at the Academy of Movement and Music

March 11, 12, 18, and 19

The reconstruction of dances by past masters is vitally important to our understanding of how those masters shaped and influenced the dance we see today–whether classic ballet or modern dance. The recovery of that ephemeral past is also a matter of some urgency, for memories fail and mortality overtakes the artists who originally performed the works.

Fortunately there are those who understand the significance of the task. We owe the Joffrey Ballet our gratitude for its reconstructions of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, George Balanchine’s Cotillon, and other works of the early 20th century. We owe the Oak Park-based Momenta an even greater vote of thanks for its reconstruction and performance of some long-lost, nearly forgotten works by the great modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey, who as it happens was an Oak Park native. This is a very expensive, time-consuming project for a neighborhood dance school to undertake.

Momenta is composed of the Academy of Movement and Music’s students. They are surprisingly accomplished, and responded beautifully to the challenge of a new dance vocabulary. But because they are students, Stephanie Clemens, Momenta’s artistic director, wisely concentrated on Humphrey’s early works, when she was still refining her choreographic ideas and style. The concert featured dances Humphrey made as a schoolgirl, as a member of the Denishawn group, and from the later period when she and Charles Weidman had formed their legendary partnership. Humphrey choreographed into the 50s, but no work on this, program dates from later than 1935.

These fascinating glimpses into Humphrey’s artistic growth opened with a cute, naive children’s dance, Nursery Suite, choreographed by Humphrey’s first dancing teacher, Mary Wood Hinman, at Francis Parker School. The program continued with Humphrey’s 1914 Greek Sacrificial Dance–the first work of which we have a record–in which 15 young dancers move and pose in hieratic tableaux. It was just the sort of work a talented, imaginative young choreographer would create having seen pictures of ancient Greek art.

The next dance on the program announced a giant artistic and chronological leap forward: Dawn DeAngelo, a guest from Philadelphia Dance Theatre (which is dedicated to recovering Humphrey’s lost works), performed Two Ecstatic Themes–a mature rhapsodic work from 1931, when Humphrey had found her distinctive style. The falls and recoveries, in which soft, lyrical sinkings to the ground are contrasted with a strong vertical angularity, are simply gorgeous, and were gorgeously danced.

The next dance, Soaring, was created 11 years earlier with Ruth St. Denis when Humphrey was a member of Denishawn. Reconstructed by Letitia Coburn, Soaring is a dance for five women and an enormous, billowing scarf, and it remains a graceful reminder of the time when scarves played an important role in creating dance designs. The five teenagers who performed it made lovely woodland sprites.

Air for the G String, created by Humphrey in 1928, is a grave, sculptural dance to Bach, in which five women in long Renaissance-like draperies move slowly in procession. It is an abstract piece–no story–but it has a devout, almost religious look. Air for the G String, which is available on film with Humphrey dancing the central figure, is an unusual work for Humphrey–her outlook was humanist, not religious, and she concentrated on human relationships.

Mino Nicholas, director of Philadelphia Dance Theatre, then joined DeAngelo in Duo-Drama, a 1935 piece Humphrey had created for herself and Weidman, which Nicholas re-created. There’s no story here either, but the choreography obviously alludes to the eternal struggle between man and woman for dominance. Danced to Roy Harris’s astringent Concerto for String Quartet, Clarinet, and Piano, DuoDrama is a powerful, disturbing work.

Nicholas also danced Brahms Study, a short solo by Eleanor King. King was once a member of the early Humphrey dance group, and she has reconstructed for Momenta Humphrey’s 1929 Grieg Concerto, a pageantlike work for a corps of 15 and a leader, danced here with incisive strength and intensity by Laura Schwenk of Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble. The leader’s clenched fists–yes, clenched fists in 1929–stamping feet, and red scarf direct the group in a study in design and control as the group falls to the floor, rolls over, rises, and in perfect unison clenches its fists and stamps to her orders.

At first the Grieg piano concerto seemed an incongruous, romantic choice of music for this strong dance, but on reflection it seemed perfect–this dance is a fine example of Humphrey’s music visualization, with music and movement beautifully coordinated so that each reflects the moods of the other.

The first part of the program was composed of selections from Facade, choreographed by Clemens; Facade dates from the same period as the Humphrey dances in this performance. Momenta offers a concert of historic and artistic significance, both inspiring and instructive. It gives us the rare opportunity–which will be repeated this weekend to see how this mother of modern dance led the way to the dance we see today.