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In 1967, Charles Weidman choreographed Easter Oratorio, a beautifully simplistic and joyous dance that premiered at the Expression of Two Arts Theater in NYC. It featured multiple sections including ensemble numbers and a trio for women all surrounding the topic of rejoicing at the resurrection. In the later part of Weidman’s career, his pieces took on spiritual tones which was unique to his previous genres of choreography. He especially focused on classical music by composers Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and choreographing joyous, grand, exalting movement. His first pursuit in this new tone was Christmas Oratorio to music by Bach created in 1961 followed by Easter Oratorio six years later also to music by Bach.
Weidman believed that music and dance were one, and Easter Oratorio is a prime example of how his movement was inspired by the composition of the music. “Fugue”, the opening dance of the Oratorio, features an ensemble of dancers moving in structured sections in time and sequence with the music. A fugue is a compositional structure where a short melody or phrase is taken up by other instruments/voices at sequential, overlapping timings (think of “Row, row, row your boat” sung in a round). Weidman took these overlapping sections and did the same with his choreography; the women start moving with one theme followed by the men taking up the same or different movement overlapping the women to create a beautiful, yet mathematic assembly of elated bodies.
Though Charles enjoyed following the structure of the music with his dance, he did so in an interesting way. Margaret O’Sullivan (Foundation Vice-President and Weidman company dancer) reflects on how Charles choreographed to the music in a unexpected way. Instead of starting on the 1 of every six counts, the impetus for the beginning of the phrase was always on the 6, making the movement seem to spurt out and grow in a way the was organic with the music, but simultaneously following its own rhythm and flow. This gives the Fugue the impression of always rolling forward and creates a play between the push and pull of the music and the dancers.
In 2010, the Charles Weidman Dance Foundation partnered with Tisch School of the Arts, NYU to re-stage and perform two sections from the Easter Oratorio. Janet Towner assisted by Margaret O’Sullivan taught the Tisch dancers the “Fugue” and the trio “Branches”. The two performances of these excerpts at the 92nd St Y and at Baryshnikov Arts Center were not only the first instance of Weidman/Bach performed to live music, but also the first time the excerpts had been shown in NYC since Weidman’s death.
The trio, “Branches” features three women holding laurel branches and circling around one another in sweeping and jumping movement. Each woman has a solo moment involving the first dancer with one branch, the second soloist with two, and the final woman wielding three branches in the formation of the cross. Each solo also contributes a different mood to the piece, the first stretching and arching on the floor with the single branch pointing to the sky, the second reaching and honoring with arms outstretched in a V shape , and the third swirling and whirling in praise and delight beneath the cross shaped branches.
Elinor Rogosin in The Dancemakers: Conversations with American Choreographers speaks to how “the expression of the joy of the resurrection is the overwhelming mood in the piece” and how as an audience member, you “could have been eavesdropping on someone at prayer”. Rogosin comments on the simplicity of the choreography and the absence of acrobatic movement “creating a refreshing impact of naive expression”. When learning Easter Oratorio, Tisch alumni Elizabeth Montgomery reflects on the technique of the face and chest in order to achieve the look of ecstasy: “I remember Margaret explaining to us the intention of “space in the face;” it should be as though you’re looking past whatever is in the room in front of you, as though you’re looking out into the horizon from someplace very high. Maintaining that energy in an of itself is exhausting. Now add the jumps, hinges, and pivots, and Easter Oratorio becomes one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever danced, in spite of its choreographic simplicity”.
“Bach’s dramatic intent in the Easter Oratorio is the expression of the joy of the Resurrection. Despite the fringes of melancholy added by the adagio, and by some of the recitatives, the overwhelming mood is one of rejoicing”. -Charles Weidman on a 1971 program
Post by Julia Jurgilewicz
Today is a very special day! It marks the 85th anniversary of the first presentation of Charles Weidman’s work!
On March 24, 1928, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey presented their first concert at the Brooklyn Little Theater (now called the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse). Weidman’s Submerged Cathedral (Cathedrale Engloutie) and Humphrey’s Color Harmony and Air for the G String were among the important works that premiered on the program.
Color Harmony, considered to be America’s first abstract ballet, was based on the color theory of light. Groups of dancers represented as different primary colors interact and mingle around the stage. Quoted from Doris Humphrey’s notebook, she describes the flow of the dance poetically; “Through the wild colors shoots a silver arrow–it separates the couples–it draws them one by one into form—all the flaming colors are laid down in rhythmic patterns—in a pyramidal form—up high steps to a climax, where a silver streak molds itself into a stream of light that goes up into infinity.”1 Also innovative for its time, Clifford Vaughan composed the music for the work after Humphrey composed the movement.
Weidman’s Submerged Cathedral is based on a Breton legend about a cathedral that periodically “rises out of the water. The ringing of the bells and the chanting of the monks are heard—silence when the cathedral sinks back into the sea.”2 In his performance, Weidman “indicated with a truly moving quality the surge of the sea depths, the rising and sinking of the submerged structure, and the tolling of the underwater bells.”3Opening and closing with swirling circular movements contrasted by sharp upward thrusting movements in the middle, the choreography foreshadows Humphrey’s 1931 Two Ecstatic Themes: Circular Descent and Pointed Ascent.
Weidman continued to perform Submerged Cathedral until his death in 1975. In 1993-1994, Peter Hamilton recreated the choreography which has since been performed by Craig Gabrian (pictured above) at the Sylvia & Danny Kaye Playhouse, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It has also returned to its first home, the Brooklyn Little Theater, where, in 1996, the Charles Weidman Dance Foundation presented the Brooklyn Music School with a plaque commemorating the first concert. Again in 2003, for the 75th anniversary, the program included Easter Oratorio, Fables for Our Time, Submerged Cathedral and Two Ecstatic Themes.
The CWDF was thrilled when Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz proclaimed March 24th Humphrey Weidman Day. Celebrate Humphrey Weidman Day today and remember the great modern dance pioneers and all they established for the future modern dancers of the world. Thank you Charles and Doris!
1from Doris Humphrey’s notebook, quoted in Days on Earth, the Dance of Doris Humphrey by Marcia B.Siegel
2from Weidman’s program note, quoted in Reclaiming Charles Weidman by Jonette Lancos
3Soaring by Jane Sherman
Photos at Little Theater by Larry Hall
Words by Nadira Hall
Post by Julia Jurgilewicz
“To me one of the most valuable assets in dance composition is the formula of contrast. In painting, this formula is used in the contrasts of darks against lights, of cool colors against warm ones, of plain surfaces against highly decorative ones. In movement this is done with contrasting a soft movement against a hard, moving the body or body parts from a closed contracted position to an explosive one, or moving vertically to horizontally.”
– Charles Weidman
On February 1st, modern dance soloist, Jennifer Conley, will be performing ‘Study in Contrast’ as part of the 92nd Street Y’s Fridays at Noon series. She will be accompanied by the incomparable Pat Daugherty on piano. This will be Study in Contrast’s first solo concert performance.
In the early 1930s, Weidman created ‘Study in Contrast’ as a way to teach principles of dance composition. It concisely shows contrasts between:
sustained and sharp movements,
bent, curved and straight lines,
symmetry and asymmetry,
vertical and horizontal,
drawing inward and expanding outward,
the body being pulled off center/equilibrium and returning to center,
internal and external rotation,
“parallelisms” and “oppositions.”
Composed in ABA form, the study contains myriad variations of the initially stated “bent limb” theme which recurs in an extraordinary variety of angles and rotations. As the body responds to lateral and spiral forces, the dancer is eventually swept from his/her fixed position in space and then finally returns to equilibrium and stability.
Early on, Weidman presented lecture demonstrations devoted to the basics of choreography. Initially they were part of the lecture demonstrations that he and Doris Humphrey began in 1929. Then, starting in 1935, Weidman and his Men’s Group presented lecture demonstrations devoted entirely to composition studies. ‘Study in Contrast’ dates from this period. First performed by the Men’s Group, ‘Study in Contrast’ was later incorporated into Weidman’s technique demonstrations which he continued to present throughout his career.
Jennifer Conley is a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and Pearl Lang Dance Theatre. As a soloist, she has performed the work of modern dance luminaries Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Jane Dudley, Ethel Winter, Yuriko, and Stuart Hodes. She has received commissions to choreograph original GeoDance repertory on university dance programs across the country and has also staged her work in New York City venues such as HERE, Merce Cunningham Studios, and Lark Theatre. As a regisseur with the Martha Graham Dance Center, Jennifer has staged ten productions of Martha Graham’s ballets in the United States and United Kingdom. She has served on faculty at Laban, Brown University, Franklin and Marshall College, Temple University, and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She holds an MFA in Dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a Doctoral Candidate at Temple University.
For more information on the February 1st performance, visit the 92nd St Y website here: http://www.92y.org/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=87759&source=8587
Words by Nadira Hall
Post by Julia Jurgilewicz