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 email@example.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
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: