Reviewed by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic
Anna Sokolow (1910-2000), iconic modern dance choreographer, whose career vigorously spanned the entire 20th Century; an artist in whose life and times collaborated with many of the great dancers and choreographers of her era; an artist with deep roots in Israel, Mexico, and the New York dance scene, was honored with a performance of a few of her representative pieces, Nov 14th, by the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, at the Cunningham Studio, New York City.
Before Odes, the most important offering of the evening, a short film presented Sokolow working with dancers at Ohio State University, and these asides are loosely recalled:
Words lie, movement never lies.
Steps are important, but what really matters is the mood and the drama created.
I don’t want to be popular. I don’t want to please everybody. I want to tell the truth.
Sokolow, above all, wanted her dancers to be committed, to be connected to belief, to seek the most beautiful way of expression. She also stressed clarity of movement, and definite, strong gestures.
Odes–Accompanied by flutist Roberta Michel, and music by Edgard Varese, twenty-three dancers created an intense, highly dramatic mood of terror and dehumanization. With mechanical blips and bleeps in the soundscape, conveying the interior horrors of a concentration camp, the dancer’s frenzied movements of fear and impending doom created a frightening mood. The dancer’s total commitment to living the choreography with honesty, belief, and energy made this piece entirely engrossing.
But if you were to deconstruct the choreography from Odes and Two Preludes which topped the evening’s presentation, the dominant theme would be pain and suffering, nothing light, nothing edifying; misery, we would find, is the human condition, the overriding motif of these dances. That Sokolow defined this theme well cannot be denied here; in this sense she accomplished her ends. In Two Preludes, an intimate solo, danced beautifully by long-limbed Melissa Birnbaum, we have a dance created twenty years after Odes, but with the same mood, although not as deadly intense: remorse, loss, internal suffering, contractions to the floor, implosions of energy, fetal postures, head cupping, unsteady footing–everything pointing to imprisonment on being. The same applied to the personal work of artistic director Jim May, in his solo Passage and At the Still Point of the Turning World by Ernestine Stodelle–a very literal dance to a poem by T. S. Eliot; both encompassing the very same themes – No Exit.
As you view these dances, you are reminded that as culture evolves, language changes. The same applies to dance vocabulary–the symbols and images become dated and loose their frisson. For example, if you see a performance of a Broadway show like A Chorus Line today, it reads as refreshingly quaint, and a bit dusty; no modern viewer would believe, for all its merits, that it had won a Pulitzer Prize in its day. It simply doesn’t speak to today. The same applies with these museum pieces by Anna Sokolow; once relevant, but difficult to watch now.
But most relevant to this performance, is the notion of depressing doom and gloom. It begins to look like artistic self-indulgence or posing–to have one idea pounding out the nastiness of life, and nothing else. Of course few view the world quite like this, or else we’d all jump into the East River. Finally, we can look at this performance either as a bad choice of programming the pieces of this legendary choreographer, or perhaps as a real glimpse into Sokolow’s concerns as a choreographer. In either case, it was difficult to watch, not solely because the dance movement did not transcend time, but because the ideas expressed were not balanced.
Photo Credit: Meems