Anna Sokolow, the “rebellious spirit” of modern dance, was a member of the Martha Graham Company (1937–1940), on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music, Dance Division (1958–1988), founder and director of La Paloma Azul Company (Mexico, 1940), the Lyric Theater (Israel, 1962), the Anna Sokolow Dance Company (1967), and the Players Project (1971), adviser to Inbal (1953), choreographer of hundreds of dance works, plays, operas, Broadway musicals, and festivals. Her partners included musician Alex North, painter Ignacio Aguirre, and actor John Silvester White. In celebration of her eighty-fifth birthday, in 1995, the dance world joined in tribute to her accomplishments and service, her pioneer work in Mexico and Israel, and, above all, her “blazing force and integrity.”
Anna Sokolow, the child of Russian immigrants Samuel and Sara Sokolowski, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1910. The family moved to New York in 1912. Sara became the breadwinner for the family, working in the garment trade, active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Socialist Party. At the Emanuel Sisterhoods of Personal Service, Anna took her first dance classes with Elsa Pohl, who taught interpretive dancing in the style of Isadora Duncan. Anna attended the Henry Street Settlement House(s), the original Neighborhood Playhouse, established by Alice and Irene Lewisohn, wealthy Jewish women who were interested in dance and theater. Sokolow studied with Blanche Talmud, Irene Lewisohn, and Bird Larson. Given a full scholarship in 1928, she was invited to join the special classes of the Junior Festival Players when the Playhouse School opened on West 46th Street. There, her teachers included Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Michio Ito, and Benjamin Zemach, an exponent of Hebraic dance. Sokolow’s first theater appearance was in Ernest Bloch’s Israel Symphony in May 1928, staged by Irene Lewisohn.
Sokolow’s choreography closely reflects her intense commitment to the social, political, and human conflicts of her times. City Rhythms, a student work staged in 1931, reflected currents of her life, the rhythms of New York City, Moscow, Mexico City, and Tel Aviv. Other early works include the Anti-War Trilogy (Anti-War Cycle) of 1933. Performed with the Theater Union Dance Group, the piece was staged in three parts: I. Depression, Starvation, II. Diplomacy—War, and III. Protest (Defiance). This was the first use of the music of Alex North (Soifer), who was Sokolow’s partner. She received critical albeit high praise, since, from a Marxist position, “this piece proved that an individual, rather than collective creator, could produce work of high quality.”
In the Depression years, Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, and Helen Tamiris, dancers with Jewish working-class origins, were mobilized by the union movement. Sokolow says, “The unions were really my first audience. Poets or writers would read their work, singers and dancers would perform in their halls.”
Sokolow was regarded as an outstanding figure of the radical dance era. For the Works Progress Administration (WPA), she created the dances for Sing for Your Supper, a variety show that is primarily remembered because it contained the great narrative Ballad for Americans.
Invited to Mexico, a land fighting its artistic and social revolution, in 1939 by Carlos Mérida, Sokolow became a pioneer teacher and choreographer. Rita Morgenthau helped get her company to Mexico. Mexico City audiences accepted her dancing, although the work was neither ballet nor folk dance. Away from New York, with a different tempo and culture, her work turned toward lyricism. Her company, La Paloma Azul [The blue dove], received acclaim, as did her production of the Antigone Symphony by Carlos Chavez.
With the circumstances of World War II, she began to choreograph Jewish material. She used passages from the Old Testament in 1943 as part of a Montreal Festival performance and Songs of a Semite, from a book of poems by Emma Lazarus, for a 1943 Y performance. In 1945 and 1946, she danced The Bride to “traditional Jewish music” and Kaddish, wrapped in tefillin.
Drawn to theater work, she choreographed dances for the drama Street Scene (1946) by Elmer Rice, to music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes. Set in a crowded tenement in the Lower East Side, it was a natural idiom to her. She used the jitterbug and children’s games, dance vernacular now fully accepted but then very innovative. Sokolow had brought a popular social dance swing idiom to the Broadway stage. Theater brought her to the Actors Studio, Elia Kazan’s training school. A dance version of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk marked her last concert appearance in 1951.
In the Netherlands, she created The Seven Deadly Sins (1967) for the Netherlands Dance Theater, and in Israel, The Treasure (1962), a play based on a story by Isaac Leib Peretz. She staged the vast festivals and fund-raising events after World War II on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and Bonds for Israel. These included the 1952 Purim Festival (with Sholom Secunda) at Madison Square Garden, the 1953 Fund-Raising for Israel Bonds: 3,000th Anniversary of Jerusalem, and the 1954 Hanukkah Festival pageant (with Kim Stanley and Joseph Schildkraut). She staged opera at the New York City Center in 1956, including Orpheus, La Traviata, The Tempest, L’Histoire du Soldat, and Carmen.
Rooms (1955) grew from sessions at the Actors Studio. It depicts the isolation of the urban dweller. Each dancer sits in a chair, reaching into space, close to one another, yet out of touch. The theme of the withdrawn sufferer appeared again in Session ’58, Opus ’50, Opus Jazz 1958 in Israel, Opus ’60, and, finally, Opus ’65 in the Joffrey Ballet Company’s repertory to Teo Macero’s jazz score.
Two works are worth special note. Lyric Suite (1953), choreographed to Alban Berg’s score, was premiered in Mexico and then performed at the Y in 1954 with such notables as Donald McKayle, Jeff Duncan, Ethel Winter, and Mary Antony. The use of Berg’s music and the emotive yet nonnarrative choreography made this a landmark in modern dance works. Louis Horst said, “Anna, now you are a choreographer.” Dreams (1961), an “allegory of time and helplessness,” used concentration camp images. In Holland, audiences responded with the silence of recognition. On the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation, Dreams still had enormous impact.
In Israel, Sokolow brought Inbal, the Yemenite Company led by Sara Levi-Tanai, her professional skills. For Inbal, she staged the Song of Songs in 1976. With the Juilliard Dance Theater, she built a work called Ellis Island; for Batsheva, Poems of Ecstasy. In 1979, she choreographed The Bible in Dance in Jerusalem, using a setting of the Song of Songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Psalms by Gustav Mahler. In 1982, she created Los Marranos to Ladino folk songs. This versatile woman also did the original choreography for Hair, a mime-dance of Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words, Magritte, Magritte, based on images from the painter’s works, and From the Diaries of Franz Kafka, a dance-theater work.
At the conference “Jews and Judaism in Dance” at the Joyce Theater in 1986, Anna Sokolow was celebrated as a prime mover in the dance world. Her work has been kept alive through the Player’s Project, directed by John and Lorry May. Sokolow has dedicated her works to such diverse people as Isadora Duncan, Anne Frank, Louis Horst, Langston Hughes, Franz Kafka, Golda Meir, Nijinsky, Bishop Pike, Alexander Scriabin, Hanna Szenes, and her parents. She gave dance and theater a heroism and passion exemplified by those she honors.
Anna Sokolow died in New York City on March 29, 2000.
Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America (1975); Clarke, Mary, and David Vaughan. The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet (1977); Dance Magazine (June 1956, April 1969, April 1985, April 1991); Dance News: The Season in Review (June 1964, February 1965); Dance Observer (November 1943, October 1946); Denby, Edwin. Dance Writings (1986); Jowitt, Deborah. “Anna at Eighty-five.” Dance Magazine 64, no. 8 (August 1995); Lloyd, Margaret. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance (1949); Martin, John. America Dancing (1936), and The Dance (1946), and John Martin’s Book of the Dance (1963); McDonagh, Don. The Complete Guide to Modern Dance (1976); Morgan, Barbara. Martha Graham (1941); New Dance Group. Souvenir Program, June 11, 1993; Studies in Dance History 5, no. 1. Of, by, and for the People: Dancing on the Left in the 1930s. Articles by Pricket, Graff, Ocko; Warren, Larry. Anna Sokolow: The Rebellious Spirit (1991).
How to cite this page
Harris, Joanna G.. "Anna Sokolow." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 8, 2016) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sokolow-anna>.