Home > Treasures A-Z > Anna Sokolow > Anna Sokolow - More Resources

Anna Sokolow - More Resources

Back to List | Related Treasures | Back to Anna Sokolow

Anna Sokolow (1910-2000)

By Hannah Kosstrin

Anna Sokolow’s career spanned the twentieth century and enriched the dance landscapes of her choreographic homes—the U.S., Mexico, and Israel—as well as the many countries where her work continues to be performed. Sokolow developed a performance form she termed lyric theater, a seamless blend of dancing and acting. The themes, statements, and movement in her choreography reflect decades of developments in social politics, Jewish identity, dance training, and choreographic choices. Her dance for social change gives voice to the underserved, acts as soothsayer for a disgruntled counterculture, indicts war and totalitarian regimes, and reveals humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances. Sokolow’s legacy includes her influence on many dancers and choreographers through her substantial teaching career in the U.S. and abroad.

Career Overview

Sokolow was born in Connecticut to Russian Jewish immigrant parents as the fourth of five children. Her family soon moved to New York City’s Lower East Side, and later uptown where Sokolow first started dancing at the Emmanuel Sisterhood on East 82nd Street. Sokolow’s mother Sarah worked in the garment industry and also unionized workers. Her father Samuel became sick soon after Sokolow was born, and went to a sanitorium where he died when Sokolow was young. After a few years of dance classes, Sokolow’s teachers sent her to the Henry Street Settlement and Neighborhood Playhouse on the Lower East Side to advance her training. There Sokolow met Martha Graham and also Louis Horst, who became her choreographic mentor. In the 1930s, Sokolow was a principal dancer with Graham as well as an independent leftist choreographer and a founder of the Workers (New) Dance League. Many of Sokolow’s Henry Street classmates, also young women of Eastern European Jewish heritage, along with fellow Graham dancers, became her colleagues in the workers (revolutionary) dance movement. Sokolow’s solo performance style in the 1930s-1940s, as evidenced in photographs and reviews from this time, reflects her Graham training: her movement, at its core, featured abdominal contractions and powerful spirals through the torso.

Sokolow’s 1930s proletarian dances were on the cutting edge in both the social revolutionary and modern dance movements, garnering praise from critics in both camps due to the technical advancements and political commentary in her dances. Sokolow’s early solos, such as Histrionics (1931) and Speaker (1935), satirized the establishment and bourgeoisie, while group works like Strange American Funeral (1935), based on Michael Gold’s poem “Strange Funeral in Braddock,” which narrated the death of a steel worker who fell into a trough of hot metal, encapsulated the issues of workers rights and safety, and followed the sentiments of many leftist papers of the time.1 In addition to solos such as Slaughter of the Innocents (1937), a cry for mothers and children who were Spanish Civil War victims, Sokolow also staged group works indicting Italian fascism. Her pair of dances in this vein, Excerpts from a War Poem (F. T. Marinetti) (1937) and Façade—Exposizione Italiana (1937), were allegorical epics that critic John Martin compared to Leonide Massine’s symphonic ballets.2 Depression-era American politics did not escape Sokolow’s satiric tongue. She made her ballet “Filibuster,” part of the Negro Cultural Committee’s (National Negro Congress) revue The Bourbons Got the Blues (1938), in the wake of the Senate’s 1938 filibuster of the Wagner Van-Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill; it featured U.S. senators running around the stage acting like spoiled children. The layers of irony and satire that Sokolow cultivated in her work in the 1930s returned in her mid-century works like Rooms (1954), Dreams (1961), and Steps of Silence (1967).

Sokolow made second choreographic homes for herself in Mexico and in Israel during the mid-twentieth century. Between 1939 and the late 1940s, Sokolow divided her time between New York and Mexico City. Under the auspices of the Mexican Ministry of Education, Sokolow taught students in the Dance Department of the National Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes) in Mexico City. During this time, the Mexican government engaged artists, like Sokolow, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work reflected the values of post-revolutionary Mexico. In Mexico during the 1940s, Sokolow made dances such as El renacuajo paseador (The Fable of the Wandering Frog) (1940), which reflected post-revolutionary Mexican sentiments of mexicanidad (Mexican-ness) and mestizaje (racial and cultural blending of European and indigenous elements). During this time, she also choreographed dances with Jewish themes, including Songs of a Semite (1943), featuring a powerful women’s march, and the Holocaust memorial Kaddish (1945), to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community during the Holocaust. In 1953 she traveled to Israel at the suggestion of choreographer Jerome Robbins, and under the auspices of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, to work with dancers there, and she split the next ten years between Israel and New York. She worked in Israel with both the Inbal Yemenite Dance Group (Inbal Dance Theater) and with her Lyric Theatre. Sokolow retained longstanding associations with the dance communities in Mexico and Israel throughout the duration of her career.

Sokolow is most widely recognized for her mid-century works of urban alienation and isolation, specifically for Lyric Suite (1953) and Rooms (1954), which exposed the loneliness and alienation underneath the affluence of the postwar era, when these feelings lay hidden within U.S. society. Sokolow’s 1950s dances reflect a new choreographic method for her. After a trip to Russia in 1934 and through her work with the Theatre Union during the 1930s, Sokolow began using the Stanislavsky Method to construct her works’ narratives from performers’ own memories and experiences in order to build their characters. In the 1950s, when a back injury caused her to stop performing, she brought Stanislavsky to the forefront of her process through her work with Elia Kazan and the Actors Studio,3 and continued working with actors through the 1980s-1990s at HB Studios. In addition to using the turns, torso arches, and full-body falls from the dancers’ technical training, Sokolow also incorporated into her choreography movement drawn from daily life and taken to extremes: running heavily, frantically climbing over bodies, vulnerably reaching with arms, and slamming violently into walls.

Sokolow is further known for her Holocaust indictments and anti-war statements in dances such as Dreams (1961) and Steps of Silence (1967), and Vietnam protest in the Time + series (late 1960s); her countercultural rebellion in the many jazz suites that culminated in Opus ’65 (1965); as well as for her work as the original choreographer of the musical Hair (1967). Lighter works such as A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime as Demonstrated by Jelly-Roll Morton (1952) and Magritte, Magritte (1970) reveal Sokolow’s tongue-in-cheek wit. Her non-narrative lyrical work includes Ballade (1965) and Odes (1965). In the 1950s-1960s, Sokolow orchestrated large-scale pageants for Israeli bonds that mirrored the scope of Communist pageants she had choreographed in the 1930s, and she also choreographed film and television productions. In her later career, she composed dances in homage to artists, musicians, and public figures, including Tribute [to Martin Luther King, Jr.] (1968), Scenes from the Music of Charles Ives (1971), Poe (1977), Homage to Alexander Scriabin (1977), For Langston [Hughes] (1980), From the Diaries of Franz Kafka (1980), Kurt Weill (1988), and Frida [Kahlo] (1997).4

Legacy

Sokolow’s long history of teaching in the U.S. propels her legacy. Her relentless demands in the studio brought her students to a high level of performative achievement that was a deep marriage of form and content. In addition to conducting residencies at colleges and universities, Sokolow held a longtime faculty position at The Juilliard School. Her association with Juilliard began with a guest residency in 1955; Martha Hill hired Sokolow as a faculty member there in 1958  (Warren, 174). She taught at Juilliard, as well as at Mary Anthony’s studio, into the 1990s. In addition to passing down her choreographic ideas through her teaching, Sokolow was a strong supporter of Labanotation as a preservation and dissemination tool for her dances; one of her dancers, Ray Cook, notated many of her dances in the 1960s-1970s. Sokolow also passed her love and reverence for music, visual art, film, and literature on to her students. Many dancers who worked with her from the 1960s through the rest of her career reference Sokolow as an important source of their general artistic education. These include Alvin Ailey, Pina Bausch, Dorothy Bird, Martha Clarke, Ze’eva Cohen, Raul Flores, Hannah Kahn, Jim May, Lorry May, Trina Parks, Kathy Posin, Moshe Romano, and Bea Seckler, among countless others.

Sokolow’s Companies:

Theatre Union Dance Group – New York – 1933-1935

[Theatre Union] Dance Unit – New York – 1935-1937

Dance Unit – New York – 1937-1939

La Paloma Azul (The Blue Dove) – Mexico City – 1940

Anna Sokolow and Dance Group – New York – 1941

Anna Sokolow Dance Company – New York – 1958-1969

Anna Sokolow’s Lyric Theatre – Israel – 1962-1964

Lyric Theater – New York – 1970-1972

Anna Sokolow’s Players’ Project – New York – 1983-2000

Portions of this essay have been previously published under the following title and reprinted with permission:

“In Celebration of Anna Sokolow’s Centennial.” Dance Notation Bureau Library News V, no. 1 (2010): 1-4.


NOTES

1. See, for example, Emery Balint, “Miner’s Funeral: A Short Story,” New Masses, January 16, 1934, 16-19, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and Herb Krackman, “Seeing American First: IV—Miner’s Homecoming,” New Masses, February 2, 1937, 7, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. 

2. John Martin, “The Dance: New Blood: Esther Junger, Jose Limon and Anna Sokolow in Bennington,” New York Times, August 29, 1937, 8X, Anna Sokolow Clippings, The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. 

3. Ellen Graff, Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928-1942 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997), 70-74; and Larry Warren, Anna Sokolow: The Rebellious Spirit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1991), 51-60, 116.

4. See Warren for a chronology of the premieres of Sokolow’s dance works.

5. See Warren, p. 174.


Hannah Kosstrin is Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Reed College, where she teaches courses in dance studies, Labanotation, contemporary technique, and introductory humanities. Situated at the intersection of dance, Jewish, and gender studies, she researches Jewishness and gender in Anna Sokolow’s choreography from the 1930s-1960s. She holds a Ph.D. in Dance Studies from The Ohio State University with a minor in women’s history.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

PDF

List compiled by Hannah Kosstrin

Driver, Senta. “Passion Is Also Important: Anna Sokolow at Ohio State.” Dance Scope 3, no. 1 (1966): 25-29.

Foulkes, Julia L. “Angels ‘Rewolt!’: Jewish Women in Modern Dance in the 1930s.” American Jewish History 88, no. 2 (2000): 233-252. Index to Jewish Periodicals, EBSCOhost (accessed February 20, 2008).

——. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Garafola, Lynn, ed. “Of, By, and For the People: Dancing on the Left in the 1930s.” Studies in Dance History: The Journal of the Society of Dance History Scholars 5, no. 1 (1994).

Geduld, Victoria Phillips. “Performing Communism in the American Dance: Culture, Politics and the New Dance Group.” American Communist History 7, no. 1 (2008): 39-65. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 19, 2009).

Harris, Joanna Gewertz. “From Tenement to Theater: Jewish Women as Dance Pioneers: Helen Becker (Tamiris), Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow.” Judaism 45, no. 3 (1996): 259-276. International Bibliography of Theater and Dance—EBSCO (accessed February 3, 2008).

Graff, Ellen. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928-1942. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Jackson, Naomi. Converging Movements: Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92 Street Y. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2000.

Kosstrin, Hannah. “Passion and Angst: Postwar Identity in Two Dances by Anna Sokolow.” Art Criticsm 25, no. 1&2 (2010): 131-152.

Manning, Susan. Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Morris, Gay. A Game for Dancers: Performing Modernism in the Postwar Years 1945-1960. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Prickett, Stacey. “Dance and the Workers’ Struggle.” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 8, no. 1 (1990): 47-61.

——. “From Workers’ Dance to New Dance.” Dance Research: The Journal for the Society for Dance Research 7, no. 1 (1989): 47-64. JSTOR (accessed 2 Feb. 2008).

Rossen, Rebecca. “Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance.” PhD diss., Northwestern University, 2006. Proquest Dissertations and Theses, publ. nr. ATT3213017 (2006).

Warren, Larry. Anna Sokolow: The Rebellious Spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1991.

Online Resources

Jewish Women’s Archive http://jwa.org/historymakers/sokolow and http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sokolow-anna

Sokolow Dance Foundation www.annasokolow.org

Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble www.sokolowtheatredance.org

Dance Notation Bureau www.dancenotation.org

Moving Image

Anna Sokolow: Choreographer. Produced and directed by Lucille Rhodes and Margaret Murphy. 1980. VHS. Pennington, NJ: Dance Horizons Video, 1991.

Eye on Dance: Social Consciousness in the 1930s and 1940s. Produced by Jeff Bush and Celia Ipiotis. VHS. New York: Arts Resources in Collaboration, Inc., 1984.

The New Dance Group Gala Concert: An Historic Retrospective of New Dance Group Presentations, 1930s-1970s. Produced by The American Dance Guild. DVD. Flemington, NJ: Dancetime Publications, 2008.

Reflection: Reconstructing Anna Sokolow’s Steps of Silence. Directed and authored by Valarie Williams [Mockabee] and Rachel Boggia. New York: Insight Media, 2007.

Shirley Clarke: Dances for the Camera. DVD. Madison: Artworks Video, 2006.

Speaking of Dance: Anna Sokolow: Conversations with Contemporary Masters of American

Modern Dance. Produced and directed by Douglas Rosenberg. VHS. Durham, NC: ADF Video, 1992.

Sokolow, Anna. Dreams. Directed by Roger Englander. VHS. New York: WNET/TV’s Camera Three, 1979.

They Are Their Own Gifts. Produced and directed by Lucille Rhodes and Margaret Murphy. VHS. New York: Women Make Movies, 1989.

Archives

List compiled by Hannah Kosstrin

Centro Nacional de Investigación

Documentación y Información de la Danza

Centro Nacional de las Artes, Mexico City

Dance Library of Israel

Tel Aviv Harvard Theatre Collection, Cambridge, MA

The Juilliard School Archives, New York

Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Sokolow Dance Foundation, Attleboro, MA