Anna Sokolow’s name may not seem familiar, not even to diehard New Yorkers. But her legacy has been felt — directly or indirectly — by nearly every choreographer since the mid-20th century. An artist who probed deeply into social and political issues, Sokolow also demonstrated a startling versatility: as a teacher and mentor at The Juilliard School; as a choreographer who scrutinized events, from the Holocaust to the alienation of youth in the 1960s; as an instrumental advocate for establishing modern dance in Israel, and with her groundbreaking input as a choreographer and director for such Broadway theater hits as Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” and the rock musical “Hair.” On December 10, Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y presents the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble in “70 Years of Sokolow at the 92nd Street Y,” a tribute to the long-term partnership, which began in 1936, between the institution and the late choreographer.
“Art should be a reflection and comment on contemporary life,” said Sokolow, who died March 29, 2000. “The artist should belong to his society, yet without feeling he has to conform to it. Then, although he belongs to his society, he can change it, presenting it with fresh feeling, fresh ideas.” Jim May, artistic director of the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble, began working with Sokolow in 1966. “Anna was interested in themes influenced by humanity,” May said in an interview with the Forward. “She was not only interested in dance but also theater, painting and literature.” For the 92nd Street Y program, May chose four works by Sokolow and two premieres that reflect Sokolow’s inspirational impact.
Three of the Sokolow works to be presented are solos that the choreographer grouped together. Because she often altered her work at a time when video didn’t exist, she titled them “As I Remember.” The common link among the three solos is the choreographer’s breaking of gender barriers by inhabiting male territory. In “Ballad in a Popular Style,” the first work she ever performed at the 92nd Street Y, Sokolow danced to jazz music in an era when jazz dancing was exclusively the domain of men. “Kaddish,” choreographed in 1945 to a Ravel score in response to the Holocaust, shows a lone woman immersed in the prayer of mourning — invoking tefillin by wrapping a leather strap around her arm — without a quorum of men. And in “Bullfight,” choreographed in 1955, Sokolow channeled the machismo and spirit of a matador.
“Four Songs,” one of Sokolow’s last works (1995), uses a traditional Ladino song and three contemporary Israeli tunes in an expression of sheer joy, youth and dance. While Sokolow’s choreography exhibits common traits — a disarming directness; an emphasis on the use of torso, arms and hands; precise musical phrasing, and moment-to-moment intensity — her stylistic choices and movement adaptability are chameleonlike, a quality that May wishes to highlight in this tribute. The program’s two premieres mirror Sokolow’s commitment to eclecticism: May’s “Footsteps to Heaven,” set to George Gershwin’s music, recalls her Broadway roots, while Argentinean choreographer Anabella Lenzu’s “Disguise” takes a Sokolow-influenced point of view about the disintegration and resurrection of a society.
Born in 1910 in Hartford, Conn., to Russian Jewish immigrants, Sokolow followed her mother’s lead as a social activist. After dancing in Martha Graham’s troupe, she broke out on her own to explore contemporary themes (Sokolow said she did not “have the temperament of a disciple”). Her first major composition, the 1933 “Anti-War Trilogy,” initiated a long line of works that blasted the dangers of war and fascism. (“Whenever we got into a conflict, she’d make a dance, right up through Desert Storm,” May said.)
According to May, a significant turning point occurred with the premiere of Sokolow’s 1955 “Rooms,” now considered a modern dance classic. “Up until ‘Rooms,’ choreographers like José Limón and Martha Graham portrayed classical, dramatic figures, like Othello and Medea,” May said. Instead, Sokolow showed regular human beings, stricken with loneliness and alienation, bumping up against one another. Choreographically they executed ignoble, everyday movements. She also used an hour-long jazz composition, which prompted heated intermission arguments by outraged attendees who felt that jazz was inappropriate for concert dance. “With three quick blows, she tore apart established dance,” May said. “She opened the door to today’s dance.”
In 1951, at the request of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, Jerome Robbins asked Sokolow to help develop Israel’s Inbal Dance Theatre into a world-class dance company (thereby establishing a relationship with Israeli dance that lasted throughout her life). A decade later, Sokolow premiered “Dreams,” a profound work that essayed the emotional and spiritual devastation of the Holocaust. As in many of Sokolow’s works, the continuum of time displaces pat endings.
“I don’t end it, because I don’t feel there’s any ending,” Sokolow said. “‘Rooms’ ends where it began. ‘Dreams,’ no ending. That’s the Jew in me. Ask the world a question, and there’s no answer. All I do is present what I feel and you, you answer. You answer.”
Joseph Carman, a contributing editor to Dance Magazine, is the author of “Round About the Ballet”(Limelight Editions, 2004).
This story "A Dance Pioneer Gets Her Due" was written by Joseph Carman.