PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE: A Celebration of Dance at the 92nd Street Yby Evan Namerow
On the Upper East Side, at the corner of 92nd and Lexington Avenue, lies a building steeped in dance history. Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, and Doris Humphrey all performed, taught, or rehearsed there, and fittingly, their work was included in the 75th Anniversary Gala of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center. The celebration was both an occasion to reflect on the groundbreaking artists whose careers started there, and an opportunity to present work by artists currently active at the Y. Past and present shined brightly at the gala, along with touching glimpses of the future shown by aspiring young dancers in the Harkness Repertory Ensemble. Thus, “Past-Future-Now” was an appropriate theme for the Y’s 75th anniversary, and throughout the speeches, video clips, and performances, two messages were clear: the Y is a home where creative endeavors can thrive, and it continues to educate, cultivate, and illuminate dance for future generations.
YDance,a lobby performance choreographed by Mark Dendy, began the evening. Knowing that so many dancers and choreographers have walked through the corridors where Dendy’s dancers performed—pressing their bodies against the walls, crawling gracefully down a flight of stairs, and abruptly turning a corner to encounter a new space—created a mysterious environment. Dressed in white and moving to faint drumming, it was as if they were ghosts of the Y’s past dance luminaries. The drumming became more vivid in Honoring Our Ancestors, a rhythmic, undulating processional led by Dunham technique instructor Dana Manno and musician Baba Don Eaton.
In his introduction, Board President Tom Kaplan reminded the audience of the Y’s dance roots. In 1934, educational director William Kolodney envisioned a center for dance education, and with guidance from New York Times chief dance critic John Martin, three modern choreographers were appointed the Y’s first teachers and performers: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. Since then, the Harkness Dance Center has played a critical role in the development of modern dance, providing performance series, space grants for choreographers, and technique classes for professional dancers, while offering nearly 300 dance classes to children, teens, and adults.
After a film of Graham performing her 1935 solo Frontier, the gala opened with Blakeley White-McGuire performing the same work, set to Louis Horst’s sharp, patriotic music. Fan kicks and brisk jumps portrayed the strength and independence of the pioneer woman. Isamu Noguchi’s spare set conveyed a widening horizon with endless possibilities. Showing equally bold women was an excerpt from Monica Bill Barnes’s 2009 work Another Parade, in which a trio strutted their stuff and tugged uncomfortably at their conservative clothing to “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”
An excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz most fully and poignantly captured the mission of the Harkness Dance Center, as Robbins’ earliest performances and NYC choreographic debut occurred at the Y. At the gala, dancers from the Harkness Repertory Ensemble infused Opus Jazz with their youthful energy, snapping and swaying to Robert Prince’s jazzy score. They lacked the precision of professional dancers, but their performance beautifully embodied the Y’s mission to cultivate a new generation of dancers while acknowledging the past.
Dance historian and critic Deborah Jowitt, who showed her first choreography at the Y and performed there with six different groups, introduced Doris Humphrey’s Two Ecstatic Themes (1931). It revealed a woman (Lauren Naslund) in two distinct emotional states: first dreamily enchanted; then moodier and melancholy, as if the enchantment had worn off. Katherine Dunham’s daughter introduced Dunham’s 1941 Los Indios, emotionally explaining that it illustrated burdened women’s endurance and escape.
Pearl Lang’s life-affirming Tehillim (1983), meaning “psalms” in Hebrew, reflected the Y’s commitment to exploring Jewish traditions. Lang, a Graham dancer, presented several works at the Y throughout the 1970s that integrated her Jewish heritage with dance. Set to Steve Reich’s percussive score, Tehillim was a joyous dance for seven women, who energetically propelled themselves into upward-gazing jumps. Lang did not create steps, but rather a flowing wave of movement that reflected the “hallelujahs” of Reich’s score.
Reflecting the Y’s broader commitment to diversity was an excerpt from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, which premiered at the Y in 1960. Ailey II performed this riveting work, which was as crowd-pleasing as David Parsons’s Caught, a 1982 solo that uses strobe lights to make it appear as though the dancer, Miguel Quinones, is eternally airborne. Closing the program was Lux, by the Y’s choreographer-in-residence Doug Varone. To a driving Philip Glass score, eight dancers rushed through a whirlwind of movement that nearly exploded beyond the stage’s boundaries.
Today, dancers and choreographers have more opportunities for artistic pursuits than their predecessors did, particularly since the downtown dance scene emerged in the 60s. Thus, the Y is no longer the center for dance in New York City. Furthermore, as dance has infiltrated culture through reality television, competitions, and online videos, it is more challenging to know who and where the groundbreaking, present-day equivalents of Graham, Dunham, and Ailey are. Agnes de Mille called the 92nd Street Y “the veritable cradle of the modern dance movement.” Hopefully, revolutionary dancers and choreographers will emerge from the Y’s breeding ground and uphold its legacy.
Namerow devotes her time to dance writing, environmental activism, and exploring the outdoors.