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

Latest Posts


Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021