Anna Sokolow and Luciana Achugar: Two definitions of Intensity, Generations Apart

During Anna Sokolow’s lifetime, she apparently gave out a number of possible birthdates—all of them slightly later than the one on the birth certificate that her late biographer, Larry Warren, thought to look up. Odd for a woman who never cottoned to glamour, a choreographer who was raised by her immigrant parents on New York’s Lower East Side and grew up fierce and uncompromising. Anyone dancing for Sokolow—whether a professional in New York, Israel, or Mexico, or a student at Juilliard where she taught for a number of years—knew that every gesture had to be performed with unwavering intensity. Or else.

2010 marks the centennial of her birth, and events honoring her and performances of her works have been cropping up since October 2009. The plucky Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble group directed by Jim May (once a superb interpreter of the choreographer’s work) presented a program in February at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, where in the 1930s Sokolow taught, performed, and showed some of her first dances. The Ensemble appears again at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre at the end of next October. Both the José Limón Company here and Introdans in the Netherlands mounted her great 1954 Rooms. At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, an exhibition devoted to her is on view through July 24. These are just some of the celebrations.

One of May’s recent accomplishments was to unearth in Mexico a pirated video of Murals, a piece that Sokolow created for the dance group at the University of Veracruz in 1980. His reconstruction formed the centerpiece of the ensemble’s recent Joyce Soho season. In this handsome little work, you can see most of the structural characteristics of Sokolow’s choreography and her vision of dancers. From the opening moments of Murals, when the performers are seated in a tight circle around the single figure of a priest (Mayan, perhaps), the choreography shows you how powerful the sudden, simple, concerted lift of eight heads can be. Often Sokolow breaks up a phrase of, say, running, turning, and posing, so that the dancers are doing these at different times; the effect is of individual responses within a cohesive society. When they kneel in a diagonal line and strike the floor, each one embellishes the unidentified percussion score by Carlos Chavez with a different rhythmic pattern.

Jim May, Eleanor Bunker, and Richard Kilfoil in Anna Sokolow's "A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of
Robin Meems
Jim May, Eleanor Bunker, and Richard Kilfoil in Anna Sokolow's "A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime."
Luciana Achugar and Michael Mahalchick in Achugar's "Puro Deseo."
Julieta Cervantes
Luciana Achugar and Michael Mahalchick in Achugar's "Puro Deseo."


Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble
Joyce Soho
April 22 through 25

Luciana Achugar
The Kitchen
April 29 through May

The dancers give the impression of seeing great distances, except when they settle into hieratic poses that suggest temple friezes. Even partners spend little time gazing into each other’s eyes, and when Atsushi Yahagi lifts Samantha Geracht, she lies back, slanted against his body, more like a ritual sacrifice than a lover. The work has an assertive, ceremonious power and condensed energy in both its spatial patterns and its movement, except for the leader’s big springs into the air. The impact of Murals is enhanced by the fact Luis Gabriel Zaragoza is not only a strong dancer; his face brings to mind ancient Mezoamerican carvings.

Sokolow’s 1997 Frida celebrates later Mexican culture. The choreography for this portrait of painter Frida Kahlo is flavored by a peasant jauntiness when the dancers aren’t echoing the moods, poses, or relationships shown in Kahlo’s projected artworks. (I was especially taken with one painting that shows Kahlo, looking small and grumpy, beside her large, domineering husband, Diego Rivera.) Set to a variety of folk music and pieces by Mexican composers, Frida diffuses toward the end, with various props never getting used.

Both this piece and the 1995 duet, September Sonnet, reveal in various ways Sokolow’s gift for making form resonate with feeling. In Frida, Roberto Garcia, as a stern and arrogant Rivera, revolves slowly, holding one arm stiffly out to his side; whichever way Lauren Naslund, as Kahlo, runs distractedly around him, she can’t get past that barrier. Sometimes Naslund moves forward, supported from behind by the ensemble dancers, but they also give the impression of a great cloak of people that she is pulling after her. In the middle of September Sonnet (set to music by Rachmaninov, Poulenc, and Schumann), Francesca Todesco enters to stand close to Zaragoza; pressed together spoon-fashion, they bend sideways and reach out their nested hands. At that moment, you realize that he performed those same gestures alone at the beginning of his solo. Sokolow must have wanted us to think back and wonder whether he was remembering her or hoping for her.

The program also presented one of Sokolow’s odder works. I’ve never fully understood it. Dating from 1952 and titled A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime, it’s meant, I think, to be both a comedy and a faintly malevolent satire aimed at upper-crust white folks attempting to get into the spirit of jazz. The music is by Jelly Roll Morton and, ideally, a live pianist would be onstage. A dressed-up 1920s pair (Eleanor Bunker and Richard Kilfoil), rise intermittently from their chairs to demonstrate various ballroom struts, waltzes and rags at the request of a cheery lecturer (May), wearing tails and a distractingly dreadful gray wig and holding index cards. Part of the disjunction between content and style comes from the fact that this interlocutor speaks his text—some of which appears to be by Jelly Roll Morton (“I’ll play it for you”)—with the precision of an elocution teacher, although the grammar is often casual.

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