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.
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: