“The Modern Dance”—A Conversation with Mary Anthony

Bruno Walther Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
New York City, April 25, 2009

A Review

Ross Parkes and Daniel Maloney in Threnody (1956),
based on the play Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge.

Photo by Lauri Brown

On Saturday, April 25th, I went to the Bruno Walther Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to listen to Mary Anthony in conversation with Gwendolyn Bye, a student of Mary’s and long time Company member. And to see a film of Mary’s work Threnody, which she had conceived after the play by Synge, Riders to the Sea.

Mary describes her creative process and the dance’s progress in almost step-by-step detail. First came the images of the story she wished to tell. Then she heard a work of Benjamin Britten’s that she thought suitable and asked Britten for permission. He had said no but offered another of his works, Sinfonia de Requiem, that he thought suitable, and which she used.

The film we saw I believe was from the 60s, performed on an unidentified stage that was really too small for the work.

Literal story for dance is not in my background. However, I find that I don’t need it to appreciate any dance from my own point of view. So I didn’t pay too much attention to Mary’s story line but did to the film. What I remember: a standing male figure in sculptural form reflected in a kneeling female form (this went undeveloped as the dance progressed), the classical development of choral movement and the use of the chorus in sculptural forms, a wonderful start of a male duet (whose development was cut short by the music), and a women’s trio whose dancers were unfortanately out of step. Much of the dance motion was derived from what might be called standard steps with little motion created the particular telling of this story. I could have stood a longer “mourning” solo by Mary at the end of it. It seemed to end abruptly (again a limitation of the music?).

Most of the questions from the audience were lay questions, which didn’t surprise me. Also of note was the fact that 90 percent of the spectators were in their 60s. Mary and I have few contemporaries (we are both in our 90s), so I suppose that showing and speaking to an older group could be enlightening. From the discussion I elicited some information: Mary never chreographed a piece without having music first. Yes, she was sometimes frustrated in the motional progress of a piece by the demands of the music. Yes, the choice of costume material enhanced both the choreographic process and the performance value.

Mary’s career bridged from the Wigman School to contemporary modern dance in much the way Graham (in whose company Mary danced) bridged from Denishawn to contemporary modern dance. That she finds motion in her images is “Wigman.” That she follows a story line is “Graham.” She chose material that helps the “message.” She was frustrated in fulfilling motion by musical dictates (I recall that Anthony Tudor had the same complaint.) Does this make her a transitional figure pointing the way to that oxymoron “post-modern”? The fact of that she was dissatisfied points that way. The impracticality of putting up with limits doesn’t.

Mary and Nikolais were contemporaries. Although Mary is several years Nik’s junior, both had similar backgrounds in dance (Bennington faculty and Wigman teachers), and both taught at the Hanya Holm School. Mary is more disciple, Nik more rebel. Mary spoke to her time in their own terms, although in her work one finds a restlessness that points to a future aesthetic. In Nikolais’s work one finds the future. To me it is interesting to see the contrast and to find in that the foment that engendered post modernism.

—Ruth E. Grauert, April 26, 2009