at the Academy of Movement and Music

November 3, 4, 10, and 11

The transitory nature of dance always magnifies the problems of reconstructing past works. Even the advent of film did not necessarily make the recording process more reliable: stored cans of film sometimes exploded suddenly and at random. Later film documentation and video are also inadequate: a close-up of a dancer’s face, for instance, obscures what the rest of the body is doing. Labanotation has its flaws, too: it isn’t sensitive enough to account for nuances of interpretation, and certainly can’t cover the stylistic changes a choreographer might make over the years, as Balanchine did. And translating its abstract symbols into movement is even more complex than translating texts from one language into another.

So it’s always something of a minor miracle when someone undertakes the task of resurrecting a work and performing it–let alone a whole body of work. Momenta’s artistic director, Stephanie Clemens, has taken the process of re-creation one step further: she’s trying to reinstate Doris Humphrey to her rightful place as one of the seminal forces of modern dance, alongside Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. Momenta’s performances of Humphrey’s works reassert their value by asserting their vitality and contemporaneity.

Like Graham, Humphrey created not just a repertory of dances but a revolutionary new dance technique. Humphrey’s theory of fall and recovery, like Graham’s contraction and release, provided a vibrant movement vocabulary that’s both lyrical and dramatic. Although the Academy of Movement and Music students who make up the bulk of Momenta haven’t yet mastered this difficult technique, they can still offer us some fascinating glimpses of Humphrey’s repertoire, particularly her early dances. They also perform the early works of Ruth Saint Denis, whose company and school, Denishawn, profoundly inspired and influenced Humphrey, though eventually Humphrey and fellow dancer Charles Weidman found it necessary to break away from Saint Denis’s overpowering presence.

Momenta’s recent program brought Saint Denis and Humphrey and their collaborations together in a rough chronological order. Before our eyes was evidence of what even Humphrey was loath to admit: that the work of the teacher was eventually carried into the work of the student, no matter how many changes she brought to it.

When I first saw Humphrey’s Water Study (1928) performed by Ruth Page’s Chicago Ballet many years ago, I was bowled over. And it was no less a masterpiece when I saw it done last year by Momenta. So it was a revelation to see during Momenta’s most recent concert that Water Study (which was not performed) owes a debt of gratitude to an early Denishawn floor exercise, Under the Leaves (1915), which opened the program.

Under the Leaves was intended to review the many positions and movements in the Denishawn repertoire. As in Water Study, the dancers are crouched over, shifting positions as they extend a leg back and out or their hands forward. But these dancers go through their paces with a smooth lyricism to the music of Thome, moving through some straightforward progressions that lead them first to a kneeling position, then to a series of standing and floor balletic positions, and back again to the crouch.

In Water Study the dancers move in silence, their steady breathing recreating the sounds of the sea and augmenting the wavelike effect of the choreography. The dance’s context gives it the power to move us. Humphrey molds the pretty, decorative Denishawn exercises into a sculptural beauty, giving us a familiar framework in which to view them. The dancers rolling over or extending their legs back and out, their long, loose hair paraphrasing the rest of the choreography, add the finishing touches to Humphrey’s portrait of the sea. If Under the Leaves provides the syllables, Water Study forms them into words and long, poetic sentences.

In 1931, Humphrey choreographed Two Ecstatic Themes, a solo in two sections: “Circular Descent” and “Pointed Ascent.” Its patented circularity also appears in the opening and closing sections of Under the Leaves: the dancers start and finish the floor exercises in the same crouched-over position, moving first upward and then down. (The progression is reversed in Humphrey’s solo, which moves downward and then back up.) How interesting, then, to see the roots of Humphrey’s descent and ascent in the rising and falling hands of a solo dancer in Saint Denis’s 1906 Cobra. The dancer (Clemens) is seated on a pedestal, one foot underneath her, the other touching the floor; and she shapes her hands into snake heads and undulates them. An emphatic costuming detail is the presence of two big emerald snake eyes on each hand.

Water Study, with its progressions gracefully flowing together, and Two Ecstatic Themes, with its logical, more angular arcs of movement, were not on this program. But Air for G String was–Humphrey’s 1928 masterpiece that combines in a much more stately way the qualities of both. Here the pomp and circumstance of the dancers’ movement suggest a processional. Their long cloaks extend behind them dramatically, echoing a Saint Denis peacock dance; but the bright multicolored skirt of the Saint Denis costume is transformed here into one color, a rich golden yellow, glowing with the same radiance as the dancers’ faces. Heads thrown back to gaze upward, the five dancers (Clemens, Sarah Hall, Carrie Johnson, Ellis Jacobs, and Patricia Rothengass) weave in and out of formation as if directed by some irresistible force. Their softly curving arms are paralleled by the draped curves of the shorter capes they wear over their lengthy cloaks, and by the curves the cloaks form on either side of their bodies, curving once again at the feet as they proceed in their straight-backed, three-point turns.

The same long trains appear in Saint Denis’s Pink and Green Saris, choreographed circa 1917-18. Two dancers (Clemens and Rothengass) enter carrying the saris almost worshipfully and wrap themselves in them in stages, creating some theatrical moments in the process, especially when they fold the saris at their waists, the remaining material extending in front of them like long bridal trains. Humphrey has taken this moment from Saint Denis’s dance and extended it in Air for G String, adding to the lyricism of that image, compounding its theatricality, once again giving the “merely decorative” a deeper meaning. The long trains of the women’s costumes in Air give them the imperiousness of priestesses performing a ritual: it goes far beyond an Indian woman’s daily routine of fastening her sari.

Saint Denis’s dances were often mere excuses for dancers to pose in pretty costumes, thrilling the audience. (These romanticized snippets of foreign cultures, brief as they were, served nonetheless to introduce a generation of Americans to the different customs, dress, and characteristic movements of various cultures–and can serve the same purpose today.) Saint Denis isolated the essentials of a costume and pared props to a minimum, and taught Humphrey to do the same, as in her celebrated Hoop Dance and her first solo, Scarf Dance (performed here under its more formal appellation, Valse Caprice, by Laura Gallardo-Brand). One dancer waving a pink scarf focuses our attention on the movement better than four dancers trailing scarves, as in Saint Denis’s art deco Minute Waltz (1916). Valse Caprice does show, however, the influence of Saint Denis’s Orientalia, in which a profusion of banners, scarves, and veils were waved or trailed in the air exotically. Humphrey often reproduced that motion in her choreography, producing a less decorative, more integrated effect.

What made Saint Denis so popular in her time is the same element of spectacle that appeals to an audience now: the full skirt of the gold-emblazoned nautch outfit in her 1917 Kashmiri Nautch makes the dance. In two short “southeast Asian” duets on the Momenta program, the dancers wear elaborate costumes with long straight skirts. Each carries a fan in each hand and stands before a square pedestal. But however similar the dances, Saint Denis’s 1926 Balinese “Bird of Heaven” (danced by Aimee Garcia and Jennifer Lawton) and Humphrey’s solo from the 1925 Burmese Yein Pwe (performed in unison by Sarah Cullen and Ayisha McMillan) are also different. In Humphrey’s piece the dancers fan themselves coquettishly, the fans held upward next to their faces; eventually they replace the fans with umbrellas, and finally seat themselves with the umbrellas raised high. In Balinese “Bird of Heaven,” the dancers flutter the fans airily, holding them upside down in front of themselves or to the side slightly above waist level. Later the dancers replace the fans with some rather obvious golden wings, fluttering these, too, and simulating flight with their movements. At the end of the piece the dancers lie on their sides on the pedestals as if poised in mid-flight.

In the second part of the program, made up of contemporary dances, Momenta also used pedestals, but in a more heavy-handed symbolic way. Clemens’s Apparition, for instance, features characters on their own pedestals: “The One Who Is Uplifted,” “The One Who Is Angry,” “The One Who Denies,” and so on, in a series of confrontations with Death (James Tenuta). The Grim Reaper’s scythe is scaled down here to a long steel rod, which Death uses to carry out his terminations. Too predictably we await each dancer’s collapse, and too predictably we think of AIDS. And while we may not yet have any solutions to the disease itself, there are more options open to the choreographer, particularly one with so many valuable lessons from the past at her fingertips.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anne Bradley.