Choreographers


“A great performer feels this sharing,”  This line, written by the choreographer and theater visionary, Alwin Nikolais, describes the ideal relationship between dancer and audience.  Nikolais recorded this thought on a sheet of paper containing other observations and, wonderfully, this handwritten series of notes is one of the many extraordinary objects to be found in the current exhibition, “Alwin Nikolais’ Total Theater of Motion,” on display in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Vincent Astor Gallery.  The exhibition, curated by Claudia Gitelman, runs until January 15, 2011.

I have been a fan of Nikolais since seeing an utterly astounding performance of Noumenon in the late 1970s.  Although I was not well schooled in dance history and in spite of my regrettable lack of exposure to dance at that stage, I recall feeling that I was witnessing something very special and was certainly inspired.  The experience of Noumenon (along with an explosive solo piece by Murray Louis) made me want to dance.  Moreso, it made me feel as though I could dance.  Sharing, indeed.

It was, therefore, quite thrilling to encounter so much material in the NYPL exhibit that explores Nikolais’ educational endeavors, particularly his years with the Henry Street Settlement House on New York City’s Lower East Side.  Nikolais, along with Hanya Holm, directed the dance program there for many years and the exhibition celebrates this period with delightful photographs, programs, and posters.  Under the directorship of Nikolais and Holm, the profile of dance in the community was raised to fabulously high levels and great numbers of young people were engaged and turned on.  There is a particularly memorable photograph in the exhibition (from either the 1940s or 1950s) that shows a huge line of neighborhood people outside the Henry Street Playhouse, waiting to gain entry to a dance performance.  At another point in the Henry Street Settlement House section, a caption reads: “The first performing experiences of professional students at the Henry Street Playhouse were in dance dramas for neighborhood children.  Nikolais invented whimsical plots, vivid characters and outlandish costumes.”  Nikolais was bringing dance to the people in a major way.

And there is so much more. A striking photo of a beaming Alwin Nikolais with his idol and mentor, Mary Wigman, from 1958.  A series of costume sketches and television storyboards, created by Nikolais.  An LP record jacket for the Hanover Records release of the “Choreosonic Music of the New Dance Theatre of Alwin Nikolais.”  A copy of Nikolais’ Index to Puppetry, done for the WPA in 1936.  A business card dispensed by Nikolais in the earliest part of his career, advertising his position as an organist for the Fine Arts Theatre in Westport, Connecticut.  Costumes and props from such pieces as Gallery, Allegory, and Tent.  Wonderful and sometimes miraculous video and film clips of many Nikolais works, illustrating with absolute clarity the nature and extent of his “total theater of motion.”

Some date omissions are problematic.  However, the selected materials, the overall arrangement of the show, and the generally informative captions all get high marks.  The highest mark, though, goes to the simple act of creating an extensive tribute to the life and work of Alwin Nikolais.  It is a well-earned but long overdue tribute and I can say with great sincerity that it is a tribute very much appreciated.  And well worth seeing before it is taken down on January 15.

And, speaking of long overdue tributes, I just want to take another moment to praise the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) for the current gem of an exhibition celebrating the work of Denys Wortman, cartoonist for the World Telegram and Sun from 1930-1953.  I knew nothing at all of Wortman’s work prior to seeing the exhibition and now cannot fathom his absence from notoriety for all of the years following his death in 1958.  What a wonderful observer of society and socioeconomic classes, and how important to bring such marvelous and significant work to the attention of the public once again.  The exhibition, entitled “Denys Wortman Rediscovered,” will be on display at MCNY until March 20, 2011.

I don’t mean to harp on ballet, but it is rare these days that I get to see something in advance of New York.  Last night I had a chance to watch a preview of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Balanchine’s Petipa lecture demonstration, which will be presented as part of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process series this weekend.  The program, which examines the influence of Marius Petipa and the Imperial Ballet tradition on the work of George Balanchine, pairs choreography by Petipa and his associates with that of the 20th century master.  Much of the Petipa choreography has been reconstructed using the Stepanov notation documents from the Nikolai Sergeev dance notations and music scores for ballets at the Harvard Theatre Collection. So yay for performing arts archives and archivists!  There’s even a shout out (OK, a credit)  for the HTC in the program!  Harvard’s online finding aid includes some digital images of material from the Sergeev collection, such as the above page, which illustrates part of the Paquita coda.

The program, while a little heavy on the male variations (several of the Balanchine ballets, not too surprisingly,  drew on the former NYCB rep of current PNB director, Peter Boal) was well-paced and compelling.  Especially interesting was the reconstructed “Kingdom of the Shades” pas de deux from La Bayadère which featured a lift described in the notation that proved to be impossible to reconstruct in an aesthetically pleasing fashion; a compromise lift was substituted.  Also instructive was the consecutive presentation of three different variations performed to the same music, the first by Petipa for a ballerina in the original production of Raymonda (1898), another version for a female soloist from Balanchine’s 1946 production of the ballet for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (restaged by the stalwart Frederic Franklin, who is expected to be in attendance at the New York event), and the more familiar  male variation still performed in Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations (1961).  And it is always nice to get to see something from the too-infrequently-performed Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée (in this case, the demanding male solo Balanchine created for Helgi Tomasson for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival season).

The Friday program at the Guggenheim is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Saturday (you could see NYBT on Friday instead and make a full weekend of it).

Maybe one of these days someone will post about American Ballet Theatre’s 70th anniversary festivities.

demille

Rehearsal photographs with Agnes de Mille and unidentified dancers

Sincere apologies yet again for the lack of posts recently.  You may imagine that we were very, very busy with Archives Month.  Here’s hoping that we will be a little more on the ball once more now that November has rolled around.

Short notice, but for all you fortunate New Yorkers, this Sunday offers a very special program at the 92nd Street Y in which the estimable and plucky New York Theatre Ballet will present “reconstructed works by Agnes de Mille from her Broadway and concert repertoire, followed by a panel discussion with Diana Byer, Gemze de Lappe and Elena Zahlmann discussing de Mille’s contributions to theater dance and her lexicon of dance gesture.”

We’d sure be there if we could!

While we’re at it, could anyone take a stab at identifying the individuals from the images?  It looks most likely to be a publicity/rehearsal photograph from one of de Mille’s Broadway shows from the 1950s, but it is hard to make out anyone but de Mille with any certainty in the tiny format.  Maybe you have sharper eyes.

Image credit: NYPL Digital Gallery ID TH 07969

Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College  (1948)

Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College (1948)

We generally do not include obituaries on Ephemeral Archives, but just wanted to observe that the news of the dance giant’s death followed too closely on the heels of last month’s announcement about the Cunningham Dance Foundation’s Legacy Plan.  Merce Cunningham was a pioneer and a visionary in just about everything, including his utilization and support of archives.  Too sad.

Image credit: NYPL Digital Gallery Image ID: 1619842

kidd

In an event that sounds like mondo fun for you lucky New Yorkers,  Dancers Over 40 is presenting an evening devoted to exploring the life and work of the late dancer and choreographer, Michael Kidd.  Featuring a star-laden lineup of participants, the program is scheduled for April 6, 2009 at 8:00 at St. Luke’s Theater on 308 West 46th Street.

Can’t make it?  Fear not, DO40 videotapes these performances and gives a copy to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  Cool.  Oops.  Wrong choreographer.

Image credit: Gjon Mili publicity photograph of Michael Kidd rehearsing dancers on the set of the film, “Guys and Dolls” (1955) for LIFE Magazine, LIFE Images on Google


As part of the all-encompassing Jerome Robbins celebration in New York City, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts is hosting an excellent exhibition devoted to Robbins’ life and work. Letters, posters, photos, paintings and drawings (many by Robbins himself), ticket stubs, programs and playbills, costumes, news articles, and a variety of video monitors featuring clips of works by Robbins. It is a tremendous array of materials and, although the maintenance of the exhibit seems to be somewhat troubling (dust may be found in display cases, some description cards are dangling from the wall, and captions are often placed far away from the exhibition pieces), the breadth and scope of the show is quite breathtaking.

The primary focal point for many exhibit-goers (especially dancers, scholars, and dance fanatics) is the bank of six tv monitors, each of which broadcasts a looping series of differing performance or rehearsal or interview clips, making for a kaleidoscope of Robbins images. I found the broadcast of NY Export: Opus Jazz from the “Ed Sullivan Show” (with dancers from Ballets: USA, including the fabulous John Jones and Patricia Dunn) to be especially exciting. And it is also extremely thought-provoking, since the exhibition also includes McCarthy-era newspaper clippings written by Ed Sullivan (in the years prior to the appearance of Ballets: USA on his tv show) that accuse Jerome Robbins of being a Communist sympathizer. Indeed, the exhibition does not shy away from presenting materials related to Robbins’ testimony before the HUAC and the controversy that followed his naming of names.

Also fascinating is the incredible collection of photos, programs, flyers, drawings, and letters that relate to Robbins’ early career with the Federal Dance Project and Gluck-Sandor, as well as his performances at Camp Tamiment. And, of course, his Broadway, Ballet Theatre, and NYC Ballet years are all generously represented (in particular, West Side Story fans will find plenty to keep them busy and happy, as will fans of such wonderful dancers as Tanaquil Le Clercq, Nora Kaye, and Patricia McBride). It is also possible to view a segment from a brand new staging for film of the aforementioned NY Export: Opus Jazz, a project being undertaken by two current NYC Ballet Soloists, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi (who are acting as co-producers). All-in-all, a must-see.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Jewish Community Center in NYC (on West 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) will be presenting a Jerome Robbins Celebration this coming Monday, June 23, at 7:00pm. Highlights will include a conversation with Ellen Sorrin and Jock Soto, film clips, and performances by members of the NYC Ballet.

Apologies for the long silence. Hopefully we will get back to more regular postings once February has rolled around. In the meantime, we would like to alert you to an article in last Sunday’s NYT’s Arts & Leisure section, which reports on the always innovative Merce Cunningham’s latest initiative to document his work. Funded by several grants, and in partnership with New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, the company will provide free public access to Cunningham master classes via regular download on the Web beginning in September 2008. Find out more about this exciting project, Mondays with Merce, and watch a sample video on the company’s own site.

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