Une vie dans l’espace de la danse

(A Life in the Span of Dance)

By Susan Buirge

Available from Amazon UK:  Une vie dans l’espace de la danse (in French).

From her childhood in Minneapolis with her first dances in front of her grandfather, to her arrival on the coast of the Japan Sea in 2008, passing through the Juilliard School, the 1968 autumn in California, her arrival in Paris in 1970 where she began working in dance institutions, this book traces the itinerary of Susan Buirge. The choreographer revisits fifty years of contemporary dance, from the school of Alwin Nikolais in New York to her discovery of kagura, the traditional Japanese dances of the countryside, as well as her life as an artist and as a woman.

Choreographer of almost one hundred pieces, Susan Buirge looks back upon the most important—Going from West to East, Remains, Lapse, Imprints, Airlock, Patch of Sky, The Other Side of the Golden Wind—and she gives us the foundation of her work. Meetings and memories, feelings and thoughts, journeys and discoveries, all nourish this unique testimony of a life in the space of dance.

Susan Buirge was born in 1940 in the United States. She danced in the company of Alwin Nikolais in New York from 1963 to 1967, and then in 1970 she moved to France. Five years later she formed her own company. New works kept coming for this choreographer who was in the heart of “the explosion of the new French dance,” which formed a whole generation of dancers and choreographers. In 2008, Susan Buirge left France and moved to Japan.

Except translated from French by Virginia Laidlaw


On the first of September I showed up at the office of the Henry Street Playhouse, hoping that Nikolais had not forgotten me. He offered me a work scholarship to pay for classes: the organization of his archives. For three hours a day I was shut in a closet surrounded by piles of newspaper articles, correspondence, photos, notes, and unusual objects.

What a wonderful way to learn about the life and work of this artist. By organizing the black and white photos of his pieces according to years, I absorbed his spirit of invention and the path of his ideas since his arrival at the Playhouse in 1948.1 Reading about how his work was perceived by the New York press, I was made aware that the work of Alwin Nikolais was of a much different nature than anything I had known before. Certain critics2 spoke of “dehumanization,” provoked by the way that Nikolais often covered the body in sacks or other inventions. Others spoke of him as a “magician, sorcerer or genius.”

After two weeks in the archives, Nikolais suggested another job for me, a paid job as his secretary. This would be for three hours in the afternoon closed up in another closet, his office, where he had installed another desk. He had never had a secretary and I only knew how to type, but he knew exactly what he expected of me. Now, I had simultaneous access to his past and his present. And the future…?

Soon afterward, the administration of the Playhouse informed me of an apartment available in a building belonging to the Henry Street Settlement3, the philanthropic organization of which the Playhouse was a part. Sixty dollars a month, on Henry Street a three-minute walk from the Playhouse, in a neighborhood of Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants, and where for the first time in my life I was a minority—the only blonde in the area.

Finally, everything was in place—exactly as Mr. Horst4 had predicted.

Le Curriculum5

All of Nikolais’s work, the company as well as the school, took place at the Henry Street Playhouse; a Georgian style building that was built in 1915 on Grand Street. The ground floor housed the theater, the second floor the offices, and on the third floor two studios for classes and rehearsals. The professional course began in October and took place on the stage of the theater. Technique class was from 1:00 p,m, to 3:00 p.m. every day. Improvisation was from 3:00 p,m, to 4:00 p,m, three days a week, the other two days were for composition.

My days were full, beginning at 9:30 am in the archives, and then class followed by secretarial work until 7:30 pm. It was perfect. There were about twenty student dancers, for the most part young women with a good level of technique. Since many had already worked with Nikolais, I was among the few newcomers. The school proposed a three-year course of study with five classes a week during eight months. This was quite different from the other dance schools that offered classes a la carte.

Nikolais’s teaching dealt with the notions of abstraction as applied to dance, the fundamental basics being: space, time, shape, and motion. In other words, spatiality, temporality, plasticity, and motor as dynamic flow. These concepts were identified and explored in technique class as well as through improvisation and composition. Technique class presented the principles of an aspect of one of these concepts. Theory class explored the aspect through improvisation. Composition was an in-depth study of the same aspect, performed individually and choreographed, that is to say, fixed and reproducible. Virtually every week one aspect of a subject was thoroughly studied, allowing for a long process of absorption.

1  In 1948 Hanya Holm was asked to be the director of the dance department of the Henry Street Playhouse. As she was involved in Broadway projects at the time, she suggested her assistant Alwin Nikolais.

2  John Martin, followed by Clive Barnes at the New York Times; Walter Terry, and for a short while, Edwin Denby at the Herald Tribune; Jill Johnston at the Village Voice.

3  The Henry Street Settlement was founded in 1893 by a nurse, on the lower east side of Manhattan. An NGO, it provided social services and programs in the arts as well as health for New Yorkers of all ages.

4  Louis Horst, composer who taught dance composition at the Juilliard School, had helped me to make the decision to leave Juilliard and to follow my desire to study with Nikolais by saying, “Do what you have to do and everything will fall into place.”

5  The object here is to give my impression of the Nikolais approach to teaching from 1963 to 1967. It is in no way a description of the complete program, which is another subject.