Arriving for a rehearsal at Eden's Expressway at 537 Broadway in Soho on a Saturday afternoon in February 1997, I bypass the claustrophobically slow elevator and head up the four flights of stairs. In addition to being a spacious dance studio, Eden's Expressway has been a loft performance venue since the 1970s. The metal bolt door is ajar, but I knock anyway. COME IN.
Upon entering, I'm stopped in my tracks. Suspended upside down on an airborne trapeze swinging by ropes with her legs in a virtual 180-degree split, auburn hair dangling, body wrapped in thick elastic exercise bands, she is stretching her muscles by torquing limbs and joints. No, it's not Auntie Mame, but our own indefatigable Frances Alenikoff! OH, HELLO DEAR, COME IN, I'M JUST WARMING UP.
Then 76, she's one woman who relishes confessing her age for the knock-out surprise and consternation it inevitably provokes, as she enjoys defying expectation at the beginning of her revered solo, “Re-Membering,” by blithely delivering, to great effect, her signature flash — an unabashed shoulder-high thrust kick.
Frances’ past is legendary and details spill out around the edges of rehearsals, talks, and phone marathons. Like many artists, she had a difficult childhood, with a demanding father and an enviably beautiful fashion model mother, who appeared in movies, then later taught yoga, moved to California, became a spiritualist, and knew Aldous Huxley.
During the 1940s, Frances began studying Afro-Haitian dance on scholarship at the Katherine Dunham School with celebrated dancers. Frances was championed and befriended by Doris Humphrey and Anna Sokolow during the 1950s for her chant dancing and independent quest.
She met Martha Graham in the dressing room during a cross-country train trip when she was 17, and combed Graham’s hair and conversed with her for an entire day as Graham confided conflicts she had with “Miss Ruth” — Ruth St. Denis, another legend.
Later Frances toured extensively with her multimedia concerts. She taught, performed, and choreographed as far away as Hong Kong and Alaska, and was pulled into dancing in an ecstatic Vodoun ceremony in Haiti while on a group tour organized by Jacques d'Amboise, to the consternation of the tour guides and the delight of the natives. She danced in the Temple of Isis in Luxor on an Egyptian tour with Jean Houston's Mystery School.
In June 1993, I saw Frances in a Mabou Mines studio production at PS 122 in a play about poet Audre Lorde called Blood Summer Rituals. Frances played Lorde's charmingly authoritarian teacher, a Mother Superior, cloaked in an austere black habit. Instead of Frances the dancer, here was a distinctive actress with an uncanny presence and a perfectly modulated, dynamic stage voice — eloquent, vibrant, and commanding.
She had always been an intuitive performer with spunk and gusto. When I grilled her about what kind of training delivered up that voice, she confessed to not having had any.
Well, not quite. An inveterate and captivating conversationalist, Frances brought several arts to the dance. Her voice was the key to her physicality, primarily through chant song, a primordially sprung vocalese that transforms lyrics into an abstract sonic mosaic that elides syntax or any specifiable language.
For years, I'd been researching material that informs dancers how to handle time and age — no small matter. And for decades and well into her 90s she turned age on its head, subverting its preconceptions, making it an adventure. Younger dancers were struck by the fact that Frances was one of the few dance artists who reinvented her art, her body, and her past, by transforming her lifetime’s experiences.
At an Avant-Garde Arama performance at PS 122 in November, 1996, before a largely young, hip East Village crowd, she made being 76 a thrilling challenge as she worked the audience, dancing to hoots, howls, and whistles, licking her fingers with enticing bravura, flicking her tongue seductively, staring them down, laughing, slapping her thighs, daring and cajoling them with chutzpah simpatico to challenge their giddy, in-your-face excitement.
Watching Frances work over an audience on opening nights, masterfully concealing the effort and activating voice and body simultaneously, was always a surprise. She climbs atop a boxed platform one minute, then hits the floor and continues on her back and side all while moving, speaking or singing — quite an accomplishment!
And her poetic narrative, performed in highly distilled discrete sequences, functioned discontinuously in performance. Her modes of mimetic variation transcend literality and linear development, the way a telephone line vibrates with several conversations at once. When we congratulated her after the performance, she reminded us that there will be many more octogenarians like her, but I reminded her, not for a while, and hey, lucky us, we're talking to one now!
I initially posed the issue of age with Frances after reading Simone de Beauvoir's Coming of Age (the French title is, forthrightly, Old Age; Sophocles didn't write “Oedipus Rex” until he was 89 — that got a laugh out of her).
Dancers...are trained and programmed for disposability.... How muscles, skeleton, and system change with each decade, and how to reinforce the body against time's assault, is still a little explored no-man's land.
Frances insisted the first secret is: You have to find your own dance. In 2000, Movement Research's “Performance Journal” focused on the topic of age and cited the fact that the body begins aging by thirty-five. Thirty-five? HA! Thrilled, she consented to write something, and we held out for her secrets. Everyone wants to know how she does it.
She said she needs three more lives to do all the things she's already committed to do in this one, so someone else has to tackle the job! We laughed about the motto pinned over her desk: God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I'm so far behind I'll never die. Over which desk, I ask — “New York or East Hampton?” “Both!”
Adapted from “What Frances Alenikoff Isn’t Telling,” by Kenneth King.