The language of the body — Interview with Jim May

Recently the Director of the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble sat for an interview to share his thoughts about the company’s transition to a new generation of dancer/artistic directors, the state of modern dance today, and the relevance of Anna Sokolow’s work to the 21st century.

What does Samantha Geracht bring to her new role as artistic director?

Samantha joined the company in 1992 and has been my teaching assistant all these years. She loves dance, and she has such a respect for Anna. She likes the challenges of running a company. I’m there to help her. I’ll get calls, and I can tell her where I stumbled, and give her my advice… and she doesn’t have to take it!

What preparations did you make for the transition in artistic direction?

About ten years ago I started sending some of my dancers out to do the reconstructions and also to find out about casting and picking the right kind of dancers. Lauren Naslund and Samantha went down to San Antonio and the Boston Conservatory to launch projects and Ellie Bunker joined them to set a dance on the students at Franklin and Marshall. Ellie wanted to do the costumes for “Gershwin” and she had worked with Rondo which had Anna in it 30 -35 years ago before she joined the Sokolow company. It was a way of letting them find their way to where they fit in the organization. What other company can say that their dancers are still dancing decades after being chosen to work with Anna? This is similar to what Anna did with me. It’s really important when they go off to do these projects that they know the requirements of casting Anna’s work when they’re looking at new dancers they don’t know. If they don’t pick the correct ones it can be a disaster. Just learning the choreography isn’t enough. It’s much more complicated.

As director, living in Philadelphia, what will your role be in the day-to-day functions of the company in New York?

Not that much, day-to-day. I’m passing that on. That’s something the new artistic directors will need to take on. I’ve really stepped out, a lot more than anybody thought I was going to step out. I need to teach, I need to prepare, because the preparation and technique and the Sokolow style is not being taught in other places. So I need to teach if I want dancers to come into the company with the knowledge you need to do Sokolow. I don’t think Sokolow is a pickup company because of the requirements of the acting and the dancing.

The company wants to present Anna’s work as relevant to this moment, and not simply as historical reconstruction.

There’s so much more that can be said here than mere reconstruction. Anna is reaching out still, not in a political way, but in an artistic reaching out of hands. We have this amazing legacy that has influenced the world. Anna began combining dance and theater in the 1930s, and theater/dance is now so influential among many young modern dance choreographers. It’s possible the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble might reach out to work with some of them in this style. Right now, modern is being overlooked by our own country, and that’s the problem. How do we get ourselves out there? When I go overseas to set Anna’s dances on European companies, their dancers want to come to New York and work with us because all they have in their own countries is ballet. In America choreographers were very influenced by Merce Cunningham and the whole post-modern movement in the arts, and making movement that doesn’t have to be based in anything. But Anna’s work goes deeper than that.

Why do so many contemporary choreographers seem unwilling to work outside their own personal, narcissistic bubble?

They’ve been taught the art of choreography, but not the reason to be in art. The humanitarian mission.

Anna wasn’t on a mission to change the world but she did seem to be making an attempt to make people understand life, and their own lives in depth.

She had amazing, amazing insight into humanity. Wherever she went, Mexico, Israel, she touched the heart of that society. I don’t know of any other choreography that can do that.

In the 1930s Anna was part of a movement that made art that revealed, in a non-ideological way, how nationalism and racism affected people personally.

She wasn’t alone. That was a whole movement in choreography. She performed in union halls and other places. There were fights over these issues going on in the streets of New York. She was out there working on a political thing, which is now coming back. I think the time is right for Anna’s work to just explode. The young choreographers are trying to say something, and this is where I think the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble is really important, we can show them how to say it. They haven’t had the teachers to show them how to do it, they don’t take theater, they don’t know how to do it, but Anna’s work can show them how. After the Second World War and on into the Fifties that’s where I think she changed as an artist. When she went to Israel in the early 1950s, I have letters she wrote to her sister in which she was so homesick. And when she came back, she looked at life in New York, and she did “Rooms,” [exploring themes or anomie and alienation, yearning and loneliness]. I think she tapped into something deep inside her and from that point on everything in her work changed.

What can the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble offer the world of dance?

This morning in the newspaper they were talking about how intellectual speech in the universities is now almost worthless because of what’s happening with fake news. Words are now becoming almost obsolete. So this is the time to talk physically, without the words. That is the only way that dance can truly be passed on. All the dancers in the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble have been performing Anna’s works for years, just as I did. These dancers know Sokolow. The language of the body can’t lie. And Anna’s work says that. We do her choreography and it’s clear that when people see it they say, “Ah, there’s no fake news here.”

— Interviewer: Gene Ritchings

—Photo (left): Melissa Sobel/Meems Images