Theater archives

Dance History 101Z


The Bentfoote family has a long if not exactly illustrious history in American dance. Kriota Willberg’s tribute to downtown hopeful Susan Bentfoote (1966-2005) is framed by posters and family memorabilia hanging from the ceiling of University Settlement’s Speyer Hall on cords or displayed on easels. These, video interviews, and reconstructed dances march us through Susan’s struggles and her forebears’ remarkable contributions.

You’ve never heard of the Bentfootes? Not surprising. Willberg made them up, and a number of people colluded in largely improvised, subtly hilarious reminiscences or analyses of their careers (videographer, David (Squid) Quinn; video directors, Todd Alcott and Elyse Singer). Jack Garrett plays an expert on 18th-and 19th-century dance, choreographer-scholar Jody Sperling speaks on the Bentfootes’ contributions to vaudeville, and Tom Murrin remembers Junior Bentfoote’s Judson Church musical. Contributing recollections of Susan are James Urbaniak (her boyfriend), Lisa Kron (her onetime lover), the Voice‘s Elizabeth Zimmer (her supportive if baffled mother), Marjorie Mussman (her teacher), Jill Sigman (her friend and colleague), and Lawrence Goldhuber (the host of a cooking show to whom Susan (Nina Hellman) speaks fuzzily of her ambitions while helping to chop vegetables).

The thing about the Bentfoote ancestors is that they were all, well, odd. They didn’t quite fit into the dancing of their time, as Willberg’s sly “reconstructions” amply reveal. An 18th-century Bentfoote bedecked hippy-hoppy, Shakeresque colonial games with chanted Epicurean-philosophy bon mots about God’s laissez-faire attitude toward his creation. Daniel Bentfoote, a tobacconist and admirer of Ulysses S. Grant, showed off his eight daughters in exhibition square dances whose calls referred to current Civil War battles. Polite bows, grand-right-and-lefts, and promenade-homes alternate with instructions like “bivouac!” and “surrender to your opposite.” These dances, accepted at church socials, were apparently not huge hits.

A later family member, Louisa, made her living creating lugubrious 1920s movie-house prologues in honor of various recently deceased famous persons, with a nod to the fads for seances and hypnotism. Example: veil-draped Willberg, Beth Simons, and Kindra Windish channel Isadora in front of a very funny animated cartoon by R. Sikoryak. But, hey, this was popular entertainment. A Charleston bursts out in Bob Goldberg’s accordion (!) music, and nymphish skipping takes a trendy turn. As Josephine Bentfoote, Simons recites and mimes Walt Whitman’s extensive and rapturous catalogue of body parts while performing a 1930s Proletariat Modern Dance influenced by Tamiris (great costume by Jennifer Brightbill).

One of the wildest flights of imagination occurs in an 1893 specialty act for Giselle Bentfoote (Carol Knopf). This ballerina, seriously injured in a horse-and-buggy accident, dances effulgently while supported from behind by her mother, costumed in black like a Bunraku puppeteer. Limbs elegantly disposed but not always under control, eyes and head rolling, smile wobbling along with everything else, Knopf is both daffily charming and terrifying. An even more improbable number is “New Post Modern Boyfriend” from the 1965 Judson Church musical, The Washington Square by Susan’s dad (a former Fosse dancer), in which Julie Betts as a Broadway babe in love with a downtown dude lip-synchs David Wells’s song, backed by Knopf, Willberg, and Windish (one illustrated line: “Lock the door, toss a coin, and then do what comes naturally”).

The Bentfootes credits an archivist and “forgery consultant” (Sikoryak), and most of the forging is spot-on. But there’s an undercurrent of seriousness. None of Susan’s family or associates seem to know exactly where she stands as an artist. Neither does Susan herself, judging by her earnest remarks to Goldhuber (“I’m always searching for my voice”). To Sperling, she was “on the cusp of discovering what her art was about.” Sigman tactfully puts a positive spin on Susan’s apparently rather derivative work. Mussman calls her a survivor and thinks her research into family history was about to result in an artistic breakthrough just before she was hit by a bus.

Susan’s last dance, reconstructed from a fragmentary rehearsal video (shown as backdrop) is, like a lot of dance today, neither great nor terrible (just a bit odd with all the pointing fingers). But the country-singer voice of Nora Laudani lilts softly, “Though it was dark, I thought I could see,” and in a funny-poignant last word Garfield voices a current position—who are we to say what’s bad or good art—and grapples with the fact that most artists don’t build careers standing on the shoulders of giants, but on the shoulders of those of lesser stature, maybe falling off. With luck, a choreographer lives long enough to figure out what he or she is trying to do.

The only flaw in this delicious evening is the length of many of the numbers. Vaudeville acts, square dances, film “prologs”, even early modern dance solos tended to be short. Performers made their points with economy and skilled timing, and then got off the stage. Even Bentfootes.