at the Academy of Movement and Music

October 21, 22, 28, and 29

Momenta is continuing its mission of restoring to life in the theater the lost dances of Doris Humphrey–along with Martha Graham, a founding mother of American modern dance. Last spring, Momenta reintroduced several of her lost early works; these offered both an artistic revelation and a fascinating glimpse of Humphrey’s creative growth during the 20s and 30s.

Last weekend, in its newly dedicated Humphrey Memorial Studio Theatre, Momenta took another giant step toward honoring Oak Park’s great native daughter. A retrospective program traced Humphrey’s career from her early years with Ruth Saint Denis to two late masterworks created in the mid-1940s for Jose Limon. Although by that time Humphrey could no longer dance because of a severely damaged hip, her choreographic imagination seemed to be even richer than before. Noted critic Walter Terry wrote: “Great as she was in the role of dancer, she is even greater in the role of choreographer, ranking as one of the best, and perhaps the very best that America has ever produced.”

One can only be grateful to Stephanie Clemens, the director of Momenta, for her unstinting dedication to the monumental task of returning long-lost works to life, not only Humphrey’s but works by her associates. Clemens could not have done this alone, of course. She has called on Humphrey’s former colleagues–Karoun Tootikan, a member of Saint Denis’s troupe, and Eleanor King and Jane Sherman, who danced with Humphrey–and on Mino Nicholas and Dawn De Angelo, young dancers who are devoting their careers to Humphrey’s works. The program they presented was not only an important historic event but a rediscovery of Humphrey’s humanist genius.

The program opened modestly with a sweet little piece, In Memory: Doris Humphrey 1895-1958, by Clemens for five very young students from the Academy of Movement and Music. Music by Mozart set the mood. Incense, next on the program, is a 1906 piece by Saint Denis representing what passed in those days for East Indian exotica. It was performed elegantly by Clemens.

Sonata Pathetique, jointly choreographed in 1920 by Saint Denis and Humphrey, shows the influence of Isadora Duncan’s “interpretive” dance on that era. Danced by seven barefoot teenagers in pastel tunics who looked as though they had danced right out of an old photo of the Isadorables–Duncan’s students–it is a charming period piece, and shows Humphrey’s responsiveness to music.

Humphrey’s famous solo–Scherzo Waltz, the Hoop Dance of 1924–then took possession of the stage. This enchanting piece was beautifully danced by Laura Schwenk, who looked like a Maxfield Parrish nymph come to life. Maneuvering a seven-foot hoop could not have been easy, but Schwenk controlled it with such ease and elan that one wished the dance were longer.

Clemens, who has returned to performance after an absence of many years, gave a gripping performance of Eleanor King’s Mother of Tears. Its tautness and heartrending drama showed what an impact Humphrey’s ideas had on a dancer no longer a part of her company. Then De Angelo danced Humphrey’s 1931 Two Ecstatic Themes. By this time Humphrey’s theories about the importance of fall and recovery in dance had matured, and De Angelo masterfully displayed them in two contrasting sections, one full of a lyrical romantic flow, the other a passionate dramatic tension.

The second half of the program opened with Chaconne, a solo created by Jose Limon for himself; it was danced here by Nicholas. This stunning work, based on a single dance theme, like its music by Bach develops that theme in a series of variations that suggest courtly manners. But unfortunately the performance did not have the powerful impact the dance deserves. Limon was a tall, dramatic figure onstage; Nicholas is not. But the difference in size wouldn’t have mattered much if Nicholas’s performance had had its own intensity. The weight Nicholas has gained since he performed here last has slowed him down, softened his line, and weakened his efforts at the Limon-Humphrey style.

Humphrey’s 1928 Water Study was danced by a group of ten whose rhythmic movements, performed in a striking silence, managed to represent vividly the ebb and flow of water.

Day on Earth, Humphrey’s 1947 masterpiece to Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, is the story of the human family’s survival through its joys and tragedies. Told in semiabstract symbolist style, this moving humanist work so typical of Humphrey’s artistic philosophy celebrates the inevitable course of our days on earth. The Man was portrayed by Larry Ippel, the Woman by Schwenk, the Young Girl–the Man’s first love–by Sandra Kaufmann, and the Child by Jennifer Lawton. They offered a stirring, technically strong performance of a seamless work. It was gorgeous.

Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, created in 1946 for Limon, concluded the program. It is based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by Franco’s army during the Spanish Civil War, that laments the death of a bullfighter. But Humphrey chose her excerpts and created the dance designs in such a way as to give the work a more universal meaning; she mourns all wasteful death.

Re-created by Nicholas, this profoundly moving work has lost none of its power. Clemens was the Figure of a Woman, a witness and mourner; De Angelo, the Figure of Destiny, a guardian; and Nicholas, Ignacio the Contender. The two women were outstanding in their depiction of desperate grief. The clarity and rhythmic emphases of their speech, as well as of their corresponding movements, would certainly have pleased Humphrey. Nicholas, once again, was less effective. He should not have performed bare-chested. Still, he’s to be forgiven, because he’s contributing to Doris Humphrey’s restoration to her rightful place in the pantheon of great dance pioneers.