Alma would be happy. Celebrating the UCLA dance department, the nation’s first 7

Dance · Reviews

It was nearly an uproar; a spontaneous outpouring of love and appreciation filled the room when the image of Alma Hawkins, the founder and guiding force behind the dance program at UCLA (now called World Arts and Cultures/Dance), was flashed on an on-stage screen.

“A Celebration of UCLA Dance 1962-2017” was not the anticipated turgid tribute event. Instead, a real surprise, the audience howled its way through a raucous, super personal, often laugh-out-loud-funny feting of the nation’s first accredited college dance program marking 55 years of existence.

Many of the gathered alumni traveled distances to attend the birthday party/dance concert/Friar’s Roast. In the back of the house sat dance patron Glorya Kaufman, whose magnanimous philanthropy allowed for the renovation of a former girl’s gymnasium into Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater, the black-box performance space where the event took place.

Department chair Lionel Popkin was an elegant host in implementing his sacred duty: making a roomful of middle-aged women in attendance happy. And that he did, distributing lovely bouquets to honorees Elsie Dunin, Pia Gilbert, Alma Hawkins, Carol Scothorn, Doris Siegel and Allegra Fuller Snyder. Snyder, a giant of dance ethnology and former department chair, gave remarks that addressed the global loss of distinctive indigenous dance. She also honored dancer Gary Bates, recently passed away.

Of course there were men in the house too. But hey. Emma Lew Thomas, a friend of arts·meme and many more, also received a wonderful shout-out. Lew originated the idea to throw this big happy party. (It was Lew who noted that Alma, who died in 1998, would be happy.) Attendees also included the wonderful Yemenite dancer Margalit Oved and Judy Gold, an alum who went on to oversee dance at Santa Monica College.

Popkin’s smart stroke was to engage as emcee the comedienne Kristina Wong, who dropped dry bon mots all over the stage. Who’d a thunk dance could be funny? (Not this dance critic.)

Wong displayed true grit in loosening up an audience of basically academics, zinging herself and the art form. She changed the temperature of the room in a good way.

There were wonderful performances. Onto the stage scattered the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, a company with deep roots at UCLA. Washington, a proud graduate (husband Erwin, the company exec director, a UCLA grad; daughter Tamica a UCLA grad), never looked back after earning her degree in 1984. She has been contributing dance to the Los Angeles community, and beyond, ever since.

Washington’s dancers look so smart in their pristine white costumes — flowing for the ladies, grippingly tight for the guys —  dancing in Washington’s “Open Your Eyes” to music by Earth Wind and Fire. At the dance’s finale, out poured Washington’s recurring message of positivity, love and connection, as dancers spoke in epigrams, using a secret sign language, transmitted directly to the audience.

A double-dipper at UCLA is lanky Kevin Williamson, who earned both bachelors and masters degrees at this dance department. Williamson likes to tease audiences by ignoring his long legs, ignoring his long arms and torso, and drilling into minutia of gesture. This fun contrast he wonderfully delivered.

Jackie Lopez‘s hip-hop crew, Versa-Style Dance Company, then kicked it hard in “Barrio Mundial.” Lopez, a 2004 UCLA dance alum, stunned with her wicked onslaught of heavy, pounding, beat-driven movement. She herself reigned at the always-moving center of her hugely diverse dance company. Not just fun, not just joy, there was an impressive discipline on view — of spacing, of expressiveness, of honoring solo artists. That made it much more than just “street dance.”

From the look of her, they don’t make ’em like Alma Hawkins anymore. She hearkens the can-do spirit of the matriarchs of modern dance — reminiscent of Martha Hill, who perpetuated dance at The Juilliard School, lately the subject of the documentary, “Miss Hill, Making Dance Matter.”

New York had Miss Hill; Los Angeles had Miss Hawkins. Nothing, certainly no man, could stop these indomitable women. Hawkins holds a special place in my heart because, in the most unlikely of hires, she engaged Jack Cole to teach a select group of UCLA graduate students in 1973-74, at a time when the moguls of Hollywood seemed to have lost Cole’s telephone number. And there, at UCLA, Cole was teaching at the time of his death. I have interviewed several members of the UCLA Cole group; they are, well, great people. Passionate, eloquent, devoted to dance and devoted to the memory of Jack Cole. He rocked their world, a life experience for which they, and those gathered Friday night in a post-event reception quaffing sparkling wine, all have Hawkins to thank.


7 thoughts on “Alma would be happy. Celebrating the UCLA dance department, the nation’s first

  1. Karen Goodman Apr 26,2017 2:00 pm

    Thank you, Debra, for covering this event that it killed me to have to miss as I was at a conference on Jewish Arts at U of WI, Madison. I feel at least a little like I was there thanks to your reporting. I skidded into the very last few minutes of the Sat. brunch direct from LAX and managed to connect with some of my compatriots and teachers. But I think Alma would be pleased to know that I was showing a new dance film I made and discussing dance, using everything I know and love from modern to folk to writing and filmmaking. They and Pia, Carol and Doris have left their imprint. I am especially grateful for Alma’s vision in creating the Graduate Dance Center which allowed me to receive the department’s first M.A. in Dance Performance in 1972. It was an extraordinary opportunity to grow as a dancer and choreographer within the university setting. And, it must be said that as I have become involved in ethnography and history in the past 15 years, to have Allegra and Elsie become resources for me who was never their student, shows their great warmth, generosity and love of their fields as well as give a real feeling for what the department stood.

  2. debra levine Apr 25,2017 11:20 am

    Just fantastic receiving that note from Patrick Scott. Thank you Patrick. THIS is real Los Angeles cultural history.

  3. Patrick Scott aka Patrick Marca Registrada Apr 25,2017 11:09 am

    Well observed, well written Debra. Your surprise mirrored my own. Your enthusiasm for the coup of having Kristina Wong emcee with her deft and loving parody of performance art was well placed. The dancing consistently knocked me out too – especially that of two quite tall men, Henry in Versa Style, so crisp and space-devouring, and Kevin Williamson, so extrovert in his interior monolog, pent up, unsprung. Dancers, it must be said, are great talkers and the talk that evening was steeped in conviction, love and passion for life. My set and costume design for Fred Strickler’s “Pomander” commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Bella Lewitzky Company (music Bruno Madera) was seen fleetingly in the opening video presentation. The piece was set on the UCLA Dance Company performing in Royce Hall. This opportunity allowed me to recycle the remaining diamond shaped snap-together vinyl packets across a vast clear vinyl drop. More than three quarters of the packets (designed to fit in standard touring cases) were stolen on Lewitzky’s first US tour of the piece, and never recovered. Seeing the photo was a poignant glimpse into my fleeting past as the region’s pre-eminent designer for dance.

  4. Lee Werbel Apr 25,2017 9:46 am

    Beautiful article, Debra. Thank you for documenting what turned out to be a wonderful evening. If I might, two small notes:

    1. Carol Scothorn was not in attendance so she did not receive any flowers; and
    2. “a roomful of middle-aged women…”??? I may resemble that description but…

    Thanks, again,

  5. debra levine Apr 24,2017 11:03 pm

    Thank you Erwin and Genie Guerard for your wonderful comments. Debra L.

  6. Erwin Washington Apr 24,2017 4:49 pm

    I agree. This was living history. It was an important gathering for the future to know about and cherish.

  7. Genie Guerard Apr 23,2017 10:20 am

    Beautiful article, Debra. Wonderful, fabulous event! Incredible to be there with so many greats who shaped UCLA dance and influenced the community of dancers in L.A. and far beyond. It’s an honor to have a stewardship role in preserving and disseminating this important history, (as Allegra Fuller Snyder pointed out we must do, and was demonstrated in her early films of Margarlit Oved and Marion Scott). Allegra’s, Alma’s, Judy Mitoma, and Jack Cole’s papers are in the library at UCLA. Some include oral histories as well. Lula Washington Dance Theatre is present, past and future. Emma Lew Thomas, Linda Gold, Lionel Popkin, Angelia Leung, Kevin Williamson, Jackie Lopez…we must be sure to capture their works and stories so that others can be inspired by them.

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