Dancers & Companies

Elaine Summers (1925–2014)

Photo by Davidson Gigliotti.

Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Elaine Summers passed away December 27 in New York City, just shy of her 90th birthday. From 1964's Fantastic Gardens at Judson Dance Theater to her recently presented Moon Rainbow (2014), she created numerous dances and films and dance-and-film events. She was also the founder of Kinetic Awareness, a somatic practice using rubber balls that many dancers today rely on. You can get a sense of the scope of her work via her website.

Born in Perth, Australia, Summers grew up in Boston but moved to New York City in the 1950s. She attended Juilliard and also took classes with Merce Cunningham, Daniel Nagrin, Don Redlich, Mary Anthony, Jean Erdman and Janet Collins. She also studied with pioneers of somatic practice Charlotte Selver and Carola Speads, who no doubt influenced her to create Kinetic Awareness. She was a founding member of Judson Dance Theater in 1962, and in 1968 she formed Experimental Intermedia Foundation, an organization dedicated to the meshing of disciplines.

Left: Summers teaching in Memphis, 1990

It was a film of Summers' that kicked off the legendary Judson Dance Theater. The first concert in July 1962 opened with chance footage shot by Summers and edited by her and John Herbert McDowell. Audience members were asked to walk through the curtain that served as a screen in order to get to their seats. Called Overture, the film lasted 15 minutes.

Allen Hughes, reviewing that first concert in The New York Times, wrote,

“The overture was perhaps the key to the success of the evening, for through its random juxtaposition of unrelated subjects—children playing, trucks parked under the West Side Highway, W. C. Fields, and so on—the audience was quickly transported out of the everyday world where events are supposed to be governed by logic, even if they are not." —quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy's Body, Judson Dance Theater 1962–64.

You can see a reconstruction of the film/overture in Gia Kourlas' obit of Summers in Time Out NY.

In Fantastic Gardens, a full-evening work combining film, dance, music and sculpture, she applied the chance methods she learned from John Cage and Robert Dunn. Summers described one section: “Film images were splashed over the ceiling, floor, walls, and audience, who were given small hand mirrors with which to pick up additional images." The dancers performed inside huge sculptures and the audience used the mirrors to light the dancers, who included Fred Herko, June Ekman, Sally Stackhouse, Sandra Neels, and Rudy Perez.

Right: Summers with Al Carmines at the piano, Judson Church, early 60s

She choreographed a long string of performances that included Theater Piece for Chairs and Ladders (East End Theater, 1965), Walking Dance for Any # (Museum of Modern Art, 1968), Illuminated Workingman (Niagara Square, Buffalo, 1975), Solitary Geography (Merce Cunningham Studio, 1977), Crow's Nest (Guggenheim Museum, 1982), Flowing Rock/Still Waters (Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 1986), Country Houses (Judson Memorial Church, 1997), SKYTIME (Harvestworks, 2000) and Hidden Forest (Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, 2007). In addition to New York City, Summers performed in England, Holland, Australia and Portugal. Her last grant was given to her by the New York State Council on the Arts at age 88.

Summers was a enthusiastic collaborator, working with choreographers like Trisha Brown, Martha Graham, and Paul Taylor; composers like Carman Moore, Philip Glass, Philip Corner and Pauline Oliveros; video artists like Davidson Gigliotti, Paula Court and Nam June Paik, and musicians like Meredith Monk and Jon Gibson.

In addition to her work as a choreographer, Summers developed a somatic practice called Kinetic Awareness, also called the Ball Work. This system employs rubber balls of different sizes placed under the body (usually in a prone position) in combination with slow, releasing movements to relax and rejuvenate muscles and joints. She arrived at this method through trying to release the muscular tension that builds up in dance class, and slowing down to become more conscious of one's movement. She was a sensitive, encouraging, insightful teacher. The Kinetic Awareness Center has developed into an international network of teachers who carry on this training. KA has influenced later practitioners like Elaine Petrone, originator of the Miracle Ball Method.

For Summers, the ability to move slowly not only served her interest in healing, but also represented her philosophy. Again quoting Sally Banes' interview with Summers, she said, “If you took one step and you looked into everything that could be happening, every possibility of what you could perceive in that one step…you could take an infinite amount of time for one step."

Left: Teaching the ball work, date unknown

Summers was married to Carol Summers and then to Davidson Gigliotti. Both marriages ended in divorce, but she remained close to her first husband and especially to Gigliotti, who collaborated with her and supported her work until her death.

This memory is from Deirdre Towers on Facebook:

“Elaine had such a fantastic contagious energy and a laugh that I was a little jealous of. Always affectionate and curious, wildly optimistic and a wee bit mad, she felt a bit like my Irish godmother, someone who reminded me obliquely not to take myself too seriously. She came from the era of doing everything for the sheer fun of it and rising above all tragedies with great style. Coping with terrible pain for seemingly ever, she always told me to "map the pain. Once you know where it hurts…don't go there!!" She was hugely grateful for about 50 words that I wrote about her Absence & Presence film in Dance Magazine that led to many good things. Soon after my last visit with her, I realized the project I am working on now (a full-immersion sensory video—see my blog) was probably inspired by her multi-media work. Well I am sure she is still right here now dancing in her very own SKYTIME."

A memorial service is planned for February 28, 2015, from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm at Judson Memorial Church. To RSVP contact Thomas at elainesummersmemorial@gmail.com or call 805-490-4170.

Summers in Theatre Piece for Chairs and Ladders, 1960s, photo by Dan Budnick

—Submitted by Wendy Perron, based on material provided by Kyle Summers, Ellen Saltonstall, and Deirdre Towers

Kader Attou - Compagnie Accrorap flying high in Attou's The Roots. Photo by João Garcia, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy India Bolds

It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.

Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

Keep reading... Show less
Geologic Moments in rehearsal. PC Barry Gans

Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)

Keep reading... Show less
Laura Halzack shows off her elegance and fire in costume for ...Byzantium. Photo by Jayme Thornton

When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.

"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!