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

It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.

According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.

But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Theo Kossenas, courtesy The Washington Ballet

With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.

Keep reading... Show less

Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
LINES dancer Courtney Henry. Photo by Quinn Wharton

We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.

But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.

A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.

Keep reading... Show less
Training
Laurel Jenkins, Photo by Vincent Beaume

Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.

So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Still from La Folía. Shot by Olivia Kimmel, Courtesy Adam Grannick

As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.

That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.

La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Pixabay

It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.

—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH

Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Nisian Hughes

"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"

Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.

Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!