In Memoriam: Claudia Gitelman, 1926–2012

Dancer, choreographer, author, Rutgers University Professor Emerita of Dance, died on August 7, 2012.

Claudia is pictured with Murray Louis and Kim Gibilisco in November 2006 at Shenandoah University where Murray received an honorary doctorate ~ Photo by Cathy Kuehner

It is with great sadness that we said farewell to our beloved Claudia Gitelman, who passed away at her home in New York City on Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

The dancer, choreographer, teacher and author, "Golden Claudia” (a moniker bestowed on her by Murray Louis), could do it all. She taught at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University from 1985 to 1998. After retiring from full time teaching she remained Professor Emerita until her death. She authored the book Dancing With Principle: Hanya Holm in Colorado, 1941–1983 and was responsible as editor for The Returns of Alwin Nikolais: Bodies, Boundaries and the Dance Canon and Liebe Hanya: Mary Wigman’s letters to Hanya Holm and On Stage Alone: Soloists and the Modern Dance Canon (her most recent book, which she was fortunate enough to see in print shortly before her death). Gitelman, a veteran of Broadway and the concert stage, danced internationally, and as an original member of Nikolais Dance Theatre.

Claudia’s daughters, Alix, Lisa and Hillary organized a celebration of her life at the home of Tom and Doris Caravaglia on September 9, 2012 (thank you, Tom and Doris). It was a wonderful gathering of those who loved, respected and admired Claudia. Those in attendance ranged from her former students, colleagues, friends and family. Touching words by her daughters, Murray Louis, Phyllis Lamhut, Elizabeth Zimmer, Lisbeth Bagnold and Kimberly Gibilisco warmed the room as if our “Golden Girl” was standing right there.

Some memorable moments included Murray Louis’s rendition of how he gave Claudia her moniker as the “Golden Girl” and her daughters shared stories about the “mother” they knew which at times seemed drastically different from the Claudia we knew in the professional dance world. Elizabeth Zimmer commented on how their friendship began and blossomed over decades of seeing dance performances together, despite Claudia’s distaste for seeing ballet performances in which all who knew her, knew she was blatantly honest about.

Before speaking, Kimberly Gibilisco called her “dance sisters” Pamela Levy, Elizabeth Higgins and Trista (Redavid) DeFilippis up to stand by her side as she talked. Through misty eyes and a quivering voice, Kimberly spoke about the impact of meeting Claudia when she was a bright-eyed seventeen year old at Mason Gross. She commented how Claudia, though not always so forgiving with her commentary and sometimes with that sort of “Claudia introspective look with clinched eyes,” shaking her head, muttering “good grief woman,” had helped to shape the performer, choreographer and educator that she is today and that all of us felt so blessed and grateful to have experienced firsthand.

Claudia was one in a million, a gem... You always knew where you stood with her, and she was never afraid to be brutally honest about life, about teaching and about her art. Just as Claudia felt Nikolais’s concepts permeated her way of life: “His methods were durable and have served me well through years of teaching. He is still with me”, so do those who were lucky enough to have known and loved her share the same sentiment.

Donations may be made in Gitelman’s to the New York Public Library. Please specify that your donation go specifically to the Library for the Performing Arts where Claudia spent many hours and which she held in high regard.

—Trista C. DeFilippis, September 20, 2012

Claudia Gitleman:  It was a gift to us all to have shared time in our aesthetic with her. A purist, she defined each step of her way. A scholar, she organized detail with exactitude. A pioneer, she never hesitated to investigate new ideas. She came to us through Hanya Holm for whom she danced in Kiss Me Kate, and she really never lost its verve. Steadfast in her ideals, faithful in her friendships, stoic in her difficult illness, relentless in the pursuit of documenting our art, we shall always treasure that which she has given us.

—Ruth E. Grauert, August 10, 2012

A Tribute from France to Claudia, on Behalf of Her Former Students in Angers, 1978–81

When Nikolais came to France in the summer of 1978, his company being a guest of the prestigious Festival d’Avignon, Claudia was his assistant in giving an intensive to fifty dancers in a beautiful setting, the medieval Chartreuse of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The old was already meeting the new and that pedagogy, already present (thanks to the work of Susan Buirge and Carolyn Carlson), was to become very fruitful, producing such major artists as Philippe Decouflé.

Some of us discovered her there, the others in Angers in the fall of that same year when the official Centre National de Danse Contemporaine or CNDC in Angers had been launched.

Her qualities were obvious then and stayed the same throughout her life: clarity, patience, tenacity, passion for abstraction and for Nik’s principles. She came several times to Angers, ready to give the newcomers (there were three groups of students, a new one each year) the basics, wonderful at handling the drums, articulate in her feedback after improvisation, supportive in composition class. We remember her insistance: “Now, now, dancers, show me vertical, a real vertical. that’s it!”

It is only later that her involvement with Hanya Holm became acknowledged. A French company directed by former student Luc Petton invited her to reconstruct a duet from Homage to Mahler. Luc and his partner, Marilen, danced the piece in Paris, but it hardly toured, the French being unaware of the importance of Holm and of modern dance repertory. The language barrier was another obstacle, but some of her former students were thrilled at her publications on Holm and, in 2007, on Nikolais.

Claudia loved France and came as often as possible, for example, in 1999 for the performance of Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance in Angers (with Frank Garcia also present): that celebrated the 20th anniversary of CNDC. In 2010, the National Center for Dance in Paris invited her for the 30th anniversary of CNDC, the panel in which she participated being called a ’French-American pas de deux’! She told about the Nikolais period she had experienced with clever analysis and fond memories: “The students were sometimes reluctant to experiment,” she recalled, “prefering to talk about the premise of subject of the day beforehand. I had to adapt and report to Nik.”

Her work as a scholar is hardly known in France, due to lack of translations, but I had established a friendship with Claudia that was interrupted only because of her illness. I am currently finishing a dissertation for a Ph.D. entitled “Looking for the Unique Gesture,” and it will be dedicated to her.

Claudia had invited me to Washington, D.C., in 2000 for a memorable occasion, the Dance in the Millenium conference, organized by several societies of scholars. There she gave her contribution “From Bauhaus to Playhouse—Tracing the aesthetic of Alwin Nikolais,” which clarified many aspects of the relationship between Nik and Oskar Schlemmer. The last time I saw Claudia was at her wonderful exhibit Alwin Nikolais’s Total Theater of Motion at Lincoln Center in 2010.

Claudia had great advice for future teachers in dance. She called it “the three M’s”: Method, Material and Manner. Each time I give a class, I remember that wise advice.

And one of her last letters from New York featured that wonderful stamp, where you see her whirling black dress and her love for dance shining.

Sorry not to be with all of you for the performance and the gathering at Tom Caravaglia’s, but all of Claudia’s former students send their sympathy and condoleances to Alix, Hillary and Lisa.

NOTE: We have followed the advice of making a donation to NYPL for the Performing Arts and so far have gathered 500 euros ($635). The donors are Louis Ziegler, the Beau Geste Dance Company, Patrick Roger and Véronique Bauer, Dominique Rebaud, Myriam Hervé-Gil and Marc Lawton.

—Marc Lawton, September 9, 2012

Memorial for Claudia Gitelman

On September 9, 2012, family, friends and colleagues gathered to honor and memorialize the life of Claudia Gitelman (1926–2012). Hosted by her daughters, Alix, Hillary and Lisa, the gathering was held at Doris and Tom Caravaglia’s studio in New York City.

Guests enjoyed sharing stories, while looking at photos and the many books that Claudia had authored and co-authored. We learned that Claudia was able to see the final pre-print copy of her last book to be published soon.

Elizabeth Zimmer, Phyllis Lamhut, Murray Louis and Kim Gibilisco each spoke about Claudia (the “Golden Girl,” as Murray reminded us), highlighting their collaborations and friendships and Claudia’s professional accomplishments.

The gathering was filled with joyful memories of Claudia as a performer (from her days with Hanya Holm forward), a teacher, a mother and an author. She was much loved and will be remembered for her many gifts to the world of dance and to the Wigman/Holm/Nikolais legacy.

—Lizbeth Bagnold, November 5, 2012

Obituary from Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts