WORKS BY DORIS HUMPHREY
at the Academy of Movement and Music
January 27 and 28 and February 3 and 4
A new spirit is making its presence felt in dance these days. More accurately, I suppose, I should say that this new spirit is the past–the nearly lost, nearly forgotten dance of the past, which is being restored to life on stages everywhere. For too long, dance troupes of all disciplines were so involved with making new dances that they arrogantly dismissed older dances as disposable, not worthy of preservation.
Happily, a number of today’s dancers are discovering that a knowledge of dance history and tradition is essential to a full understanding of the art they practice. This belated recognition is accompanied by a new sense of urgency, for time is the enemy. The longer one waits to re-create the original work, the more difficult the task, as the creators and performers of former generations disappear. Since film, tape, and notation were either unborn or in their infancy, recovering the past requires the dedication and intuitive skills of dance archaeologists, who are very busy these days.
Doris Humphrey, along with Martha Graham, the founding mother of American modern dance, is enjoying a national rebirth as more and more of her works are recovered from the dustbins. Stephanie Clemens, artistic director of Momenta (an Oak Park company composed, for the most part, of students from the Academy of Movement and Music) is engaged in an ongoing mission to restore as many works as possible of Oak Park’s distinguished native daughter. She has enlisted the aid of Eleanor King, Letitia Coburn, and Jane Sherman, leading Humphrey dancers, and especially of Mino Nicholas, director of the American Dance Repertory Theatre.
Nicholas re-created Night Spell, an important 1951 Humphrey work, for the Momenta concert last weekend. Performed by Nicholas, Dawn De Angelo, Larry Ippel, and Laura Schwenk to a tense, eerie string quartet by Priaulx Rainier, Night Spell has a much more expressionistic theme than is typical of Humphrey. It contains grotesque story elements and creates an otherworldly atmosphere. Nicholas, in the role created for Jose Limon, is an uneasy dreamer accosted by three threatening, nightmarish Figures of Night. He fears them yet is inexorably drawn to one–De Angelo–who finally deserts her dread companions to bring him love and peace of mind.
The dance, which opens with Nicholas asleep on a bench, is a fascinating evocation of the fearful emotions that stir a sleeper trapped by a nightmare. He twists, turns, balances, and contorts himself on the bench. The night creatures, enveloped in a large ominous wrap, enter and threaten his precarious mental state even further as they dash around him, until he attracts De Angelo’s compassion, represented in a lovely duet. The night creatures then return and with wildly flailing energy in intricate, threatening dance designs try to reclaim their companion. The dance concludes with a blackout in which the two lovers from two separate worlds are entwined in an embrace on the bench.
Although Nicholas doesn’t resemble Limon physically, his technically skilled performance offered a valid interpretation–much stronger and more theatrically effective than his performance last season. The other cast members were convincing in both virtuosity and characterization. An interesting work that deserves more public exposure.
The first half of this concert was made up of other historical pieces by Humphrey and by Ruth St. Denis. Sarabande, re-created by Nicholas after Humphrey’s 1928 original, was performed by Clemens, who looked gorgeous in a velvet Renaissance costume. The elaborate, long-trained costume was an active partner in this short piece, which consisted mostly of striking tableaux to music by Rameau. Schwenk was enchanting in a tiny tunic in Humphrey’s Valse Ca- price, a short 1920 piece representative of the interpretive dance style popular during that period. Several talented members of the academy danced some of Humphrey’s earliest works, including Soaring, dating from the time when she, and many other dancers, used chiffon scarves as vital props.
The second half opened with Clemens’s St. Francis and the Dove. Sarah Hall was a tender dove, lovingly protected by James Tenuta’s saint in a series of lifts and holds. Tenuta was also the black-clad, almost invisible puppeteer to Kari Cwik’s Japanese puppet in Bunraku. Country Dances was a charming set of seven brief dances by the youngest members of the Academy, who were adorable. The concert concluded with Songs of the Auvergne, a new ballet by Clemens, danced en pointe. Cantaloube’s arrangements of the folk songs are sheer delight, and Clemens’s choreography is pretty and well suited to the talents of her very responsive, well-trained student dancers.
However, I’m not sure that pointe shoes throughout are the best choice, considering the songs’ folksy nature. As a matter of fact, the ballet’s most charming moments are those in which Clemens unleashes her keen sense of humor in a more earthy, peasant character style. The costumes, designed by Clemens and Kay Johnson, are a happy mix of folk and tutu for the girls, vests and tights for the boys.