Twyla, Laura, and me 7

When American women demanded, and then seized, social and sexual liberation in 1970, I was an intense 15-year-old high-school girl in suburban Pittsburgh. Feminism hit me hard and it formed me. I entered young womanhood with the lovely delusion that life would deliver every achievement and pleasure I sought.

Five years later, having already burned through two university dance programs, I haughtily informed my bewildered parents that a college degree in dance was a waste of paper. New York beckoned. Nothing would derail me, neither my parent’s copious disapproval nor that of the head of the University of Michigan dance department. I would leave college, I told them. I would turn pro. Soon I was living the bohemian life in the East Village, studying with the greats by day and waiting tables by night.

In the Amazon atmosphere of the seventies it made perfect sense that two strong woman — Twyla Tharp, a bossy broad with a cool bobbed hairdo, and Laura Dean, a wild-eyed mystic who oozed kooky spirituality — were modern dance superstars.

Because dance was our art form. At its roots were Isadora, Miss Ruth, Graham, and Humphrey. Women ran the show; she-dancers spawned he-dancers like Limon, Taylor, Ailey and Cunningham.

Women easily assumed roles of authority: running schools and companies, doling out wisdom, spurning incessant adulation. They were the art form’s free spirits and visionaries. Nothing in this scenario struck me as unnatural. Twyla and Laura Dean were but two exemplars of the zeitgeist.

In 1975, the year I arrived in New York, Twyla Tharp choreographed her breakthrough contemporary work, “Sue’s Leg.”  Thirty-four years later, this past weekend, ballet troupe Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performed “Sue’s Leg” along with Laura Dean’s “Night” (made for the Joffrey Ballet in 1980) at the Durham Performing Arts Center.  

In “Sue’s Leg,” two girls and two boys (no real couples) boogie to the exuberant recordings of jazz pianist Fats Waller. Well-pointed feet and sharp balletic legs keep the gang in constant motion. Their wet-noodle torsos comically slink, slouch, and squiggle. In the course of bumbling around amiably, they collapse on each other like limp puppets.

When “Sue’s Leg” premiered in New York, the dancers in the audience gawked – our shock and envy palpable. Twyla was doing what we did — only we did it alone, at night, in our bedroom, or in filthy rented dance studios . . . or in our dreams. Set to old-tyme music (also a first), “Sue’s Leg” seemed like a glorious error; a curtain wrongly raised on a funky private rehearsal. And now that rough-hewn stuff was sanctioned as real concert dance.

Although one of the best dancers in New York, Tharp cast her gaze down while performing, indifferent to the audience’s hungry eyes. Yet this obvious exhibitionist knew she commanded attention.

What power. Why her? Why not me?

Blocks to the south, at a SoHo address so cool I would never enter it, Laura Dean reigned as the queen of loft-dance minimalism. Dean and her tribe of vestal virgins stomped unpolished wood floors to Steve Reich’s trance-inducing tunes. After de rigeur throwaway marching steps, the virgins got down to business. They began to rotate slowly. Soon they were spinning like banshees: white pajama trousers flapping, eyes flashing weirdness, untied hair airborne.

Another round of prickling hot envy? Not exactly. Dean sparked my deepest insecurities. We didn’t even occupy the same universe. She was pure, firey, intense. Even more intense than me. Where did she come from? India? Who told her to spin? No one spun in Pittsburgh. I was 21 years old. What would become of me?

Awash in these memories I viewed the Tharp and Dean reconstructions while attending the NEA Dance Criticism Institute at Duke University. The results were so-so. 

“Sue’s Leg” gave the lie to the notion that ballet dancers can do all that modern dancers could. Aspen-Santa Fe’s dancers lost Tharp’s vital tone – the cheeky, nutty, irreverant Twyla. A fleshiness and a weight had gone missing. Laura Dean fared better in the nostalgic Magical Mystery Tour. The ballet dancers attacked her obsessive dance patterns with a vengeance. It was kill or be killed, and Aspen Santa Fe refused to let Dean’s pattern-driven choreography do them in. They prevailed. Bravo.

So what did become of me? In 1983, I stopped dancing and moved to Hong Kong armed with a bachelor’s degree not in dance but in Chinese. There I launched an even crazier second career in international corporate banking. Not only did my personal world change, but the big world changed as well. Money became all powerful during that decade. The dance boom of my youth went bust.

And strong women ceased to dominate the profession. In confusion, dismay, and disappointment, I watched as men grabbed the reins of this once beautiful female-dominated field.

As a devotee of the Cunningham school, I was never a Tharp nor a Dean acolyte, although I did perform in the troupe of one of Laura Dean’s first spinning ladies. But the influence of two strong women reverberated in the soul of this barefoot-hopeful. They spurred me on, kept me going. They gave me hope and showed the way.

7 thoughts on “Twyla, Laura, and me

  1. Janice Keilly Aug 27,2009 8:42 am

    I feel like a piece of coal writing among the diamonds. The only thing I wanted to offer was the fact that you were artistic in ways other than dancing. Love, cuz

  2. Laura Dean Aug 22,2009 4:13 pm

    Hi Debra, this is Laura Dean. The choreographer and composer that you are talking about on these pages. Thank you for your kind and imaginative thoughts about me. Please get the word out. Although I have had many wonderful reconstructions (including reconstructions by Rodger Belman and my original LAURA DEAN DANCERS AND MUSICIANS musicians: SKY LIGHT, TYMPANI and INFINITY) as of 2009, I have stopped all reconstructions of my works. I have also stopped the use of my choreographic and music material in workshops, classes, lectures, panels, etc. These reconstructions of my works have been going on since 1989 and include not only the music and dance works I created for LAURA DEAN DANCERS AND MUSICIANS, but also includes modern, ballet and ice skating works for other companies. I have stopped it all and I will not be issuing any new licenses or rights for the use of my work. Other than two outstanding projects from 2008 that will be reconstructed and performed in 2010, there will be no other works or workshops, classes, lectures, panels, etc. using my work in anyway whatsoever. The two outstanding 2008 projects are INFINITY(1990) for the Barnard Dance Program. The choreography will be reconstructed by Rodger Belman who was a dancer in my company from 1989 to 1995. The music will be reconstructed and played live by the original LAURA DEAN DANCERS AND MUSICIANS musicians, Jason Cirker, Matt Spataro and Mitchell Cirker. This is planned for the Spring 2010. The other project is SKY LIGHT (1982) for the Connecticut College Dance Program. Choreography will be reconstructed by Rodger Belman. The music will be reconstructed and played live by the original LAURA DEAN DANCERS AND MUSICIANS musicians, Jason Cirker and Matt Spataro. This is planned for the Spring 2010. INFINITY, choreography and music by Laura Dean. SKY LIGHT, choreography and music by Laura Dean. all best, Laura Dean

  3. Louise Steinman Jul 17,2009 10:01 pm

    Hi Debra: lovely to read your writing on this. I attended the Dance Critics Institute at Mills College in 1975 (with Marcia Siegel, Deborah Jowitt et al)… it blew my mind and that was the first time I saw Meredith’s work and Robt Wilson. by the way, Twyla is going to be on our ALOUD series in the fall, at the Broad Stage, talking about COLLABORATION. (Dec 7).

    Hope you’re very well. sounds like you’re having a great time! Louise

  4. debra Jul 11,2009 7:46 pm

    Attention artsmeme readers: Rodger Belman is re-staging “Infinity,” a work by choreographed by Laura Dean dating from 1990. Here is Rodger speaking about the impact the American Dance Festival has had on his artistic life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzmrhhF0YrM

  5. Rodger Belman Jul 10,2009 5:32 am

    Debra, Nice meeting you yesterday; so glad you were able to see a run through of “Infinity”…. and how timely. Just hours later, I received Barbara’s message with the link to your article. I really enjoyed reading you personal account of Laura, Twyla and NYC in the 70’s. I’ve sent the link to Laura… And what a beautiful photo of Laura! Just in case you can make it back to the East coast, “Infinity” goes up July 20, 21, 22. Again, it was a pleasure meeting you. Best, Rodger

  6. Barbara Jul 7,2009 10:29 am

    Thank god for video where we can at least see the second incarnation of Upper Room. I really miss Christine Uchida and Shelley Washington in that dance, but I’ll make do with what I can. I, BTW, danced for Laura in the late 80’s. Am I wrong for thinking that the dancers these days lack imagination or am I being an old fogie? Is it the reliance on ballet technique that limits the possibilities? Since going on tour to Spain with LDDM, I’ve been studying flamenco here in NY and in Madrid/Seville where imagination and feeling still thrives though I see the tide turning to the super “technical” glam productions. Sad.

    Nice recollection. Thank you. I’m going to pass it on to my fellow “deanies”.

  7. Keith Jul 6,2009 11:57 pm

    Great personal revelation within a backwards glance. The film of “Sue’s Leg” blew me away in the 70s, the live performance I saw at ADF in ’80 swept the rug out from under me. I thought, “How could all that nuance be choreographed?” I moved to the Apple in ’82 and went right into workshops with Tharp and her outstanding dancers–Shelley Washington, Sara Rudner, Tom Rawe, Jenny Way–and, five years later, joined Ken Rinker’s company in its swan song season. Meanwhile, I must’ve unsuccessfully auditioned for Laura Dean’s company five times . . . . thrilled by her moving minimalism, enchanted by her pattern focus. The closest I came was to perform with one of her original dancers who took a gig with Ken R and we became friends. Liz Maxwell now lives in Altadena (I think) and teaches at one of the Pitzer colleges or Chapman College and, I think, set a Dean dance on students at CSULB a few years ago.

    Maybe it’s our age and the excellence we’ve seen, but the dancers who inhabit these postmodern classics no where near match the originals. Am I/Are we being too self-serving? I donno. But even seeing ABT do “In The Upper Room” disappointed me ; )

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