More than any other artist in the mid-1970s, Annabelle Gamson initiated unprecedented attention to the history of American modern dance. Her musically inspired, passionate performances of dances, choreographed by Isadora Duncan and others in the early twentieth century, brought about a resurgence of interest in Duncan’s work and her legacy, modern dance. Although Gamson was in her forties when she began performing Duncan’s dances, the dynamic strength and maturity of her physical presence, crowned by a mane of long white hair, distinguished her as singularly original.
Annabelle, the second child and first daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants Rose Loonin and Solomon Gold, was born in the Bronx on August 6, 1928, one year after Duncan’s death. From ages five to twelve, she studied dance with a family friend, Julia Levien, who had danced in the companies of two of Duncan’s adopted daughters, Anna and Irma Duncan. Gamson attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, but by age sixteen she was earning her living as a dancer and continued her education at the Professional Children’s School. She also studied dance with May O’Donnell, Helene Platova, and at the Katherine Dunham School, performing with Dunham at Café Society.
In 1950, she went to Paris to study with Etienne Decroux. On her return to New York in 1953, she performed with Anna Sokolow on Broadway and on television. She danced the cowgirl in Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo with the American Ballet Theatre. On November 21, 1958, she married musician Arnold Gamson. In 1961, her marriage took her to Europe again, this time directing operas. When the couple returned to New York, they settled in Westchester County, where Gamson devoted herself to raising their children, Rosanna and David.
In the early 1970s, Gamson resumed her studies with Levien, for there was something in Duncan’s work she had not found in any other kind of dancing. In 1974, at the American Theater Laboratory in New York City, she performed Duncan’s Water Study (Schubert), Five Waltzes (Brahms), Dance of the Furies (Gluck), and Étude (Scriabin), as well as her own work. The Duncan pieces made an enormous impression. Through her extraordinary performances, Gamson gave audiences the opportunity to understand and appreciate the craftsmanship of Duncan’s choreography, forever doing away with the rumor that Duncan’s dances were improvised. To generations of dance lovers, for whom Duncan was a legend previously accessible only through writings and artistic representation, Gamson imbued the dances with a musicality and dynamic spirit that, while never intending to mimic Duncan, gave some sense of what was essential in Duncan’s choreography and the apparent spontaneity of her performance.
Following this success, Gamson began work on the solos of another pioneer of modern dance, German expressionist Mary Wigman. Her performances of Summer Dance, Pastorale, and the Witch Dance brought her additional critical acclaim. Later, she added the solos of Eleanor King, an American modern dancer who had performed with the Humphrey-Weidman Company. She celebrated the twentieth anniversary of her solo career in 1994.
Gamson’s own choreography revealed the dynamic influence of her predecessors, and she passed on her knowledge of their work to younger performers. While still occasionally coaching younger dancers, in 1996 Gamson returned to painting, an earlier interest.
Dunning, Jennifer. “Annabelle Gamson: Gamson Dances Isadora.” Dance Magazine (February 1977): 47–50; Gamson, Annabelle. On Dancing Isadora’s Dances. Conceived, written, and produced by Annabelle Gamson. 23 min. 1988. Videocassette; Gamson, Annabelle. Interview by author. July 11, 16, 1996; Laine, Barry. “In Her Footsteps.” Ballet News (February 1982): 22; Tobias, Tobi. “She Brings Duncan’s Artistry Back to Life.” NYTimes, November 11, 1974; Trailblazers of Modern Dance. Dance in America. Produced by Merrill Brockway and Judy Kinberg. Directed by Emile Ardolino. 60 min. WNET, January 1978.