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“A portrait of a community consumed by violent passions.”– Jack Anderson, NYTimes, 1985.
On April 28, 2014, Minerva Tapia Dance Group from Tijuana presented a concert as part of Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater‘s Live Arts Festival at the White Box Theater. The dance group performed Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown, staged and directed by Weidman alumnus, George Willis. Mr. Willis was eighteen when he started dancing with Charles Weidman in California, first in Hermosa Beach and then Hollywood. He came into modern dance as a body builder and after his first class, he was “hooked.” Mr. Willis trained with Weidman for three years on scholarship until Weidman returned to the east coast. During that time, he performed Weidman’s Lynchtown, Fables for our Time, Flickers, and The War Between Men and Women.
Just ten days before the Live Arts Festival performance in California, Lynchtown was performed here on the east coast in New York City. The Charles Weidman Dance Foundation hosted Preservation of the Charles Weidman Moving Image Archive, a fundraiser for their project with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. New Jersey based contemporary dance company, Nimbus Dance Works, performed Lynchtown at the event, staged by Margaret O’Sullivan and Samuel Pott.
The Charles Weidman Dance Foundation is thrilled that Weidman’s Lynchtown is being learned and performed across America and around the world! Lynchtown, the third dance in the Atavisms suite, was first performed in 1936 and depicts a lynching that Weidman witnessed as a child. It deals with problems of racism, mob mentality, and injustice that are still widely relevant today. We at the Foundation hope that Lynchtown will continue to be studied and performed in universities, schools, and by professional companies around the world for years to come.
Post by Julia Jurgilewicz.
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
“The twisted minds of bigots symbolized by twisted bodies. Dancers doubled up with rage and when the lynch mob finally dragged in its victim, they gathered about his body as if they were vultures.”- The New York Times
This past autumn, our Vice-President, Margaret O’Sullivan, traveled to New Jersey to start working with contemporary company Nimbus Dance Works. Under the direction of Samuel Pott, the company will be performing Weidman’s iconic work, Lynchtown, this winter in their NYC season February 15-17th at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater.
Lynchtown was first performed in 1936 as the final section of Weidman’s trio suite Atavisms along side Bargain Counter and Stock Exchange. Lynchtown depits the excitement and horror of a lynching that Charles witnessed as a child. Unlike his previous and widely enjoyed comedic works, Lynchtown drew on a darker tone and “because Weidman was generally comic, his grave works had an anger and force that strengthened the sardonic, sometimes macabre dancing”. (American Modern Dancers: The Pioneers)
Because of it’s alarmingly honest essence, universal reach, and timeless topic, performances of Lynchtown have surfaced throughout the years. Most recently, Montclair State University dancers performed Weidman’s Lynchtown accompanied by live percussionists and clarinetist in a bill paired with Weidman’s Brahms Waltzes at the 92nd St Y in April 2011. Lynchtown was also shown in 1994 at the Humphrey-Weidman Gala: Dances from Their Years Together and in 1993 at SUNY Purchase and in Taiwan, China.
When asked about re-staging Lynchtown, Margaret O’Sullivan commented that “the hardest part for dancers is allowing themselves to really indulge and enjoy the grotesque and focus on the event. The dancers never face or look at the audience and it is very into the ground in very deep, deep plies.” She compares the movement to that of animals and recalls that in her first Lynchtown rehearsal as a dancer, Charles told them to be more “lascivious” with their movement.
One of the benefits and treats of learning Weidman dances from Margaret is the refreshingly “old” method of learning everything from memory. Nowadays, dancers develop and hone their skills in reversing movement learnt from a computer screen. Nimbus dancer Elena Valls expressed how in this Weidman Foundation/Nimbus collaboration, the dancers “did not learn anything from a video; it was all [Margaret’s] memory and from watching her do the movement. That made it way more enjoyable. She noticed the smallest details, like the Humphrey foot (which we call the Barbie foot), the tension in the hands and neck, and how your eyes really tell the story.”.
The company will be performing Lynchtown in their NYC season on February 15-17th at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater. Director Sam Pott has plans to create a new work based off similar ideas and themes addressed in Weidman’s Lynchtown. Nimbus’s future plans involve traveling to New Jersey schools to show Weidman’s iconic work and have the children create their own versions of Weidman’s dance based on ideas of intolerance and hate.
For more information on the Nimbus Dance Works NYC performance, visit their website here.
Sources: Olga Maynard. American Modern Dancers The Pioneers. Copyright 1965.
Lynchtown quote taken from myloc.gov.
Post by Julia Jurgilewicz