Personal papers


“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.

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Brochure for the current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Brochure for the current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

While the exhibit devoted to Serge Diaghilev continues at the first floor Oenslager Gallery at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, downstairs in its Astor Gallery is a lovely selection of materials from its recently acquired and processed Katherine Hepburn Papers. 

The Hepburn heirs divided the papers into two collections based on her stage and movie careers, the former going to the New York Public Library and the latter going to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles.  Nevertheless, the division between her two vocations is not nearly so neat and her papers at NYPL contain many materials devoted to her motion picture activities.  When combined with the Library’s own film holdings, the picture that emerges is a rounded one. 

Hepburn2

In chronological order the exhibit goes through the major segments of her career, highlighting her little-known early stage appearances.  In addition to many photographs (both publicity and candid), there are many magazines (as the exhibit notes state) which, at the outset of her film career, tried to reconcile Hepburn’s unusual looks with then-current ideas of beauty, sometimes resulting in images in which one strains to see a resemblance to the actress.

Here is presented a very different side of Hepburn.  On stage and in costume, she holds herself both regally and sensually depending on the dramatic situation.  It is a pity that with rare and late exceptions (such as the excerpt from the musical Coco, broadcast as part of the Tony Awards of 1970) there are no filmed records of Hepburn on stage.  Such is the ephemeral nature of the performer’s art.  Yet with ample documentation of scripts, letters, photographs and programs, one can get a sense of how Hepburn commanded a stage.  As Bob Taylor, the former curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division stated in a video, these materials show part of Hepburn’s career that is often overlooked.

It is a fascinating trove:  there are a loads of letters, annotated scripts and documents.  One gets the sense that Hepburn strived to save materials relevant to her activities.  Apparently not content to simply collect, she frequently made notes on these materials.  So many items, even ephemeral ones, have her annotations, comments, thoughts, or communications, providing a deeper context for each item.  She apparently saved fan letters along with the most trivial of items.  That’s what makes not only the exhibit but her archive so rich:  she kept so many things that, while seemingly ephemeral, played some significant part in her life. 

It’s a lesson to us all on what makes a worthwhile archive: not the mere collection of lots of ephemera, but all of it having an organic connection to its creator/collector.  The result is a vivid picture of not just a performing artist but someone fully engaged with life and the world around her.

But where is she leaving her papers?

You can see her take her final bows in a video on the Reuters site or watch her in action on a YouTube video below:

Today’s New York Times contains a substantial story promoting the New York Public Library’s recent acquisition of papers relating to the theatrical career of actress Katharine Hepburn. Also included on the Times site is an extensive selection of photographs and documents from the collection available as a slide show.

The Hepburn papers will be available to researchers at the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts by February 2008, with a full slate of public programs scheduled to coincide with the opening of the papers. The complete NYPL press release can be found here.