writers on dancing


Looking Back

Eleanor King Centennial Concert
Todd Studio Theater, Goucher College
Baltimore, Maryland
September 17, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson 

Not just in ballet but also in modern dance there are now people looking back over their shoulders at what was performed in the past. Count them and compare with those producing new work, and the number isn't vast. Having just passed through the year 2004 with its Ashton and Balanchine centennials and the rebirth of the Graham company, plus this last summer's Bournonville bicentennial, one might imagine that historic choreography was available as a constant resource for emerging dance makers and as a reference for viewers interested in knowing where we are, where we have come from and where we may be going in the art of dance. Not so, at all. The centennials of the first moderns and most of Diaghilev's choreographers have passed practically unnoticed. 2005 is also the centennial year for Lander and Lifar. The former was tossed a token in his hometown of Copenhagen and the latter has so far been ignored in Paris, his adopted home and Lander's too for a time. That's sad because anniversaries have their uses, but what we are really missing is the chance to experience dance that is other than of the moment. I want to see how and for what reasons my non-contemporaries were moved to express themselves as dancers. That freedom is one I don't get the chance to enjoy often. This weekend in outlying Baltimore, there was the opportunity.  

Eleanor King danced, made dances and taught dancing during the heyday of American modernism in the 20th Century. Born on February 8, 1906, she was a dancer for over 6 decades from about 1926 until her death on February 27, 1991. King's first dance experiences were probably based on Denishawn practices (exotic theatricality, common sense forms) but it was the American missionary approach of Humphrey and Weidman that constituted her education. King became a leading member of the Humphrey-Weidman company, performing with it for seven years before going her own way beginning in 1935. She took notice of Central European modern dance around that time and, after World War 2, studied French mime and Japanese dance-mime forms. Her interest in Far Eastern dance was long lasting and intense, but at the core King was  an American 20th Century modernist. Five of the six works (9 solos) performed at this concert shared principles: a direct relationship to musical dynamics, a clearly discernible form and very deliberate movement. Ones eyes and ears were not in danger of being pulled in different directions; one knew where one stood in relation to beginnings, middles and endings; never was one prompted to wonder whether one had seen or imagined a given motion. King was a representative of the tradition the first post-moderns rebelled against and proved a formidable adversary, skilled in diversifying particulars from dance to dance.

In "To the West" (1943), the concert's opener, King opened vistas. Strong body lines and wide angles pointed at panoramic spaces, the forceful tread was in accord with the effort it took traversing the American landscape. A gentler section with small scaled movement for parts of the body directed attention to feelings germinating inside the dancer (Glenna Blessing). Outside and inside views merged, there were forays into the air. This portrait of a pioneer ended with the figure reaching. (The music was by Roy Harris, his first piano sonata.)

Performed without music, "Air" (1954) had perceptible pacing—the rhythms of inhalation and exhalation ongoing in the dancer (Elizabeth Lowe Ahearn) became this solo's musical score. Up and down were primary vectors, undoubtedly due to the Humphrey dictum of the body's stance-collapse-recovery cycle. King didn't just illustrate the idea of fall and recouping. There was a feast of movement—down on the ground, standing, shifting through balance points and stresses, pulling up limbs and then letting them dangle, down again with back on the floor and legs in the air rubbing against each other before succumbing to gravity. The pull of gravity acting on the standing dancer's raised leg could precipitate turning. The focus of "Air" was supposed to be that element as it surrounds the dancer and is drawn into her body but it is hard to sublimate what we see. This solo ended backwards, with the dancer retreating while facing forward.

The smoothly angulated sculpture of Barlach came to mind during "Mother of Tears" (1935, music by Hermann Reutter). Up and down again were dominant directions of movement, but the dancer (Linda Garofalo) impressed with her strong stances. Covered in cloth except for her face and hands, she became triangles, pentacles of mourning. Mime became an ingredient in the four dances from "Roads to Hell" (1941, music by Genevieve Pitot), a  7 Deadly Sins suite. Interestingly, this work dates from before King's formal study of pantomime but she had undoubtedly seen the great movie comics and also some of the visiting Central European modern dancers. "Pride" was a very up solo, "Sloth" very down (both performed by Ahearn). The strong stresses in"Envy" seemed echt Humphrey, and the stalking in "Wrath" brought to mind the figure of Death in Jooss's "Green Table" (Garofalo performed these).

The most recent King solo, "Salutation" (1963, music by Alan Hovhaness) was subtitled "A Meditation on the East". It seemed a long rumination and of a gentle nature. There were slow, deep plies that had a meditative character, but also on-the-floor work and jete leaps. This choreography's skin was soft but beneath the surface lurked a stamina not unlike that of "To the West". It was a suitable closing number (danced by Blessing). The exception, the untypical King solo had been "Moon Dances", the last number prior to the program's intermission. In three sections  ("Sick Moon", "Night", "Moon Spot"), its musicality was delightfully free (not, by any means, arbitrary in relation to parts of Arnold Schoenberg's still difficult "Pierrot Lunaire") and it was chuck full of torso movement and a nervous light footedness.

The performances showed that the three dancers—Ahearn, Blessing and Garofalo—had worked very hard  with their director—Mino Nicolas—to get King right. They also succeeded in giving vivid performances. Understandably, they couldn't always hide their ballet trained lightness and line. This centennial concert (given 2 performances at Goucher) was not an isolated event. As explained by Prof. Chrystelle Trump Bond, an Eleanor King project has been established at Goucher College. Nicolas has deposited the materials King left him at the college and they will be available to researchers. Ahearn, who heads the project, and her colleagues will teach King repertory to students in the Dance Department. There are many dance departments at colleges and universities in North America. How lucky it would be if each one adopted the dances of a neglected choreographer to cherish.

September 19, 2005
copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on September 19, 2005