TBT: Why Phyllis Lamhut Described Herself as a “Witch” in 1975

April 7, 2022

“New York is such a circus,” Phyllis Lamhut told us in the February 1975 issue of Dance Magazine. “It’s got bad air, but great energy.”

The native New Yorker would certainly know. Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Lamhut had early aspirations for a ballet career that took a turn for the modern when Alwin Nikolais arrived at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse in 1948, where she had been training on scholarship. She made her professional debut that same year, and in the decades that followed became not only a leading dancer with both Nikolais’ and Murray Louis’ troupes but also a teacher and choreographer in her own right.

“I consider myself to have been totally trained by Nik and influenced by Nik and Murray,” she said. “Yet I don’t think I imitate either. While we all share a common movement vocabulary, we have quite separate choreographic visions. Nik never negated any of his students as individuals. He nurtured the special qualities each of us had to offer.”

In a black and white archival image, Phyllis Lamhut is caught in an off-kilter extension. Her standing leg is in plié, working leg raised to the side while her upper body sways away from it. Her arms are gently curved, ponytail swinging, and she directs a calm, knowing look towards the camera.
Phyllis Lamhut. Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy DM Archives

“Not a day goes by that I don’t have a good laugh.” Phyllis Lamhut, in the February 1975 issue of Dance Magazine

She gave her first concert of independent choreography in 1957 and founded her own company in 1970. Her broad range of pieces, in which she would often perform, earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship and a reputation for having a particular knack for comedy. “I’m bored with my two feet and my same old body,” she noted in 1975. “It’s a burden always to have the same body. I think that feeling of burden is related to a choreographer’s constant fear of repeating himself. No one wants to repeat himself over and over. That’s why I’m a witch. I like magic, levitation, illusion—above all, illusion. I’d like to evaporate during a dance. I’d like to do big, wild, wacky, crazy numbers. But I also feel like doing tiny dances to Mozart.”

After her company dissolved in 1996, she joined the faculty of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she taught composition and improvisation until her retirement in 2020.