“She allowed me to be myself” — Interview with Tonia Shimin

For our Fall 2023 season’s performance of Magritte, Magritte, ST/DE has had the good fortune of working with Tonia Shimin—on whom Anna Sokolow choreographed the solo “Discovery”. Ms Shimin reconstructed the solo to its original music, “Ondine” by Ravel, and coached ST/DE dancer Ilana Ruth Cohen in the original movement intentions.

Ms Shimin danced with Anna Sokolow‘s Players Project in the late ’60s/early 70’s. In addition to Magritte, Magritte, she danced in OdesLyric Suite, Steps of Silence, Homage to Martin Luther King, Rooms (Escape), and, with The Mary Anthony Dance Company, Dreams.

When and how did you come to work with Anna Sokolow in her company Players’ Project? 

As a teenager I had heard of Anna, and at one point my mother, who was an artist, went to a rehearsal of hers with the possibility of designing costumes. Nothing came of this though my mother said she was impressed as Anna worked with some improvisation on the part of her dancers. 

Some years later I saw Peggy (Margaret) Cicierska beautifully rehearsing her solo from Lyric Suite and loved what I was seeing. She suggested I call Anna, which I did and was invited to a rehearsal.  Anna put me right into the group.  I was warned to be very warmed up. Sure enough the first direction was “Fall and rise in quick succession. Down. Up. Again. Again…” Sometime after that—I believe it was in the fall of 1968—Anna called and asked me to be part of the company.

The first piece I experienced was a work she created to be filmed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, Falling Water.  It was for a program on “Rebellion, Anna and Frank Lloyd Wright.” We danced on balconies and various spaces in that special building.  In rehearsal, Anna had included a section to be performed outdoors.  But it had lifts in it that would have been dangerous on slippery wet rock and was abandoned—it would have been stunning in that setting if it had been possible. It was an amazing and wonderful introduction to her work and way of working.

How long had you been in the company before Anna choreographed “Discovery” for you in 1972?

I had been with the company for one full year and then was away for a few years. I returned for the 1972 season that included performances at Lincoln Center and the European tour. Anna added the new solo for me to the already completed work, Magritte, Magritte, at that time.

What did Anna tell you about her ideas for the piece? What was her process for choreographing Discovery with you? 
The Titanic Days, by Rene Magritte

She simply showed me the image she was working with for inspiration. She had started with a rather violent image of a woman pushing away a figure of a man draped around her. Anna had a kind of dummy made and we worked with this for perhaps two rehearsals.

Evidently that idea didn’t seem to be working for her and at the next rehearsal she brought in the image of the woman covered in wood grain. I loved this one from the beginning and felt I could relate to this being.  Again she said very little about her ideas but gave very clear directions of how to begin, what to do and and where to go. “Start up stage…. circle the stage raising your arms, one then the other… pause, bring your left arm out and wrap it around your body…” etc.

Discovery, by Rene Magritte

It was developed this way until about half of the dance was laid out. She then put on “Ondine”—the piano work by Ravel—and said “Start.”  It all seemed to come together seamlessly.  If any part was awkward it was taken out. We progressed this way until the dance was completed and she gently faded out the music at the point she had completed her sequence/statement. It was very clear that she received and expressed an essence from the painting. I don’t remember if she ever said “feel the water,” but I certainly did. She made no changes after its completion and it felt rather magical.

Tonia Shimin in “Discovery”

My father, the artist Symeon Shimin, painted the original costume. We made two sets for the tour to be sure to have something in case anything happened to one!  It took about 4 hours of standing in each of the costumes for it to be painted on my body in a manner as faithful to the Magritte painting as possible and to work for the dance.

As mentioned, “Discovery” was originally choreographed to “Ondine” by Ravel.  I think we premiered it in Albany or somewhere upstate New York, and it must have had more than one performance with the Ravel score.  However, when rights could not be obtained for the European tour for this music, Anna asked Charles Hayward, a member of the company who played the saxophone, to create a score he could play live for the piece.

Did the change in music change the dance for you? Was it difficult for you to make that shift?

No, it was not difficult to make the shift. The new score was different in feel but was wonderful in a different way, giving other tonalities and moods to the piece. It was also more surreal in feeling which I feel worked well. The fluidity was already built into the piece and my inner line/sensibility for the dance stayed the same.  But, naturally, phrasing shifted and perhaps could be a little freer. It was also as if the Ravel was already inside me and the piece could go anywhere from there, allowing other colors. I love that two scores can work for this dance/persona.

Is there a memory of Anna that you’d like to share?

There are several…

The first is the classic image of Anna coming into the studio early and listening intensely with total absorption to the music she was about to use while we warmed up. There was absolute silence in the room. Then we would begin.

While seeming to be hard, she encouraged and nurtured us to be more of ourselves as humans and performers.

The perfect starkness and distillation of her approach to movement/concepts/feelings had such clarity and integrity. She was gracious and seemed so comfortable when sitting in her home surrounded by the art and objects she had collected or been given and that represented her life. She had compassion for others. For all of her seriousness she had a sense of fun.

How would you say your experience with Anna has affected you?

Hopefully many things have stayed with me…

 Anna’s commitment to honesty, integrity, purity of concept and movement mattered a lot to me.  Her complete dedication to the art form and appreciation of all the arts, literature, music and different cultures. The art of cutting out anything that is not needed or true to the idea. She was tough, but for a reason.

She allowed me to be myself within her works, and this I will always treasure. Her ability to draw out more from each of us, for what we have to offer,  has also, I hope, helped me in understanding and in guiding others.

Working with her confirmed my desire to be part of dances with meaning and response to the human condition in its many facets. Nothing was empty with Anna—she always took a stand. And… give your all or don’t bother.

I Ioved and hopefully learned from her timing and musicality. She said: “When you physicalize it fully you get its own timing and that gives you its logic.” She allowed the deepest expression to come out.

In the Eye of a Dream

Thursday – Saturday, November 9-11, 2023 at 7:30 pm
Saturday & Sunday, November 11 & 12, 3:00 pm
Thursday – Saturday, November 16-18, 7:30 pm
Saturday & Sunday, November 18 & 19, 3:00 pm

357 W 36th St. 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10018

$35, $25 students and seniors

This production is made possible in part by THE HARKNESS FOUNDATION FOR DANCE.