Anna Sokolow and Luciana Achugar: Two definitions of Intensity, Generations Apart

During Anna Sokolow’s lifetime, she apparently gave out a number of possible birthdates—all of them slightly later than the one on the birth certificate that her late biographer, Larry Warren, thought to look up. Odd for a woman who never cottoned to glamour, a choreographer who was raised by her immigrant parents on New York’s Lower East Side and grew up fierce and uncompromising. Anyone dancing for Sokolow—whether a professional in New York, Israel, or Mexico, or a student at Juilliard where she taught for a number of years—knew that every gesture had to be performed with unwavering intensity. Or else.

2010 marks the centennial of her birth, and events honoring her and performances of her works have been cropping up since October 2009. The plucky Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble group directed by Jim May (once a superb interpreter of the choreographer’s work) presented a program in February at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, where in the 1930s Sokolow taught, performed, and showed some of her first dances. The Ensemble appears again at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre at the end of next October. Both the José Limón Company here and Introdans in the Netherlands mounted her great 1954 Rooms. At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, an exhibition devoted to her is on view through July 24. These are just some of the celebrations.

One of May’s recent accomplishments was to unearth in Mexico a pirated video of Murals, a piece that Sokolow created for the dance group at the University of Veracruz in 1980. His reconstruction formed the centerpiece of the ensemble’s recent Joyce Soho season. In this handsome little work, you can see most of the structural characteristics of Sokolow’s choreography and her vision of dancers. From the opening moments of Murals, when the performers are seated in a tight circle around the single figure of a priest (Mayan, perhaps), the choreography shows you how powerful the sudden, simple, concerted lift of eight heads can be. Often Sokolow breaks up a phrase of, say, running, turning, and posing, so that the dancers are doing these at different times; the effect is of individual responses within a cohesive society. When they kneel in a diagonal line and strike the floor, each one embellishes the unidentified percussion score by Carlos Chavez with a different rhythmic pattern.

The dancers give the impression of seeing great distances, except when they settle into hieratic poses that suggest temple friezes. Even partners spend little time gazing into each other’s eyes, and when Atsushi Yahagi lifts Samantha Geracht, she lies back, slanted against his body, more like a ritual sacrifice than a lover. The work has an assertive, ceremonious power and condensed energy in both its spatial patterns and its movement, except for the leader’s big springs into the air. The impact of Murals is enhanced by the fact Luis Gabriel Zaragoza is not only a strong dancer; his face brings to mind ancient Mezoamerican carvings.

Sokolow’s 1997 Frida celebrates later Mexican culture. The choreography for this portrait of painter Frida Kahlo is flavored by a peasant jauntiness when the dancers aren’t echoing the moods, poses, or relationships shown in Kahlo’s projected artworks. (I was especially taken with one painting that shows Kahlo, looking small and grumpy, beside her large, domineering husband, Diego Rivera.) Set to a variety of folk music and pieces by Mexican composers, Frida diffuses toward the end, with various props never getting used.

Both this piece and the 1995 duet, September Sonnet, reveal in various ways Sokolow’s gift for making form resonate with feeling. In Frida, Roberto Garcia, as a stern and arrogant Rivera, revolves slowly, holding one arm stiffly out to his side; whichever way Lauren Naslund, as Kahlo, runs distractedly around him, she can’t get past that barrier. Sometimes Naslund moves forward, supported from behind by the ensemble dancers, but they also give the impression of a great cloak of people that she is pulling after her. In the middle of September Sonnet (set to music by Rachmaninov, Poulenc, and Schumann), Francesca Todesco enters to stand close to Zaragoza; pressed together spoon-fashion, they bend sideways and reach out their nested hands. At that moment, you realize that he performed those same gestures alone at the beginning of his solo. Sokolow must have wanted us to think back and wonder whether he was remembering her or hoping for her.

The program also presented one of Sokolow’s odder works. I’ve never fully understood it. Dating from 1952 and titled A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime, it’s meant, I think, to be both a comedy and a faintly malevolent satire aimed at upper-crust white folks attempting to get into the spirit of jazz. The music is by Jelly Roll Morton and, ideally, a live pianist would be onstage. A dressed-up 1920s pair (Eleanor Bunker and Richard Kilfoil), rise intermittently from their chairs to demonstrate various ballroom struts, waltzes and rags at the request of a cheery lecturer (May), wearing tails and a distractingly dreadful gray wig and holding index cards. Part of the disjunction between content and style comes from the fact that this interlocutor speaks his text—some of which appears to be by Jelly Roll Morton (“I’ll play it for you”)—with the precision of an elocution teacher, although the grammar is often casual.


The man and woman demonstrating the steps are stiff and proper, even when cutting loose somewhat in the scampery kicks and hip wiggles of the “Tiger Rag.” May plays his role charmingly, and Kilfoil displays a droll hauteur, although I don’t recall earlier performers making quite so much of a little flirtation as he and Bunker do. I’d give a lot to know what was going through Sokolow’s mind when she made this piece for the tap dancer Danny Daniels and Carmen Gutiérrez from Mexico.

I admire May’s commitment to keeping Sokolow’s austere, heartfelt work alive, but wish that the costumes for this relatively light program were better; only those by Bunker and Ivana Drazic for Frida were passable. And, although the members of the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble perform with conviction, few of them are proficient enough to make the choreography flame through them from the soles of their feet to their fingertips.


How often do you go to a dance performance hoping to be spellbound? No, I mean really

spellbound, wondering what spectral presence may be conjured up or whether the crawling, growling, snuffling creature starting up the aisle of the Kitchen’s black-box theater will lick your feet (not a usual aisle seat hazard). The Uruguay-born choreographer Luciana Achugar has always investigated—celebrated—the primal in her compelling pieces. She makes you intensely aware, sometimes at very close range, of the performers’ breathing, their body heat, their sweat. In her new Puro Deseo, she adds another layer, invoking paranormal phenomena and the occult. She wants, I think, to mesmerize us, which she does, and I don’t think she’d mind scaring the hell out of us. If I were to cede my ability to construct a sentence and moan my way down the page in syllables, I might better convey the visceral response this work induces.

Puro Deseo isn’t what people usually mean when they call something a dance. All the movement is guttural; gestures spew up from some dark, inner place. Only once, when Achugar stands with her feet apart and springs up repeatedly onto the balls of her feet, do you realize that she could hack it in ballet class. Nor can you think of the mysterious transactions between her and composer-performer Michael Mahalchick as anything resembling a conventional duet.

You’re constantly aware that you’re not seeing everything. Lighting designer Madeline Best creates a black cavern, within which paths appear and disappear on the floor, and dim patches of light reveal Achugar or Mahalchick, then vanish. If you blink, you may miss something. Sometime their giant shadows loom on the back wall. In this context, a sudden glare of white light is shocking, as is the low lamp at the rear that’s aimed right at us.

From the beginning, we’re taught to accept the dark. We sit in blackness, listening to Achugar’s barely audible voice coming from behind us. She’s singing in Spanish what sounds almost like a lullaby at first. I can just make out a few words: “sana,” and “mañana. . .” She repeats the short song many, many times, gradually getting louder and harsher as she nears the performing area. When we do see her, she’s gliding back and forth along a diagonal, turning her head to stare at us as she passes, her long, stiff, black silk coat rustling, black gloves covering her hands. She’s a solidly built woman, but she seems almost weightless on this smooth journey—like the ghosts that float through Gothic novels.

Now we see her, now we don’t. Suddenly Mahalchick’s supine form is revealed for a few seconds. When the lights come up again on Achugar, she’s tracing a new path. Sometimes in the dark, we hear sounds—metallic things clashing together, a ringing sound, crackling paper. Time begins to seem altered. Having glimpsed Mahalchick only in flashes, we watch him sit for a long time in a circle of light, moving his arms with a soft, incantatory grace that’s surprising, considering his appearance. His long red hair tangles with his beard, and Walter Dundervill has costumed him in a loose, curiously draped black silk shirt that sparkles subtly, and what look like shortish baggy overalls of similar material. When he stands, he intones Achugar’s song in a resonant monotone and at a pace so slow that his breath control seems close to inhuman.


The fact that the 55-minute Puro Deseo is so compressed and so elegantly constructed renders the allusions to witchcraft and possession all the more unnerving. Something very frightening is being hinted at, and we’re never sure which of the two characters is in control, or which is being conjured up by the other. Mahalchick stands at the back, raising his arms as if summoning up forces and chanting “sa-na, sa-na,” while Achugar lies supine on the floor, rhythmically spreading her legs, raising them bent, and lowering them pressed together; she moves her arms in a related pattern. At this point, she has shed her coat and is wearing a very short, artfully slashed tunic over lacework tights, under which she appears to be naked. She repeats this sequence of movements over and over (I counted about 84 times) quite calmly, without acting out sensual experience, but as time passes, you feel the action in your gut and can imagine that she’s giving birth to an infant fantasy or screwing a succubus.

In the end, the two merge—first standing one behind the other; then facing, foreheads pressed together; then separating and walking away from us, curved arms lifted, toward that one blinding light and on into darkness. The night air outside the theater has never seemed so fresh and bright.

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