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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.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.