Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y

Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y by Naomi M. Jackson, Wesleyan University Press, $40

THE RISE OF MODERN DANCE IN NEW YORK IS a story of institutions as well as of artists and their companies. The 92nd Street Y, (the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, at 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan), is one such key institution, and its history has been devotedly researched and ably related by Naomi M. Jackson, an assistant professor of dance at Arizona State University. In large measure, it is the story of administrative decisions made and energetically carried out by one far-seeing individual: William Kolodncy, the Y’s educational director between 1934 and 1969.

When he sought to serve the dance, Kolodney looked for the best teachers, performers, and advisors he could find, beginning with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, Charles Weidman, John Martin, and Louis Horst. During Kolodney’s 35-year tenure, every modern dancer of significance in New York either performed or taught at the Y, (which frequently spotted them early in their careers), as did some legendary ballet dancers (among them, Carmelita Maracci and Janet Collins), dance-mimes (Angna Enters), tappers (Paul Draper), and internationally distinguished practitioners of dance traditions from all over the world (Argentinita, Carmen Amaya, Asadata Dafora, Pearl Primus).

Jackson gently tries to renovate the Y’s somewhat bourgeois image today by suggesting that the institution’s historic hospitality to African-American artists and other artists of color anticipated the diversity of multiculturalism, and that its steady sponsorship of women choreographers and of Jewish themes have left a legacy in postmodern dance. That is. she tries to repackage its achievements using today’s buzz words, which are frequently associated with mass marketing and pop culture. It’s a noble effort toward relevancy that I don’t buy. Under Kolodney, the Y was a colorblind institution, yes; but it exhibited highbrow taste in its offerings, wherever they came from. It couldn’t afford to attract, say, Graham at her peak; but it could give audiences Anna Sokolow in her prime and Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor in their youth. (The Y would go down in dance history simply on the strength of the fact that, in I960, it produced the program by the tyro Alvin Alley that contained the world premiere of “Revelations”)

Kolodney made special efforts throughout his career to promote Jewish themes, choreographers, and dances, notably the dances of Israel. Jewish choreographers and teachers consistently appeared at the Y, including many women, a number of them from the political left. (Sokolow and her dancers, for instance, performed almost yearly during the late ‘3()s; also frequent visitors were the choreographers Lillian Shapero and Marie Marchowsky.)

However, for most of the ’30s, Y audience interest in choreographers labeled as either Jewish or extremely leftist was mild. As Jackson reports: “In a 1991 interview the radical Jewish dancer Edith Segal stated that she never performed at the Y because her work was ‘too left’ for the organization; and when Kolodney tried to organize a Jewish Dance Evening in September 1939, with Miriam Blecher, Fanya Chochem, Belle Didjah, Lasar Galpern, Aleh-Leaf, Pauline Koner, Shapero, and Benjamin Zemach, he had to cancel it because there was “insufficient response,” apparently on the part of the Y community.

The turning point—that is, a new, assertive emphasis in Y programming on what Jackson describes as “the increased intersection of Jewish interests with modern dance”—seems to have been 1939-40, and to have been impelled by the dire news about the Jews of Europe. This emphasis on the convergence of Judaism and modern dance at the Y, which continued after World War II, produced at least three landmark dances, all by Jewish women: Sokolow’s “Kaddish” (1946), a memorial to the war’s victims; Sophie Maslow’s “The Village I Knew” (1951), based in part on the stories of Sholom Aleichem and the paintings of Marc Chagall; and Pearl Lang’s “The Possessed” (1974) based on the tale of the Dybbuk.

One also wishes that the story of an edifice containing one of the loveliest small theaters in New York would include information about the architect, and that its discussion of the Y’s path-breaking dance company for children, the Merry-Go Rounders, would mention that the company launched the career of Jennifer Tipton, now the leading lighting designer for dance worldwide. Its omissions and moments of overreaching aside, this is an enlightening and honorable dance history.