In Memoriam: Annelise Mertz, 1918–2011

Annelise Mertz, Professor Emerita in the Performing Arts Department
in Arts & Sciences, Washington Univerity, St. Louis, died on April 28. She was 93.

A force on the St. Louis dance scene for more than five decades, Mertz was a cele­brated teacher, performer, choreographer, and champion for the arts. In 2001, the university dedicated the Annelise Mertz Dance Studio in Mallinckrodt Center — its primary dance rehearsal/performance space — in her honor. In 2004, she received the Missouri Arts Award, the state's highest honor for achievement in the arts.

Born in Berlin, Mertz trained in ballet, modern dance, Laban theory and notation, and Wigman technique, pursuing graduate work with choreographer Kurt Jooss at Germany’s renowned Folkwangschule, now part of the University of Essen. She danced professionally throughout Europe with several distinguished companies, including the Kurt Jooss Dance Theatre; the Dance Company of the State Opera, Berlin; and the Municipal Operas of Darmstadt and Dusseldorf.

Mertz immigrated to the United States in 1955, teaching at the University of Illinois–Chicago before coming to Washington University in 1957. She quickly made her mark on campus, founding and serving as artistic director of Washington University Dance Theatre and, in the mid-1960s, spearheading the creation both of the Dance Major Program, which she directed for some 31 years.

Annelise at her 90th birthday celebration, 2008

In 1966, Mertz founded and served as the first president of Dance St. Louis, a not-for-profit organization that continues to sponsor performances by nationally known modern dance companies. In 1978 she founded the St. Louis Ragtime En­semble (later the St. Louis Dancers), a professional troupe that, over the next decade, would perform throughout the St. Louis region and abroad, including concerts in Ireland and Germany.

As a choreographer, Mertz earned a reputation for creating highly personal works that were also imaginative, witty, and theatrical. Over the years, she staged more than 40 original pieces at venues ranging from the Saint Louis Art Museum and St. Louis Opera Theatre to Cooper Union in New York City and the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

Though retired since 1988, Mertz remained a regular presence in the Performing Arts Department. In 2002 she edited and contributed an essay to the book The Body Can Speak: Essays on Creative Movement Education with an Emphasis on Dance and Drama (University of Illinois–Carbondale Press).

—Washington University Performing Arts Department

Tribute to Annelise, presented by Ruth Grauert at the Memorial Service,
Edison Theatre, Washington University, June 18, 2011

It is altogether fitting that this gathering to remember Annelise is here in the house that Annelise built. I have this to read from Murray Louis:
It was at Connecticut College Dance festival in 1956 that Annelise came backstage after a Nikolais Company performance and introduced herself to me. She asked if she could please audit my children's classes because she herself was teaching children in St. Louis and was curious about my approach. That was my first clue as to who this lady was. Anyone who has the stamina, humor, and good will to teach children is a special person in my book, and for the next decades we remained good and fast friends.

She was new to this country, spoke English with a thick accent, but I understood her wit, her energy, and above all her dedication to the dance. I am grateful that our paths constantly crossed as she continued to build a dance community in St. Louis and a strong dance department at the University.

How can one say farewell to such a life force without sensing that vitality rushing forward and embracing you?

So, Annelise, for the great memories that we shared, I send you all my love.
—Murray Louis   

It wasn't long after that that I, working as a stage manager for the Alwin Nikolais Dance theater, met Annelise when she brought in both musician Harry Partch (with his truck load of pots and pans and cardboard tubes and all sorts of other oddball sound makers) and Alwin Nikolais (who outfitted his dancers with ping-pong ball goggles and other accessories) for a combined performance here on campus.There was no theater, so we squeezed that performance into the campus chapel.

Without a theater on campus she pushed for a community organization (that had a theater) to present contemporary dance, and Dance St. Louis was born. When it became obvious to her that this university needed a theater, she pushed again, and this building with its studios and facilities and this Edison Theater was born. Here she produced many renowned dance companies, many faculty and student works, as well as her own. Across this country and around the globe her students have founded world-acclaimed dance organizations.

Even after she assumed the role of Professor Emerita, she herself never stopped. She edited a book of essays written for her by her many dance friends. Then just last November when I visited her, she complained that her fellow apartment dwellers had no knowledge of and little interest in dance. What did she do? She packed them into her car and brought them to one of my lectures. She was an entrepreneur, a dancer, a teacher of dancers, and a tornado beneath all our wings. Let us honor her legacy by nourishing what she has created with her foresight and tireless energy.

—Ruth Grauert

Annelise Mertz Memorial Service
Saturday, June 19, 2011
Edison Theatre, Washington University

Welcome, Jeffery Matthews, friend and colleague
Annelise’s Collected Images and Life and Works, arranged by associate Gale Ormiston, Guest Artist, WU (1973–1986)
My Dear Annelise, Letter from Joan Gordon, friend for over 60 years, read by Jeffery Matthews
Remarks, Branislave Tomich, friend, former student, performance artist/teacher
Remarks, Ruth Grauert and Murray Louis, read by Ruth Grauert, friend and colleague for 55 years
Dance Me to the End of Love, choreographed and performed by Suzanne Grace, St. Louis Repertory Dancers 1982–1985, WU faculty 1981–1996, poem by Leonard Cohen, read by Gale Ormiston, music by Vivaldi
Annelise Mertz: Freedom Fighter, Henry Schvey, Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature; Chair, Performing Arts 1987–2007
Annelise Mertz: A Life in Dance, 90th birthday DVD, created by Brian Cohen, Multimedia and Production Specialist, WU
Remarks, Jeffery Matthews
A Tribute to Annelise, by Michael Hoeye, former student

Music by J.S. Bach and Scott Joplin

“Where is the gestalt?” ~ “Have you read my book?”

“She was the Carrie Nation of dance of the Midwest, the St. Joan of St. Louis” —Alwin Nikolais

The Washington University flag will be flown at half-mast today in Annelise’s honor.