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The plan for this topic is to be about female choreographers, dancers and others involved with all forms of dance, not just ballet.

Katherine Dunham was a remarkable woman.  It might seem strange that this choreographer would also have earned bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Chicago, but actually her two careers fit together well.  She was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago.  Dance and anthropology started coming together when Katherine Dunham started the Negro Dance Group, which performed A Negro Rhapsody, with the Chicago Opera Company.  This resulted in her receiving a grant, the money of which she used to travel to the islands of the Caribbean to study the traditional dances there.  According to the website of the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, she “. . . revolutionized American dance in the 1930s by going to the roots of black dance and rituals transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all.  She was a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement.”

She and her dance company toured every populated continent.  In 1963 she provided the choreography for a production of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera - the Priestesses’ Scene and the Triumphal March and in 1972 she directed the world premiere of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at Morehouse College in Atlanta.  Katherine Dunham performed in and choreographed  numerous stage performances, was a choreographer in nine films and appeared in eight and has received awards and honorary degrees.    

But Katherine Dunham also worked  for a better society.  In the 1970s she moved to East St. Louis, where she strove to encourage the young people of the community to be interested in dance and the heritage of black dance in the hope that this would keep them out of trouble.  In 1979 she received the Albert Schweitzer Music Award “for her contributions to the performing arts and her dedication to humanitarian work.

The following are videos of dances choreographed by Katherine Dunham:

To start with is a 1 minute video from 1941 entitled Carnival of Rhythm  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lTcPgmZoj8

Here is a 12 ½ minute long video from the Library of Congress entitled A Katherine Dunham Sampler, showing a series of her choreographed dances - 1943 to 1956https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Rf8k2tqG3w

Next is a 3 ½ minute long scene from the 1943 movie Stormy Weather: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W23MYjH92coStormy Weather has an all black cast including, in addition to Katherine Dunham;  Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Dooley Wilson and Cab Calloway. 

This video is from a newsreel showing Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe performing Ballet Creole in 1952 (2 mins): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSTuO5E9_1g

Here is a short video, one minute, of a clip entitled Washer Woman from 1956: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dryZ5HZ1G38.

And lastly is a 3 minutes chlp in color from a 1961 movie called Im schwarzen Rössl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZdwCqSvkY0.

Tom,

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This post is about three innovative female choreographers who were active during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

Born in Fullersburg, Illinois c.1862 into a family of  vaudeville performers, Loie Fuller performed “skirt dancing” a dance form involving the lifting of  large skirts and improved on this type of dance by adding more and more material.  Further improvements consisted of adding rods to the costume that enabled her to extend the fabric outward and to incorporate projected color lights into her act.  These would be shown on to the fabric of her costume as she danced.  Using costumes of this type she danced at the Folies Bergere, the 1900 Paris International Exposition, the Metropolitan Opera House and the Boston Opera House as well as in many other European cities.  Her use of lighting encouraged her to develop lighting techniques and methods of coloring lights and she patented many of these innovations.  The costumes designed by Loie Fuller are most likely the largest dance costumes in any dance style.

Loie Fuller’s style of dance is having somewhat of a revival.  The dancer and choreographer Jody Sperling, the Artistic Director of Time Lapse Dance, has produced numerous dances based on the choreography of Loie Fuller and was nominated for a World Choreography Award for her work on the French feature film La Danseuse..  

Here is Claire de Lune choreographed and danced by Jody Sperling after Loie Fuller (3 minutes):   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y321YKUc7KY

This link goes to a 2 ½ minute video of Jody Sperling dancing as Loie Fuller at the World Choreo Awards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQTQ-_kw8pg.

The next video is 2 minutes long and shows short clips of a number of dances choreographed by Jody Sperling in the style of Loie Fuller.  Included is one performance on Arctic ice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ_Uwx60TdA.

This last video (2 ½ minutes) is an interesting one showing the Loie Fuller style in slow motion and with lights on.  The dancer appears to be named Audrey P.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6HKLwLV84A

Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco in either 1877 or 1878.  She is considered a major innovator in modern dance and has been referred to as the “Mother of Modern
Dance.”  She afterwards lived in both Chicago and New York and then in Europe.  While in Europe she studied Greek Mythology which influenced her dance style.  In 1902 she had a major success when she danced in Budapest and in time formed dance schools both in Europe and in the United States.  

This link goes to a 1 minute dance, choreographed by Isadora Duncan entitled Butterfly and danced by Chriselle Tidrick in New York’s Central Park: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGi1WKknNk4.

Here is a link to Isadora Duncan’s Prelude, dated c. 1900 and performed by Catherine Gallant, 3 minutes long: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXI4j2znVm8.

The following link is to a 3 ½ minute video of excerpts of dances performed by members of The Isadora Duncan Dance Company and choreographed by Lori Belilove.  It takes place on Midsummer Day at the Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island.  This seems to be the perfect place and time for such dances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SkMLuCP04k.   

Next is a short video, one minute, of a clip from the 1966 film Isadora, the Biggest Dancer in the World.  The music is Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Five hundred girls are dancing (running) to the music.  It’s not really a dance, but I like it and it displays the spirit of Isadora’s dance philosophy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bTmoyOWiEg.

The last of the three choreographers is Ruth St. Denis who was born in Newark NJ. c. 1878.  First she was drawn to the dances of Egypt and then the Indian subcontinent and later gave a performance of a Japanese dance - O'Mika.  She developed a dance program at Adelphi University and taught dance in Hollywood, California.  As was the case with Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis toured Europe. 

The next two links go to videos of Ruth St. Denis.  First is “Performing the Indian Noche in the persona of street dancing girl” one minute from 1932.  It is in black and white with sound: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBxcTDeQkJI.  Second is “Ruth St. Denis East Indian Nautch Dance [August 1944]” (3 minutes) - in color but silent.  It is possible that “Noche” and “Nautch” refer to the same type of dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnQI4K5UerY.

This link goes to a short 1 minute video containing pictures and short clips of Ruth St. Denis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4i-y0djzSaI.

The last dance was choreographed by Ruth St. Denis and is performed by Livia Vanaver (3 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deOidGqmUEo

Tom,

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Les Noces 1923 and Les Biches 1924

Bronislava Nijinska was born in Minsk (now in Belarus, then in the Russian Empire) of Polish parents.  During her long career she choreographed many ballets, but here I would like to discuss two of them - Les Noces (1923) and Les Biches (1924).  

These ballets differ in regard to feeling and perhaps meaning.  The first, Les Noces, is solemn, even stoic.  There is only one instance where emotion is shown and that is the bride’s mother’s sorrow in losing her daughter at the end of the third scene.  Everything seems to be done by rote.  Each person has their role to play.  For the most part the sexes are separated.  Then at the end with the newly married bride and groom entering the bedchamber we hear bells tolling and it seems to me that the couple or maybe just the bride is being sacrificed.  For some reason I feel that the bride and maybe her mother are the ones who have the least say in what is going on.  This may be my expectation that, in the case of arranged marriages, men are more in control, than women are.  Although even now men are more in control in general in the public sphere.  On the other hand it does seem that the groom has more robust movements than the bride, raising his arms more.  Also, I interpret the ending to show the next couple to marry.  The future groom is held up above the woman at the top of the pyramid (perhaps the future bride) by his friends and they raise their hands or fists in a sign of power.  It’s not that the ballet objects to marriage, but to arranged marriages.  Particularly women being dominated.  My understanding is that the toe work by the female dancers are meant to represent the icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.  

Les Biches has a whole different tone to it.  While the literal translation of the title is “The Does” the slang meaning of the title in French can refer to “The Little Darlings.”  Originally the title was to be Les Demoiselles.  I’m not sure if the title Les Biches might not be considered somewhat derogatory.  

Generally the dances are light and joyful, signifying that this is primarily a fun gathering of women.  The character who would be most in control is the Hostess, seemingly the owner of the house the party is being held in.  She does not appear to be married.  There are three male dancers who as they enter are posing as if to show off their forms.  They wear 1920s bathing suits, which seem strange to come to a house party like that  and sashes indicating that they won some type of contest.  In 1924 the Olympics were being held in Paris, so it may refer to that or given their posing it may be that they had just won a “beauty contest.”  Then there are the two women at the end who seem close until the moment they embrace when they hurry to different sides of the stage.  Embarrassment that they felt they were too close?  The woman in a short dark blue skirt with tights is referred to by various names, but perhaps the most telling is La Garconne.  “La” is a feminine pronoun and the translation of “Garconne” is “Boyish.”  So, is she a boyish woman, a woman who prefers to dress and act like a boy or man?  La Garconne and one of the male athletes are attracted to each other.  In the Rag - Mazurka the Hostess dances with two of the athletes perhaps illustrating her sexual prowess.  Further there is the voyeurism with the women hiding behind the couch.  This ballet shows a party primarily of women, who are enjoying their own company - a sisterhood - in the home of a wealthy woman.  They are not tied to traditional sexual relationships and behaviors and invited to the party are three men dressed in bathing suits.  

The costumes and set designs for both of these ballets were done by women - Natalia Goncharova (born in Russia in 1881) for Les Noces and Marie Laurencin (born in France in 1883) for Les Biches.  How do others interpret these ballets?  Are one or both Feminist ballets?  Also, I do not know the lyrics to the music in either of these ballets or what they tell about their meanings.  Does anyone know about this?

Tom,

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I’m surprised that there has not been any comments on the Les Noces and Les Biches post.  In particular are they Feminist ballets, can there even be a Feminist ballet, what would a Feminist ballet look like, are there other ballets that can be considered Feminist?  What are other people’s interpretations of these ballets?   

Tom,

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The list of Tony Awards for Best Choreography shows that out of the 81 awards given (some years more than one person won and no award was given in 1985) only 13 were given to female choreographers (16%).  Agnes de Mille won the first such Tony in 1947 for “Brigadoon” and Sony Tayeh was the latest winner for “Moulin Rouge!” In 2020.  Susan Stroman won four Tonys for Best Choreography (the most for any woman), “Crazy for You” (1992), “Show Boat” (1995), “Contact” (2000) and “The Producers” (2001), while Kathleen Marshall won three, “Wonderful Town” (2004), “The Pajama Game” (2006) and “Anything Goes” (2011).  Other women who have won Tonys for Best Choreography are Helen Tamiris for “Touch and Go” (1950), Gillian Gregory for “Me and My Girl” (1987), Ann Reinking for “Chicago” (1997) and Twyla Tharp for “Movin’ Out” (2003).

This category started out pretty good with two women winning within the first four years, but then no woman won during the 36 years between Helen Taniris’ win in 1950 and Gillan Gregory’s in 1987.  However, things seem to have improved as after 1987 to the present (2020) ten women have won out of 36 awards given (28%).  

According to the Dance Data Project (DDP) during the 2018 to 2019 ballet season men choreographed 81 percent of all works in the top 50 companies in the United States, women choreographed 17% and 2% were undetermined.  In addition 70% of programs were choreographed by men only, 4% by women only and 26% by both.    

On the more positive side, here is some information on Susan Stroman who won four Tonys for Best Choreography, as well as a Tony for Best Direction for The Producers..  She was born in Wilmington, Delaware on October 17, 1954 and started dancing lessons at age five.  By 1972 she was choreographing at local theaters and by 1987 she was choreographing off-Broadway.  Her first Broadway show was Crazy for You in 1992, for which she won a Tony.  She also was the first woman to choreograph a full-length ballet for the New York City Ballet when on January 23 2004, Double Feature: The Blue Necklace and Making Whoopee opened.  It appears that Double Feature is based on two silent movies, The Kid (Charlie Chaplin) and Seven Chances (Buster Keaton).  Other shows choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman include The Scottsboro Boys, Bullets Over Broadway, Young Frankenstein, The Frogs, Big The Musical (only choreographed).  She also co-choreographed for the 2000 film Center Stage.  Here is a link to 43 of Susan Stroman’s Productions: https://www.susanstroman.com/work/productions.  Clicking on the picture for each production gives a short synopsis written by Susan Stroman, a list of production credits and in some cases videos.

I am intrigued by Bronislava Nijinska and have written about her before.  Here is a short video (1 minute) I recently found showing her dancing the Snow Maiden and her Etude, as well as brief interviews by Tamara Tchinarova and Nathalie Krassovaka: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdoqxGd1oeA.

Tom,

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Four female choreographers.

Judith Jamison was born in Philadelphia on May 10, 1943.  She joined the American Ballet Theater in 1964 where she performed in The Four Marys and also danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater between 1967 and 1980.  After this she choreographed works including her Divining in 1984, Forgotten Time in 1989, Rift in 1991, Hymn in 1993 and  Reminiscin’ in 2005.  She rejoined the Alvin Ailey Theater in 1989 as Artistic Director.  

Here is a short biographical video, 1 ½ minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m3eVY7MoSA and here is another video (2 ½ minutes) showing part of Judith Jamison’s 7 minute long duet A Case of You to Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name, sung by Diana Karall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FV1ORSCttg.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp was born in Portland, Indiana on July 1, 1941.  In 2003 she won a Best Choreography Tony, as well as an Outstanding Choreography, Drama Desk award for her work on Movin’ Out and in 2010 a second Outstanding Drama Desk award for Outstanding Choreography for Come Fly Away.  She has also worked as a choreographer on a number of films including White Nights, Amadus, Ragtime and Hair.  

This link goes to Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section (3 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4KiBmWuTEU and this second link is to the Upper Room (3 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXObzKulJPA.

In 2000 Jacqulyn Buglisi choreographed Suspended Women, see here for a 3 minute video excerpt from the work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqaUnPZ1d38.  Ms. Buglisi was born in New York City on February 19, 1951.  She has performed as a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company and now runs her own Dance Theatre.  

The choreographer Jessica Lang grew up in a northern suburb of Philadelphia.  She has worked with companies such as the American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Japan.  

This video (3 minutes) is of her ballet EN choreographed for the Alvin Ailey Theater: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIdLnO4a1fI and here is a short interview of Ms. Lang talking about EN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=banLnMmJ0q4.

I found the following two short excerpts of Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations after Helene brought the work up earlier - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOmEnUjLtXc and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6gIvARhdfk.  

In watching the two excerpts I was struck with how women’s customs tend to be so much more interesting than men’s, not only in dance, but also normally.  I also noticed this in A Case of You, as well as in Suspended Women.  It’s not just these dances, but I think that in general the clothing worn by women is much more interesting than men’s, although less so in ballet.   

Tom,

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Agnes de Mille was born in Manhattan, NY, on September 18, 1905 and started dance lessons at age 14.  Eventually she became friends with Martha Graham.  In 1942 Agnes de Mille choreographed and danced the lead role in the ballet Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  Here is a 2 minute long video wherein she describes her choreography for that ballet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJPuk9dPJFI

The next year she choreographed the dances for Oklahoma.  I never before had an interest in that musical, nor the movie, but upon recently seeing its dance numbers I have become entranced by them.  Here is a 2 minute video of the Many a New Day number with Agnes de Mille describing what is happening:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afxtte6yT24.  Pay attention to the “fall down girl.” 

Next are excerpts from The Dream Ballet, again 2 minutes long and again with the choreographer’s description.  What is particularly interesting with this is that scenes from the musical are interspersed with the same scenes from the 1955 film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vBO7Q755oQ

Originally the dream ballet was to be light, having a circus theme, but Agnes de Mille disagreed.

“I said [to Hammerstein], this is the kind of dream that young girls who are worried have. She’s frantic because she doesn’t know which boy to go to the box social with. And so, if she had a dream, it would be a dream of terror, a childish dream, a haunted dream. Also, you haven’t any sex in the first act. He said, haven’t I? I said, goodness, no. All nice girls are fascinated by [the darker side of sexuality]. Mr. Hammerstein, if you don’t know that, you don’t know about your own daughters.”

See here: https://rodgersandhammerstein.com/oklahoma-out-of-my-dreams-the-psychological-canvas-of-choreographer-agnes-de-mille/

Here is an interesting 15 minute video of Agnes de Mille being interviewed about Oklahoma with excerpts from the Musical: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iW35nQUZdk4

Both the ballet Rodeo and the Dream Ballet are about a young woman’s dreams, either figuratively or literally.  

For those who may not have seen the film, like me or who would like to see the dance scenes from it again, here is Many A New Day (9 minutes):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrGwxrqzGe4 and the full Dream Ballet (15 minutes):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2D1loAVwiMc.  The lyrics sung by Shirley Jones in the Many A New Day clip shows Laurey to be a mostly confident and independent woman, even though she weakens slightly near the end. 

In 1947 Agnes de Mille won the first Tony Award for Best Choreography for her work on the musical Brigadoon.

Tom,

 

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