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.
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
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.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
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:
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.
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.
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.