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Sophie Maslow (1911-2006)

By Lynn Matluck Brooks

Sophie Maslow was among the American modern dancers who combined the refinement of choreographic precision with the appeal of populist themes and folk-based movement. Particularly in her work with the New York-based Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio (1942 to 1954), she performed and created dances that brought folksy, whimsical, and popular touches to a field that was sometimes difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate. Maslow’s thematic concerns typically lay with socially relevant issues such as equality, workers’ rights, anti-fascism, and democracy, but her dances never lost their humor, theatricality, or warm-hearted appeal. Her interests in American folklore, Jewish culture, and modern life also infused her choreographic work. She performed in Martha Graham’s early company and was a teacher and guest artist with the New Dance Group from 1934 through the mid-1950s. In 1956 she formed her own group, Sophie Maslow and Company, and in 1975 she joined with Joyce Trisler to lead the Danscompany.

Of Russian-Jewish parentage, Maslow grew up in New York as a first-generation American in an intellectual climate of leftist politics and artistic immersion. Her mother enrolled her at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where she studied with Blanche Talmud, Irene Lewisohn, Martha Graham, and Louis Horst. She assisted Horst in his composition classes and joined the Graham Company in 1931. Among the works in which she performed with Graham were such classics as American Document, Deaths and Entrances, Letter to the World, and Primitive Mysteries.

Maslow’s work as a choreographer was distinctive in a number of ways. The Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio created some dances collaboratively, including Spanish Suite, The Lonely Ones, and As Poor Richard Says… (based on Benjamin Franklin’s proverbs), but Maslow’s own Folksay, which premiered in 1942 with an expanded company, was among the group’s most popular works. Here, Maslow collaborated with folksinger Woodie Guthrie (as she had in her earlier Dust Bowl Ballads) and composer Earl Robinson, incorporating Carl Sandburg’s poetic text, “The People, Yes.” The work combined mime, dance movement, speaking, and music in eight “incidents.” The musicians and speakers were on stage with the dancers in seemingly relaxed, spontaneous exchanges. The work’s folksy rhythms, frolicking dance, and dramatically legible movement were performed to such familiar tunes as “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” At its premiere, critic John Martin pronounced Folksay “one of the most beautiful and genuine works in the whole range of contemporary dance” (quoted in Perelman, 2011, 90), and by 1949, critic Walter Terry referred to it as “a classic in the field of contemporary dance” (Terry, 1979, 240). Folksay celebrated American pride in emerging from the Depression, patriotism as the nation entered the Second World War, and the concept of the Western plains “everyman,” yet it appealed to urban, intellectual, and largely immigrant artists and audiences. In fact, audiences around the country loved it, clapping rhythmically to the songs and responding with uproarious and appreciative applause.

Clearly, Maslow was no purist as a modern dancer, but rather wanted her work to appeal to all audiences. In Folksay, as in other works Maslow created, folk dance movement, pantomime, softened ballet steps, and the expressive clarity of Graham technique brought the work’s story and message directly to its audiences. In an interview with Doris Hering in Dance Magazine, Maslow discussed the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio, explaining that, “We’re popular, if by ‘popular’ you mean ‘of the people.’ But this is the Age of the Common Man and it is the common people who are the backbone and the strength and hope of our civilization and our culture. We as artists, and above all, as thinking people, are touched by problems of our fellow man because they are our problems…. In our dancing we try to express a common emotional experience. If we succeed, then we have helped make the modern dance healthier and more vital as an art form” (May 1946). Margaret Lloyd agreed: the trio “made modern dance unformidable, friendly, a language that could speak of contemporary and colloquial subjects without determined Americana or social-consciousness fisticuffs.… It spoke of patriotism and love, grief, anger, courage, laughter, and other common things, so that all could understand. The dancers delighted the unsophisticated, and were delighted by their spontaneous response.”

Many Maslow works were politically motivated, including Two Songs about Lenin (1934), Death of Tradition (1934), May Day March (1936), Women of Spain (1938), Spanish Suite (1944), and Partisan Journey (1945). Her social consciousness was evident not only in her dance themes, but also in her casts, which were among the first to be interracial in the modern-dance world. Dances such as Folksay, Champion (1946), and The Village I Knew (1949) were realized by casts including African American dancers Pearl Primus, Donald McKayle, and Ronne Aul.

Darkness penetrated Maslow’s world, as it did so many other artists’, upon confronting the full horrors of the Holocaust. Her homage to a destroyed culture, The Village I Knew, was based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem and depicted many of the traditions and scenarios typical of shtetl life before the war. Horst praised the work as a “tender, human, and often gently humorous folk saga of life in a Jewish village” (quoted in Perelman, 2011, 94). Maslow had engaged Jewish subjects in her earlier work, Themes from a Slavic People (1934), and continued to do so later with such dances as The Dybbuk (1964), From the Book of Ruth (1964), In the Beginning (1965), Dance of Sabras (1965), Invocation of David (1966), Ladino Suite (1969), and the Hannukah Festivals at Madison Square Garden that she choreographed from 1955 to 1967.

Like many other modern dancers, Maslow also worked on Broadway, where her credits include Sandhog (1954), The Shoemaker and the Peddler (1960), and Sholem Aleichem’s The Big Winner (1974).

Maslow was active as a teacher at the New Dance Group studio and the summer school of Connecticut College (an early incarnation of the American Dance Festival). Among her recognitions were an Honorary Doctorate from Skidmore College and the Award of Artistry from the American Dance Guild. Deborah Friedes Galili arranged the Village Etude, based on Maslow’s full-length composition, The Village I Knew, as a Repertory EtudeTM available from the American Dance Legacy Institute.


Lynn Matluck Brooks founded the Dance Program at Franklin & Marshall College in 1984. She holds degrees from University of Wisconsin and Temple University. A Certified Movement Analyst and dance historian, she has held grants from the Fulbright/Hayes Commission, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brooks wrote reviews for Dance Magazine, edited Dance Research Journal and Dance Chronicle, and is author of several books and many articles. Currently, she is a participant in the Philadelphia-based "thINKing Dance" project, writing, editing, and pondering dance and dance writing.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Ellen Graff, Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928–1942 (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1997).

Joanna G. Harris, “Sophie Maslow,” Jewish Women’s Archive, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/maslow-sophie.

Margaret Lloyd, The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance (Brooklyn, N. Y.: Dance Horizons, 1949).

Don McDonagh, The Complete Guide to Modern Dance (New York: Doubleday, 1976).

Josh Perelman, “‘I’m the Everybody Who’s Nobody, I’m the Nobody Who’s Everybody’: How Sophie Maslow’s Popular Front Choreography Helped Shape American Jewish Identity,” in Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, ed. Judith Brin Ingber (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2011), pp. 89–96.

Walter Terry, I Was There: Selected Dance Reviews (New York: Dekker, 1979).

Ann Vachon, “Sophie Maslow,” in The International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 306.

Archives

Sophie Maslow Clippings File, Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.