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La Meri (1899-1989) 

By Uttara Asha Coorlawala 

Life and Legacy 

La Meri's entire life and career reflect her enthusiasm for dance and curiosity about cultures outside her home, Texas.  Dancer, teacher, and writer, La Meri was born as Russell Meriwether Hughes in Louisville, Kentucky and grew up in San Antonio In 1923, while studying English at Columbia University, La Meri danced prologues to silent movies. She went on to tour the world from 1926 to 1939performing her repertory and avidly studying local dance from heritage masters of dance in Hawaii, Spain, Argentina, Ceylon, Madras, Lucknow, Burma (now Myanmar), Japan, and the Philippines.1 In each place she watched performances, met dancers, studied dances, made copious notes and acquired costumes.  After returning to New York, in 1940 Hughes founded and taught dance at the School of Natya with Ruth St. Denis in New York City, where they also presented such guest lecturers as Pearl S. Buck, Coomaraswamy, Lin Yutang, and Ted ShawnAfter she stopped touring she began to teach, lecture and organize the many skills that she had worked so hard to acquire. Two years after it was founded, the school became absorbed into the Ethnologic Dance Center, which lasted until 1956, when La Meri retired to Hyannis, Cape Codfrom where she continued to write fiction, poetry and books about dance and teach as a guest lecturer at Columbia University, Juilliard, New York University, and Connecticut College. She led an active social life and delighted in the companionship of her two dogs. Both won many prizes in dog shows.  In 1984, La Meri retired again, to spend her final years in San Antonio where she had grown up. In 1972, La Meri received the Capezio Dance Award, and in 1973 a citation by Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe for artistic achievement.  

Photographs, reviews and film strips reveal that as a performing artist La Meri was elegant and exact in her movements, a characteristic she would pass on to her students. She must have been a close observer of movement traits, for it was said that her stage personality would morph each time she performed a dance from a different geo-cultural area. Her programs and photos framed her as an American who had collected dances and reproduced them assiduously. La Meri was savvy about timing and staging matters.  She changed costumes behind a screen on stage while she talked to the audience about the cultural characteristics of the dance she was about to do.  

What part of her legacy lives on for us?   As I perused her papers and books, it astonished me to find that she had advocated for many of the distinctions between dance forms that we still struggle with today!  La Meri distinguished between what she called “traditional dances” and “authentic dances.”2  Authentic dances were those that had been judiciously edited for non-traditional audiences. She educated critics and audiences  to distinguish dances constructed within original movement techniques but with new costumes or music,3 and referred to them as neo-classical dances that were not to be confused with dances that creatively departed from or were inspired by traditional techniques and conventions.4 She discerned generic differences between works that adapted outsider techniques and incorporated them into choreographers’ own styles, like Jack Cole's use of bharatanatyam, which he performed with a marked swing accent. She noted that this approach was different from her own work in her Swan Lake, where she incorporated dance techniques of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Indian folk dances within the story, structure and music of Swan Lake, to demonstrate how durable were the structures of Indian classical dance when reconstituted within a ballet canon.5 Dance lore has it that La Meri, Matteo, Jack Cole and others firmly believed that the structural strengths of bharatanatyam would enhance the American dance canons and that bharatanatyam would be recognized in universities as its own discipline. Interestingly, years later Padma Subrahmanyam would perform her own Bharatanatyam choreography Jatayu Moksham to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, in Chennai and in the Festival of India in the USSR (1985). When non-western dancing in America was lumped into one category, “Folk Dance,”6 La Meri introduced the term 'ethnologic dance' to distinguish national art dances. 

Methodology, Writing and Teaching 

My description of La Meri's method is based on classes I took with her at Cape Cod (1966 and 1967), several discussions, and her classes at Jacob's Pillow (1966-67). However, it is only after perusing her notes at the New York Public Library and her published writings after a gap of 40 years that I started to comprehend how passionately and carefully she must have worked to develop her methodology for teaching dance techniques across  cultures.  In several passages in her autobiography charting her process, and in her last book, Dance in Total Educationshe acknowledges how deeply she had been impacted by her Sadir (i.e. Bharatanatyam) teacher Vadivelu---and how this led her to study the translations of the Natyashastra,7 a Hindu treatise on dance, music and drama containing specifics for training the body, and a later similar treatise on dance, the Abhinaya DarpanaIt might not be a gross ethnocentricism on my part if I said that her methodology rebuilt an equivalent organization of movement according to body parts and their performed affects. 

Her classes on ethnic dance introduced the excitement of comparing unfamiliar stylistic details of different dance forms, but the movements were introduced within an anatomical structure.  She categorized basic positions and movements of various parts of the body, first in isolation, and later in combinations for the entire body. Her notes on her workshops mark categories of basic stances and movements of various body parts, listed very much in the cryptic organizational style of the Natyashastra (NS).  This is where her method seems to correspond closely with the NS organization of movement according to body partsarms, legs, feet, hands, neck and face, functional framework, wrists, ankles, fingers, eyebrows etc.   

On this anatomy-based sequence of exercises, she hangs specific movements and patterns of different cultures in a manner similar to an ethnologist who compares related aspects of different cultures. For example, the section on arm movements starts with basic linear arm positions (as in Cunningham technique) and rounded balletic ports de bras. Then these arms are moved with attention to specific postural stances that distinguish Spanish brazeo from port de bras. Then wrist and hand movements are added.  Her notes on East Indian dance  list terms primarily from Bharatanatyam (then known as Sadir) but also include local and more recently used terms in Tamil and  post-sanskrit languages (as Hindi8). To these terms she added terms from many dance styles. For example, in the generic category of chari (translated as gaits or walks) she lists Javanese and Japanese walks. 

La Meri's primary focus was the dance, movement and how understanding cultural context (“Exoteric Origins”) would inform our appreciation of the dance.  She notes that thoughtful applications of Delsarte's principles of movement would be helpful in apprehending the more subtle aspects of embodying culture which she termed "esoteric” principles.  Her notes also include observations under the heading “Within Techniques, and these focus on how to enable dancers to sense qualities of efforts in culturally specific movements as in Javanese walks and Japanese walks. These aspects of expressing the cultural ethos of the dances she felt would arrive not only from micro observation but necessarily from learning about the home cultures of the dances.   

For the student, her classes introduced the excitement of tasting in one's own body unfamiliar stylistic details of “other” dance forms.  While students intuit this progression of deepening knowledge, La Meri' writings show that she was conscious of her own development as an artist who was attempting to perform several layered traditions of dance within one performance. Her first book shows a very different perspective on dance from her last book. As a researcher, she sought consistently to integrate what her single body had learned at different times and places, into an organized progressive format relating all the styles just as she had performed them with outsider commentaries on context. She did this with care, and could be said to have popularized ethnic dance arts as performance. This in turn increased the demand for seeing and learning cultural forms, many of which have acquired new resonances in their current academic locations. 

Since dance circulated then primarily between live persons (we now have digital visual documentation records), it is very hard to prove definitively that La Meri's approach informs present educational  inclusions of African, Indian, Hawaiian and Spanish dance forms within American dance studies. We know that as Ted Shawn's dancers and students began to teach modern dance in educational institutions, La Meri's work also circulated for they often taught the same students. Matteo inherited and perpetuated her approach in multiple tours performing in universities on the NEA touring program. It is possible as her teachings were absorbed into educational praxis, the sources that stimulated La Meri were left behind. Revisiting her papers stimulated memories of my own education into dance and led me to notice how her method of comparing dance techniques were structurally organized. However, she advocated that her students needed to delve into the cultures of the dances and lamented their lack of interest in doing so.  

With the expansion of claims to initiating dance analysis, body language, and pedagogic methodologies, I believe that her foundational contribution to education has been blurred, whereas photographs and miniscule excerpts of film footage continue to speak for her as a world traveler, who traveled to perform and to collect dances; whose practice was  embodying cultural difference; and who provoked audiences and students to actively see and sense difference.  


NOTES

1. See 'Professional Training appendix in The life and times of La Meri : the Queen of Ethnic Dance by Usha Venkateswaran,  (New Delhi : Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Aryan Books International) 2005. p105. 

2. Meri, La. Total Education in Ethnic Dance. (New York: Marcel Dekker) 1977. 

3. For example, Nala Najan's use of baroque music to showcase standard kathak rhythmic patterns. 

4. As in the Nautch, Kwan Yin, and Japanese and other dances of Denishawn. 

5. In the  dance of the four cygnettes for example,  pointework was replaced by closely corresponding  bharatanatyam footwork to the original Tchaikovsky/Petipas scores.  The dance was reconstructed by Matteo for performance in at the summer dance festival at the Delacorte theater in Central Park in 1975.6. Jack Cole referred to his night club choreography as "Urban Folk"  

7. Bharata-Muni.  The Natya[Field]astra. Vols.I & II  ed. and trans. Manomohan Ghosh, Calcutta: Manisha Granthalaya Private Ltd., 1956-1967, &  Nandikeśvara's Abhinaya Darpana trans. Ananda Coomaraswamy and Gopala Kristnayya DuggiralaThe Mirror of Gesture New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1977 

8. For example in the section on arms she lists suciakasa, and apavidha arm positions. Then the list lays out Sadir-sucisadir-akasa and sadir-apavidha arm positions.  From the descriptions of the positions accompanying each term it would seem that the word sadir becomes a qualifier suggesting that in sadir dance (old name for bharatanatyam) these same base positions are aestheticized in different ways.  


Uttara Asha Coorlawala teaches dance courses at Barnard College/Columbia University and at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School Professional Program.  Earlier, as a dancer, her solo show brought modern dance, Bharatanatyam and yoga to stages of India, Europe, East Europe, Japan and the United States as she uniquely served both the USA (USIS/NEA) and India (ICCR) as a cultural representative.  She served as a Performing Arts advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the National Center of Performing Arts, Mumbai, and currently co-curates the Erasing Borders Dance Festival in New York City. Uttara has also served on various global dance research (CORD) and educational (International Baccalaureate or IB) Committees. Awards received include the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for 2010,India for pioneering choreography;  AHRB Fellowship for South Asian Dance Research, London, The Graduate Research Award from  CORD, USA, the Homi Bhabha Fellowship, India, and a Ford Foundation research project (USA) on changing demographies of cultures in the U.S. Her articles have been published in Discourses in Dance, Dance Research Journal, Sruti, Marg and anthologies on Performance and choreography. She has a PhD in Performance from NYU.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Books and articles on dance by La Meri (Russell Meriwether Hughes)

1933   Dance As An Art Form, its History and Development. A.S. Barnes, NY.

1941   Gesture Language of Hindu Dance. Forward By Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Published by Columbia University Press, NY (1941) and reprinted by Benjamin Blom NY 1964.

1948   Spanish Dancing   A.S. Barnes 1948. Republished as Spanish Dances Pittsfield Mass, 1967.

1965   Dance Composition, the Basic Elements, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Inc., Lee, Massachusetts.

1977   Meri, La. Total Education in Ethnic Dance. New York: Marcel Dekker.

1977   Dance Out the Answer: An Autobiography. Interlink Books.

1967   La Meri contributed articles for The Dance Encyclopedia Chujoy, Anatole, Editor: Simon & Schuster New York 1967 and served for several years as contributing editor to Arabesque, the ethnic dance magazine.  Editor: Ibrahim Farrar

Selected Books and articles on La Meri:

Chujoy, Anatole, Ed.  "Meri, La." The International Encyclopedia of Dance. : Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dunning, Jennifer/  La Meri, 89, a Dancer, Teacher And Specialist in Ethnic Repertory. Obituary, The New York Times, January 21, 1988.

Foster, Susan L. Worlding Dance  Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, pp. 111-113.

Kurath, Gertrude. Review of Dance Composition, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 79, No. 314 (Oct. - Dec., 1966),  American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/538239         

Ruyter,  Nancy Lee.  "La Meri And The World Of Dance"   Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Esteticas, primavera, ano/vol.XXII,  Numero 077 Universidad Nacional Automa de Mexico. Distrito Federal, pp169-188

Ruyter,  Nancy Lee,  La Meri Purveyor of the Dancing Other: Purveyor of the Dancing Other  The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity Subject: Music, Dance, Ethnomusicology Online Publication Date: Mar 2014 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199754281.013.016

Shay, Anthony, Dancing Across Borders: The American Fascination with Exotic Dance Forms. Durham, NC: Mcfarland and Company. 2008. pp. 70-72.

Venkateswaran, Usha. The Life and Times of La Meri : the Queen of Ethnic Dance. Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Aryan Books International, New Delhi,  2005.

 

Online resources

Website http://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/  includes a clip of La Meri performing Swan Lake.

 

Archives

La Meri Papers, *(S)MGZMD 207. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library Series houses photographs, watercolors, and ephemera.