Why did I travel to the other end of town to see a tribute to Anna Sokolow so many decades after I last saw – or even thought about – her work? The answer is that Anna Sokolow, an important contributor to the repertory of American modern dance for sixty years, gave me permission to dance.
Growing up Orthodox, I longed for a more fluid, expressive connection with my body. Joy of movement for its own sake was not highly rated. Activities to which we devoted body and soul had to be meaningful and, if possible, redemptive. There she was – Anna Sokolow, a girl from the Lower East Side who studied with both Martha Graham and the Hebraist, Ben Zemach, making dances about social, political and humanist causes that passionately mattered.
When she taught, Sokolow prioritized feeling over technique. Eyes wide and black-rimmed, somber, she needed to be sure her dancers vibrated intensely to a concern for injustice, inequality, loneliness. If we embodied the cause, the movement – boldly expressionist, if not always pretty – would follow.
In the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble revivals at the 14th St Y, her blazing force and integrity are still palpable. These are not frivolous or body beautiful dances. The troupe is intergenerational and multi-ethnic. As in days of old, the style is rooted in the earth, hands reach out, the weary fall to the ground, there is a great deal of running, The ensemble closes in a circle, the pelvis arches upward, eyes are uplifted but nobody flies away.
In “Preludes”, where couples contend with their isolation in a dance hall Sokolow’s musicality comes through in the Gershwin score. “Homage to Edgar Allen Poe,” narrated by artistic director, Jim May, though choreographed in 1993, recalls the 30’s when Sokolow was instrumental in getting poets, artists and singers to all collaborate. The duet, “Are We There Yet,” shows her talent for subtle humor, even if a touch slapstick, always in service of a higher cause. “Frida,” created when Sokolow was 87 years old, is her attempt to give a more realistic view of the life and suffering of her great friend Frida Kahlo.
With time, the broad strokes movement has aged a bit, but the fierce need for human connection and social conscience does not go out of style.
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the memoir “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl.”