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Elaine Summers (1925–2014)

Photo by Davidson Gigliotti.

Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Elaine Summers passed away December 27 in New York City, just shy of her 90th birthday. From 1964's Fantastic Gardens at Judson Dance Theater to her recently presented Moon Rainbow (2014), she created numerous dances and films and dance-and-film events. She was also the founder of Kinetic Awareness, a somatic practice using rubber balls that many dancers today rely on. You can get a sense of the scope of her work via her website.

Born in Perth, Australia, Summers grew up in Boston but moved to New York City in the 1950s. She attended Juilliard and also took classes with Merce Cunningham, Daniel Nagrin, Don Redlich, Mary Anthony, Jean Erdman and Janet Collins. She also studied with pioneers of somatic practice Charlotte Selver and Carola Speads, who no doubt influenced her to create Kinetic Awareness. She was a founding member of Judson Dance Theater in 1962, and in 1968 she formed Experimental Intermedia Foundation, an organization dedicated to the meshing of disciplines.

Left: Summers teaching in Memphis, 1990

It was a film of Summers' that kicked off the legendary Judson Dance Theater. The first concert in July 1962 opened with chance footage shot by Summers and edited by her and John Herbert McDowell. Audience members were asked to walk through the curtain that served as a screen in order to get to their seats. Called Overture, the film lasted 15 minutes.

Allen Hughes, reviewing that first concert in The New York Times, wrote,

“The overture was perhaps the key to the success of the evening, for through its random juxtaposition of unrelated subjects—children playing, trucks parked under the West Side Highway, W. C. Fields, and so on—the audience was quickly transported out of the everyday world where events are supposed to be governed by logic, even if they are not." —quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy's Body, Judson Dance Theater 1962–64.

You can see a reconstruction of the film/overture in Gia Kourlas' obit of Summers in Time Out NY.

In Fantastic Gardens, a full-evening work combining film, dance, music and sculpture, she applied the chance methods she learned from John Cage and Robert Dunn. Summers described one section: “Film images were splashed over the ceiling, floor, walls, and audience, who were given small hand mirrors with which to pick up additional images." The dancers performed inside huge sculptures and the audience used the mirrors to light the dancers, who included Fred Herko, June Ekman, Sally Stackhouse, Sandra Neels, and Rudy Perez.

Right: Summers with Al Carmines at the piano, Judson Church, early 60s

She choreographed a long string of performances that included Theater Piece for Chairs and Ladders (East End Theater, 1965), Walking Dance for Any # (Museum of Modern Art, 1968), Illuminated Workingman (Niagara Square, Buffalo, 1975), Solitary Geography (Merce Cunningham Studio, 1977), Crow's Nest (Guggenheim Museum, 1982), Flowing Rock/Still Waters (Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 1986), Country Houses (Judson Memorial Church, 1997), SKYTIME (Harvestworks, 2000) and Hidden Forest (Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, 2007). In addition to New York City, Summers performed in England, Holland, Australia and Portugal. Her last grant was given to her by the New York State Council on the Arts at age 88.

Summers was a enthusiastic collaborator, working with choreographers like Trisha Brown, Martha Graham, and Paul Taylor; composers like Carman Moore, Philip Glass, Philip Corner and Pauline Oliveros; video artists like Davidson Gigliotti, Paula Court and Nam June Paik, and musicians like Meredith Monk and Jon Gibson.

In addition to her work as a choreographer, Summers developed a somatic practice called Kinetic Awareness, also called the Ball Work. This system employs rubber balls of different sizes placed under the body (usually in a prone position) in combination with slow, releasing movements to relax and rejuvenate muscles and joints. She arrived at this method through trying to release the muscular tension that builds up in dance class, and slowing down to become more conscious of one's movement. She was a sensitive, encouraging, insightful teacher. The Kinetic Awareness Center has developed into an international network of teachers who carry on this training. KA has influenced later practitioners like Elaine Petrone, originator of the Miracle Ball Method.

For Summers, the ability to move slowly not only served her interest in healing, but also represented her philosophy. Again quoting Sally Banes' interview with Summers, she said, “If you took one step and you looked into everything that could be happening, every possibility of what you could perceive in that one step…you could take an infinite amount of time for one step."

Left: Teaching the ball work, date unknown

Summers was married to Carol Summers and then to Davidson Gigliotti. Both marriages ended in divorce, but she remained close to her first husband and especially to Gigliotti, who collaborated with her and supported her work until her death.

This memory is from Deirdre Towers on Facebook:

“Elaine had such a fantastic contagious energy and a laugh that I was a little jealous of. Always affectionate and curious, wildly optimistic and a wee bit mad, she felt a bit like my Irish godmother, someone who reminded me obliquely not to take myself too seriously. She came from the era of doing everything for the sheer fun of it and rising above all tragedies with great style. Coping with terrible pain for seemingly ever, she always told me to "map the pain. Once you know where it hurts…don't go there!!" She was hugely grateful for about 50 words that I wrote about her Absence & Presence film in Dance Magazine that led to many good things. Soon after my last visit with her, I realized the project I am working on now (a full-immersion sensory video—see my blog) was probably inspired by her multi-media work. Well I am sure she is still right here now dancing in her very own SKYTIME."

A memorial service is planned for February 28, 2015, from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm at Judson Memorial Church. To RSVP contact Thomas at elainesummersmemorial@gmail.com or call 805-490-4170.

Summers in Theatre Piece for Chairs and Ladders, 1960s, photo by Dan Budnick

—Submitted by Wendy Perron, based on material provided by Kyle Summers, Ellen Saltonstall, and Deirdre Towers

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