Frances Alenikoff (1920–2012)

July 9, 2012

Photos courtesy Francesca Rheannon.

Dancer/choreographer, writer/painter, philosopher/nurturer, generous provider of space to Movement Research, Frances Alenikoff died on June 23.

She created over 90 dance theater works and participated in projects with poets, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists. She performed widely in New York, toured nationally and internationally, and taught workshops at universities. In 1964 she choreographed The Josephine Baker Show on Broadway.

Alenikoff had a distinctive way of moving—slippery, impulsive, erratic—that came from years of improvisation and vocal experimentation. She could be brazen while dancing: She would lick her own fingers, then break up into a friendly cackle. She was a sorceress onstage.

During the 1940s, Alenikoff studied at the Katherine Dunham School in midtown Manhattan. She also knew Doris Humphrey and Anna Sokolow during that period. In 1965 she was a founding member of Dance Theater Workshop and performed her mixed-media works in the little loft on 20th Street. Starting in the mid-90s she paired up with postmodern dancer/choreographer/philosopher Kenneth King. They collaborated on an richly fertile duet that projected a unique relationship between a man and woman: not lovers, not mother and son, not artist and muse, but something else entirely. It was a kind of Dionysian/Apollonian pairing of opposites that threw off sparks of wit, poetry, and belly laughs.

Kenneth King’s wonderful essay about his partner can be accessed by going to the Movement Research Performance Journal site and clicking on “View pdfs of the following articles: What Frances Alenikoff Isn’t Telling, Part 1” and “What Frances Alenikoff Isn’t Telling, Part 2.”

For years Alenikoff wrote for Dance News and Craft Horizons—from a dance artist’s point of view. Her writings were also published in Dance Scope, Ear Magazine, and Movement Research Performance Journal. Her art works comprise various media, including paintings on stones and drawings on shower curtains. Her drawings, which are funny and earthy, illustrate the book Reflections on Loving and Relationships by Richard Kostelanetz, which was published last month by Archae Editions. She also designed stage sets and choreographed for independent films.

Alenikoff was deeply involved in honing her improvisational skills. Here is what she wrote in Craft Horizons in 1972: “In improvisation the moment is the crucible. A risky business. No
time for second thoughts or rearrangements. You do it or it dies. Tools are an agile imagination, finely tuned senses geared to synthesize inspiration, and the skills of your craft, plus the capacity to be totally absorbed in the instant—alert to its possibilities—while maintaining a honed awareness of the shape of the whole.”

As a dancer she projected amazing youth and suppleness into her 80s. “I love stretching combined with undulations,” she said when interviewed in The New York Times at the age of 79. “I do a movement and vocal meditation that goes into the cells, heightening inner awareness. I reach a point where the deliciousness of it makes up for the agony of preparing pieces to present in public.”

Alenikoff, who danced in public into her 80s, performing her solo
Re-Membering in 1998. Photo by Beryl Bernay, Courtesy Francesca Rheannon.

 Personally I can say that Frances was a joy to work with, as her imagination kept tumbling out, and she praised her dancers lavishly. Even better, she would tell her wild adventures and discuss life’s big issues with words of wisdom and hearty laughter. She knew how to take pleasure in the absurdities of life.

No challenge was too great for her. When slowed down by a temporary physical setback, she would say, “Someday I will be able to do it. It’s a matter of paying attention.”

She will be remembered for her flowing creativity, her larger-than-life gusto, and her generosity.

Click here for a clip from a documentary that shows both her drawings and her choreographic process.

A memorial service is planned for the fall. The family has asked those who have memories and reflections of Ms. Alenikoff to share them by mail at 68 Hog Creek Road, East Hampton 11937, or by email to [email protected]. —Wendy Perron