform into a symbol brings us back to the importance of historic techniques. These techniques train the body to gesture as a whole body activity, to study form and motion as products of emotion, and to work within a landscape of human movement that emulates archetypal forces rather than contortion.
As well as being cultural time capsules, the well thought out physical training systems of 20th century modern dance also hold timeless insights that continue to support dancers as they work to encompass space, conduct energy, and communicate directly, through their bodies. In particular, I find that historic techniques are an excellent way to train dancers in performance presence. The Post-Modern dance movement that emerged in the second half of the 20th century rebelled against the grandeur of dramatic performances. It too developed training methods that, in contrast to classical modern dance techniques, are designed to access a dancer’s unaffected state of being. Contemporary dance at its best mixes these aesthetic agendas, allowing for a co-mingling of transparent honesty and classical virtuosity in the performing body. Contemporary techniques are rich with innovative ways to access physical power and expression. They also stem from and/or reference the informality with which our society costumes itself. The posture of a dancer who has trained their body entirely wearing breathable synthetic fabrics, and who goes through daily life in T-shirts and jeans, is very different than the posture of someone who trained wearing wool jersey leotards and who wore white gloves as a part of their daily life. Shifts in dance training lead to wonderful new possibilities in contemporary work, but they also make it difficult for contemporary dancers to reconstruct historic dances. The essential posture of the dancing body, and the relationship between bound and fluid movement choices, must shift when a contemporary dancer takes on a historic role.
It was refreshing however, in Historic and Significant Female Solos, to see historic works performed by bodies that are also trained in historic techniques and that were hence willing and able to honor presence and clarity of expression over kinetic virtuosity. In all of the performers on the program, the lines of the body, rather than reflecting the extremes of contemporary athleticism, referenced sacred geometry, allowing the body to become a conduit of space rather than an acrobat. The performers communicated directly with their audience, through choreographies that were created as decisive statements, rather than as vehicles for displaying extreme physicality.
I was particularly moved by Jennifer Conley’s performance of Anna Sokolow’s Lyric Suite: Andante Amoroso. Conley’s strong presence and commitment on stage carried her gestures far beyond the boundaries of her skin. When her arms crossed over her body the space within her seemed to deepen, drawing the audience into her desire. When she ran in circles around the stage, arms out stretched, it was an expression of infinite expansion that pulled the audience’s hearts and minds with it, inviting our imaginations to run wild. I was not surprised to hear her say at the end of the performance that the regisseurs she worked with used no videos of other dancers in their reconstruction process and that they left room within the choreographic structure they set on Conley, for her to make some of her own choices. This approach to reconstruction, as re-imagining rather than replication, allowed the historic choreography to truly live though Conley’s contemporary body. Conley embodied regality, but it was not the regality of an imagined or historic queen. It was instead the very real regality of all women throughout time who have the courage to acknowledge their own desires.
Most of the dances in Historic and Significant Female Solos premired before the use of film and video recording became a common means of preserving dances. As a result, many of them have been painstakingly reconstructed by cross-referencing photos, artist’s notebooks, original reviews of the work from a variety of sources, the historic context in which the work was created, and perhaps most importantly, oral histories. Kim Jones beautifully articulated this process in a presentation about her reconstruction of Graham’s Imperial Gesture at the end of the performance. Reconstructing a dance, which is by nature evanescent, is a project akin to archeology. It asks the performer/scholars who reconstruct the works to negotiate between historic accuracy best articulated through precise imitation, and historic accuracy that requires innovation and translations across cultural contexts.
Re-imagining historic choreography is particularly important in the case of the works shown in Historic and Significant Female Solos because the choreographers who originally made the dances were such were ground breaking artists. These revolutionary works do not live on if we learn them off a video and toss them back on stage. They must be deeply investigated through embodied research and risk taking, so that the revolutionary spirit of the work can be seen in a contemporary context.
All of the artists who collaborated to make Historic and Significant Female Solos clearly worked to cultivate the spirit and intention of the works presented, as well as their form. The current field of dance is enriched by their efforts. These historic works establish all of the rules of composition that contemporary choreographers strive to break. They position the female body as one that possesses power, agency, and a valuable perspective. They illuminate the historic connection between art and social change and inspire us to reconsider the role of the individual body in cultural innovation. I congratulate all of the artists who collaborated to make Historic and Significant Female Solos a success.