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Remembering Blondell Cummings (1944–2015)
A dancer/choreographer who crossed over from modern to postmodern, from the black dance community to the avant-garde community, Blondell Cummings was a riveting presence onstage and a steadying presence offstage. She died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday, Aug. 30.
Cummings grew up in Harlem; she attended NYU and studied at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. As a dancer/choreographer, she created dozens of solo and group works often touring to Asia or Africa. She was profiled, along with eight other choreographers, in the Michael Blackwood documentary Retracing Steps: American Dance Since Postmodernism (1988) and was included in the PBS series Free to Dance, about black choreographers within the modern dance field.
A founding member of Meredith Monk's The House, Cummings made a vivid impression in Monk's Education of the Girlchild (1973) and appeared in Yvonne Rainer's film Kristina Talking Pictures (1976). She had a strong presence and a keen focus in every onstage action. Originally a photographer, she developed a type of movement that stuttered like a stop-action film, contained and explosive at once.
Her solo Chicken Soup will forever be remembered by those who saw it. Joan Acocella wrote this about it The New Yorker:
“In 1981 Blondell Cummings made a dance, Chicken Soup, in which, while scrubbing a floor on her hands and knees—an act of exemplary realism—she would repeatedly break off, rear up, and shake, in jagged, convulsive movements, as if she were in a strobe light. Then, with no acknowledgement of this interruption, she would go back, serenely, to scrubbing the floor. This strange back and forth made the piece very interesting psychologically: the floor-scrubbing so homey and soapy and nice (Cummings wore a white dress), the convulsions so violent and weird. Was this woman happy, doing this domestic task, or did she hate it so much that she was going crazy? Then there was just the formal interest: the texture, the tension."
Acocella goes on to say that the dance was interpreted by some as depicting a black domestic working for a white household. But for Cummings, it was just about being a mother taking care of things in her kitchen. In fact, Blondell once told me that the title was going to be Black Bean Soup, but our friend Barbara Roan told her if she wanted it to be universal she should change it to Chicken Soup.
When Ishmael Houston-Jones came up with his brainstorm “Parallels," the 1982 series at Danspace that opened up downtown dance to African-American choreographers, Cummings was one of the few who had already broken into that world.
Caring deeply about politics and culture, she collaborated with Filipino writer/activist Jessica Hagedorn on the hard-hitting multi-disciplinary production, The Art of War (1984) In her New York Times review, Jennifer Dunning praised Cummings' “rare physical acting" and wrote that the piece was “hard to look away from."
Blondell's values stayed true to the mission of her cross-cultural arts collaborative, Cycle Arts Foundation, which was to bring artist and audience together to focus on “the poetics of the human condition." She made pieces for student groups at Hunter College and The New School, and for Philadanco. But Chicken Soup remained her signature work.
She toured often to Asia and Africa. If you knew her, you were constantly learning new things about her past. When Blondell and I went to see Bill T. Jones' musical Fela!, about the Nigerian singer/activist's days of tumult in a Lagos nightclub called The Shrine, she casually mentioned that she had been to The Shrine and had met Fela Kuti there.
I believe her last public appearance was on the “Fridays at Noon" series at the 92nd Street Y Dance Center last March. She asked Edisa Weeks to show a work in progress and then gathered a panel of diverse experts—for example a social worker, a scientist, a visual artist—to describe their perceptions. When, at the end of the session, she showed the film version of Chicken Soup, the audience was mesmerized.
On Facebook there's been an outpouring of love and respect for this woman who crossed genres, cultures, and populations. Here are some other memories that came through email or phone calls:
Joan Finkelstein, director of Harkness Foundation for Dance: “Blondell had what I call a 'questing mind'—she was extremely thoughtful and considered. I served on the Bessies committee with her for a number of years and always learned from the insightful way she spoke about choreography and performance. Her deep humanism informed workshops she crafted to help dancers and non-dancers alike feel more whole, more connected with themselves and each other. As a performer, she was an electric presence and a beautiful mover. As a choreographer she broke through expected norms to find her own unique original form."
And this from Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, artistic director of Urban Bush Women: “Blondell and Dianne McIntyre were the first African American women I saw doing experimental work rooted in a black experience and identity. They were pushing the form. It gave me courage, a possibility to see ways of creating and thinking and doing that I hadn't seen."
Later when celebrating the 20th anniversary of UBW, Zollar invited Cummings to teach Chicken Soup to some of her dancers. “I wanted another generation of dancers to see the power of the work and know the history of innovation in our field, particularly black female innovation."
One of those UBW dancers was Marjani Forté, who said, “Chicken Soup was score building, a kind of improvisation that I realized later I would be doing the rest of my career with my collective Love/Forté. It was the first time I was performing and reflecting on my lineage—learning how to braid hair with my mom, snapping peas or catching fish. There's a moment on the rocking chair with a stream of gestures that are coming from things that happen in the kitchen. It was a profound experience I could only understand in hindsight. I am currently doing conjuring-based improvisation, creating or recreating an environment and expression. In Chicken Soup it was frying chicken or making cornbread in a cast iron skillet. Acting doesn't work; you have to be invoking the memory."
After a pause, Marjani said of Blondell, “She supported all of my work." Many of us will recognize that sentiment; we were blessed by her friendship.
Blondell had talent, moxie, depth, a kind of poetics of cultural awareness, and unfailing kindness and good cheer. We will miss her.
A memorial service will be held at New York Live Arts on Sunday, October 4 from 5:00 to 7:00. Blondell wanted to have a bench named for her in Central Park, so the family has asked that, in place of flowers, contributions be made toward the bench. Blondell's sister, Gaynell Cummings, will receive the donations. Her address is 201 Washington Park, Brooklyn, NY 11205.
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
In today's dance world, it seems to go without saying: The more varied the training, the better. But is that always the case? Rhonda Malkin, a New York City–based dance coach who performed with the Radio City Rockettes, thinks trendy contemporary techniques that emphasize improvisation and organic movement quality are detrimental to the precision and strength needed to be a Rockette, in a traditional Broadway show or on a professional dance team. Her view is controversial: "If you really want to work, making $40,000 in three months for the Rockettes or $25,000 in one day filming a commercial, you need ballet, Broadway jazz, tap, hip hop—not contemporary," she says.
On the flip side, techniques that allow dancers more freedom may help them connect more deeply with their body and artistry, while providing release for overused muscles. We broke down the argument for both sides:
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.
Not all ballet dancers cling to their youth. At 26, Lauren Lovette, the New York City Ballet principal, has surpassed the quarter-century mark. And she's relieved.
"I've never felt young," she says. "I can't wait until I'm 30. Every woman I've ever talked to says that at 30 you just don't care. You're free. Maybe I'll start early?"
When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."
Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.
You could call it island-hopping, but it's not exactly a vacation. After choreographing last season's Come From Away, and winning a Tony nomination, Kelly Devine zipped from frosty Newfoundland to the Caribbean beach resort that is the setting for Escape to Margaritaville.
In the fall, she was shuttling between them, before they start this month: flying to Toronto to prepare a new Canadian production of Come From Away, then jetting back to Chicago for the final stop of Margaritaville's four-city pre-Broadway tryout.
"These two shows could not be more different from each other," Devine says with a dash of understatement. Come From Away is about the small Newfoundland town where airliners grounded by the 9/11 attacks dumped thousands of unexpected visitors; Escape to Margaritaville, at the Marquis Theatre, is a comic island romance concocted from the beachcomber songbook of Jimmy Buffett.
How does someone go from being a New York City Ballet corps member to training Hollywood A-listers like Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Jennifer Lawrence? By getting injured, says Kurt Froman.
When an ankle sprain left him sidelined a few years back, Froman was "sitting at home, depressed" when he sent his friend Benjamin Millepied an email asking what he was up to. It turned out that Millepied had just been hired to choreograph some scenes for a movie, but had to be in Paris during pre-production. "He needed someone to teach two actors choreography and get them in shape," says Froman. With nothing else on his plate, he said yes, and started prepping Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis for Black Swan.