Elaine Shipman (1939–2013), A Tribute by David Vaughan

April 2, 2013


A dancer and choreographer, beautiful, brave, and generous spirit, Elaine Shipman died March 16 in Manhattan. She was surrounded in her last illness by many loving friends and colleagues. She continued with her life until the last possible moment, taking class, creating performances, spreading joy among all who knew her. She seemed eternally youthful.

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and raised in New York City, the teenaged Elaine Shipman danced with the companies of Charles Weidman and Pearl Primus. After four years of study at the Martha Graham School, she came to the Cunningham Studio.

There was always something elusive about Elaine, however much you loved her, and however much she loved you. One thing you could always be certain of: if she was in town, she would be in class at the Merce Cunningham Studio in Westbeth, or, after that closed, in the Cunningham Trust Studio at the City Center. Elaine would be at the back of the class, peering myopically at the teacher. But as Merce said, she always saw what it was, she always got the rhythm right, even if she couldn’t do the step. Merce adored her—and of course it was mutual—and gave her a permanent scholarship at the Studio. When she wasn’t there, she was probably off somewhere doing a workshop, in Mexico or Germany or Holland. She also had various odd jobs: modeling for painters, ushering at the Metropolitan Opera, as a hostess for special events at the Metropolitan Museum.

It was in Paris in 1972 that Elaine and Linda Wilder Blondel and Harry Whittaker Shepherd formed the company that presented her choreography, which they called SITU. The initials, Harry said, stood for Society for the Investigation of Things Unnameable. The company was even formally incorporated as a non-profit dance-arts organization in 1988. The list of her pieces is impressive, and you can see one or two of them on You Tube—Elaine herself dances in one performed in New London, Connecticut, in March 2010, with Marya Ursin. Marya and Linda dance in another performed at Westbeth in 2012.

Her great friend Alma Guillermoprieto wrote about her work in her book Dancing with Cuba (2004): “Year after year she has remained incapable of self-betrayal or attempting anything that looks the least bit fake. Her childhood dance teachers were descended from Isadora Duncan’s school of movement, and she retains that arcadian, lyrical, spontaneous, and organic vision of dance…. To this day, Elaine’s work very much resembles her….it remains so natural that one can’t help being charmed, and it is filled with startling moments of evocative power.”

In those last days in Beth Israel, Elaine lay there, hardly stirring. But somehow we could tell that she knew who was there and what they said to her, or if we read poems by Yeats or sang to her. People poured in every day, dancers, musicians, artists, writers: It seemed that there were always six or seven people at the bedside. We all miss her already, it is hard to believe that she won’t turn up at a performance as she used to when you least expected to see her. —David Vaughan

A memorial will held this Sunday, April 7, 2013, at 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. For further information, and to post messages, go to elaineshipman.tumblr.com.

Shipman ca. 1978. Photo courtesy Nancy Idaka.