writers on dancing

Letter from New York

Noguchi and Graham: Selected Works for Dance”
Dance Theatre of Harlem School Reopens
A Note on Leonid Jacobson

I didn’t think there would be much new to learn about Isamu Noguchi’s brilliant sets for Martha Graham, but wow! Was I wrong! They’re even more marvelous when you’re a foot away from them than they are in the theater, and they’re pretty marvelous in the theater. Through 1 May 2005, you’ll be able to see many of the original set pieces for such classics as “Herodiade” and “Night Journey”—as well as archival films of the Graham company performing in the sets, some of the artist’s fine studies on paper for theaters and theater curtains, and, of course, massive yet also touchingly full of individuality, his nontheatrical sculptures—at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, a low-ceilinged, wooden-beamed, whitewashed environment, designed by Noguchi, that doesn’t compete with the work but rather makes it spring up and live.

From the press opening:

Francis Mason, critic and member of the Graham company’s board of directors, on the relationship between the choreographer and the artist: “It was always agitated, never peaceful. She always wanted something more, and he always thought she should have something less". Mr. Mason also related that when Graham and her company performed “Clytemnestra” in London, in 1963, he took Henry Moore (a sculptor known for his heroic minimalism and evocations of nature) to see it, and that Moore was “overwhelmed.”

Terese Capucilli, one of the company’s new co-directors (with Christine Dakin) and still, with Ms. Dakin, one of its two leading dancers, noted that, although the exhibition’s bed for “Night Journey” is the original, but it looks brand new because it had to be “refabricated and reconstructed” for display as it had been much battered by many Jocastas and Oedipuses over the years. She also said that in performance copies of set elements the company is trying to preserve that sense of layers of history which comes with the “nicks and cuts” of use. (I felt that sense keenly in the exhibition’s original mask for the Christ from “El Penitente,” with its sweat stains that go back to Merce Cunningham.) In response to a question about the rumor that Ron Protas, Graham’s heir and the company’s former director, had sold the Noguchi sets, Ms. Capucilli said that sometimes he had sold the originals, sometimes he had sold copies he said were copies, and sometimes he had sold copies that he said were originals. To put this show together, the Noguchi Museum worked with the Graham company to obtain both clearly labeled originals and performance copies from a variety of sources.


This past Saturday, Arthur Mitchell—former Balanchine dancer and the founding artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem—was in the lobby of the bright, modernistic D.T.H. Center for the Performing Arts on West 152nd Street, greeting by name some four-year-old students of D.T.H.’s Community Program as they returned with their mothers for dance class. In between greetings, he made time for the press, which was covering the school’s opening after a much-publicized announcement last week that the entire D.T.H. organization had been restructured, with a new board of directors, and donations of $1.6 million, including a personal contribution of $500,000 by Mayor Bloomberg, himself. The restructuring is being overseen by Michael M. Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.—the man who is credited with, as the press release puts it, “turning around the fortunes of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.” The release adds the happy news that “he will continue to serve as a pro bono consultant to D.T.H. for the next year.”

As someone who has been following D.T.H. closely from a performance by it in 1969—which featured the beautiful Lydia Abarca; the young, lustrous Virginia Johnson (her head haloed at that time in an Afro); and a repertory that included some fine renditions of Balanchine classics as well as highly theatrical and sensuous works by such choreographers as Geoffrey Holder—I went up to Harlem to see the school in action again. Mr. Mitchell greeted me with his customary iron handshake. Then he pulled me over to see the class of little girls (conducted gently yet firmly by D.T.H. ballerina Christina Johnson), saying, “You can tell even this early which ones find dancing natural.” He pointed to a girl of four who, during prances in a circle, not only pulled up on her legs and pointed her toes but also gave a grace note to the prance, like a filly—a slight, extra little motion of her leg to show off her lovely foot.

ABC News was waiting with its cameras, so Mr. Mitchell introduced me to the soft-spoken and readily informative Laveen Naidu, a native of South Africa who once danced for D.T.H. and who, for the past several years, has served both the school and the larger organization in several administrative capacities. Mr. Naidu’s real love is choreography. (He just made a good classical ballet, on point, for the student ensemble of Barnard College, which the students performed at Columbia’s Miller Theater.) However, he explained, his service to D.T.H. and to Mr. Mitchell is more important, and he’s leaving his choreographic ambitions behind to serve as the executive director of the D.T.H. organization, an entity that comprises the school (which offers both pre-professional and professional tracks), the company (now temporarily disbanded), and the Community Program. The executive director’s job is entirely administrative and managerial, and it includes major efforts at fundraising. As D.T.H.’s new executive director, Mr. Naidu, like Mr. Mitchell, reports to the Board of Directors, which has just elected six new members—some of them once members of the old board and a couple of them major patrons of the arts. The two men have had their share of arguments, Mr. Naidu said, but he added that, for all intents and purposes, Mr. Mitchell, the founder of D.T.H., is the reason for being here, “and my job is to try to realize what he dreams of, as much as is possible.” Mr. Naidu, another great handshaker, then turned to a lad of four, who was returning to the boys’ class (at D.T.H., boys and girls always have separate classes), dressed in regulation white tee shirt and black tights and ballet slippers. “I want a strong handshake,” Mr. Naidu said to the child as he took his hand, and he wouldn’t release his own until the student put all the strength into his grip that he could muster.

It turned out that Mr. Mitchell had a couple more minutes to speak until his next rendezvous with a network camera, and we went into a side office for the conversation. We spoke about his years with Balanchine, who, Mr. Mitchell said, spoke openly with him on many topics. One of them, it turns out, is the inspiration for “Concerto Barocco,” which was, Mr. Mitchell explained, some concerts by one Hazel Bryant (I didn't get to ask if he meant Hazel Bryant the playwright, or, possibly, Marie Bryant the dancer and singer), whom Balanchine heard playing in a nightclub. Mr. Mitchell also explained that, when he was hired by NYCB in 1955, he struck a bargain with Balanchine that the company would not bill him as the first Afro-American to be a dancer there, which it had wanted to do. “We had a pact,” he said, referring to himself, Balanchine, and Lincoln Kirstein: “No press. No one knew I was in the company. I don’t think the world knew what it took for him to hire me.”

Both Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Naidu said that the D.T.H. company will be back on its feet, although neither could promise when exactly. Mr. Mitchell said that some of the dancers had taken permanent positions elsewhere but that most of them said that they’d return to dance for him.

Mr. Mitchell also spoke about his larger dream of establishing a conservatory, offering both academic and technique classes, in ballet, music, and art. “It will be the only one of its kind in America,” he said. “And I’m working on laying the groundwork for it right now.”

As I walked toward the subway, I ran into former D.T.H. principal Lowell Smith, whose performance of the “Elegy” in D.T.H.’s “Serenade,” which I saw coached by Mr. Mitchell during the company’s appearance in Portland, Oregon in the 1970’s remains for me the standard to be met for the male role—and which I have never seen even approached by any other dancer. Mr. Smith, now a freelance teacher and choreographer, is affiliated with D.T.H. as a guest teacher at the moment. He has some strong opinions regarding the direction the company has taken in recent years—“I think it now compares itself much too much with Balanchine’s company,” he said, meaning, if I understood him correctly, that D.T.H.’s initial identity as an African American cultural organization seems to have been lost—and, as we discussed such high points of the company’s repertory as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo works and the “Creole Giselle,” staged by Frederic Franklin, and also the interpretations of Balanchine’s ballets, he and I expressed some differing perspective on some details. Still, his point about the loss among dancers across America of a sense of purpose in why they dance this or that role is very well taken. “Look at ‘Agon,’” he said. “That quick turn. [I believe he meant the moment at the beginning, when the four men on stage, standing in B+ position with their backs to the audience, suddenly swivel to face us.] “It’s not just a turn; it’s a snap! Like cards being flicked around. You have to know why you do every single step. When I learned ‘Serenade,’ Bill Griffith [who used to teach at D.T.H. in the days of cofounder Karel Shook and Tanaquil Le Clercq], told me, ‘It’s the “pretty boy” step.’ But he also went on to say that the boy is in conflict; every girl he encounters [during the “Elegy”] is different, represents something different, and has to be treated differently. In the end, he decides to follow his fate and leave them all, but he’s learned something. That gave me the key to the role.” Mr. Smith feels that, for whatever reason, this kind of imaginative connection hasn’t been available to dancers at D.T.H. in recent years. Like Mr. Mitchell, though, Mr. Smith also thinks that dancers need more grounding in music history and more intimacy with music itself, as a kind of song they sing while they dance, rather than something to be counted. “Music is an angel’s voice in a dancer’s ear,” Mr. Smith said. Then the train squealed into his station, and, with a wave, he was gone.


This weekend was to have been the beginning of a small festival (now cancelled) at the Florence Gould Hall in New York in honor of Leonid Jacobson (1904-1975), the Soviet choreographer, who was persecuted in his home country for much of his life, owing to his identity as a Jew. Jacobson’s work has trickled into the United States over the past 30 years—by way of the Bolshoi, which presented his evening-length Spartacus here during the company’s 1962 tour, and of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who danced the virtuoso solo Vestris in the 1970’s (a work made for him by the choreographer), and of Nikita Dolgushin, whose touring group presented some of Jacobson’s “choreographic miniatures” a few years back, and of the San Francisco Ballet, which, for one season, danced a portion of his suite of duets Rodin, as well as by way of one or two other Russian touring companies. However, the devotion that Soviet dancers felt toward Jacobson—such as the heartfelt tribute to him in Maya Plisetskaya’s recently published memoirs—hasn’t really been substantiated for U.S. ballet fans by performances in which his legendary genius is front and center. The planned tribute this weekend, which would have consisted of performances by ballet stars from The Royal Ballet and students from the Vaganova school and of films of Jacobson’s own company from the 1970’s dancing his repertory was intended to give a sense of his range as a choreographer of both storyless classical ballets and demi-caractère dances.

It is part of the tragedy of Jacobson’s career that he and his widow, the dancer Irina Jacobson, who now works at the Hamburg Ballet, in Germany, have frequently been the victims of fate in the effort to try to get his work seen in the West through dancing of sufficiently high caliber to display the choreography properly. Furthermore, although films exist of some of his greatest ballets being performed by excellent dancers who were taught and coached by him—films that show him to have been a choreographer of astounding and restless invention and musical brilliance—they, too, for the most part, are not available to be seen publicly. Jacobson’s repertory is one of the undiscovered treasures of 20th-century ballet, and one hopes very much that it will be embodied on the New York stage at full strength in our lifetime.

For the past 10 years, the Stanford University dance historian and teacher Janice Ross has been working with Jacobson’s widow, Irina, to discover and translate his essays and some of his remarkable letters, especially those written when he was in internal exile in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. The project continues. —Mindy Aloff

First:  Martha Graham in "Night Journe.", 1947. Photograph, Arnold Eagle.  Courtesy of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.
Second:  Isamu Noguchi. "Head of Christ" from "El Penitente", 1942. Photograph by Kenneth Noble, 2001. Courtesy Noguchi Museum, NY.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 42
November 22, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on December 6, 2004