“The important thing is that the art being created now be related to now, to our time. Art should be a reflection and a comment on contemporary life.” Modern dance pioneer Anna Sokolow wrote this in 1965 in Dance Magazine. Yet her art, which was always created in the moment, has a timeless and universal appeal, worthy of celebrating long after her death.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of Sokolow’s birth. In celebration, Artistic Director Jim May and his Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble will perform Rooms and Kafka at the Boston Conservatory, February 19–20. In April, they’ll perform a newly discovered Sokolow work, Murals, at the Joyce SoHo. And in October, the company will hold a gala celebration at the Ailey Citigroup Theater.
May, a disciple of Sokolow’s for 35 years, says: “I’m a bridge. I’m the one to transfer what she gave to me to give to the next generation.”
Sokolow was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in New York’s West Village, where she began her training at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Martha Graham and Louis Horst. Sokolow emerged onto the modern dance scene in 1929 as a member of the Graham Dance Company, and in 1933 she created her first major composition for a group, Anti-War Trilogy. In 1936, dance critic John Martin wrote in America Dancing: “From whatever angle Anna Sokolow is regarded, she appears to be destined for the front rank of the next generation of dancers—completely individual, forthright and unaffected.”
By the late ’30s she had formed her own dance company and was associated with the New Dance Group. In 1939 she went to Mexico, where she stayed for 10 years and helped to create the National Academy of Dance through the Mexican Ministry of Fine Arts.
During the ’50s Sokolow was creating works like Rooms. Of Sokolow’s iconic piece of choreography, May says, “Rooms changed the course of modern dance and it was the first work you could say was contemporary. Before Rooms, dances were about famous literary people, like the Moor’s Pavane. But when Rooms hit, it was about you and me, people on the street, performed to jazz music. It revolutionized how we thought about dance.”
How does a work like this, made in 1955, hold up today? May says, “Sokolow Theatre Dance toured France about three years ago and the teenagers would wait at the stage door. They would say, ‘This is us. These chairs represent us sitting at the computer and express what we feel.’” In November, May set Rooms on the Netherlands-based dance company Introdans, which performed the piece at the Netherlands Dance Festival. He is also reconstructing Rooms on the José Limón Company, which will perform it at the Baryshnikov Arts Center February 9. DT
Emily Macel, former associate editor at Dance Magazine, lives and writes in Washington, DC.