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Showing posts with label Choreographer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Choreographer. Show all posts


VERDON, GWEN (Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon) (1925–2000) Dancer, Actress, Singer, Choreographer

The definitive Broadway dancer of the 20th century, Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon was born on January 13, 1925, in Culver City, California. A childhood case of rickets left her legs deformed. As therapy, her mother, a dancer with RUTH ST. DENIS’s Denishawn troupe, enrolled her in dance classes when she was only two. Gwen studied a wide range of dance styles, including ballet, ballroom dancing, and tap. By age six, she was a professional dancer, often billed as “the fastest little tapper in the world.” With fiaming red hair and alabaster skin, her beauty won her the Miss California title when she was 14. In 1941, Verdon eloped with James Henaghan, a  Hollywood Reporter journalist. After five years, they divorced, and she resumed her dance career. They had one child, James.

Verdon won a spot as an assistant to Jack Cole, a noted Hollywood dance coach. Under his direction, she made her Broadway debut in 1950 in Alive and Kicking, but the musical was a commercial failure. While working with Cole, she became the leading interpreter of his expressive, sometimes erotic dance style. She appeared as a specialty dancer in several films, including On the Riviera (1951) and Mississippi Gambler (1953), in which she choreographed her own movements. She was also hired to teach stars such as MARILYN MONROE and BETTY GRABLE how to move seductively on screen. Eager to get out from under Cole’s thumb, Verdon accepted an invitation from choreographer Michael Kidd to audition for his Broadway show Can-Can. Cast as the second female lead, she stole the show during its tryouts. The show’s jealous lead, the French actress Lilo, insisted Verdon’s role be cut back. Verdon was so annoyed that she announced that she would soon be leaving the production. The night  Can-Can premiered on Broadway, however, Verdon became an instant star. After she performed her first number, she rushed to her dressing room for a costume change. She did not hear the audience chanting her name until a producer brought Verdon, wearing her bathrobe, back onstage for a curtain call. After winning her first Tony for  Can-Can, Verdon became the hottest dancer in musical theater.

Her next show was Damn Yankees, the story of a baseball fan willing to sell his soul to see his favorite team win. Verdon appeared as Lola, the devil’s helper, and performed a memorably seductive dance to the song “Whatever Lola Wants.”The musical ran for more than 1,000 performances and won Verdon a second Tony Award. Verdon also starred in the film adaptation in 1958. Damn Yankees marked the beginning of her collaboration with choreographer Bob Fosse. They worked together on New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959), for which Verdon was awarded two more Tonys. In 1960, she and Fosse were married. After the birth of their daughter, Nicole, in 1963, Verdon briefiy retired from show business. In 1966, she was lured back to star in Sweet Charity, a musical about a dance-hall girl that was directed and choreographed by her husband. Exhausted by its long run,  Verdon surrendered the lead to Helen Gallagher before the show’s close.

Shirley MacLaine took over the part for the 1969 film version, though Verdon generously coached her for it. In 1971, Verdon and Fosse were legally separated, though they never divorced. They continued their working relationship, most notably in Verdon’s last musical, Chicago (1975). Verdon originated the role of Roxie Hart, a gold digger acquitted of shooting her lover. Audiences considered the show too dark and cynical in its first run, though it was revived to great acclaim in 1996. Her dancing days over, Verdon began taking straight acting roles in the 1980s. She appeared in small parts in several films, among them Cocoon (1985) and Marvin’s Room (1996). Verdon also was a guest on many television series including Magnum, P .I. and Homicide. Her television work won her three Emmy nominations. After Fosse’s death in 1987, Verdon emerged as a guardian of his artistic legacy. In 1999, she collaborated with dancer Ann Reinking—Fosse’s former lover—on the dance revue Fosse, which was awarded a Tony for best musical. The following year, Gwen Verdon died on October 18 at her daughter’s home in Woodstock, New York. That night, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in her memory.

Further Reading
Berkvist, Robert. “Gwen Verdon, Redhead Who High Kicked Her Way to Stardom, Dies at 75.” The New York Times, October 19, 2000, p. 21.
Grubb, Kevin Boyd. Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Damn Yankees (1958). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1991.


 THARP, TWYLA (1942– ) Dancer, Choreographer

In the words of critic Arlene Croce, the innovative dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp “swept away the ideological dividing line between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ and ‘pop.’” The eldest of four children, Twyla was born in rural Portland, Illinois, on July 1, 1942. Her mother, an aspiring concert pianist, gave her daughter her unusual name because she thought it would look good on a marquee. When Twyla was eight, the Tharps moved to Rialto, California, where her father built and operated a drive-in theater. He also constructed the family home, which included a room equipped with a dance fioor and ballet barre. Blessed with perfect pitch, Twyla started taking piano lessons from her mother before she was two. She later added classes in social dance, ballet, violin, drums, and baton. By negotiating a highly demanding schedule of lessons, she developed an impressive self-discipline that characterized her adult career. After high school, Tharp entered Pomona College in California, intending to become a psychiatrist. Three semesters later, she transferred to New York City’s Barnard College with the new goal of becoming a dancer. While majoring in art history at Barnard, Tharp studied ballet at the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and modern dance with MARTHA GRAHAM, Merce Cunningham, and Erick Hawkins. While in college, she married fellow student Peter Young. This marriage and a second one to artist Bob Huot ended in divorce. Jesse, her son by Huot, was born in 1971.

Graduating in 1963, Tharp joined the Paul Taylor Company, but her ambition and independence moved her to quit in order to form her own troupe the next year. Initially an all-woman company, the troupe appeared primarily in nontheater spaces, such as gyms, museums, and parks. In keeping with the avant-garde currents of the day, Tharp’s dances tended toward minimalism in movement and in stage design. The pinnacle of her minimalist stage was Fugue (1970). The piece was performed without music, though its three dancers wore high-heeled boots equipped with microphones to create their own accompaniment. Critics saw a new warmth and wit in Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls (1971), during which her dancers wore backless tuxedos while moving to the music of early jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. Tharp also played with music in  The Bix Pieces (1971). Though Tharp choreographed the work to Franz Joseph Haydn’s Opus 76, it was performed to the jazz of Bix Beiderbecke. Tharp’s breakthrough work,  Deuce Coupe (1973), was also a hallmark in modern dance history. Commissioned by the Joffrey Ballet, it was performed to 14 songs by the Beach Boys in front of a set painted anew before each performance by teenage graffiti artists. The choreography—an eclectic mix of movements from ballet, Graham technique, popular dances, tap, and jazz—was performed by dancers from the Joffrey and from Tharp’s own company. One critic called it “a dialogue between American ballet and American Bandstand, which makes both seem more wonderful for the comparison.”

The enormous success of  Deuce Coupe made Tharp modern dance’ s most popular choreographer to “cross over,” that is, to work in both classical and modern styles. She choreographed As Time Goes By (1973) for the Joffrey and then created five works for the ABT. There, she worked with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she developed a close professional and personal relationship. With him in mind, she choreographed  Push Comes to Shove (1976), which dramatized the tensions between a ballet company and its star dancer. Other notable works by Tharp include  Brahms-Handel (1984) for the New York City Ballet and Rules of the Game (1989) for the Paris Opera Ballet. Always fascinated by film since working at her parents’ drive-in, Tharp also welcomed movie and television projects. She choreographed dance sequences in three films directed by Milos FormanHair (1979),  Ragtime (1980), and  Amadeus (1984)—and created a dance number for Baryshnikov and tap dancer Gregory Hines in White Nights (1985). Tharp and her works have also been the subject of several television specials, most notably Making Television Dance (1977),  Baryshnikov by Tharp (1985), and Twyla Tharp: Oppositions (1996). Tharp’s interest in narrative has also led her to work on creating evening-long theater pieces. In both When We Were Very Young (1980) and The Catherine Wheel (1981), she told the story of chaotic, dysfunctional families. In 1985, on Broadway, she created choreography for Singing in the Rain—a stage adaptation of the classic 1952 movie musical Singin’ in the Rain. The result was slammed by critics, though audience demand kept the show running for a year.

Stung by the bad reception of  Singing in the Rain, Tharp’s company lost some of its central members. This problem, combined with Tharp’s weariness with continual fund-raising, led her to disband the group in 1988. The same year, she joined Baryshnikov at the ABT, where she served as an artistic associate. When Baryshnikov left the company a year later, Tharp followed suit. Tharp has since toured frequently, putting ogether temporary troupes of talented young dancers. In addition to choreographing new works for the ABT, New York City Ballet, and the Boston Ballet, she wrote her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove (1992). For the new energy she brought to both classical ballet and modern dance, Tharp was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1992. In 1997, she was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Throughout the 1990s, Tharp was in demand as a freelance choreographer. Among the companies she created dances for were the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, and the American Ballet Theater. She formed a new company, the Twyla Tharp Dance company, in 2000 and began developing a dance school in Brooklyn, New York. In 2001, Tharp explained that she now wants to work with only “great” dancers, defining greatness as “ambition, sweetness, personableness . . . I mean there’s something absolutely connected, a commitment that goes beyond sincerity. English does not supply the right descriptions for greatness—you just feel it.”

Further Reading
Rogosin, Elinor.  The Dance Makers: Conversations with American Choreographers. New York: Walker, 1980.
Tharp, Twyla.  Push Comes to Shove. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra & More . . . (1984). Kultur Video, VHS, 1991.
The Catherine Wheel (1982). Elektra/Asylum, VHS, 1992.
Hair (1979). MGM Home Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1999/2000.

HELEN TAMIRIS (Helen Becker)

TAMIRIS, HELEN (Helen Becker) (ca. 1902–1966) Dancer, Choreographer

One of modern dance’s greatest champions, Helen Tamiris was born Helen Becker on April 23 of 1902 or 1903. Raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, she tried to escape the trials of tenement life by studying interpretive dance at the Henry Street Settlement House. By 15, she was a professional dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She soon quit the Metropolitan to join the Bracale Opera Company on a tour through South America. There, a lover rechristened her “Tamiris” after an ancient Persian queen. She subsequently adopted first Tamiris, then Helen Tamiris as her stage name. Feeling hemmed in by the highly regimented ballet technique, Tamiris gravitated toward the improvisational dance style pioneered by ISADORA DUNCAN in the 1920s. While studying at Duncan’s studio, Tamiris made ends meet dancing at nightclubs. For six months, she also appeared in the Music Box Revue, sharing the stage with vaudeville legend FANNY BRICE.

In 1927 Tamiris abandoned these popular dance venues to organize her own modern dance concerts. In addition to performing as the lead dancer, she choreographed and designed the costumes for seven concerts held in New York and Europe. These early works were consciously provocative, stretching the limits of what modern dance could be. In  1927 (1927), Tamiris became one of the first dancers to perform to jazz. In The Queen Walks in the Garden (1927), she performed without musical accompaniment. And in  Subconscious (1927), she dared to appear on stage in the nude.

Despite her innovations, Tamiris had less impact on modern dance than her contemporaries MARTHA GRAHAM and  DORIS HUMPHREY, largely because Tamiris never developed a uniform technique. She instead encouraged her students to find their own natural style. In an era when modern dance purists held that dance should be abstract and free of content, Tamiris invited criticism for her insistence that movement be inspired by specific feelings and motivations. As Tamiris wrote in 1927, “The dance of today must . . . be vital, precise, spontaneous, free, normal, natural and human.”Tamiris was far more infiuential as a passionate promoter of modern dance. In 1930 and 1931, she was instrumental in organizing the Dance Repertory Theater, a week-long revue that showcased works of the day’s leading choreographers. She also helped organize the Dance Association (later renamed the American Dance Association), an organization dedicated to looking out for dancers’ financial interests.

After the establishment of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project, Tamiris was the leading force behind its Dance Project, which staged modern dance performances using federal funds. The Dance Project sponsored several of Tamiris’s greatest works, including How Long Brethrenfi (1937), which won  Dance Magazine’s first annual award for choreography. Refiecting her long-time interest in social issues, Brethren, a commentary on the plight of American blacks, was performed to spirituals sung by an African-American choir. Although often branded as a communist sympathizer because of her politics, Tamiris contributed to the war effort by dancing in a show organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She appeared as “Porterhouse Lucy” in a dance piece meant to caution Americans not to buy rationed goods on the black market. Tamiris stopped performing in 1944 to devote herself to choreographing Broadway musical comedies. Although many choreographers resisted working in the popular theater, she embraced the chance to bring her style of dance to a larger audience. Often working with her former student Daniel Nagrin (whom she married in 1946), Tamiris choreographed 18 shows during the 1940s and 1950s. Among them were Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Touch and Go (1949), for which she won a Tony Award. In 1960 Tamiris and her husband formed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company, which dissolved after the couple separated in 1964. Two years later, suffering from cancer, Helen Tamiris died on August 4 at the age of 63. In her will, she bequeathed a third of her estate to further the cause of American modern dance, a mission the Tamiris Foundation was subsequently founded to pursue.

Further Reading
Schlundt, Christena L. “Tamiris: A Chronicle of Her Dance Career, 1927–1955.” Studies in Dance History 1 (fall-winter 1989): 65–154.
Tamiris, Helen. “Tamiris in Her Own Voice: Draft of an Autobiography.” Edited by Daniel Nagrin.  Studies in Dance History 1 (fall-winter 1989): 1–64.


MONK, MEREDITH (1942– ) Performance Artist, Composer, Choreographer

“I combine forms weaving together music, movement, film, object, light and ambiance,” wrote Meredith Monk in 1996 of the performances that have made her a leading force in the American avant-garde. On November 20, 1942, Monk was born in Lima, Peru, where her mother, a professional singer, was on tour. She has claimed that she learned to sing before she could talk. At three she began taking dancing lessons, and at 16 she began composing music.

Monk formally studied performing arts at Sarah Lawrence College, where she embraced the school’s interdisciplinary approach. In addition to studying composition, opera, and chamber music, she concentrated on dance, learning both classical ballet and the modern dance techniques pioneered by DORIS HUMPHREY and Merce Cunningham.

After graduating in 1964, Monk moved to New York City, where she joined the innovative Judson Dance Theater and became involved in happenings and off-Broadway theater. Monk also began creating her own works, which combined music, dance, theater, and film. Early solo pieces included Break (1964), during which she moved across the stage accompanied by an audio tape of car crashes, and 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966), in which a film was projected onto her body.

In 1968, Monk founded her own company, The House. Ten years later, it was expanded to include the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble to perform her vocal compositions. In many of her early experiments with The House, she created site-specific performances designed for nontraditional spaces. Juice (1969), for example, was performed over three nights—the first at the Guggenheim Museum, the second at a Barnard College theater, and the third at Monk’s loft. Another piece, the Opie-award winning Vessel (1971), about Joan of Arc, began in Monk’s home and ended in a parking lot.

Monk’s work drew the attention of a larger audience with the success of Quarry (1976), which earned her a second Opie. It dealt with a sickly girl’s perceptions of World War II and the Holocaust. Monk again explored the effects of war in Specimen Days (1981), in which performers playing two Civil War–era families—one from the North, the other from the South—occupied separate sections of the stage.

More recently, Monk has been acclaimed for Atlas (1991), a full-length opera that premiered at the Houston Grand Opera. It examined the spiritual journey of a woman played by Monk and inspired by explorer Alexandra David-Neel. Also well-received were  American Archaeology No. 1: Roosevelt Island (1996) and Politics of Quiet (1996). In 1995 Monk was given a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, just one of the many honors she has received for her pioneering work.

Further Reading
Jowitt, Deborah, ed. Meredith Monk. Baltimore Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Kreemer, Connie, ed. Further Steps: Fifteen Choreographers on Modern Dance. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Four American Composers: Meredith Monk (1983). Unapix, VHS, 1991.
Our Lady of Late.Wergo, CD, 2000.


JAMISON, JUDITH (1944– ) Dancer, Choreographer

Long the lead dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), Judith Jamison was born in Philadelphia on May 10, 1944. With a keen interest in the arts, her parents enrolled her in the Judimar School of Dance when she was six. Almost immediately, she emerged as a prodigy. During her 11 years at the school, she received a firm grounding in ballet as well as instruction in tap, jazz, and acrobatics. After graduating from high school, Jamison received a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, where she studied psychology. She completed her freshman year before deciding to renew her commitment to dance. Jamison returned home and began attending the Philadelphia Dance Academy (now the University of the Arts). While taking a master class in 1964, she was discovered by noted choreographer AGNES DE MILLE, who invited the young dancer to perform her ballet The Four Mays with the American Ballet Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Once the ballet closed, Jamison decided to stay in New York City. She took a job operating the log fiume ride at the 1964 World’s Fair, while she tried out for professional dance companies. On one audition, Jamison danced for choreographer Donald McKayle for a spot on a television special. In the audience was McKayle’s friend, dancer and company director Alvin Ailey. Three days after seeing Jamison, Ailey called her with an invitation to join his multiracial company.

From 1965 to 1980, Jamison was Ailey’s principal dancer as well as his close friend. Her controlled technique and dynamic stage presence—showcased in early Ailey works such as Blues Suite (1958) and Revelations (1960)—earned an excellent reputation in the dance world. Graceful and elegant, Jamison was described by one critic as “a marvelous allaround performer—extravagantly tall with a purring kind of strength and a leap that looks as if she had been poured upward.” In 1972, Jamison became an international star with the premiere of Ailey’s Cry, a 15-minute solo piece he choreographed with Jamison in mind. Dedicated to “black women everywhere, especially our mothers,” the work explored the sorrows and joys experienced by African-American women throughout history. Other Ailey dances that furthered Jamison’s fame included Pas de Duke, which she performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov to music by Duke Ellington, and Spell, which paired her with ballet great Alexander Godunov.

After 15 years with the Ailey company, Jamison left to star in the Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies with tap dancer Gregory Hines. She also turned her attention to teaching and, with Ailey’s encouragement, to choreography. Her first work, Divining, debuted with his company in 1984. Jamison briefiy considered retiring but instead decided to work toward realizing her longtime dream of starting a dance company of her own. In 1988, she formed the 12-member Jamison Project. Just as the new company was beginning to establish itself, Ailey fell ill. He asked Jamison to take over his company after his death, and she agreed. In December 1989, she became AAADT’s artistic director, merging her own fiedging group into the more established company. At the time she explained, “Somebody said to me these are big shoes to fill. But that’s not what this is about. This about trying to wear my own shoes.”

As AAADT’s director, Jamison has dedicated herself to raising funds to take the company out of debt and to showcase both new works by young choreographers and the classic dances created by Ailey. To preserve Ailey’s legacy, in 1993, she herself choreographed A Hymn for Alvin Ailey. For this dance work, she collaborated with performance artist Anna Deavere Smith, who added remembrances of Ailey company members to the piece. In 1999, Jamison won an Emmy Award for choreography after Hymn was filmed for the PBS series Dance in America. The same year, her career as a dancer and company director was celebrated when she became the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts.

Further Reading
Jamison, Judith, with Howard Kaplan. Dancing Spirit: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Maynard, Olga. Judith Jamison: Aspects of a Dancer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
An Evening with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (1986). Image Entertainment, DVD, 2001.
A Tribute to Alvin Ailey (1990). Kultur Video, DVD/VHS, 2000/1997.