Women of Valor

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Prophet of Doom?

Anna Sokolow, 1910 - 2000

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Heather Kahn rehearsing Sokolow's "Rooms"

From her early treatment of problems such as juvenile crime, industrial oppression and the horrors of war, Sokolow moved later to more internal conflicts, examining the full range of human emotions engendered by life in contemporary society. As one critic commented, "[I]t is her depictions of the brutal loneliness and despair of urban life that have defined her."

In 1955, Sokolow premiered Rooms, a powerful portrayal of the terrifying loneliness that afflicts even people living in the closest proximity to each other. Unsettled by the work, critic John Martin wrote, "Its ultimate aim seems to be to induce you to jump as inconspicuously as possible into the nearest river." Ten years later, Sokolow completed Opus '65, a vivid depiction of the era's alienated youth culture. The withdrawn sufferers of Rooms now stood as an angry, disaffected group, tired of feeling isolated and disconnected. Yet their efforts at connecting were frightening and left audiences feeling shaken and disturbed.

Critics began to refer to Sokolow as a "prophet of doom." Yet Sokolow's choreography was rarely wholly disheartening or depressing. Rather, she retained a faith in the dignity of the human spirit and the human capacity for endurance that tempered the discomfort her work caused. As Clive Barnes wrote, "No one would go to Miss Sokolow for a good laugh—yet far more importantly no one would go to her for a good cry.... Sokolow's belief in humanity shines through her pessimism. Her pity and her compassion give her taut and tortured dances a justification."

Sokolow, moreover, had a lighter side, and her work could be humorous or lyrical as well as disturbing. A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime was a delightful spoof of lecture-demonstrations, while pieces such as Ballade displayed a graceful lyricism that contrasted with many of her darker works.

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Anna Sokolow's Players' Project performing Sokolow's "Opus '65"
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Jim May and Lorry May performing Sokolow's "A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime"
Notes: 
  1. Quotation beginning "[I]t is her depictions" from Jennifer Dunning, "From Urban Walks, A New Sokolow Dance," New York Times, October 31, 1991.
  2. Quotation beginning "Its ultimate aim" from John Martin, "Dance: Study in Despair," New York Times, May 17, 1955.
  3. Quotation beginning "No one would go" from Clive Barnes, "Dance: Pity Without Sentimentality" and "The Perfect Answer," New York Times, March 12 and March 26, 1967.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Anna Sokolow - Prophet of Doom?." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/sokolow/prophet-of-doom>.