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By Kathryn Posin
Anna Sokolow (1910–2000) was one of the great choreographers of modern dance. Her works exploded with grit and feeling, just barely contained by brilliant craft. At 23 she was leading her own group, choreographing for theater, and still dancing with Martha Graham. Although Graham was something of a mentor (composer Louis Horst was even more so), she did not approve when Sokolow used jazz music or themes about her Jewish heritage. But Sokolow had a defiant streak and followed her own instincts. Dedicated to humanist issues like poverty and war, she emerged as a major choreographer in the Depression. During the 1950s and ’60s she helped to develop dance in Mexico and Israel, while also teaching at Juilliard, The Actors Studio, and—ready for this?—composition at the School of American Ballet. She choreographed many viscerally powerful works, including her wild and hectic Opus 65 for the Joffrey Ballet, which was widely considered to be the first rock ballet.
Many well-known dancers performed with Sokolow, including Donald McKayle, Alvin Ailey, Michael Kidd, Jeff Duncan and Jack Moore (the two who started Dance Theater Workshop), Martha Clarke, and Ze’eva Cohen. Her Broadway credits include Camino Real and Candide, and she also worked on the original off-Broadway Hair. Today we can see her masterpiece Rooms in the repertoire of the Limón Dance Company, and many colleges have learned her Dreams or Lyric Suite.
The centennial of Sokolow’s birth has been celebrated this year by the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble (including a summer workshop at Peridance Capezio Center), the Players Project, and the Dance Library of Israel. To cap off the centennial year, we asked choreographer Kathryn Posin to write about her time working with Sokolow in the 1960s.—Wendy Perron
Anna. Those dark, deep-set eyes full of pain and truth and an inexpressible tenderness. Anna. The small, staunch figure always dressed in black or navy blue, seemingly in wool, even in summer. In rehearsal when she called me “dear” I felt I was in love, yet every other thing she called me, even my own name, frightened me. Anna. In the 1960s, Clive Barnes designated her “the poetess of doom.” Anna was conscience to the world. Injustice, stupidity, and persecutors of the innocent were her targets. As an antidote she heralded love, youth, and beauty.
I first met Anna after I graduated from Bennington College in 1965. My teacher, Jack Moore, had danced with her and knew that Anna was forming a new, younger company. He thought I might fit in with my smallness, darkness, and tendency to hurl myself into tortured and unforgiving dance studies that required a high level of tolerance to pain—emotional or otherwise. When I took Anna’s classes at the Herbert Berghof studios in the West Village, I contracted so my body lurched off the floor and lifted my leg higher than it had ever gone before. I sat right in front of her and did everything I could with the utmost commitment. “I don’t believe you,” she would say.
She told me I was to be understudy, so I stood at the edge of the room and watched while Lenore Latimer, Martha Clarke, Peggy Cicierska, and Ze’eva Cohen ran in long skirts at the old Dance Theater Workshop on 20th Street. It was hard being the understudy. I never knew if I would do the role, which required leaning back and lifting a leg high to music by Alban Berg. It was for her masterpiece Lyric Suite, which I later danced in as a soloist for three years. But as the understudy I was required to go with Anna and buy wine-colored cloth for the four skirts. When we came out of the fabric shop, she hailed a taxi, but it passed us by. “Does he know who I am?” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Anna could be funny in a Yiddish-theater, deeply ironic way.
In the spring of 1967, Anna got a grant of $10,000 from the National Council on the Arts. It was a fortune at that time, an incomprehensible amount. “What do I do with it?” Anna asked us. “Buy a bus? Get my teeth fixed?” We began rehearsals at Clark Center on 51st Street and Eighth Avenue, in a studio next to Alvin Ailey’s company, because Alvin had gotten a similar grant. We loved standing at the door watching Dudley Williams and Hope Clarke performing with utmost conviction, even in rehearsal, Alvin’s beautiful works to Ellington and Masekela.
The exciting part was that Anna had planned a new dance for us—it was to be Deserts to Edgard Varèse’s music of the same name. We knew that at some point Varèse’s widow Louise would come to see the work. Anna was excited and we were elated; we felt ourselves to be involved in a profoundly important creation. We were the denizens of some hell of Anna’s mind and were spared none of the pain, horror, and hope she herself experienced. The music had a shattered quality—deep drones and sudden shimmerngs and crescendoing crashes. It was the height of the “electronic music” movement and Varèse was its master. At night I would wake up with a lurch beside my boyfriend, who was newly out of Bennington and in the company, furious with Anna for haunting me even at night.
We began the piece sitting under army blankets, cut like ponchos so our heads could emerge. Cross-legged, isolated, all 12 of us faced different directions. We held our hands as though reading “the book of our lives.” I chose mine to be Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. We were told to turn our heads suddenly, as though the thing we feared most in the world was approaching. Later, after a quiet beginning, we were told to whip, run, spin, and fall.
And then it came, the story I have told for years, with love, with sadness, with a missing of her and her heroic faith in the human spirit. We had fallen prone on the ground in the heavy, itchy army blankets on the hard wooden floor. We lay there face down, flat on our stomachs, having been felled by some desert apparition, and Anna cried, “JUMP!!” I remember Clyde Morgan’s eyeballs darting to calculate the movements of the people lying around him. If only we had feet on our stomachs or springs on our knees—our legs were so useless in this position! Had anyone jumped? Some had tried; some had tried not to laugh. Anna got angry and said, “What are all these classes for if you can’t give me what I need?” Indeed we would have, we would have if we could. We would have done anything to make Anna’s vision come true.
Kathryn Posin has choreographed for many companies and teaches at the Gallatin School of NYU.
Photo by Edward Effron