Amidst Flocks of Angels

A personal history in arabesque time (Part I)

IN THE BEGINNING . . .

The storefront ballet studio was in East Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights to be exact, across from Height’s Cooperative Nursery School where my mother brought me every morning before she went to work. Joan Chodorow[1]—then Joan Smallwood and a former student of Carmelita Maracci’s—came to the nursery school to introduce dance as part of an early child development arts program. The year was 1958; I was three years old. Recognizing a natural affinity for expressive movement, Joan suggested to my parents that I attend her Saturday children’s class. Thus began my dance education, a boundless joy that would blossom throughout my life, despite those initial weekly drives from Compton to East LA.

Through the 60’s we danced. Through the flames of the Watts riots, we created new cities. With our imaginations, we became every kind of wild animal. We danced and were danced into our most human selves. And when the time was right, and following that ancient tradition of passing a student onto her next teacher, I was brought to Carmelita Maracci.[2] By 1967, my family had moved to Silver Lake. Stepping onto the 94 bus at Sunset and Micheltorena Streets, I began a rigorous initiation into my dance training, prefaced by the daily climb up the stone stairs to Carmelita’s 8th Street studio, then later up the outdoor wooden steps to her studio on 6th Street.

I was terrified. Accompanied by the pianist—Carmelita always had concert-level pianists—I auditioned for the teen class; she insisted, however, that I attend her adult class. Four days a week, junior high through high school, I’d arrive on time for the 4:30 pm class during the week and the 10 am class every Saturday. I was forever slinking to the back row for center work. In time, Carmelita would say, “Young, come up front where I can see you!” I thought for sure I would throw-up the day she asked me to demonstrate. The pianist played an exquisite Scriabin sonata. I began. From fifth position, my right foot lifted, arcing into a point, drew upward along the curve of my calve, higher still along the inside of my thigh, leg unfolding through attitude, waist-high, until it was straight as an arrow: développé devant. I completed the adagio combination—devant, a la sécond, à la quatrième derrièr. I didn’t throw up.

OUT OF THE ASHES . . .

Formally addressed as C. Bernard Jackson, his first name was Clarence, same as my father’s, but everyone knew him as Jack. He came from New York, an Obie-Award winning playwright for his play Fly, Blackbird, and the music director of a choral group in which my mother sang. Into this city whose walls had come tumbling down in the heat of the race riots, Jack ushered a radical vision whose sustainable time had come, or so we thought: the establishment of a hallowed ground, a temenos for the creative artist—a singular place that would give voice and platform to artists of black, brown, red, yellow, and white skin, singing in the unlikely yet timely key of harmony.

In 1966, Jack had created a site of resistance, a nourishing watering hole in the desert, an idea dreamt by few but where everyone who was anyone came to make something other happen. Here was a place to create and make work; a place that supported risk-taking, exploration, and opportunities to succeed and to fail; a place held together by an intent to bridge human gaps with aesthetic reason; a place in the sun, smack in the heart of the inner city. Friend, mentor, lover, philosopher, Jack had one of the most lucid and subtle intellects I have ever encountered. Jack issued a call. “Come!” he said. And we did. And those who saw what was possible were forever altered by what came to be known as The Inner City Cultural Center.[3]

“Inner City” was home to one of Los Angeles’s nationally touring modern dance companies: The Inner City Repertory Dance Company. Donald McKayle was the artistic director. (The Bella Lewitzky Dance Company was the other Los Angeles-based professional dance company; both were on the roster of the NEA Touring Program). Donald was already in Los Angeles, having choreographed for The Sammy Davis Show and the Walt Disney film, Bedknobs & Broomsticks. Jack asked Donny to become the artistic director of a dance company that would employ the highest quality dancers regardless of race. It was a marvelous match made on some of the most neglected streets in the city.

Fresh out of John Marshall High School, I auditioned for Donald the summer of 1973. My exposure to modern dance began at the Center’s original Washington Boulevard location. I studied with Don Martin, Lester Horton translator; under the rigors of Jaime Rogers (“Loco” in the film West Side Story); under the watchful eye of Claude Thompson; and with the spirited yet gentle soul of William “Bill” Couser. Paula Kelly and Alan Weeks arrived fresh from Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, and I began to learn the McKayle repertory from wry humorist Carolyn Dyer, the company’s dance captain.

Variously between 1973-1985, I was coached in the original Mary Hinkson role of “The Dream/Girlfriend/Wife” in Donald McKayle’s 1959 classic, Rainbow Round My Shoulder—first by the steely impassioned Michele Simmons, and later by the luminous Carmen de Lavallade, another Maracci student. Don Martin and Carmen’s sister Yvonne coached me in the 1953 Horton duet, To José Clementé Orozco (reconstructed in 1998 for Bonnie Oda Homsey and John Pennington). My dance partner Harvey Cohen and I learned the work from the filmed performance of Carmen and Alvin Ailey.

Gloria Newman set her formal and mysterious work Orbits on the Inner City Company, and we premiered Talley Beatty’s Caravanserai to standing ovations at the 1973 American Dance Festival in New London. There I made my professional debut. A knee injury sustained by company dancer Delilah Mosely thrust me into Donald’s technically challenging quintet, Sojourn, set to the near-impossible measures of an Ernst Bloch score. I returned to Los Angeles with my first review, a positive notice by dance writer Don McDonagh in the New York Times.

Interested in exploring new domains, Donald released directorship of the company in 1975. A conversation with Alvin Ailey following our Brooklyn Academy of Music engagement revealed that a few of us were being invited to join Alvin’s company. As one of those dancers, I, however, decided to take a different turn. Donald was going to Israel to set his new ballet, Album Leaves on the Batsheva Dance Company. Some part of me managed to over-ride my deep-seated shyness and muster the courage to inquire about becoming his assistant. He consented. I arrived in Israel ahead of Donald, traveling by myself, flanked by my young ego’s fear and an old soul’s trust. It was the summer of 1976—the year of the U.S./Israeli Bicentennial Arts Festival and the stealthily staged military coup of Israel’s Entebbe Raid.[4]

Paul Sanasardo was Batsheva’s interim director; Ohad Naharin would soon return from New York to impart a vision that would catapult the Israeli institution into the 21st century. (Ohad and I would meet again in later years as artists on the roster of Affiliate Artists).[5] Indeed, it was Ohad who supported and encouraged me to pursue dual U.S./Israeli citizenship.

Alas, a letter from California Institute of the Arts announcing receipt of a full scholarship to the Dance School altered my plans. I began undergraduate studies that fall, the year Cristyne Lawson and Gus Solomons began their tumultuous reign as deans.[6] I returned to my classical roots under the tutelage of Mia Slavenska and the inimitable Gene Marinaccio (to whom I wrote letters from Israel and who also inspired terror when he asked me to demonstrate an adagio barre combination!) Though confidence has grown over the years, shyness never wanes. I’ve simply gotten better at negotiating it.

FAST FORWARD IN RETROGRADE . . .

After living in Venice, graduating from Cal Arts, dancing with Donald Byrd/The Group, completing a two-year teaching post at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and spending a rainy summer in Seattle with Bill Evans,[7] I came home to Los Angeles, a wizened 26-year old, to strategize, improvise, and otherwise imagine forward the rest of my life’s path as a dance artist. I was chosen to be the solo dancer in Stevie Wonder’s music video, Ribbon in the Sky; I returned to a 4-day weekly class schedule with teacher and coach Jean Morency at The Dancer’s Studio (alongside Bill and Jacqui Landrum and Marvin Tunney—each former members of Inner City Repertory Dance Company); I created and rehearsed my dances at the Renard Dance Studio on Venice Boulevard (graciously given time and space courtesy of owners Mickey and Maxine Renard); and I worked with Zina Bethune’s Theatredanse Outreach Program teaching children with disabilities throughout Los Angeles county.[8]

A maturing Los Angeles dance community was making its presence known in the 1980’s. Through the visionary strategies of Betty Empey[9] and The Los Angeles Area Dance Alliance (LAADA), Dance Kaleidoscope emerged—later, Dance Park.[10] The Alex Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard was revitalized. Los Angeles dance presenters optimized world attention by participating in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, concerts curated by Bella Lewitzky, Darlene Neel, Donald McKayle, Senta Driver, Lula Washington, and Ronnie Brosterman, among others.[11] State/Local Partnership Grants assisted artists’ growth.[12] Cultural Affairs initiated creative performance collaborations between the dance and music communities.[13] Grand Performances, organized by the ever-committed Michael Alexander, brought dance downtown.[14] Artist-critic forums were held below the stage of The John Anson Ford Theatre.[15] Neil Barclay brought a heightened dance presence to CSU Northridge and The Luckman Theatre. Dance achievements were honored and formalized, first through The Vanguard Awards—now, The Lester Horton Awards.[16] And yes, the entire community came out en masse, to perform the learned and synchronized dance phrases that marked the official celebratory groundbreaking of Bella Lewitzky’s Dance Gallery. Fred Strickler taught the phrase to a group of us at Inner City.

STILL IN THE BALANCE . . . and to be continued . . .

The labyrinthine arcs of my life continue to converge on new and well-worn paths. From 1989-91, I worked closely with Daniel Nagrin as my MFA thesis chair at Arizona State University while writing on the solo art form. With his Cheshire smile, Daniel thrilled at sharing the story when he and Donald McKayle co-produced their first dance concert together at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.[17] Resigning from my tenured position as Director of Dance at the University of Nevada, Reno (1987-1994), I became a guest artist with Los Angeles Repertory Dance Theatre under the directorship of Bonnie Oda Homsey and Janet Eilber. I worked with Sophie Maslow, performing her Dust Bowl Ballads and Donald McKayle’s “Angelitos Negros”—the solo section from his modern ballet, Songs of the Disinherited—a solo I’d had the privilege and good fortune to perform over 20 years.[18]

I completed my Ph.D. in 2007 in Comparative Mythology and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute—home of the James Hillman Papers, Marija Gimbutas Archives, and the Joseph Campbell Library.[19] This 2012 Leap Year marks 25 years of life and work in Nevada[20] and the return to my aesthetic home of Los Angeles.[21] I am embarking on my life’s work, 100 Gestures: a poetics of the body, an ethics of compassion. For information on this multi-year project and your invitation to the dance, please visit: www.theaestheticbody.com

© Copyright 2012 L. Martina Young. All rights reserved.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Joan Chodorow, Ph.D., renowned dance therapist and an analyst member of the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco in private practice, is former president of the American Dance Therapy Association. In Dance Therapy & Depth Psychology: The Moving Imagination, she discusses her life’s work in dance and Carl Jung’s active imagination with “a group of 3-year olds.”
  2. As a teacher, Carmelita Maracci was adamant about dancing beyond technique. She insisted on clarity of imagery, musicality, and above all, emotional honesty. Her lectures situated dance, music, and art within their respective histories. In the 1977 film, The Turning Point, Alexandra Danilova remarks that if on the west coast, one must study with Carmelita Maracci. Indeed, I recall more than once Cynthia Gregory taking class during ABT’s Los Angeles engagements. Geraldine Chaplin as well! When Carmelita died, Bella Lewitzky was quoted in the Los Angeles Times stating that her “technique was unmatched” and that she had an “uncompromising dedication” to high art (30 July 1987). At the centennial celebration on September 28, 2008, friend and colleague Katja Biesanz and, former LA dancer-choreographer, performed a delicate and lovely solo dance.
  3. From 1966 -1972, ICCC was housed in the Boulevard Theatre on Washington Blvd. In 1972, it purchased its permanent home at 1308 New Hampshire Avenue off of Vermont. The scope of the Inner City Cultural Center and the persons who traversed its halls far exceed what can be addressed in this writing. I encourage readers to read, Out of the Ashes . . . edited by Sandi Sheffey-Stinson, PhD, archived at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center located at 4718 West Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. Also see New World Arts Journal published by ICCC.
  4. On July 4th, the streets of Tel Aviv were empty; eyes were riveted on television news broadcasts. In rehearsal, I remember hearing rescue planes passing overhead. On another note, I met and dined with Maestro Zubin Mehta, Metropolitan Opera singers Simon Estes and Jennifer Jones. Ms. Jones and I had met through an earlier collaboration at Inner City.
  5. Former Alwin Nikolais dancer Tandy Beal and I were two of the first west coast dance artists to be invited onto the roster of Affiliate Artists, Inc. in 1985.
  6. Bella Lewitzky and Donald McKayle shared deanship in the early ‘70’s.
  7. Bill acknowledged that many of the solo dance artists he knew were often plagued with a gripping shyness. Daniel Nagrin—who invited me to a rehearsal while setting his solo Jazz Three Ways on Bill—may be the exception.
  8. Zina Bethune died tragically from an automobile accident February 12, 2012. I attended the celebration of life memorial service at the El Portal Theatre on March 8, 2012.
  9. Betty and I addressed the Los Angeles City Council. She spoke. I danced. They responded.
  10. The hallmark presentation of the diverse richness of southern California dance is matched today only by the indomitable spirit and devoted hard work of Jamie Nichols and Eileen Cooley’s annual Celebrate Dance!
  11. Invited to perform on two different programs at the Japan America Theatre, I recreated my 1983 solo, Las Manos: The Hands, and premiered Pearls of Obsidian, a work that integrated dance and American Sign Language, later reconstructed for the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.
  12. Rudy Perez, Rachel Rosenthal, Linda Sohl-Donnell, and I were awarded this grant for artist management. We were able to hire manager Rachel Cohen (now Cadence Arts Network).
  13. Lynn Dally and I were both invited to participate in this John Anson Ford Theatre venue. I was paired with jazz bassoonist, Ray Pizzi, a collaborative relationship we maintained. See Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather’s review, 23 April 1986.
  14. Renae Williams Niles is doing an equally brilliant job today as Director of Programming at The Music Center. See Los Angeles Times article by Laura Bleiberg, 15 April 2012.
  15. It was during one of these dialogue sessions that Lewis Segal encouraged me to write. I wrote a response piece after seeing a performance of Linda Lack’s Two Snake Dance & Design Company at the Ford. I sent it to her. She later asked if she could use it as part of her NEA Fellowship application. I was deeply touched. My most recent response writing, “perception (w)rites: On the Work of Ralph Lemon” appears in the Los Angeles journal, itch: Issue #12.
  16. In 1982 and 1983, I received a Vanguard Award for Best Solo Choreography/Performance: Offbeat (1982) and Las Manos: The Hands (1983).
  17. In 2009, Daniel Nagrin’s wife Phyllis invited me to speak at Daniel’s celebration of life. On March 8, 2012, UC Irvine hosted a Lifetime Achievement celebration for Donald McKayle. Zina Bethune’s memorial service was unfortunately scheduled on this same evening.
  18. In a recent conversation, I commented to Donald on how rare a gift it is to be able to deepen aesthetically into a work over many years, an opportunity few dancers today have the pleasure of experiencing.
  19. Furthering the work of Carl Jung, archetypal psychologist James Hillman died October 2011. His remark during a Pacifica lecture—“We are poems!”—seeded my doctoral dissertation, “Where Grace May Pass: A Poetics of the Body,” a transdisciplinary discourse on how we are this body. Allegra Fuller Snyder participated on my committee as External Reader.
  20. In 2008, I received the state of Nevada’s highest arts honor, The Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in the Arts.
  21. On January 26, 2012, I was reunited with dance and performance colleagues Rudy Perez, Ulysses Jenkins, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Cheryl Banks-Smith for the Pacific Standard Time performance event, “Walking Tall,” concluding the Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, at the Hammer Museum.