Mysterious Ways — An Interview with Christine Dakin

“When dance puts live bodies, doing great art, in front of people, something happens.”

The Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble is honored that Christine Dakin will join us on May 28 & 29 in Modern Rebels, an evening of works by pioneers of modern dance and contemporary artists whose artistic lineage is a direct continuation of modern dance tradition, presented by The Tank in New York City.

Dancer, teacher, director, and a foremost exponent of the Martha Graham repertory and technique, Ms. Dakin is known for her performances of Ms. Graham’s roles and for those created for her by Martha Graham and artists such as Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp and Martha Clarke. Performing in the principal theaters of the world, partnered by renowned artists such as Rudolf Nureyev and filmed in the repertory, she was chosen by Graham for the company in 1976. Ms. Dakin became Associate Artistic Director in 1997 and was named Artistic Director with Terese Capucilli in 2002. Leading the company to its rebirth, they are credited with bringing the artistic excellence and repertory of the Company to a level not seen since Martha Graham’s death and were named Artistic Directors Laureate.

You’re a member of a generation whose youth was marked by revolutions in art, politics, sex, spirituality, and a very divisive war. Could you reflect on the impact these events had on your life as a young dancer, and on dance as an art form?

My early experience of dance, as a young adult, was dance in the street, in parks, churches, schools, artist studios, on stage. We made dance to dance, and to put dance out into the world. There was a great deal to dance about. In my corner of the dance world, you could trace the thematics of modern dance in the politics of race, the women’s movement, the war, the revolution in music and theater. I was blessed with extraordinary teachers, choreographers, other dancers, who collaborated to make art; with musicians, painters, actors, filmmakers, to communicate the world as we experienced it and were pushing against. Now, even as the tools to “connect” with other people are stronger and so ubiquitous, it seems harder to sustain connections and to work deeply. Dance as an art form, for all its ephemerality, is real, tangible, in the body, 4-dimensonal, non-verbal, pre-verbal, and has the power to sensitize us to our commonality, to our pleasure in and need for empathy.

How do you feel about being a steward of the Graham lineage (politics aside)? How does your Graham experience influence the way you approach new works?

Martha’s art was deeply rewarding to my instincts. The experience of learning, performing, teaching the technique and the choreography was a gift; to be a part of her creative life and process, an incredible matrix to grow in. I was drawn to the powerful physicality, organic and internally driven, to the emotions it evoked in me and allowed me to express, and to the complete theater she created. The origins of dance fascinate me; when ritual / theater / dance were a part of each other shapes how I think about dance. To the degree I am a steward of Martha’s heritage, certainly with decades of living, using her technique, I can share it, have thought about how best to pass it on. As an artist/performer, I am privileged to have worked long and deeply with great art and with great artists and will keep doing that, and exploring with other artists how that work contributes to what is now. Working with choreographers, such as Jaime Blanc and recently also with Brice Mousset and Alejandro Chávez, I have to find in their work the physical qualities I love, though they may manifest in different ways than I’m used to, and I need to find the theatrical power in their work.

After the legal dispute over the rights to perform Graham’s works was settled, you and Terese Capucilli as artistic directors coached a new generation of dancers. The Sokolow company is in that position of rebirth right now, teaching a new generation of dancers Anna Sokolow’s approach to dance. From your experience, what advice do you have to offer Samantha Géracht and her co-artistic directors?

If you put great art in front of people, there are many and mysterious ways they are moved by it, receive it, understand it. We use a lot of image and metaphor to describe those mysterious ways. For those of us who want to keep dance alive past the time of its creation, we have to understand and identify the specific qualities that are compelling in the present, figure out how to make them clear to the artist performing it, and to the audience. This is not about explanation or updating, it is about seeing deeply into a work, training dancer’s bodies to perform the vocabulary to their physical maximum. At its richest it doesn’t cancel the past, it encompasses it, transforms it. Dance as art cannot be static, and at its heart, it is not a commodity. I love Lewis Hyde’s thinking on art, that it can be thought of more in the nature of a gift – to be given and received: “The gifted artist contains the vitality of his gift within the work, and thereby makes it available to others. Furthermore, works we come to treasure are those which transmit that vitality and revive the soul.” In our desire to be relevant and current, it helps to remember that at its best dance has the unique advantage to be really ‘now’ and human. When dance puts live bodies, doing great art in front of people, something happens. There can’t be anything more ‘of the moment’ than dance.

Samantha said in her statement to The Tank that the people who are performing the works on this program have devoted themselves to keeping the legacies of those modern choreographers alive, so they are the ones who are most qualified to perform them. Doesn’t this make the task of teaching new generations of dancers especially crucial?

Yes. Body to body is how dance is passed on. Teacher to student, performer to performer, choreographer to dancer; all have to learn deeply, make the work their own, find their own ways to embody it. It is not a short process. It enriches the dancers and the panorama of dance today. The Sokolow Ensemble, and these dancers who invest their artistry and instinct to re-animate the visions, challenges of our predecessors, are doing exciting, creative work.

Do you find younger dancers are receptive to learning Graham technique? Do they find Graham’s work meaningful?

Some dancers come to the Graham technique quickly, drawn by its physical challenge and the richness of its technical vocabulary. It settles in most deeply in dancers drawn to its expressiveness; its potential to tap individual emotions and stir the body, and in those for whom it opens doors to the vast theater/dance tradition.

Please tell us about the work you will perform at The Tank. Why this dance? Does it have any particular relevance to this moment in history?

Self delusion, confusion, retreat into imagination, isolation – the world of the character in Jaime Blanc’s Short Story – understandable human responses in the face of the world, as much now as at any time. The dance encompasses a great amount of human nature compressed into simple gestures, tensions, that I have to investigate. I hope for the guts to put it out there so that it provokes the audience at least to recognition, maybe to empathy they can extend into their lives.

The modern dance pioneers of the early and mid 20th century challenged the ideas about what dance was. They declared that dance was a medium of individual expression through which you could explore ideas, make observations about present day life, or even explore your idea about what an ideal world could be. Those ideas, especially that dance was a medium of personal expression and that dance was a way to observe and reflect the life around you, are what have endured. There was a time in the late 20th century when there was a movement against that, when choreographers wanted to look at dance as just movement. Has contemporary dance come back to being a personal expression?

The vulnerability, individuality, destructibility of the “personal”, the “self” – I think meaning is unavoidable in dance, it is art of an individual’s body. But the “expression” implies a subject outside of self, the reason to make dance. Art is communication, the moment of excitement between dancer and audience and what we express is the art. We may have swung back a little too far towards the “personal”. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s comment that: “ No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made”. Dancers are gifted with a physical outlet for the deeply personal, and it can be risky to expose yourself in hopes of touching someone, moving them to reflection or action. My earliest experience of dance, physicalizing, questioning – politics, art, society – seemed like what dance was for. With all that has to be done now in the world, getting lost in the “personal” seems an indulgence, and betrays the power of the art form we live for.

Any playwright is aware of Shakespeare, Ibsen, the Greeks, where play writing came from. Painters have certainly been to museums and seen art works of previous eras. Musicians have a vast library of recordings to draw on for their training. But you have to see someone perform dance, and there are very few opportunities because few people perform or present works of modern dance. Are dancers today aware of where the art form they practice came from?

Although there is more information about modern dance and its history available than ever, in the digital and other 2 dimensional formats; sadly many people do not have the interest, or take the time (the vogue of ancestry research aside) to look back to our roots. It would be great if more dancers were interested in the richness, complexity of our history. The other arts you mention have centuries of archives accessible to artists and audiences and are reasonably well preserved that way. Choreography has had technology to record performance only since the 1920s so our archive is limited; but since the most complete way of recording dance is in the bodies of dancers, and is transmitted most authentically in live performance, it would never be enough to rely on 2 dimensional formats. At best that will only ever be incomplete, a semblance of dance. We must accept the nature of our art and certainly must keep live performance vital and accessible.

— Interviewer: Gene Ritchings

For complete information about Ms. Dakin’s long and illustrious career, visit

For more information about the concert and how to get tickets, see Modern Rebels.