Dance Performance in the United States
Dance has always had a special place in the Jewish community because of its capacity to heighten communal and individual joy at weddings as prescribed in the Talmud, at bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and on other happy occasions. The Bible contains many mentions of dance in celebration of important holidays and Israelite victories. Jews have always danced with the Torah scrolls in processionals on the holiday of Simhat Torah, and there are movement processionals on other holidays, as well as during the weekly Sabbath services. A very simple form of dance is even part of Jewish prayer, as the rhythmic rocking movement of davening (praying) literally embodies the notion of total devotion to God.
Jewish immigrants to the New World brought with them their ritual and celebratory dances. As families began to assimilate, the traditional forms of Jewish dance, as well as its central role in communal life, became harder to maintain in both the Ashkenazic and the minority Sephardic communities. Nonetheless, the bond between dance and Judaism remained strong, particularly as young women began to find their self-expression in the art of dance. Jewish American women have participated in all aspects of dance as performers, teachers, choreographers, company directors, producers, writers, researchers, dance critics, dance therapists, costumers and lighting designers.
American revolutionary individualism affected not only politics but also— through the modern dance movement, which was created in the main by gentile dancers—the art of dance. Isadora Duncan was the first to break with the classical ballet world in the early 1900s. She was followed by the Denishawn troupe of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, which nurtured Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. They in turn left to form companies in New York in the 1920s and 1930s.
The development of the American modern dance movement from the 1920s through the 1950s centered in New York City, which was also the site of America’s largest Jewish community. Working-class and poor Jewish immigrant parents on the Lower East Side sought out culture and education in the arts for their children, often as a vehicle for assimilation. Ironically, many of these same parents disapproved when dance became their children’s chosen profession.
Duncan Dancers. Julia Levien was born in New York City in 1911 to Rashel Wetrinsky, a Yiddish poet, and Benjamin Levien, both from Russia. She is considered one of the premier teachers of the Isadora Duncan dance style and was one of the four core performers in the company of one of Duncan’s adopted daughters, Irma Duncan. (The others, also Jewish, were Sonja Gaze, Mignon Garlin, Ruth Fletcher and Hortense Kooluris). Levien found in Yiddish dance a style suited to express her own ideas. From 1945 to 1948, in New York, she choreographed for the Yiddish Folksbiene, part of the Workmen’s Circle Theater Project. Through the Workmen’s Circle connection, she toured throughout the United States with her solo dance shows. In the late 1940s she partnered Benjamin Zemach, choreographer of Jewish dance programs. She also taught at Camp Boiberik and at the Sholom Aleichem House of Cooperative Living in New York City. The Philadelphia Duncan studio of Jewish dancer Riva Hoffman was also influential.
Another dancer in the Duncan style was Annabelle Gamson, born Annabelle Gold on August 6, 1928 in New York City. She began with Julia Levien and went on to perform on Broadway in Jerome Robbins’s On the Town and in Finian’s Rainbow. She also occasionally performed with Anna Sokolow’s concert group and American Ballet Theater, but is best known as an interpreter of Duncan’s dances, which she reconstructed and took on extensive tours.
The Denishawn Company. Gentile dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn apparently discriminated against Jews and their important Denishawn Company and schools had a quota system limiting Jewish students. Nevertheless, Klarna Pinska succeeded in becoming one of St. Denis’s protégés. Pinska was raised in a Jewish family in Winnipeg and saw Ruth St. Denis there on a vaudeville theater tour, then moved to California and worked as St. Denis’s personal maid in exchange for classes. Eventually she taught at the Denishawn schools in Los Angeles and New York but performed only rarely, most notably in the 1930 Lewisohn Stadium concert presentation of St. Denis’s A Buddhist Festival. In 1976 Pinska restaged Denishawn works for the Joyce Trisler Dance Company in New York.
The Graham Company. The gentile dancer Martha Graham, Ted Shawn’s protégée, did not share his antisemitism. Graham left Denishawn together with the German-American Louis Horst and in 1926 started choreographing group works in which she included Jewish dancers, drawing heavily from her dance classes at the Lower East Side’s Neighborhood Playhouse. From this group there emerged Jewish choreographers such as Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow and Lillian Shapero. Pearl Lang, from a later Graham Company period, also became a noted choreographer using Jewish themes. Among many Jewish Graham dancers were Frieda Flier (Los Angeles, c. 1917–Los Angeles, December 11, 2004), Isabel Fisher, Miriam Cole, Marjorie (Mazia) Guthrie, Nelle Fisher, Gertrude Shurr (who was Graham’s assistant and went on to teach at the High School of Performing Arts in New York), Nina Fonaroff (d. August 14, 2003), Elizabeth Halpern, Lily Mehlman, Marie Marchowsky (who joined the New Dance Group), Lili Mann and Linda Margolies Hodes, who performed in Graham’s Company, and then was given the responsibility of overseeing the Graham repertoire donated to the Batsheva Dance company in Israel. When Hodes left Israel, the Graham repertoire could no longer be performed. She directed Paul Taylor’s second company and his school and also serves as rehearsal director of other New York modern dance companies. Additional Jewish Graham dancers were Thelma Babitz, Sydney Brenner, Mattie Haim, Pauline Nelson (who went on to dance with Helen Tamiris), Florence Schneider, Ruth White, Frima Nadler, Mary Radin, Lillian Ray (also known as Rae Moses), Carol Fried and Nina Caiserman.
Nina Fonaroff was a soloist with Graham’s company from 1937 to 1946 and assisted Louis Horst in his classes (1937–1952). She taught at Columbia University Teachers College, Bennington College, The Neighborhood Playhouse and also in England at the London Contemporary Dance School. She began choreographing her own work as early as 1942 (Mr. Puppet in 1947 was well received) and had her own company from 1945–1953. She later developed movement classes for actors.
The Doris Humphrey Company. The Denishawn Company spawned another major American modern dancer—Doris Humphrey, who also, like Graham, started her own company. Humphrey too, was much more open to Jewish dancers. Gertrude Shurr, who went on to dance with both Graham and Humphrey, remembers why she left Denishawn. “The reason I went with Doris (Humphrey) and Charles (Weidman) when they left Denishawn was because they stuck up for us. Here we were, all of us New York City kids, all of us Jewish kids … in the school there, and we thought we were going to be taken into the company. And only one tenth of the company could be first generation American. Everybody else had to be from the Mayflower. It was just absolutely a crazy thing. And I must say Doris and Charles left because of that issue. And we left with them. About fifty-eight people left the school just like that” (Graff 20). Humphrey’s troupe included many Jewish dancers: Beatrice Seckler, Eva Desca (Garnet), Saida Gerrard (d. Los Angeles, March 15, 2005), Marion Scott and Eleanor Schiel. Humphrey later went on to work at the 92nd Street Y (the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in New York City) and worked closely with dance performances on Jewish and Israeli themes.
The Henry Street Settlement and the Neighborhood Playhouse. Between 1870 and 1920 American cities expanded with waves of immigration. Among the twenty-six million immigrants were two million Jews, propelled by pogroms and other circumstances, the majority of whom settled in New York City (Tomko 80–81). The Henry Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side offered many programs to help Americanize the immigrants, including dance classes. Serving the predominantly Jewish immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York, the Henry Street Settlement was the location for important dance activity, spearheaded by Irene Lewisohn and Alice Lewisohn (c. 1883–1972). Although the sisters had professional training in dance and drama, their Orthodox Jewish father dissuaded them from stage careers. He did, however, allow them to work at the Henry Street Settlement, as he considered it a philanthropic endeavor. The Lewisohn family, well-to-do German Jews, lived on the Upper East Side (an area that included the 92nd Street Y). “Irene was always the sister more interested in dance (both she and Alice had studied the Delsarte system of movement with Genevieve Stebbins, chief American proponent of the system. … Irene studied abroad and had contact with Japanese Noh as a dance and ritual form, and in 1914 the sisters saw classes and productions at the Dalcroze School in Hellerau, Germany)” (Tomko 92). The Lewisohn sisters began their class work in dance and drama at Henry Street around 1905, eventually teaching rhythmic movement and creating seasonal festivals that combined ritual borrowed from Jewish religious celebrations with American civic celebrations using pantomime, dance and song. (Tomko, 93). (Three Impressions of Spring, Miriam, a Passover Festival and Hanukkah festivals were some of the pageants that they produced.) They outgrew the Henry Street facilities and in February 1915 erected a new building several blocks away (466 Grand Street) which they called The Neighborhood Playhouse (Tomko 105). The New York Times covered the first production, Jephthah’s Daughter, saying that besides giving children an “opportunity to glance into other lands and learn to understand other customs” such works could “revitalize and interpret their own traditions and symbols.” At the Playhouse there were productions, pantomimes, ballets and classes. Productions included The Dybbuk, a Haydn opera, The Follies, Petrouchka and La Boutique Fantastique—the latter two modeled on the Ballets Russes, which the Lewisohns had seen perform Petrouchka in Europe in 1914 (Tomko 114).
The festival choreography fell to Irene Lewisohn, assisted by Blanche Talmud, “a neighborhood resident who grew up performing in the settlement festivals, becoming an acting and dancing member of the professional company and a dance teacher on the staff. She aided Irene in choreographing pantomimes and ballets” (Tomko 117).
Blanche Talmud (c. 1900–c. 1990), pictured in the famous 1951 book Twenty-Five Years of American Dance, was one of the core members of the actor/dancers at the Neighborhood Playhouse. A student of Dalcroze eurhythmics in New York and Paris, Talmud was one of the most important dance teachers at the Playhouse from the early 1920s into the 1940s. Considered one of the theater’s “well-loved stars,” according to Lewisohn’s sister Alice (Limón, An Unfinished Memoir, 158), she appeared in such works as White Peacock, A Burmese Pwe (Festival) and Music of the Troubadors. She continued her career as a concert dancer, first performing in Adolf Bolm’s Ballet Intime in the Roshanara Chorus performances in 1917. After a number of Alice Lewisohn’s productions, she also appeared in 1931 in Humphrey-Weidman productions to music by Ernst Bloch, which included Doris Humphrey’s String Quartet.
Among the many talented Jewish women with admirable careers who began dancing in Talmud’s classes at the Playhouse were Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, Helen Tamiris, Edith Segal and Lillian Shapero. It has been reported that there was an “elegant setting and special atmosphere in Talmud’s dancing classes where the cramped quarters and the other grim realities of tenement life might temporarily be forgotten.” As Graff points out in her book Stepping Left, most of the dance principals in agit-prop or leftist populist workers’ dance, including Talmud’s students, Helen Tamiris, Anna Soklow, Edith Segal and Sophie Maslow, grew up during these years as children of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, heirs to an idealized vision of the United States (Graff 27). Revolutionary dancers needed to make a place for themselves to assimilate what were basically urban, foreign and radical visions into American historical myths and realities; those who lacked a place in American mythology were Negroes, workers, immigrants, Okies (migrant agricultural workers) (Graff 21). This urge to assimilate imbued the dances they created.
Helen Tamiris (April 23, 1902–New York City, August 4, 1966) began her dance studies with Irene Lewisohn and Blanche Talmud. When her brother suggested she be given dance classes to get her off the streets, she was taken to the Henry Street Settlement (Studies in Dance History 4–7). She studied ballet at the Metropolitan Opera and with Mikhail Fokine before joining the Metropolitan Opera ballet chorus. Her concert dance career began in 1927 and rapidly established her as one of the premier contemporary choreographers. In 1930 she succeeded in organizing a repertory company with the choreographers Graham, Humphrey and Weidman, which continued for two seasons. She then launched the Tamiris Group and school. Although she rarely used Jewish themes in her work, her dances reflected a commitment to social justice and responsibility learned by growing up in a poor Jewish family. She taught for Elia Kazan at his Historic Group Theater. Tamiris was one of the first white choreographers to depict aspects of black life, as in her early works Negro Spirituals and How Long Brethren?; restaged in the summer of 1995, these two pieces set audiences cheering at the American Dance Festival. Tamiris was posthumously granted the Scripps Award, which was used for scholarships in her memory at the festival’s important dance school.
During the Depression, when the federal government began to support the arts, Tamiris was instrumental in making dance a part of the Federal Theater Project (FTP). In 1935, as chairperson of the Dance Association, she convinced Hallie Flanagan, director of the FTP, to create an individual Federal Dance Project. Many of Tamiris’s WPA dancers were Jewish, including Paula Bass, Pauline Bubrick (Tish), Florence Cheasnov, Mura Dehn, Fanya Geltman, Klarna Pinska, Selma Rubin and Sue Ramos.
The historian Christena L. Schlundt wrote in an essay that “Tamiris never belonged to any exclusive set, although she instigated and supported many projects. … [T]he big four of Graham-Holm-Humphrey-Weidman, together with Horst and Hill, made up the Bennington group. Tamiris was too much of a maverick to be happy in a rarefied college atmosphere or satisfied with the esoteric artistic stratosphere which these artists inhabited. Nor did she belong to the revolutionary dancers like Anna Sokolow who were submerged in protest and propaganda. Tamiris believed too much in the power of the individual to let herself be lost among or be used by the proletarian masses” (Tamiris, Studies in Dance History 1989–1990, 87). In 1941 Corinne Chochem, her sister Fanya and Sue Ramos performed with Daniel Nagrin, Tamiris’s dance partner and husband. Tamiris is perhaps most noted for her remarkable Broadway career. She choreographed Up in Central Park (1945), Showboat (1946), Annie Get Your Gun and Park Avenue (1946), Inside USA (1948), the Tony award-winning Touch and Go (1949), Great To Be Alive and Bless You All (1950), Fanny (1954) and The Lady From Colorado (1964). She received Dance Magazine Awards in 1937 and 1950.
One of the young women who performed in Tamiris’s How Long Brethren? was Dorothy Perron (née Weinberg), who also performed with Gypsy Rose Lee at a rally to protest the Spanish Civil War in 1939. To make ends meet, Perron served as an artist’s model for Ben Shahn and Moses and Rafael Soyer. She enrolled at the beginning of the Juilliard dance program (even though a mother of three). In the 1950s she opened her own school of dance in New Milford and raised a family, inspiring her daughter Wendy Perron, who also became a professional dancer (see Writers and Researchers).
Born on February 9, 1912 in New York City, Anna Sokolow grew up on the Lower East Side in the heart of the Jewish ghetto. Her personal experiences of poverty affected her ideas of social justice, later reflected in her choreography and politics. Sokolow joined Graham’s company in 1930 and stayed until 1939; during this period she began to perform her own work. She also collaborated with the New Dance League, whose Jewish dancers included Sophie Maslow and Lily Mehlman. In the 1940s Sokolow began to explore her Jewish heritage, creating Kaddish (1945), The Dybbuk (1951), Rooms (1955) and her elegy for the Holocaust, Dreams (1961). She also created a Purim pageant (1952) and an Israel Bonds program in Madison Square Garden (October 1953).
In 1953 Jerome Robbins invited Sokolow to go to Israel to coach the gifted Yemenite Jewish dancers of the new Inbal Dance Company in modern and ballet technique and theater skills. She spent several years helping to mold the company into an internationally famous professional dance troupe. One of Inbal’s lead dancers, Margalit Oved, left in 1965 and in 1967 began to teach at UCLA; she also directed her own company from 1971 to 1993 and was the subject of the Allegra Fuller Snyder film Gestures of Sands. She lived in Israel from 1994 to 1996, directing Inbal, and then returned to Los Angeles.
While in Israel, Sokolow also choreographed for a small repertory company called Bamat Mahol and established her own company, the Lyric Theater (1963–1964). Ze’eva Cohen, who trained with Gertrud Kraus, joined Sokolow’s company and later followed her to New York, where she established her own career.
Another of Blanche Talmud’s dance students was Edith Segal (November 11, 1902– New York City, 1997), who for twelve years acted and danced at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Later she earned a scholarship with the ballet dancer Michael Mordkin and then began her own work—even though her immigrant mother disparagingly called her a bummarke (bum) for working in dance professionally. As early as 1930 her pageant The Belt Goes Red at Madison Square Garden celebrated the Soviet Union, which she visited the next year. The dance theme was taken from the assembly line and alienated labor. The influential producer William Kolodney of the 92nd Street Y was among those who refused to book her because of her far-left politics.
Segal often used Yiddish songs or Jewish music to accompany her dances. A Jewish Family Portrait, set to a niggun (wordless melody) and depicting an Ashkenazic family coming alive from a photograph in a picture frame, is witty and poignant in its simplicity. She used Jewish themes, she said, because there was a lot of discussion about antisemitism; she wanted working people to see her dances and to help preserve Yiddish culture. Segal made her living teaching dance in Yiddish secular schools, occasionally performing, and teaching every summer from the 1930s to the 1970s at Camp Kinderland. She is also known for her poetry and song writing.
During the Depression, many dancers who allied themselves with the working class began to choreograph using themes of class struggle and issues of survival. Leftist and communist cooperative groups developed a genre of dance known as agitprop. Dancer and critic Edna Ocko (see Writers and Researchers) was allied with many of these Jewish dancers and championed their art and their causes, despite the generally critical attitude towards them. Many of the Jewish dancers who studied and performed with the important gentile modern dancers preferred to make political statements of their own in dance. For example, Graham company dancers Anna Sokolow, Lily Mehlman and Sophie Maslow joined the Workers Dance League and in 1934 produced a concert in support of better wages.
Nadia Chilkovsky (b. Russia, 1908) studied at Riva Hoffman’s Van Pelt Street studio in Philadelphia, which was considered the only formal school in the United States for the Isadora Duncan style. Hoffman had studied with Duncan in Europe.
After Duncan’s death, arts manager Sol Hurok produced a new children’s performance tour in America under Irma Duncan. Chilkovsky became one of the chosen children. Later Chilkovsky studied with Hanya Holm and became a Labanotation expert, writing several Laban books. She also founded the Philadelphia Dance Academy. Perhaps most noteworthy was a dance program she produced with Miriam Blecher in 1934. The women had been at a rally of the unemployed when a young organizer was slain by the New Jersey police; this inspired them to launch a working-class organization for dance, the New Dance Group. Its slogan was “Dance is a weapon in the class struggle.” Chilkovsky told reporters that they believed capitalism was tottering and that they were helping to overthrow it with dance.
The New Dance Group
In her history of radical dance in America, Ellen Graff writes that of all the “revolutionary groups that had flourished at the beginning of the 1930s, only the New Dance Group had a continuous history through the 1940s–1950s, functioning as a school for education and recreational students as well as for professionals and as a producing agent for choreographers committed to dance making with a social and political conscience” (159). The studio, which moved to many different locations in New York, was directed by Judith Delman from 1939 to 1966. It supported the work of several of the radical Jewish dancers, ensuring them income from teaching and helping them to find other professionals to be in their performances and to work together in an idealistic, cooperative way. Rebecca Stein was active in the group and Muriel Mannings was long associated with it. Together with associated schools in several cities (including Detroit), the New Dance Group founders wanted to provide classes at reduced fees in an effort to spread modern dance as a viable weapon for the struggles of the working class. At first its performing group became part of the Workers Dance League, actively involved in left-wing politics. Choreographers included Sophie Maslow and Anna Sokolow, though the latter did not stay long with the group.
During the 1950s the New Dance Group was probably best known for Sophie Maslow’s The Village I Knew, based on Sholom Aleichem tales and featuring Muriel Mannings, Nina Caiserman and others. The cast was interracial, as in many New Dance Group productions. In 1953 New Dance Group Presentations produced a festival of works at the Ziegfeld Broadway theater which included Sophie Maslow (Graff 161). “Jewish themes had been part of the workers’ dance movement from the beginning. … Among active choreographers during the post-war years, some seemed specifically and exclusively tied to working with the traditions of Jewish life and within a folk genre” (Graff 164).
An exotic presence in New York was a Jewish dancer from Jerusalem, Hadassah (Spira Epstein), who came to New York in 1938 and made her professional debut in 1945. She studied with Jack Cole, La Meri, Nala Najan and others from India and the Far East. Her own programs in Israeli, Javanese, Indian and Balinese dance styles were seen through the mid–1970s. Her best-known work, Shuvi Nafshi (Return, O my soul), based on Psalm 116 to a liturgical hymn sung by Cantor Leibele Waldman, premiered at the 92nd Street Y on February 12, 1947. Other dances with Jewish themes included Israeli Suite, The Cantor, The Wanderer and Water. Hadassah was also a beloved teacher, known for her warmth; she taught at and headed the ethnic dance department of the New Dance Group for many years.
Gentile modern dance pioneer Hanya Holm, who had come to New York from the German expressionist dance company of Mary Wigman, had several Jewish students, including Mimi Kagan Kim, who became a professional dancer in Holm’s company and appeared in Trend. Another performer in this work was Marva Spielman, a member of Holm’s company from 1939 to 1941, performing in the famous Bennington summer productions. She had been in the Wigman school in New York but broke with the school when Wigman became associated with the Nazi regime. Later, when Holm in turn dissociated herself from Wigman, Spielman returned to dance with Holm, making her career in New England. Rheba Koren was also a performer in Hanya Holm’s company.
Holm’s most illustrious Jewish performer was Eve Gentry (born Henrietta Greenwood; Los Angeles, August 20, 1909–Santa Fe, 1994), the daughter of a Polish immigrant family. She first studied in Los Angeles with the Pavley-Okrainsky Ballet School, then German modern dance with Ann Mundstok in San Francisco and with Harald Kreutzberg in California. In 1936 she moved to New York where she danced with the Hanya Holm Company from 1936 to 1942. She appeared in Holm’s performances at the Bennington College summer festivals, originating roles in all Holm’s major works in that period: Trend, A Cry Rises from the Land, Salvation, Two Primitive Rhythms and Dance of Work and Play. She choreographed her own works, such as Tenant of the Street (1938), at the New Dance Group. When she married her childhood friend Bruce Gentry, printer and publisher, she changed her name. From 1944 to 1968 she had her own company in New York City and choreographed for it. From 1948 to 1968 she also taught at the High School for Performing Arts and was a member/teacher at the New Dance Group, where she taught Holm technique. In addition, she was one of the founding members of the Dance Notation Bureau, served on the dance faculty of New York University and also worked with Joseph H. Pilates for over twenty years. In 1968 she moved to Santa Fe where she opened her own dance studio and Pilates center; in 1991 she co-founded The Institute for Pilates Method. In 1979 she received the Pioneer of Modern Dance Award from Bennington College.
Other Holm dancers included Rebecca Stein, who moved on to the New Dance Group; Geula Greenblatt Abrams, a prominent figure in New Jersey who also had a company but died a tragic early death; Peggy Berg, a full professor at Colorado College; and Nahami Abbell.
Sophie Maslow, like Sokolow, Segal and Koner, started dancing at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Blanche Talmud’s children’s classes. Maslow remembers dancing as a child in Irene Lewisohn’s orchestral production Israel, which gave Maslow her first glimpse of Martha Graham. Maslow studied with Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse, graduating from its three-year course of study, which was comparable to a conservatory-college arts program. Jean Rosenthal, who was a fellow dance student in the program, became an important lighting designer for dance and on Broadway. Miriam Blecher was also in the course. Like Anna Sokolow, Maslow went from the Neighborhood Playhouse to the Graham Company. During her eleven years with the company she began choreographing her own works. She taught the Graham technique for the New Dance Group and formed her first company with some of her students there. Among them were Muriel Mannings, Anneliese Widman and Rena Gluck, who moved to Israel, danced with the Batsheva Company and has directed the dance program of the Rubin Academy. Programs and choreography by Maslow were seen inter alia at the New Dance Group, the 92nd Street Y and Madison Square Garden Hanukkah celebrations for the Jewish community. Her works most associated with Jewish themes are The Village I Knew and The Dybbuk.
Pauline Koner (June 26, 1912–New York City, February 8, 2001) was born to Russian immigrants who considered themselves Jewish intellectuals, spoke Yiddish and were part of New York Yiddish culture. Her father, Samuel, devised a pioneering group medical plan for the Workmen’s Circle. Koner started at the Neighborhood Playhouse, although she came to prefer studying with ballet master Mikhail Fokine and others, including Michio Ito. Her Jewish background included memories of dancing with her grandfather on Simhat Torah on the Lower East Side, with the observant men parading, holding flags and dancing with the Torah scrolls. By the time she was fourteen years old she was teaching dance at the Workmen’s Circle summer camp.
Koner, who saw herself as a loner, did not join in the left-wing groups or dance companies of her time. Instead she created solo concerts and had success touring. Thematically she occasionally drew on Jewish ideas: Voice in the Wilderness takes its text from Isaiah. Koner’s friend and fellow Jewish dancer Corinne Chochem went to Palestine and influenced Koner to travel there from 1932 to 1933; Koner also danced in Egypt and traveled to the Soviet Union in 1936. In 1945 Koner performed at the 92nd Street Y, where she met Doris Humphrey, who had just begun directing the Y’s dance education department in addition to continuing with her own company. During this period Koner began to dance with Humphrey and with Humphrey’s protégé José Limón; she was a soloist with the Limón Company from 1946 to 1960. “Stylistically versatile, she contributed to early television dance, taught dance around the world and choreographed stage shows at the Roxy Theater and several ice revues. Although usually categorized as a modern dancer, she was fond of saying, ‘I never had a modern dance lesson in my life’” (from the New York Times obituary by Jack Anderson, Feb. 9, 2001). In 1964 Koner received the Dance Magazine Award and a Fulbright fellowship to teach in Japan. In 1979 she went back to Israel and staged Cantigas for the Batsheva Company. In 1985 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts by the University of Rhode Island. She published two books, one on modern technique and the other an autobiography. Koner was married to symphony conductor Fritz Mahler from 1939 until he died in 1973.
Felicia Sorel (1904–1972), who worked in the WPA, was trained by Mikhail Fokine and danced at Radio City Music Hall. She became involved in, and eventually director of, the WPA Music Project’s Opera Division. After the war she created theater works, including a television production of The Dybbuk for CBS in 1949.
Lillian Shapero (January 17, 1908–New York City, April 19, 1988) was born into the observant Hasidic family of Jennie and Morris Shapero, but raised by her grandparents after her mother died. She always joined her grandfather in his little synagogue, where he encouraged her to participate in the singing and dancing. After studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Bird Larson and Michio Ito, she became a member of the first Martha Graham Dance Theater Company in 1929, remaining there until 1935. She danced the solo role in Graham’s Primitive Mysteries. In 1933 she made a name for herself choreographing for Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater production Yoshe Kalb; their association continued with The Wise Men of Chelm, The Water Carrier, The Three Gifts, The Dybbuk and other works.
In addition to Jewish themes, Shapero used political themes in her dances. Her group dance Dance for Spain—No Pasaran was presented in the 1930s. She toured widely and performed in Paris, London and Moscow, where she was the guest of the Soviet Theater Festival in 1937. The two types of dance she favored thematically were recognized in an October 18, 1943 review in the New York World-Telegram. Her Dances of the Oppressed and Anti-War Dance were called “revolutionary dances on American themes and dances based on Jewish folklore.”
When her works were seen at Carnegie Hall in1952 the Dance Observer noted in its August–September issue that the music to her dances was composed by Shapero’s husband, Maurice Rauch, conductor of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus. The reviewer commented that the performance was thrilling and that Shapero showed a great talent for group choreography and interesting contrapuntal themes which made the scenes lively and exciting theater. In the 1960s Shapero, by now considered an authority on Jewish dance, traveled to Cleveland to stage a Jewish Community Center production of The Dybbuk.
Another favorite Jewish dancer who began in the Graham Company, though later than Shapero, Maslow and Sokolow, was Pearl Lang (b. Chicago, 1922). Lang, who grew up in a socialist home rich in Jewish culture, was educated in the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish schools. Lang’s mother introduced her to dance when she was eight and she had her first exposure to the Graham dance technique as a teenager. She received a scholarship to the Graham school in New York and joined the company in 1941, dancing there for fourteen years. During this time, because of her charisma and technical prowess, she created leading roles in Graham masterpieces. In 2000 she returned to the Graham school as one of its master teachers.
In 1952 Lang was selected by the Juilliard School to create her first group work, Song of Deborah. Since then she has choreographed over fifty works, many on Jewish themes, for her own company, in which she has also been the leading dancer. The company has appeared throughout the United States and also in Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Israel and Canada. She has choreographed for the Boston Ballet, the Netherlands National Ballet and the Batsheva Dance Company (in 1982). Lang includes a Jewish work in every dance concert she creates. She has twice received a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1992 she won the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award, and in 1995 she received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Juilliard.
By the mid–1930s, as Europe edged toward war, Jewish dancers created works on humanistic concerns, opposing war, fascism and censorship and expressing sympathy for Spain.
European Emigrés to the United States
Meanwhile, Jewish modern dancers in Europe faced the deadly final solution of the Germans; some of those who managed to escape to America included Katya Delakova, Claudia Vall, Pola Nirenska, Trudy Goth and Truda Kaschmann. Their dance style and experiences were so different that they received less notice than American-raised Jewish dancers. Nonetheless, they persevered in their profession. Trudy Goth (Berlin, 1913–New York, c. 1975) studied with Harald Kreutzberg and performed with Angiola Sartorio in Italy. In 1940 Goth became Sartorio’s assistant and director of her school in Florence. Goth escaped to the United States, where she appeared with the Kurt Jooss dancer Henry Schwarze at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. She is known for founding Choreographer’s Workshop in 1946, which produced performances in New York, and she also wrote about dance in publications such as Dance Magazine.
Hannah Kroner, a dancer with the Jewish Kulturbund in Germany under the Nazis, performed in operas such as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in November 1937 in Berlin. Though the circumstances were pitiful, at its peak in 1936, before most of the deportations, the Kulturbund employed nearly two thousand Jewish artists, who were allowed to perform only for Jewish audiences in special concert series. According to Martin Goldsmith in his book The Inextinguishable Symphony (293), Kroner succeeded in emigrating to the United States with her family in November 1939. She created and ran the Hannah Kroner School of Dance in Bayside, New York for more than fifty years. She died on July 17, 2015 at the age of 95.
Hedi Pope (b. Vienna, March 18, 1920) was encouraged by her parents, Maria Berger and Oscar Politzer, to study the arts and trained with Hedy Pfundmayr, a soloist in the Vienna Opera, and with Grete Wiesenthal. In Vienna she danced at the Burgtheatre and in 1936 appeared in a film called Silhouette. She reached America in 1939 and performed in the Broadway cabaret revue From Vienna, a show sponsored by Irving Berlin and George Kaufmann in appreciation of European refugees. In 1947 Pope opened her own dance studio in the Washington, D.C. area, which she ran for thirty-five years. She also founded a professional company, CODA (Contemporary Dancers of Alexandria), in the area.
Truda Kaschmann, who had worked with Mary Wigman, settled in Connecticut, where she ran a studio; her most famous student was Alwin Nikolais.
In 1939 Katya Delakova (Vienna, c. 1915–New Jersey, 1991) fled the Nazis and came to New York from her native Vienna, where she had worked with Gertrud Kraus. In 1941 she was reunited with another Kraus performer, Fred Berk, whom she later married. Berk had escaped first to Cuba and then to the United States. Together they formed the Delakova-Berk duo, which toured university campuses, Jewish community centers and other venues along the East Coast. They established the Jewish Dance Guild and the Jewish Dance Repertory Group and taught and also appeared at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the 92nd Street Y and other Jewish venues from 1941 to 1950. They performed in the displaced persons camps in Europe in 1948 and in Israel in 1949. After she and Berk divorced, Delakova married Moshe Budmor, with whom she developed collaborative movement and music workshops and taught both internationally and in the United States.
Claudia Vall (b. Zagreb, August 11,1910) studied and danced in the Gertrud Kraus Company in Vienna and at Hellerau with Dalcroze. She performed in Italy with the company of Angiola Sartorio. Vall came to the United States in 1940 via Cuba, where she danced for more than a year with Fred Berk, with whom she had danced in Kraus’s company. In 1941 they performed at Hanya Holm’s summer festival in Colorado and at other venues. Berk went to New York, while Vall settled in Los Angeles with her husband, Dr. George Kaufman. She continued her professional studies with Michel Panaieff, taught children’s dance classes and choreographed for KTLA-TV.
Pola Nirenska (Warsaw, July 28, 1910–Bethesda, MD, July 25, 1992) grew up in a middle-class Jewish family opposed to her interest in dance. She studied ballet secretly until successfully bargaining with her parents to study with modern dancers in Germany. She narrated that she locked herself in her bedroom, refusing food for three days until her parents relented and slipped her passport under the door. However, her parents demanded—to no avail—that she never dance in public. In 1928 she used her dowry to study with Mary Wigman and others in Dresden, graduating from the Wigman school in three years with top honors. From 1932 to 1933 she toured the United States and Germany with Wigman’s company. With Hitler’s rise to power, Nirenska and all other Jewish dancers were dismissed, never to be re-hired. She returned to Poland in 1934 and participated the following year in the International Dance Congress in Vienna where she won first prize for choreography and second prize for solo dance. This achievement enabled her to tour Europe with a program of solo dances. With a scholarship from the Polish government, Nirenska pursued her studies further, first briefly with Rosalia Chladek in Austria. She was then engaged by the Opera in Florence until Mussolini’s persecution forced her to return to Poland. In 1935 she fled to London, where she married Count John Ledesma, a British film star and Royal Air Force pilot. In London she collaborated with Kurt Jooss and Sigurd Leeder and founded a studio.
In 1949 she emigrated to the United States with an invitation from Ted Shawn to perform at the ninth season of his Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. In New York she studied with American modern dancers including Doris Humphrey and José Limón and began teaching dance arts in Carnegie Hall and at Adelphia College. Her first concert was on February 16, 1950 at the Boston Conservatory. She moved to Washington, D.C., first working in Evelyn de la Tour’s modern dance school; she founded her own Pola Nirenska Dance Company in 1956 and in 1960 opened her own studio. With Ethel Butler and Louis Tupler, Nirenska founded The Performing Arts Guild, an association of modern dance companies in the Washington, D.C. area. Among her most prominent students were Liz Lerman, who went on to form her own company, and Rima Faber, who was responsible for staging some of Nirenska’s work, such as The Holocaust Tetralogy (which was performed in the U.S. and Poland in 2001 by the Silesian Dance Theater of Poland). In March 1982 the Washington Performing Arts Society presented a concert devoted to Nirenska’s choreography at the Marvin Theater. In July 1990 a concert of Nirenska’s works was presented in her honor at Dance Place. They included The Holocaust Tetralogy, with sections entitled: “Life,” “Whatever Begins Also Ends,” “Dirge,” “Shout” and “The Train.” The work is prefaced by a quote from Seneca: “In memory of those I loved … who are no more.” While Nirenska was fortunate always to be one step ahead of the Nazis, the loss of loved ones had a profound impact on her life. Her parents and brother escaped to Palestine, but seventy-four other relatives perished in Europe. Nirenska’s choreography expresses the Holocaust without graphically depicting specific events.
The Pola Nirenska Award for Outstanding Contribution to Dance, administered in D.C., has been awarded since 1994. It is supported by donations from her late husband, Dr. Jan Karski, whom she married in 1969. A second award in her memory, the Jan Karski and Pola Nirenska Prize, is a $5,000 stipend awarded annually by YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (devoted to the study and culture of Eastern European Jewry). Presented since 1992, the award recognizes contributions and interpretations of Polish culture and science by Jews of Polish origin.
Judith Berg Fibich (?ód?, Poland, 1912– New York, August 19, 1992) trained in the modern expressionist style in Dresden with Mary Wigman, but preferred to choreograph dances inspired by Jewish culture and Hasidic influence. Active in the Jewish Art Theater in Warsaw, she choreographed for Ida Kaminska and others. Before the German invasion, she ran one of the few credited modern dance studios in Warsaw, where she engaged modern dancers in the expressionist style and trained others interested in Jewish dance, such as Irena Prusicka and Rena Spatsenkop, who also choreographed for the Yiddish Theater. Most highly regarded is Berg Fibich’s choreography for the 1937 film version of The Dybbuk, created in Warsaw and restored in the 1990s at Brandeis University’s National Center for Jewish Film. After the German invasion she escaped to Soviet Russia and then traveled and performed with Felix Fibich, who had been her pupil in Warsaw. They married, after the war ran a studio for Jewish orphans in Wroc?aw (Breslau), escaped the Communists for Paris and in 1950, emigrated to the United States, where she became a specialist in teaching the elderly. The couple gave joint recitals at Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music and toured the United States, Canada, Israel and South America. Judith Fibich staged a Yiddish revival of Rebecca, the Rabbi’s Daughter at New York City Town Hall in November 1979.
An American-born dancer who became an expert in Jewish dance was Dvora Lapson (February 16, 1907–New York City, June 10, 1996) (also see Dance: Israeli Folk Dance Pioneers). Though she began her dance studies with Fokine, by the late 1920s she had become enthralled with Jewish dance. She traveled to Poland before World War II to perform and research dance. Lapson became the premier exponent of Jewish dance for Jewish educators through her work with the Jewish Education Committee in New York. Among her projects was advising choreographer Jerome Robbins on Jewish dance for Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. She also wrote about Jewish dance, especially booklets for the New York Board of Jewish Education: “Dances of the Jewish People” (1954); “Jewish Dances the Year Round” (1957) and “Jewish Dances of Eastern and Central Europe” (1963). She was the primary author of the article on dance in the 1971 edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
Joyce Mollov (née Dorfman; April 20, 1925–New York, September 11, 1989) was one of Lapson’s dancers who worked with her at the Jewish Education Committee. Mollov, who also performed with the Delakova-Berk company, received a master’s degree in dance education from Columbia University, was an adjunct lecturer at Queens College, directed the Jewish Dance Ensemble from 1967 to 1978 and coordinated the Jewish Dance Network for the Congress on Alternatives in Jewish Education. Since 1990 an annual program on Jewish dance has been held in her memory at Queens College.
With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish dance became synonymous with Israeli folk dance. Naima Prevots (b. 1935), who grew up in a strongly Zionist and bilingual Hebrew-English home, studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Natanya Neuman and at the New Dance Group and performed with Delakova and Berk, eventually becoming a dance author and a dance educator as director of the dance program at American University in Washington, D.C. Prevots remembers the particular fervor of Jewish dance activities, especially Israeli folk dance performances, which accompanied the establishment of Israel. Like many of her contemporaries, she was a dance specialist in Jewish camps teaching Israeli folk dance. A member of He-Haluz ha-Za’ir, she made speeches and danced in the subway for the Jewish National Fund while she held the signature little blue and white box to collect pennies and nickels. She also recalled evenings of Israeli folk dance at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and participating in Israeli folk dance performances at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and National Endowment for the Arts awards, she has written extensively about dance in articles and three books (Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, 1998; Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers 1915–1937, UMI Research Press, 1987; American Pageantry, A Movement for Art and Democracy, UMI, 1990).
Esther Nelson (b. 1928), an authority on children’s dance classes and author of articles and books about young children and dance, grew up in New York and danced with Delakova and Berk. Nelson’s parents were International Workers Order Communists and the family became part of the cooperative workers’ housing built by like-minded Russian immigrants. The children went to Yiddish schools in the co-op, which also housed art studios and an auditorium for lectures and concerts. At the co-op Nelson studied with Julia Levien before joining Katya Delakova and Fred Berk. Other young women who studied and performed with Delakova include Rita Chazen, now teaching adults dance in Scarsdale, and Sheila Helman, who is the head of cultural arts at a New Jersey YMHA. Shulamite Kivel, who escaped the Germans in her native Latvia, also performed with Delakova and Berk before specializing in Israeli folk dance at the 92nd Street Y and later in Florida.
The 92nd Street YMHA-YWHA. Berk and Delakova centered their activities at the 92nd Street Y, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, located at East 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue in New York, the largest Jewish community center in America. The dance offerings there were very varied, including classes in modern, ballet, tap, ballroom, and Israeli and Jewish dance; it also served as a showcase for performers and resident companies. Berk created the Jewish Dance Department there; the gentile Doris Humphrey headed the dance education department, assisted in 1950 by Jewish dancer Eva Desca Garnet. There was also a children’s dance department.
It was the educational director of the Y, William Kolodney (from 1934 to 1969) who brought “the specific meeting of the dance and Jewish communities together; under Kolodney’s guidance the basic interests of the Y’s progressive leadership focused and expanded into a full fledged program of classes and performances that emphasized contemporary art and ideas, at a time when Jews were beginning to transfer their intellectual and creative energy away from religion to contemporary arts and ideas” (Jackson 7). Under Kolodney’s thirty-five years of leadership and programming, “Dance could provide an aesthetic mediation through which sponsors, artists and their audiences negotiated their relationship to their Jewish identity (Jackson 14), validating modern dance as an art form” (Jackson, 55) with more than four hundred and fifty performances.
The Merry-Go-Rounders, directed by Fred Berk and gentile dancers Bonnie Bird and Doris Humphrey, was the resident company at the Y. Active for twenty years, its mission was “to produce lively but culturally valuable dance works” for children and their families. The company was “a unique opportunity to disseminate the complex ways in which Jewishness was defined in relation to general culture at the Y. During its initial season the company introduced children to dance styles from a variety of countries while placing special emphasis on dance in Israel” (Jackson 101). Bernice Mendelsohn taught, wrote the scripts for the performances, became production coordinator and also performed as a kind of narrator dancer in the role of the Magic Mechanic for the Merry-Go-Rounders. Performers who auditioned in 1952 and continued for several seasons included Barbara Shivitz, Rima Sokoloff, Roberta Singer and Gloria Spivak. Laurie Freedman, who joined later, went on to perform in the Batsheva Company in Israel in the 1970s before returning to the East Coast to teach and choreograph.
Lucile Brahms Nathanson (d. New York City, Feb. 9, 1992) taught in and then directed the children’s dance program, thereafter forming from it the Division of Teacher Training and in 1958 assuming directorship of the entire Dance Center at the Y. She stayed active nationally in dance education for children through the 1970s. A founder and first chairperson of the American Dance Guild and a founder of the Congress on Research in Dance, she also chaired the first Creative Teaching of Dance to Children at the Y and taught at Cornell University, Barnard College, Brooklyn College and New York University, where she received her M.A. in dance education.
The Y as a major venue for dance also sponsored a contest of modern dancers known as Auditions, the winner of which was awarded a fully produced dance performance there and many Jewish dancers were produced under this program. Nona Shurman, who was in Humphrey’s company, was a winner, as were Emily Gluck, Emily Frankel and her husband, Mark Ryder, Graham performer Miriam Cole, Rena Gluck, Rheba Koren, Ann (later Anna) Halprin and Nina Caiserman. Trudy Goth produced dance programs, in a series she called the Choreographers Workshop, at the Y. Delakova and Berk’s Jewish Dance Guild frequently performed there as well. Some fifteen programs of Anna Sokolow’s were presented at the 92nd Street Y between April 1936 and 1961. Pauline Koner had a certain amount of support from the Y. Others who appeared at the Y were Nina Fonaroff, Hadassah (premiering her dance Shuvi Nafshi in 1947), Gloria Neuman (1951), Judith Martin and Company (1952), Marie Marchowsky (1952), Linda Margolies (later known as Linda Hodes), Pearl Lang (whose Song of Deborah premiered there in 1948) and Frances Alenikoff, whose Aviv company often appeared at the Y.
Frances Alenikoff (b. New York, August 20, 1920) was born to Russian immigrants Clement Jack Lipman, who worked in the clothing trade, and Ruth Alper Lipman. Born in Russia in July 1903, her mother arrived in America as a young child, was herself a dancer with Sarah Mildred Strauss and danced in Busby Berkely movies, eventually becoming a teacher of yoga. Frances studied with Marie Marchowsky, who taught in the Martha Graham style, charging fifty cents a lesson, but her formal dance training did not begin until she was a student at Brooklyn College. She was accepted into Katherine Dunham’s school on scholarships and trained there for three years, learning African and Haitian dance, drumming and singing. She lived in Mexico and also spent six months in Israel in 1967, touring and teaching children in both countries. Her company, the Aviv Theater of Song and Dance, which toured black schools throughout the South, performed at the 92nd Street Y and in many other venues to critical acclaim. Through the Jewish Lecture Bureau of the Jewish Community Center movement and accompanied by Peter Yarrow, she developed a touring dance program on Jewish themes including Israeli, Hasidic and Russian dance as well as Afro-Haitian, with musicians, an accordion player and singers. She expanded her work to include multi-media and texts which she wrote and chanted; her 1994 piece, Re-Memory, remains in repertoire and includes speaking, chanting, song and dance. A documentary about her work, Shaping Things: A Choreographic Journal produced by Robert Machover, won a Ciné International Award for best dance film of 1978.
Leah Harpaz studied with Dvora Lapson and Nikolais at Henry Street and performed with Benjamin Zemach’s New York group and with Eve Gentry and Helen Tamiris. As a mature dancer she specializes in teaching the elderly (with Erna Lindner) and runs a highly acclaimed class at the 92nd Street Y, specializing in dance for stroke victims, sufferers from Parkinson’s Disease and other physical disorders. She is also active in the Israel Dance Library Association.
From 1992 to 2004 Joan Finkelstein directed the dance center at the 92nd Street Y, renamed the Harkness Dance Center. Classes include a wide range of styles for all ages including workshops for professional dancers, specialized classes for the elderly and those with movement disorders, teacher-training programs and the dance lecture series “Breaking Ground.” Performances produced by Finkelstein included Jewish choreographers. There are also performances for in-house troupes of young dancers in ballet, modern dance and a variety of other styles. Finkelstein, who danced professionally for over twenty years in the Cliff Keuter Dance Company, the Don Redlich Dance Company, the Jean-Leon Destine Afro-Haitian Dance Theatre and Manhattan Festival Ballet, appeared on Broadway in the musical Rags. She directed and choreographed for her own company from 1982 to 1988.
Ruth Goodman (b. New York, March 22, 1950 to pianist Alvin Goodman and Edith Goodman) is also a dance director at the 92nd Street Y, heading the Israeli Dance Division (formerly the Jewish Dance Division) together with Danny Uziel and continuing and developing the work begun by Fred Berk in the 1940s. A specialist in Israeli folk dance, Goodman maintains the popular open Wednesday Israeli folk dance classes attended by hundreds, a teacher training program in Israeli folk dance and Israeli folk dance performances. She also directs her own performance company, Parparim (Butterflies), and the Israeli Dance Institute (IDI). Through the IDI, she continues the annual Israel Folk Dance Festival founded by Berk, which she has directed since 1978. In 2001 she produced an international Israeli folk dance festival, Horati, at Hofstra University through IDI. Goodman also edited IDI’s Israeli folk dance publication, Nirkod. A popular teacher of Israeli folk dance throughout the United States, she is also a frequent traveler to Israel. Goodman began her dance studies at the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet in New York and also with ballet master Alfred Corvino; she received her Master of Arts degree in dance education from Columbia University Teachers College.
Henry Street Playhouse. One of the important venues for dance in New York, in addition to the 92nd Street Y, was the Henry Street Playhouse on New York’s Lower East Side. Under the Lewisohn sisters it had been important during and after World War I, but in the 1950s and 1960s it had a rebirth under Alwin Nikolais, a protégé of Hanya Holm, who began a dance theater and school at Henry Street. Two of his best female dancers, Phyllis Lamhut (b. New York, Nov. 14, 1933) and Gladys Bailin (b. 1930), were Jewish. After Lamhut’s mother brought her to Henry Street when she was fourteen, she received her professional training from Nikolais and was one of his principal dancers for twenty years. She began creating her own works in 1950 and in 1970 formed her own company, for which she has choreographed over a hundred works. Lamhut, who has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, sixteen choreography fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, continues to be a teacher of distinction.
Gladys Bailin studied with Nikolais and performed in his troupe beginning in 1948. She was also a charter member of Murray Louis’s troupe and since the 1950s has choreographed her own works. She teaches in Athens, Ohio, where she directs the Ohio University School of Dance.
Henry Street gave concert space to others who were independent dancers and Jewish: for example, a concert of Ellida Geyra’s on February 19, 1956. Geyra also danced with Berk and Delakova and later moved to Israel, where she teaches and sponsors wide-ranging educational dance programs in Tel Aviv.
Muriel Topaz (Philadelphia, May 7, 1932–New York, May 1, 2003) was also seen in the 1956 Henry Street program. Her parents were Joseph Topaz and Rhea Rosenbloom. An advocate of written choreography, Topaz championed the Labanotation written dance language and notated over twenty-five choreographers, including Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham and other major figures. She directed the Dance Notation Bureau and the Dance Division of Juilliard (of which she was a graduate) and was an authority on the choreography of Antony Tudor, whose biography, Undimmed Luster, she published in 2002. In her later years she was an editor at Dance Magazine. She was married to the composer Jacob Druckman.
Judson Dance Theater and the Dance Theater Workshop. Later venues for modern dance in New York, after the Y, included Judson Church and Dance Theater Workshop. The Church was home to the Judson Dance Theater, a cooperative, non-discriminatory dance collective for dance performances, happenings and workshops.
Judy Dunn (1933–1983) was an important figure in Judson who danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1959 to 1963 in such works as Aeon. In 1960 she assisted her then-husband Robert Ellis Dunn with a series of dance composition classes that led to the new dance movement called “post-modern.” She was one of the founding members and also the stage manager at Judson’s historic first production on July 6, 1962, continuing in that position for several concerts. Among her dances presented there were Index, The Other Side and Natural History. Dunn later collaborated with the jazz composer Bill Dixon; in addition to performances, they taught together at Sarah Lawrence College. She then moved to Bennington College, where she taught until her death. Other performers of note at Judson Church were Aileen Passloff (b. New York City, October 21, 1931), who had begun choreographing in the 1950s. She joined Robert Dunn’s workshop, which evolved into the Judson Dance Theatre, performing her works, which included Boa Constrictor, April and December and Tea at the Palaz of Hoon. She became a dance teacher at Bard College.
Meredith Monk, considered a post-modern dancer and choreographer, is also a composer. In her teens she danced Israeli folk dance with Fred Berk, but her formal dance study was in the dance program under Bessie Schönberg at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was influenced by Judy Dunn. Monk began at Judson Church, with post-modern works such as 16-Millimeter Earrings and Duet with Cat’s Scream and Locomotive, which incorporated voice and film. Monk has created a kind of modern opera—combining movement, music, singers, dancers, sets, video and film in complex works that challenge audiences. In 1968 she formed a group called The House, with which she continues her chorale/movement pieces and has made Quarry, Education of the Girlchild, Ellis Island, Book of Days, Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts and Mercy. Her musical prowess has been traced to her musical family, beginning with her mother’s grandfather, a cantor, through to her mother, a vocalist known on radio through singing commercials. Her choreography can be seen as influenced by Jewish concerns of social justice and collective memory.
Dance Theater Workshop (DTW). By 1965, critical and audience attention had focused on the performances at the DTW as an important performance site for modern dance. Originally housed in the loft of Jeff Duncan (who had performed in the Merry-Go-Rounders under Berk and in Humphrey’s company), DTW developed as a cooperative venture with many contemporary artists, including Francis Alenikoff, Liz Keen and Ze’eva Cohen, whose aim was to develop a collective of artists, sharing expenses, office work, publicity and performances.
Liz Keen (b. New York, April, 9, 1935 to Golda Reva Kurshan and Dr. Morris R. Kuschken, later Keen) graduated from Barnard College and performed in the companies of Helen Tamiris (dancing in Womansong, 1960), Paul Taylor (Insects and Heroes, Junction, Rebus and Three Epitaphs), Katherine List, Mary Anthony and Judy Dunn. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree under Bessie Schönberg at Sarah Lawrence and then became Schönberg’s protégée in teaching dance composition, working together with her in teaching dance composition at Jacob’s Pillow and in the Juilliard School Dance Department, where she eventually succeeded Schönberg. She began choreographing in 1962 and formed her own company in 1970. Quilt (1971) and A Polite Entertainment for Ladies and Gentlemen (1975) were particular successes. She has also staged Salome for opera companies in New York, London and other cities, and choreographed for the American Shakespeare Festival, the Williamstown Playhouse and the Kennedy Center. Though connected with Dance Theater Workshop, her work has had wide exposure beyond New York.
Ze’eva Cohen (b. Tel Aviv, Israel Aug. 15, 1940 to Nissim and Bat-Zion Mashat Cohen) first trained with Gertrud Kraus in her European Expressionist-style modern dance classes. Through Kraus’s training, Cohen found potent expression during her formative years, which paralleled the early development of Israel. Her dramatic qualities and charismatic performance proved appealing to many choreographers. Cohen first performed with the Israeli co-operative modern company Bamat Mahol and then with Anna Sokolow’s Lyric Theater in Tel Aviv. The young dancer returned to New York with Sokolow to become a featured performer in her New York company. Cohen was a memorable interpreter of Sokolow’s dances, especially in Rooms, which she performed countless times live and also on CBS in 1968. Cohen presaged the phenomenon of solo shows by commissioning twenty-three choreographers to create twenty-eight solos for her, then performing them in European dance festivals, throughout the United States and in Israel from 1971 to 1986. Her programs were so popular that she was the cover portrait of Dance Magazine in 1976. During this time she also studied at the Juilliard dance program, earned a B.A. from Fordham University and her M.F.A. from New York University in 1981. In addition to her solo programs and her studies, she was an active member of DTW before founding Ze’eva Cohen and Dancers in 1983 to develop a diverse group repertory.
This enabled her to create dances such as Goat Dance and Rainwood, which she mounted at The Boston Ballet, Summer Dance I and II for the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble, Sand and Sounds for the Kibbutz Dance Company and Walkman Variations and Wilderness, Swamps and Forest for the Batsheva Dance Company. For the latter piece she was awarded the Kinor David by the Israeli newspaper Yedi’ot Aharonot for best original choreography of 1980. She has also choreographed for the Tanz Projekt, Pennsylvania Dance Theatre and the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble.
In 1996 Cohen created Negotiations, a duet for herself and African-American dancer Aleta Hayes. A contemporary interpretation of the relationship between the biblical matriarchs Sarah and Hagar, the dance was performed at the Dance Umbrella international dance festival in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2001. She also showed it during her full-length evening the previous year at the Dancespace Project in Manhattan, along with Female Mythologies, Women and Veils, If Eve Had A Daughter/Mother Tongue-I Love You (to Yiddish song and Klezmer music) and Jeptha’s Daughter. A member of the Council of the Humanities and Theater and Dance, Professor Cohen is also head of dance studies at Princeton University, where she founded the dance program and has served as its coordinator since 1969.
Laura Foreman (New York, 1937–June 15, 2001) danced in the Helen Tamiris company as a youngster. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a degree in dance and in 1969 started teaching at the New School for Social Research, where she was director of the dance department from 1969 to 1999. She also taught at the 92nd Street Y. Foreman married composer John Watts, with whom she founded and co-directed the Composers and Choreographers’ Theater at the New School. In the 1970s she created and choreographed works for the Foreman Dance Company. In addition to dancing, she was a painter, sculptor and writer.
Laura Dean (b. Staten Island, New York, December 3, 1945) performed in the company of Paul Taylor, graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in New York, began choreographing in 1967 and formed her own company (1971 until 1994), favoring the minimalist style, with repetitive movement and spinning, frequently collaborating with musician Steve Reich. In 1980 she also choreographed for the Joffrey Ballet.
Margaret Jenkins (b. San Francisco, 1942) first became known in the post-modern dance era as a performer in Twyla Tharp’s original company and then as an expert in staging Merce Cunningham’s works for other companies. She trained at the Juilliard School and taught for the Cunningham studio from 1964 to 1970, ran her own studio in New York and then returned to San Francisco, California. In 1973 she founded the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, choreographing over sixty works.
Risa Steinberg (b. New York City, December 19, 1949), who began her career with the José Limón Dance Company, as did many other Jewish dancers, such as Maxine Steinman, Robyn Cutler (b. Atlanta, GA, May 25, 1948; she danced the title role in La Malinche) and Susan Bernhardt. Risa Steinberg trained at the High School of Performing Arts and then studied at the Juilliard dance program from 1967 to 1971. She also studied with teachers who were Jewish including Gertrude Shurr, Pearl Lang and Bertram Roth. She performed in the Limón Company from 1971 to 1982 and danced in his works (including A Choreographic Offering, There Is a Time and Missa Brevis) and in Doris Humphrey’s The Shakers. After she left the Limón company, she began her own solo performances, inspired by her work with soloist Annabelle Gamson. Danspace Projects produced her solo program, which spanned almost a century of solo dances, at St. Mark’s Church, New York City, in March 2001.
Hava Kohav was a respected Israeli modern dance choreographer who resided in New York in the late 1950s and 1960s. Reviews of her company appeared regularly in Dance Magazine through April 1968. She is now a documentary filmmaker. Other filmmakers who studied dance were Mura Dehn, noted for her filming of black dancers in Harlem, and Maya Deren, who studied with Katherine Dunham and featured Talley Beatty in her film A Study in Choreography for Camera.
JoAnne Tucker, born in 1943 in Pittsburgh, studied with Tamiris, graduated from Juilliard and then earned her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. From 1978 until 2004 she directed and choreographed all the repertoire for her professional dance company, the Avodah Dance Ensemble, which has traveled extensively in the United States, especially to synagogues and Jewish community centers. She taught workshops on midrash through dance at Hebrew Union College in New York and has written on the subject, including a book Torah in Motion: Creating Dance Midrash.
Choreographers in New York with their own companies who have choreographed on Jewish themes since the 1980s include Carolyn Dorfman (her work Mayne Mentshn, or My People, is a full-length work celebrating her Eastern European Jewish heritage, performed in the New York area in 2005), Risa Jaroslow (who has created works on her experiences in Poland), Tamar Rogoff, Sasha Spielvogel, Heidi Latsky and Sara Pearson. Heidi Latsky (b. Montreal, May 3, 1958) performed in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company (1987–1991). After leaving the company, she created solos including Recalling Jack (An Ode to My Grandfather), in which she used giant tefillin, and Kol Nidre for the Sound Dance Repertory Company.
Sara Pearson (b. St. Paul, MN, April 22, 1949) began training and performing with Hanya Holm’s protégée Nancy Hauser in the Nancy Hauser Dance Company, danced in the Murray Louis troupe from 1973 to 1976 and with Jerry Pearson and then started a company with Patrik Widrig, touring extensively in India, Europe and the United States. In 2002 she created Lot’s Wife for the company’s Joyce Theater season.
Sara Rudner was born in Brooklyn in February 1944 to first-generation Russian immigrants. Although her maternal grandfather had sung in opera with Chaliapin in Russia, her parents supported her dance studies only as an avocation. She studied first with Sandra Gentner at Barnard College, graduating in 1964, and then at the New Dance Group and Connecticut College summer dance program. She performed in the Pearl Lang Dance Company and the American Dance Company at Lincoln Center in 1965 and later that year began performing for Twyla Tharp’s Dance Company. This began a dance relationship spanning more than two decades, during which Rudner was muse and main performer in many works, including Eight Jelly Rolls, The Fugue and Deuce Coupe, in Tharp’s quirky mix, which combines ballet, athletics and movement unlike that of conventional dance styles. From 1976 to 1982 Rudner directed, choreographed and performed in her own group, the Sara Rudner Performance Ensemble, and then danced again for two years with Tharp, winning a Bessie for performance before retiring in 1984 due to a hip replacement. She has been chair of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, and taught at the University of California (San Diego), New York University School of Fine Arts (SUNY/Purchase), The American Dance Festival (New London, CT) and Brandeis University.
DANCERS OUTSIDE NEW YORK
Many dancers have thrived outside New York, creating schools, companies and repertoire, sometimes on Jewish themes. Fannie Aronson (1903–1991) was important in the Detroit area. She studied at the Bennington summer school of dance and at the Dalcroze school in New York. After a brief period with the New Dance Group she returned to Detroit, where she taught in the public schools and became a founding member of the Michigan Dance Council. She also taught and formed a performing company at the Jewish Community Center, lectured and wrote about dance.
Other Detroit personalities include Toshia Mundstock (1907–c. 2000), who was born in Germany and studied with Mary Wigman before moving to Detroit in 1927. She was active as a teacher for some sixty-five years and in 1934 formed a company, the Rebelarts Dance Group. Harriet Berg (b. 1924) has had a long career in the Detroit area. She studied dance at Wayne State University (where the dance program was directed by Ann Zirulnik in the 1950s) and in New York and has taught at the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit since 1959, as well as at Marygrove College. She heads three companies: the Festival Dancers and the Renaissance Dance Company, both in residence at the Jewish Community Center, and Madame Cadillac Dance Theater, specializing in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dance, in residence at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit since 1981. The latter company tours in France and in 1993 Berg received an award from the French government for promoting French-American relations.
There have been many dancers in California, some identifying with Judaism and others keeping their background to themselves. In Los Angeles, Ruth Zahava was a dance director for Jewish community centers in the city, organized the Jewish Folk Dance Council and headed the Jewish Community Association modern dance ensemble in the 1940s and 1950s. In his introduction to her book Jewish Dances, Mordecai Kaplan, the important Jewish theologian, wrote: “The dance art undoubtedly possesses certain characteristics that render it uniquely adapted to become an entering wedge that would make way for all the other arts in Jewish life. It is the only one of the arts which not only engages the entire personality of the artist but transforms him [sic] into an instrument for conveying thoughts too deep for words.”
Miriam Rochlin (b. 1920) was raised in Berlin and studied with Jutta Klamt until the Nazi period, immigrating to the United States in 1940. She worked with Benjamin Zemach from 1948 to 1967 as dancer, assistant director and production manager. In addition to teaching for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, she produced the documentary The Art of Benjamin Zemach in 1967.
Ruth Clark Lert (Berlin, 1915– San Francisco, 1997) also grew up in Berlin, where she received a diploma in dance despite her mother’s objections and performed in cabaret with Kurt Goetz before immigrating to the United States in 1936, where she taught for Steffi Nossen’s school in Westchester. She was an instructor for Eugene Loring’s American School of Dance and became a recognized dance photographer, working in Los Angeles from 1956 to 1971. Her impressive collection was donated to the Dance Library and Archives at the University of California at Irvine. Rosalind de Mille (b. Chicago, c. 1920) performed for Lotte Goslar for more than thirty years, taught at Smith College and then retired to California.
Meryl Stritman performed with Charles Weidman in New York before moving to Los Angeles to perform with Lester Horton.
Bella Lewitsky is well documented in Lert’s photographic collection. Lewitsky was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in a utopian community in the Mojave Desert. As an adolescent she moved with her father to Los Angeles and began to study dance with Lester Horton, performing with his company for fourteen years. With Horton she choreographed Warsaw Ghetto and her only other Jewish-themed piece, Heritage. In 1947 she created Dance Theater of Los Angeles with Horton and her composer husband, Newell Reynolds. In 1966 she formed her own company, which operated until 1995 and was considered one of the main dance institutions in California. Her school was also very successful. As a teacher, Lewitzky produced many professional performers including Fanchon Shur, who was born in Chicago in 1935. After working in Los Angeles and marrying musician Bonia Shur she settled in Cincinnati, where she and her husband create works together, some on Jewish themes, including Tallit, which has toured extensively throughout the United States.
Anna Halprin (b. July 13, 1920, Ill.) founded the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop in 1955, an avant garde performance company which brought some of their radical performances to New York in the late 1960s. Her teaching methods gained national attention for incorporating cityscapes and landscapes into performance. In 1978 she co-founded the Tamalpa Institute with her landscape architect husband Lawrence Halprin. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, several choreographic fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 1980, the American Dance Guild Award for outstanding contributions in dance. She studied dance with Graham, Holm and Humphrey-Weidman in New York, completed her formal education at the University of Wisconsin dance department and moved to San Francisco in 1945. In the fall of 1955 she spent time in Israel. Halprin’s major choreographic work began in 1959. Considered an innovator, she is interested in using dance in rituals and participatory public dance events and as a process for social change and health. At the beginning of her career she created dances with Jewish themes, including Kaddosh, commissioned by Temple Beth Shalom in 1960, but her most noteworthy work deals with healing and global concerns. In September 1995 her Planetary Dance: A Prayer for Peace was presented in Berlin to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Her Grandfather Dance from “Memories from My Closet,” set to klezmer music, has been made into a dance film.
Ruth Zaporah was born in Baltimore on July 8, 1936 to Russian American Jews Ethel Himmelfarb (whose father, Hyman Himmelfarb, was a Yiddish poet) and Henry Glick. She studied at the studios of Graham and Nikolais in New York, then with Elizabeth Waters in New Mexico. Zaporah developed her theater/movement technique, Action Theater, teaching it in Santa Fé, New Mexico and on tour in Israel, China, Europe and throughout the United States. The Traveling Jewish Theater Company of Los Angeles commissioned her work with Leonard Pitt entitled Seduction.
Esther Geoffrey, a summer Holm student in Colorado, made her career as a teacher in Colorado Springs. For thirty-six years she taught modern dance, jazz and children’s creative dance at Colorado College’s dance extension courses. She had danced on Broadway in 1943–1944 in Early to Bed and in summer stock operettas at Carnegie Hall. Amy Kligerman, who also worked with Holm, teaches dance in Colorado Springs.
Carol Teten (née Davis), born June 4, 1939 in Chicago to Bernard Davis and Sylvia Friedman Davis, graduated in dance from Sarah Lawrence College and received her M.A. from University of California, Los Angeles. In 1977 she created Dance Through Time, a company of twelve professional dancers, performing social dances of western culture from the fifteenth century to the present. Handled by Columbia Artists Management, they toured extensively in the United States. Though based in San Francisco, Teten has researched archives in Europe and America to build her company repertoire and to create presentations for academic conferences and workshops. Through her publishing company, Dancetime Publications, she has produced nine videos and nine DVDs showing popular social dances from the 1400s to the 1990s.
Liz Lerman (b. Milwaukee, 1947) is now based in the Washington, D.C. area. She studied with Florence West, with Pola Nirenska and at the University of Maryland, where Miriam Rosen has taught for many years. Lerman created her multi-generational, multi-racial dance company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, in 1976. As a choreographer she insists that dance is for everyone regardless of age, ability or body shape and this inspires her work with varieties of dancers and communities with whom she builds her pieces.
In 1998 she asked a number of diverse communities across America what constituted the “little hallelujahs” that brought satisfaction and appreciation for everyday experience. Workshops were conducted at arts centers, community centers and schools in communities as varied as rural Vermont and urban Los Angeles, resulting in scripts and movement vignettes honoring vanished jobs in sardine factories and local timber industry, with movements relating to pulling nets, gutting fish and hauling logs. The Hallelujah Project incorporated Mexican folk dance, Native American desert traditions and even dancers from refugee communities in Laos who had resettled in Minneapolis. Performances of the Hallelujah Project took place all over the U.S.
Another project, Shehechianu, also incorporated movement workshops and community response to the question “Isn’t it amazing, given all our histories, that we’re gathered together in this moment?” to build an evening of dance performance with stories. Less community process-oriented was Lerman’s The Good Jew?, choreographed in 1990. This incorporated text, music and movement in a multi-dimensional dance that is autobiographical, using layers of Jewish tradition. In 1998 the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange School opened, including special projects such as “Moving Jewish communities: a training initiative for Jewish artists,” to reinvigorate institutions by forging new connections with Jewish artists, seeking to “transform the nature of Jewish community life.” Lerman also offers more traditional dance workshops as well as workshops. She has received many awards, including the first annual Pola Nirenska Award, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a MacArthur Fellowship of $500,000 in 2002.
Beth Corning (b. Washington, D.C., December 4, 1954) studied with Ernestine Stodelle, Vera Blaine and others. She formed her own company in Stockholm, Sweden in 1978, moved first to New York City, then to Minneapolis, MN and in 2003 became director of the Dance Alloy in Pittsburgh. In Minneapolis she created three full-length performances on Jewish themes called The Human Trilogy: Night of Questions, Painted Windows and Echoes in the Ghetto.
Judith Brin Ingber (b. Nov. 5, 1945 to Howard and Ruth Firestone Brin) studied ballet with Lorand Andahazy in MN, then modern dance at Sarah Lawrence College under Bessie Schönberg; she performed briefly with Anne Wilson Wangh and Meredith Monk. She also studied with Fred Berk at the 92nd Street Y, later writing his biography. In Israel from 1972 to 1977 she choreographed and taught for the Batsheva-Bat Dor Dance Society and was assistant to Sara Levi-Tanai, director of the Inbal Dance Theater. Since 1979 she has taught on the dance faculty at the University of Minnesota. In 1988 she co-founded Voices of Sepharad, touring in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Her articles on Jewish dance have appeared in the International Dance Encyclopedia, Dance Magazine, Dance Perspectives and other journals.
Categories overlap and are not clear-cut. Some of the writers are also educators and many of the performers have become teachers. Given the Jewish emphasis on inquiry and free thought and on the value of both studying and writing, there is a disproportionate interest in dance education and dance writing. There has long been an interest in analyzing dance and establishing its place within academic artistic disciplines.
Bernice Rosen (b. New York City, November 18, 1924) received a scholarship to the New Dance Group and performed there from 1945 to 1947. She completed a master’s degree in Dance Education at New York University, studying with José Limón and others, then moved on to teach at Chatham College, University of Pittsburgh, at the School of Dance at Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and finally at Arizona State University. She was a founding member of the American Dance Guild for dance teachers and is a past president of the organization.
Pauline Tish (New York City, May 22, 1912– New York City, April 1, 2002) was a member of the Federal Theater Dance Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, and performed in several Tamiris productions. She also helped to reconstruct Tamiris’s works. In 1956 she founded the dance department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, retiring in 1977, while also teaching occasionally at Brooklyn and Hunter Colleges. She was president of the American Dance Guild.
Other educators include Dr. Andrea Mantell Seidel (b. 1947), who has been teaching Isadora Duncan and Eleanor King repertoire and other classes at Florida International University, where she is associate professor of dance; Sandra Gentner, a major modern technique teacher and dance program director at Barnard College in New York City for over thirty years, retiring in 2004; Kayla Kazahn Zalk (New York City, 1931– Boston , Nov. 16, 2001), who was introduced to modern and folk dance by Edith Segal. She graduated from the University of Michigan, studied modern dance with Humphrey and José Limón and Laban principles with Irmgard Bartenieff, becoming a certified movement analyst. A member of the board of the Laban Institute of Movement Studies, she was president of the American Dance Guild from 1977 to 1980 and taught dance at the Boston Conservatory. Paula Levine was a major dance teacher at Hollins College; Sharon Friedler directs dance at Swarthmore College; Rose Anne Thom teaches at Sarah Lawrence; Deirdre Sklar is Associate Professor of Dance at Texas Woman’s University and also a prolific dance research writer. Shirley Ubell has run her own studio in New Jersey for many years. Alice Teirstein founded Young Dancemakers, giving New York high schoolers the opportunity to choreograph.
At the beginning of the twentieth century audiences sought out ballet for its beauty and its grand reflection of elite European culture. Those interested in ballet studied with gentile classical teacher-choreographers such as Mikhail (Michel) Fokine, Michael Mordkin and Adolf Bolm in the 1910s and 1920s and performed in the main ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and even Radio City Music Hall’s ballet company.
Whether for economic, cultural or political reasons, fewer Jewish women went into ballet than into modern dance. Toni Sostek (Pittsburgh, 1937–Northfield, MN, 1996), who trained at the Ballet Russe and ABT schools in New York, performed on Broadway in the 1950s and taught ballet at Carleton College in Minnesota from 1971 until her death. She believed that because ballets are filled with fairies, nymphs, castles, princes and romantic stories, the dance form had less appeal for American women than modern dance with its messages of strong emotions, socially relevant concerns and independent thinking.
Nina Youshkevitch (Odessa, December 7, 1920–New York, November 3, 1998) trained in Paris in the 1920s with Olga Preobrajenska and Leo Staats. In 1934 she joined first the Opera Russe à Paris (formerly the Original Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo of Colonel de Basil), next Bronislava Nijinska’s Theâtre de la Danse in the mid–1930s, and then the Polish Ballet in Warsaw under Nijinska’s direction. She created roles in Nijinska’s ballets, including her Chopin Concerto. Nijinska invited her to the Hollywood Bowl, thus providing her escape from the Germans. In the United States Youshkevitch danced at the Jacob Pillow’s Festival, in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and in Felix Sadowski’s company. She taught for many years in her own studio in New York and also for Nijinska in Hollywood. She revived Nijinska’s Bolero for the Oakland Ballet and the Chopin Concerto for Oakland and also for Goucher College.
A major fount for Jewish dancers was the gentile choreographer and ballet dancer Mikhail Fokine. His Jewish students in the 1920s included Nora Koreff (later Nora Kaye), Esther Rosen (who danced in the Radio City ballet company), Annabelle Lyon, Betty Eisner (renamed Betty Bruce, a star in Broadway shows) and Anne Wilson Wangh. During this time a group of Jewish workers who practiced acting in the evenings and were members of the Artef Theatre took classes with Mikhail Fokine as part of their theater training (Graff 27). Some of these students were recruited by Edith Segal to participate in her dance performances.
Anne Wilson Wangh (b. 1918) wrote about her memories of studying with Fokine. Many Jewish mothers who, like Fokine, were immigrants from Russia, were steeped in ballet. Wanting their daughters to be cultured, they enrolled them with the master. Wangh remembers Rosa Feldman, who went to the Metropolitan Opera as a dancer, and Miriam Weiskopt, who became a teacher of the Fokine style. After performing with ABT, Wangh choreographed her own programs, became active in the National Dance Guild and started the Israel Dance Library with Yemmy Strum, a noted teacher of children in New York. Both women moved to Israel and stayed active in the Israel Dance Library organization. Wangh returned to New York where she continues her volunteer work for the library.
Nora Kaye (born Nora Koreff; January 17, 1920–Los Angeles, Feb. 28, 1987) is notable not only for her technical ballet mastery but also for the intensity of her dramatic portrayals as the main interpreter of Antony Tudor’s ballets. Her mother was a milliner and her father an actor who had worked in Russia with Stanislavsky. Her first studies in ballet were with Alexis Koslov and Margaret Craske at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and then with Mikhail Fokine, also dancing in the corps of his 1935 ballet company. Later she studied with Adolph Bolm, Bronislava Nijinska and Anton Dolin. As a young girl she appeared in Metropolitan Opera productions when children were called for, including William Tell and Respighi’s Le Compana Sommersa. In 1935, while George Balanchine worked as ballet master, Kaye became a member of the Metropolitan Opera corps de ballet. She appeared in the Broadway musicals Great Lady and Stars in Your Eyes and in 1952 in Two’s Company, which starred Bette Davis. In 1938 she performed at Lewisohn Stadium and danced in the ballet at Radio City Music Hall, but she was known mainly for her work in Ballet Theater, of which she was a founding member in 1940.
In 1942 she was acclaimed for her role as Hagar in Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire and was recognized as a leading ballerina (according to the International Dance Encyclopedia, 662). She was a member of Ballet Theater (later called American Ballet Theater) in two different periods, from 1940 to 1950 and from 1954 to 1959. Besides her famed roles as principal dancer for most of her career with Ballet Theater, she was also associate company director from 1977 to 1983. In the interim period she danced in Balanchine’s company, the New York City Ballet, performing in many of his ballets and also dancing the lead in the premiere performances of Jerome Robbins’s The Cage and Ballade. When she returned to Ballet Theater she had her own repertory within the company, with the special title of “dramatic ballerina.” She was the prime interpreter in Antony Tudor’s Dim Luster (1943) and Jardin aux Lilas. Though she did not create the role, she was acclaimed for her performance as Lizzie Borden in Agnes De Mille’s Fall River Legend. She also performed in ballet classics, including Giselle and Swan Lake.
Kaye’s third husband Herbert Ross was first a dancer and then choreographer for Ballet Theater; she danced in his ballets including Persephone and The Dybbuk, which were created in 1960. Together they established a company, Ballet of the Two Worlds, which toured Europe and appeared in the Spoleto Festival in Italy. She retired from dancing in 1961 but then assisted Ross in his direction of musicals on Broadway and in Europe and later when he became a Hollywood film director. She served as executive or co-producer on seven of his films, which included the dance films Nijinsky (1980) and The Turning Point (1978), starring many dancers from American Ballet Theater, among them Mikhail Baryshnikov. Their last work together was the film Dancers, which she co-produced with Ross in 1986 in Italy.
Ruthanna Boris (b. 1918) received her early training at the Metropolitan Opera’s school of ballet and also studied modern dance with the major American modernists. In 1934 she became one of the first students at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She performed with the American Ballet Theater, with Balanchine’s early company, then with Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan, in Agnes de Mille’s Broadway productions, at Radio City Music Hall, at the Metropolitan Opera (1937–1942), with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as a guest artist with the New York City Ballet and in 1956–1957 with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Boris is also an acclaimed ballet choreographer who made her name choreographing Cakewalk in 1951 for ABT. She has taught at the University of Washington in Seattle since 1965.
Other Jewish ABT dancers include Muriel Bentley, Isabel Mirrow, Annabelle Lyon and Miriam Golden. Bentley (b. 1920) attended the Metropolitan Opera ballet school, joined its corps in 1938 and then performed for more than fifteen years with ABT. Jerome Robbins said of her dancing in Goyescas that “we must have been something, two Jewish kids whose mothers had wanted high culture for them trying to look Spanish classical” (Jowitt 46). She also danced in Robbins’s Ballets USA Company and in his Broadway shows. Mirrow, who married fellow ABT dancer Kelly Brown, is the mother of ABT dancers Leslie Brown and Ethan Brown. Annabelle Lyon (b. 1915), trained by Fokine and at the School of American Ballet, was a charter member of the company; she was also in de Mille’s Broadway shows and in Balanchine’s first company, performing his early works, including Serenade. Miriam Golden, born in 1920 in Philadelphia, joined the company of her teacher Catherine Littlefield in 1936 and then ABT as a charter member in 1940.
Tillie Losch (Vienna, November 15, c. 1904–New York, Dec. 24, 1975) trained at the Vienna State Opera, performed and also staged dances in Max Reinhardt productions including The Green Flute in 1926, Jedermann and Danton’s Death both in 1927. She then came to Hollywood to partner Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon in 1931. Later film appearances in the role of a seductive dancer included The Good Earth, The Garden of Allah and Limelight and she also choreographed for Duel in the Sun. In Europe she danced with Harald Kreutzberg and in Paris she danced in the George Balanchine production of Brecht and Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins as part of the 1933 Les Ballets season. She was also the leading female role in Balanchine’s Errant in London and Paris.
Other Jewish dancers in America who performed for Balanchine included Melissa Hayden, who danced with the Radio City Music Hall Company and then with American Ballet Theater before joining Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in 1950. She retired in 1973. Allegra Kent trained with Bronislava Nijinska before coming to the School of American Ballet and joining New York City Ballet in 1953. One of the principals with the company until 1978, she is known especially for her work in Jerome Robbins’s dances.
Barbara Weisberger (b. Brooklyn, February 28, 1926) was a student of Marion Horwitz Lehman and then the first child to study with George Balanchine at the newly formed American School of Ballet. In 1962 she founded and directed the Pennsylvania Ballet, for which she also choreographed. She went on to direct the Carlisle Project from 1984 to 1996 to help develop ballet choreographers.
Raya Keen was a ballet dancer with Radio City Ballet Company, organizing the first union membership for dancers there.
Rochelle Zide-Booth (b. Boston, April 21, 1938) performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the mid–1950s, achieving the rank of soloist. She was a principal dancer with the Robert Joffrey Ballet, served as artistic director of the Nederlands Dance Theater in 1973, and has been a dance professor at Adelphi University and Butler University in Indianapolis.
Outside New York a very remarkable pair of sisters had an influence on ballet: Hermene (1902–1986) and Josephine (1908–c. 2000) Schwarz, the daughters of Hanna (Lindeman) Schwarz, a sculptor, and Joseph Schwarz, a haberdashery owner. They studied ballet and modern dance with notable teachers in Chicago, New York and Europe and had professional experience, but made their mark in Dayton, Ohio, their hometown. They founded the Schwartz School of Dance, where individual lessons cost ten cents. Their Experimental Group for Young Dancers became the Dayton Theatre Dance Group in 1941 and the Dayton Civic Ballet in 1958, America’s second-oldest regional ballet company. Based on both ballet and modern technique, it reflected a contemporary view. By 1972 the company was so fine that it was invited to perform at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and at the Delacorte Theater in New York City’s Central Park. By the late 1970s it had become a professional company and changed its name to the Dayton Ballet.
WRITERS AND RESEARCHERS
Just as in modern dance itself, there are a disproportionate number of American Jewish women writers and researchers who specialize in the subject. Scholarly writers (see also Naima Prevots) include Deidre Sklar, Naomi Jackson (whose book Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y dealt with many Jewish dance figures), Judith Lynne Hanna, Judith Alter and Jill Gellerman (who is also a teacher of Hasidic dance and has filmed, Labanoted and written about several different Hasidic courts in the New York area).
Mindy Aloff (b. Philadelphia, Dec. 20, 1947) trained with Ursala Melita, Pete Conlow and the Pennsylvania Ballet school, went to Vassar, continued her dance training and became dance critic for Dance Magazine, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Village Voice and New Republic.
Sally Banes (b. Washington, D.C., October 9, 1950) grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. Banes’s mother, who identified herself as a dancer, took her daughter to see dance. This helped to inspire an interest in dance which has taken Banes to Russia, Germany, England, France, Canada, Denmark and Israel as dancer, dance writer and historian. In 2003 Banes received the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) Award for Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research and in 2004, following a severe stroke, she was recognized by the Society of Dance History Scholars. She has written several books, including Terpischore in Sneakers (1987); Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964 (1993); Writing Dance in the Age of Postmodernism (1994) and Dancing Women (1998) and edited several dance books. She has written on dance, theater, film and performance art for numerous publications including The Village Voice, Soho Weekly News and Dance Magazine and served as editor of CORD’s Dance Research Journal. From 1982 to 1988 she was president of the Society of Dance History Scholars. She was professor of Theater and Drama and Chair of the Dance Program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison until 2003.
Ann Barzel (b. November 11, 1905) studied dance in Chicago with Adolph Bolm and in New York with Vechesla Svoboda, Doris Humphrey and Mikhail Fokine. She received her B.A. from the University of Chicago and taught ballet in Milwaukee from 1945 to 1961. Most noted as a dance reviewer for the Chicago American, Ballet Review and British Ballet Annual, she became senior editor of Dance Magazine in 1936 and has been associated with the magazine since then. Her writings have also appeared in encyclopedias including the International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998). She is also known for the extraordinary ballet performance films she made from 1937 until the 1960s. These archival films and her private dance collection were donated to Chicago’s Newberry Library as the Ann Barzel Dance Archives.
Judith Chazzin Bennahum (b. New York, 1937) was a student of Antony Tudor at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. A soloist with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet from 1959 to 1963, she also danced in Agnes de Mille’s Broadway show Goldilocks (1958–1959) and with the ballet choreographer Robert Joffrey. She has been a professor of dance at the University of New Mexico since 1975. Bennahum has written several books including Dance in the Shadow of the Guillotine (1988) and The Ballets of Antony Tudor (1994); the latter won the prestigious De la Torre Bueno Prize. She was president of the Society of Dance History Scholars from 1986 to 1989.
Selma Jeanne Cohen studied ballet with Edna McRae in Chicago and received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before beginning her work as the outstanding pioneer of dance history. She first taught dance history for Lillian Moore at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, setting standards and expectations for the field while also teaching at Connecticut College, New York University, the University of Chicago and many other places. One of the key founders of the Society of Dance History Scholars, she has written four books—The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief (1966); Doris Humphrey: An Artist First (1972); Dance As a Theater Art (1974) and Next Week, Swan Lake (1982)—as well as countless articles for all the major dance publications. She devoted more than two decades of work to creating the first several-volume encyclopedia in English, the International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998), for which she served as editor.
Barabara Cohen-Stratyner (b. New York City, 1945) received her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University. She directs the exhibition space for the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center and is the author of the important The Biographical Dictionary of Dance (1982).
Judith Lynne Hanna (b. St. Louis, Missouri, September 21, 1936), who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University on dance as non-verbal communication, studied all forms of dance from ballet to street jam, including dance in Africa. She is a specialist in dance ethnography and anthropology, writing for Dance Magazine, Dancer, Dance Teacher, Dance International and scholarly dance journals. She is especially known for her books To Dance Is Human (1979) and Dance, Sex and Gender (1988).
Lydia Joel (née Turnower; 1914– New York City, 1989) danced in Hanya Holm’s company, became interested in dance photography and writing, and completely revolutionized Dance Magazine, which she edited from 1954 to 1968. She brought a new breadth to the coverage of dance, increasing the magazine’s thematic scope to include all styles of dance, dance history and dance education, and its geographic scope to cover the entire United States. She later directed the High School of Performing Arts dance program and then presented programs on Catherine de Medici and the queen’s influence on dance.
Pam Kidron (Squires is her pen name in the United States, in Israel, Kidron; b. New Jersey, October 21, 1947) studied dance with Eugene Loring and Eleanora Mara as well as ethnic dance, including Indonesian, West African and Jewish Kurdish. With an M.A. in dance ethnology from UCLA, she also trained as an ethnomusicologist by writing on the dance and music of the Iraqi Kurdish Jews in Israel. She wrote for The Jerusalem Post from 1982 to 1990 and for The Washington Post from 1991.
Dawn Lille trained in ballet in New York and in modern dance with May O’Donald and at the Martha Graham studio. With a B.A. from Barnard, an M.A. from Columbia and a Ph.D. from New York University, she is an expert teacher in Labanotation and several aspects of dance history. Her writings include Michel Fokine (1985), a biography published under Dawn Lille Horowitz, and numerous articles in Dance Research Journal, Ballet Review, International Dictionary of Ballet, Dance Chronicle and The International Encyclopedia of Dance. She teaches dance history at the Juilliard School dance department and is active in the Israel Dance Library and on the board of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.
Edna Ocko, a.k.a. Florence Edna (b. New York City, October 8, 1908), was the daughter of Bessie, a dancer, and her Russian husband, a cigar maker, union activist and socialist. Her parents were musical and her brother became a professional violinist. Ocko also played piano and worked as a dance accompanist. Besides studying with Matilda Naaman, she took dance with Hanya Holm at the Mary Wigman school in New York. There she met other dancers, with whom she started the New Dance Group. She began writing dance reviews during the time when the Workers Dance League sponsored solo and group recitals and when the New Dance League was active. She covered the benefit for the Daily Worker (for which she also wrote) on February 17, 1935, which sold out Radio City’s Center Theater for the first time in history. The concert included works by Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow and others, such as José Limón—choreographers who shaped the modern dance world. Her writing recorded the ideals of the revolutionary dance movement as well as the proletarian issues of the early 1930s. When the New Theater publication folded in 1937, Ocko became editor-in-chief of TAC, the publication of the Theater Arts Committee. In 1930 she married documentary filmmaker Sidney Meyers. During the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, she was “named” by Jerome Robbins. She changed careers, becoming chief psychologist of Harlem’s first psychiatric clinic, and taught for many years at the City University of New York.
Barbara Palfy (b. 1936) danced in the company of Fred Berk at the 92nd Street Y and worked with Hadassah Badoch before becoming librarian of the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, serving as associate editor for Dance Chronicle and as chief copy editor for the International Dance Encyclopedia.
Wendy Perron graduated in dance from Bennington College and received an M.A. from SUNY. She performed for Sara Rudner and joined the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1975 to 1978. During that time she also wrote for the Soho Weekly News. Associate director at Jacob’s Pillow in the early 1990s, she has been New York editor of Dance Magazine since 2000 and editor of Dance Magazine since 2004. She has also written about dance for The New York Times, reported on National Public Radio and continues to choreograph and teach as well as write.
Janice Ross (b. Los Angeles, December 11, 1950) studied dance in Los Angeles and with Graham dancers Marnee Woods and David Wood at the University of California in Berkeley. She is a senior critic for Dance Magazine, has written a regular dance column for the Oakland Tribune and articles for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as books, including Moving Lessons: Margaret H’Doubler and the Beginning of Dance in American Education (2000).
Marcia Siegel (b. New York, September 17, 1932) received a B.A. from Connecticut College and certification in Laban movement analysis (1971). Dance critic of the Hudson Review and founding editor of DanceScope, she has taught dance writing and has written dance criticism for The Boston Phoenix since 1996. She is also the author of three books—Days on Earth, The Dance of Doris Humphrey (1987) and The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance (1989)—and three collections of reviews and essays. She is writing a biography of Twyla Tharp. A founding member of the Dance Critics Association, she also taught at New York University from 1983 to 2003.
Laura Shapiro (b. Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 20, 1946) wrote criticism for the alternative Boston papers and served as dance critic of The Boston Globe. She has been dance critic at Newsweek (1984–2000) and has written for New York Magazine since 2002.
Tobi Tobias (b. New York City, 1938) was a dance student at the Henry Street Playhouse with Nikolais-Louis, then at the New Dance Group with Beatrice Seckler and Nona Sherman. She later studied ballet and graduated from Barnard. Her daughter Anne Tobias performed professionally with Pearl Lang. Tobias has written for New York Magazine and Dance Magazine, has authored several children’s books and now writes for ArtsJournal, published on the Internet.
Elizabeth Zimmer (b. New York, January 26, 1945) studied tap dance because her mother, Beatrice Yannet, was a tap dancer. She then studied dance and writing at Bennington College. She earned an M.A. from SUNY Stonybrook, is senior dance editor at New York’s weekly Village Voice and has also written for the Los Angeles Daily Examiner, The Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Enquirer. She also edited Envisioning Dance on Film and Video (2003).
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How to cite this page
Ingber, Judith Brin. "Dance Performance in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dance-performance-in-united-states>.