at Mertz Hall, Loyola University

July 9

Craftsmanship can transform even the plainest, most mundane material. Scraps of worn-out denim and discarded petticoats become quilts prized for generations or sold for thousands. Mud and grit become mugs, plates, or vases. Some choreographers can make interesting dances out of nothing more than a handful of simple songs, some striding about, and a bit of arm waving.

Helen Tamiris’s most famous work, the 1932 Negro Spirituals, is that mundane but is also surprisingly powerful, especially as performed by Janet Skidmore (in Ann Wykell’s reconstruction from Lucy Venable’s Labanotation score). Historical material like this showed in especially sharp relief on a concert bill otherwise made up of contemporary works: Bryan Saner’s The Hand Shake and Tales of the Laborer (The Coffee Break), Skidmore’s The Place In-Between and Duet, and a joint effort, Name That Dance.

The pioneers of American modern dance–people like Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Helen Tamiris–consciously rejected the ostentation and bravura self-indulgence of opera and other high-culture forms. Each sought a kind of dance that would be uniquely American and wholly contemporary. Each had her strength: Graham the mythic and dramatic, Holm the expressive and emotional, Tamiris the popular and political. Active in the Federal Theater Project of the WPA, Tamiris was deeply committed to dance as a form of protest, a cultural document, and ultimately as an affirmation of human possibilities.

Tamiris’s Negro Spirituals is inextricably linked to the 30s. Today, a white choreographer adopting black culture materials, as Tamiris did, would be called a racist. Today, a choreographer so restricting her movement choices–moving only straight. forward and back as she does in “Go Down Moses,” for example–would be called either a minimalist or hopelessly dull. Tamiris was neither.

Negro Spirituals comprises “Go Down Moses,” “Swing Low,” and “Get on Board” (all from 1932), “Crucifixion” (1931), and “Joshua” (1928). All are set to a vaguely operatic, curiously inert arrangement by Genevieve Pitot. Negro Spirituals is easy to watch: Tamiris strips movement ideas to such essentials that we grasp them immediately. Though written for popular audiences, these pieces do not amuse, entertain, or distract; they cast a spell.

“Go Down Moses” does indeed go down: the energy of the entire torso swings as a unit, focus dropping and lifting again. Small steps of flexed feet accompany the musical beats; the pelvis rocks; arms and shoulders whip fast, faster, and into sudden stillness. The movement swings heavenward and earthward: it swings only between the two poles of the dialogue suggested in the score; Tamiris’s choreography treats only one or two movement ideas at a time, and allows her audience no more.

“Swing Low” begins with the torso swinging from side to side with a deep plie step for every musical stress. When the torso suddenly shoots back, up and away from the pelvis, for a high-stepping, arch-backed triumphant breath (“bands of angels”), the performer–and the performance space–seem to expand. She devours the stage in great diagonals; her torso now possesses enough force to lift her partially off the ground with every swing.

The same joyous tone animates “Get on Board” and “Joshua.” In “Get on Board,” the dancer’s feet scuff with the rhythm of a locomotive; her arms open and close smoothly, one arching overhead, the other held in a long curve below the waist. In “Joshua,” the feet stamp regularly and the elbows flash almost at random. In both dances, Tamiris keeps her audience’s attention focused by repeating and juxtaposing simple motifs in increasingly complicated ways.

“Crucifixion” is the dramatic and kinesthetic climax of Negro Spirituals. It, too, is carved out of extremely simple dance actions: a near fall, a staggering backward led by a lolling head, taut arms alternately thrusting straight out to the sides and plunging almost to the thighs, an arching and rounding spine. Tamiris’s “Crucifixion” suddenly, deliberately denies all the natural, essential, and elemental content of the other sections of the work. Nature is altogether thwarted: the legs face one direction while the torso faces quite another. No power, no energy, pulses through the dancer: she is entirely unaware, unfocused, a dark and powerful image on the darkening stage.

Tamiris was an accomplished performer and choreographed for her own strengths. I shudder to imagine her dances danced badly. Janet Skidmore danced Tamiris’s material with conviction, her own character and forcefulness, and no trace of stultifying reverence. Negro Spirituals does look dated, but Skidmore infused it with life. Her performance was a model of what reconstructed historic dance can be–true to the spirit as well as the letter of the original.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo.Adrienne Traisman.