In this article, Jeff Slayton writes of his life in dance. The article covers his time with the Merce Cunningham and the Viola Farber dance companies and his career in Los Angeles and Long Beach since 1978. Included is his career as a dancer, choreographer, Artistic Director of Jeff Slayton & Dancers and teacher.
Born in Victoria, Virginia in 1945, my family moved to the suburbs of the capital city Richmond, shortly after my fourth birthday. I was born with hip dysplasia, slept for two years with a special shoe and a bar between my legs to help straighten my right leg, and then forced to wear a brace until the age of four. As I grew, the leg became somewhat shorter and thinner than my left one, so at the age of eight, our family pediatrician recommended that I take dancing lessons to help the muscles in both my legs. No one in my family history had ever studied dance or, for that matter, any other form of the arts. My paternal grandmother never had any formal music lessons, but played the piano, the harmonica and the banjo! In her early eighties, she could still one mean boogie-woogie! We were very poor at the time and although it was a financial struggle for my parents, they picked The Chapman School of Dancing out of the Richmond telephone book, and with the financial help of a great aunt, signed me up for ballet, tap and baton lessons. I was in love with dancing as soon as I did my first plié and felt like Fred Astaire as soon as I put on my first pair of tap shoes!
My first dance teacher was Evelyn Chapman Puffenbarger, who, as a child, had performed with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple. She also tap-danced for 10 years as one of the original Milkmaids on the Old Dominion Barn Dance, and as a backup dancer for singer Dorothy McGuire in USO performances during WWII. Although she was not a strong technique teacher, Evelyn gave her students something much more valuable; the love of dancing!
At the age of fourteen, I became a member of the Ballet Impromptu (now the Richmond Ballet Company) and danced at the Lyric Theater in the productions of Showboat, Annie Get Your Gun, and Kismet. The summer after I graduated from high school (1963) I auditioned for and was cast in The Common Glory in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Common Glory, choreographed by Myra Kinch, was an out door epic play about the American Revolution, and we performed it for a grand total of seventy-two performances. Aside from the many dance numbers in the show, we also had small parts in crowd scenes, and in a huge battle scene at the end of the production. One of my dancing partners in The Common Glory was the now famous Goldie Hawn. We were both seventeen years old.
My first venture into choreography was to choreograph the musical Little Mary Sunshine during my one year as a Theatre Arts major at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). A year or so later I performed the role of Yellow Feather in that same musical at the Barksdale Dinner Theater in Ashland, Virginia and the Strawberry Hills Theater in Hampton, VA.
After one year as a Theatre Arts major, I left college and with the help of my brother, got a job as a draftsman at the Virginia State Highway. I wanted to be dancer, but I had no idea how to become one. I knew that New York City was the place to go, but did not know how I would ever be able to afford to move there, or what to do once I did. My first life angel and guide, Frances Wessells, would solve that problem for me. I had been working as a draftsman for almost two years when I saw an ad in one of the Richmond newspapers for an audition for the musical Fannie at the Virginia Museum of Art. I went to the audition and although I had not had a dance class in two years I made the cast of dancers. I guess what made it possible for me to dance as well as I did that day was the fact that I had been teaching children on week ends in nearby Charles City, Virginia.
The choreographer, Frances Wessells, ran the audition and later during the show’s run, she told me about the Dance Department at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Frances had danced with Hanya Holm before she got married and moved to Richmond, and Ms. Holm was on the Board of Advisors for the Department of Dance at Adelphi. Frances helped me apply for the audition and to the university. We drove to Garden City in her little VW Bug in March of 1966 and during the summer I received my letters of acceptance from the university and the dance department. I gave my notice at the Virginia State Highway Department and sold my car to help pay for the first year’s tuition. My partner at the time was not happy about my decision, but I was determined to pursue my dream. I was about to turn twenty-one years old.
Classes began at Adelphi in early September and my dance instructors included Don Redlich (Hanya Holm technique), Bunty Kelly and Marie Adair (Cecchetti Ballet) and Viola Farber (Cunningham technique). During the spring semester (1967) I performed on the faculty concert in works by Jack Moore and Viola Farber. It was meeting and working with Viola Farber that would change my life entirely!
In June of 1967 I took a two week workshop at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio in New York City. Mr. Cunningham’s classes were quite a challenge for me but after a year of studying with Viola, I managed to keep up. I also fell even more in love with the Cunningham technique. I felt like my body had been made to dance that style of movement and me so I decided to leave Adelphi, move into the city and study at the Cunningham Studio. I was totally broke, but still being the naïve, backwoods person that I was, that wasn’t going to stop me.
First, however, I took a four week workshop at Adelphi that I had signed up for during the spring that included modern technique classes with Dan Wagoner, ballet technique with Bunty Kelly and a choreography class with Martha Meyers. Near the end of this workshop, Dan Wagoner and Viola asked me to join them for a performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the American Dance Festival in New Haven, Connecticut. The dances on the program were Scramble (1967), Winterbranch (1964) and How To Pass, Kick, Fall And Run (1965). At the end of the performance we waited in the theater for Merce Cunningham to come out to see Viola and Dan. I was seated in the first row and Merce, Viola and Dan were talking at the back stage. I was not aware that he had seen me, but after Merce was finished speaking with Dan and Viola, he walked over to the edge of the stage, very close to me. “Where did you disappear to?” Merce asked me. When I told him about the workshop, he smiled and then offered me a full work scholarship at his studio. I was, to say the least, in shock, but accepted his generous offer with far too many repetitions of thank you. Not having to pay for classes meant that I could afford to live in New York City.
I began studying at the Cunningham Studio in late August of 1967 and I turned twenty-two on September 5th of that year. The studio was located on Third Avenue, near Thirty-Third Street, and the scholarship required me to take all three levels of classes each day, vacuum and mop the entire three level studio floors, clean the mirrors in two studios and clean out the bathroom sink, shower and toilet. Most of the cleaning was done on Saturdays, but I, along with two other scholarship students, had to sweep the dance studio floors, dressing rooms and the bathroom each day.
In the mornings I worked for the organization Man Power, which sent temporary workers like me to a different business each week. On most of these jobs I had to type letters and address envelopes for bulk mailings, or to run errands for the full time employees. Whatever a business needed done that week, I did it. Viola Farber also found me a part time job with a management company for musicians. Again my duties were to type, file, copy letters, and do a very small amount of bookkeeping. I was terrible at bookkeeping, and am certain that whoever took over the books once I left had a huge mess to clear up.
By the end of each day I was always so tired that I could hardly walk up the six flights to my apartment that I found on East 10th Street between Avenues A and B. That first apartment had no hot water, a very small bathtub in the kitchen and only one bathroom on each floor for all the tenants. Yes, I had to share a bathroom with all the people who lived on my floor. There were bed bugs and a hole in my living room floor big enough for me to see the tenants who lived below. For the first week I had one box of minute rice to eat, and no money to take public transportation, so I walked everywhere. My rent was thirty-five dollars a month and I had a really hard time earning the money to pay it, the utilities and to buy food. In spite of all this, I was happier than I had ever been in my life up to that point. On Sunday’s I explored New York and found all the things that one could see and do for free. I was finally home with my people!
In early October of 1967, just two short months after I moved into the city, Merce came to me while I was cleaning mirrors in the larger studio and said that was thinking about having me work with his company. He then asked if I was interested. I quickly said yes whereupon Merce turned and walked away without another word. A week or so later, Meg Harper and I contacted by the company manager, Lewis Lloyd, and formally asked to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The other company members were Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Barbara Lloyd, Gus Solomons, Jr., and Valda Setterfield. The first dance of Merce’s that I performed in was How To Pass, Kick, Fall And Run for the 1968 New York season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (also known as BAM).
The company then travelled to Buffalo, NY for a month’s residency where Merce finished choreographing Rainforest (1968) and Walkaroundtime (1968). I was not in the original cast of Rainforest, but soon took over Gus Solomons roles in that and his solo in Walkaroundtime when he left the company that year. Later that year we toured the United States and went on a nine weeks tour that included a month’s residency at the University of Colorado in Boulder and four weeks of performing in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Caracas. Unfortunately for the dancers, and for the teachers at the studio in New York, several of the countries failed to pay the company’s fees, so all of our salary checks had bounced! Basically, we had danced in South America for the per diem that we were given for living expenses, and the joy of performing abroad. I was already poor, so I don’t remember feeling all that badly.
During my three years with the Cunningham Company we also toured Sweden, France and Italy. The other works of Merce Cunningham’s that I danced in were Place (1966) Winterbranch, Scramble, Variation V (1965), Nocturnes (1956), Field Dances (1963), Canfield (1969), Tread (1970), and Second Hand (1970). I enjoyed dancing in all of Merce’s great works, but my favorites were Rainforest and Winterbranch. I had a brief but very rewarding solo in Rainforest, and although it was an extremely easy dance to rehearse, Winterbranch was one of the most difficult to perform because of the lighting design. Robert Rauschenberg was the lighting designer for this work and during the performance the person or persons running the light board could, and did, turn the lights on and off at will. There were times when we were dancing in total darkness. Fortunately, these times were brief. Audiences either loved or hated this dance, not only because of the lighting, but also because it had a sound score that reminded me of metal wheels on a subway train coming to a screeching halt. People either gave us a standing ovation or they left the theater before the dance was over.
The controversy that Winterbranch caused was exhilarating to me. Before joining the Cunningham Company, I had never been part of anything like it. I knew that I was in on a new era of dance art. The 1970s was an amazing time to live and work in New York. In Merce’s classes I danced alongside people who would later become well known dancers, choreographers and teachers in their own right. They included Twyla Tharp, Sara Rudner, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Margaret Jenkins, Art Baughman, David Gordon, Douglas Dunn, Nicholas Gunn and Wendy Rogers, to name only a few.
I left the Cunningham Company in September of 1970 at the age of twenty-five. In 1969 I had performed in a duet choreographed by Viola Farber with a wonderful dancer named Mirjam Berns. The duet was titled For Mirjam and Jeff. I realized then that I had missed dancing Viola’s movement which challenged me like none other, but at the same time felt like putting on an old, comfortable pair of jeans. Once choreographed, Merce’s work never changed, with the few exceptions of the dances Scramble and Canfield where he rearranged the sections of the dance for every performance. In contrast, Viola’s work felt fresh each night because we were asked to make choices regarding tempo and directions of certain movement phrases. We were allowed to improvise (with very strict rules) on certain movement phrases, as well as to dance very set movements. Viola’s dancers felt like they were part of the creative process of each dance, something that I never felt in any of Merce’s dances except for Field Dances.
So, after a brief couple of months working with Twyla Tharp on a dance film that never got finished, I became a founding member of the Viola Farber Dance Company. The other dancers in that first year included Viola Farber, June Finch, Rosalind Newman, Dan Wagoner, Margaret Jenkins, Anne Koren, Andé Peck and me. Dan Wagoner would soon be replaced by Larry Clark and Margaret Jenkins would leave the company and New York to form her own company in San Francisco. Rosalind Newman would later leave and be replaced by Susan Matheke. Other dancers whom I danced with in that company were Willi Feuer, Jumay Chu, and Michael Cecchetti.
One of the biggest events of my life took place on June 14, 1971 when Viola Farber and I were married in the courtyard of the renowned Judson Church. In attendance were Margaret Craske, Peter Saul and Donald Mahler. Following the ceremony, we went to lunch with our friends. On the way to the restaurant we ran into the wonderful dancer Judith Dunn and when she heard that Viola and I had just been married, her reaction was to ask “Why!!” After lunch Viola and I did not leave for a honeymoon trip, but instead we went to her studio for company rehearsal. The dancers were not even aware that Viola and I had been dating, much less engaged. When we told them that we had just been married, they all fell to the floor in surprise. No one was more surprised than I, because up until that day I had been (and still was) gay. My best man at the wedding was Peter Saul, whom I had replaced in the Cunningham Company, and with whom I had been living for a little over three years. Shortly after Peter and I broke up, Viola began working on a duet for herself and me, and during those rehearsals we started going out together. Somewhere along the way I confused my love of Viola’s work and dancing with her for being in love with her. I was honestly in love with Viola, but we should have remained friends. The marriage was full of ups and downs, but it did last just over seven years.
During my tenure with the Farber Company, we toured the U.S. and Europe, and the company made the dance film Brazos River in Denver, Texas. Never before or since was there a partner for me like Viola. We understood each other on and off stage like no one else. Our bodies were born to dance together and I truly became alive while doing so. I believe that it was the Los Angeles Times dance critic, Lewis Segal that called us the Marge and Gower Champion of modern dance. Viola and I shared a gold medal for Creativity and Expression at the Ninth Paris International Dance Festival in 1972 for the duet Tendency. As Tendency was called our courting dance, the duet that marked the end of our marriage was titled Doublewalk (1978) and performed only a small number of times.
After leaving the Viola Farber Dance Company I continued to guest with it until Viola closed the company’s doors in 1983. She and I worked together on teaching residences and workshops up until we last performed together at the American Dance Festival in 1996. The last duet that we collaborated on together was titled It’s Been A While. We remained best of friends up until her death in December of 1998. I was at her side for the entire month that she was in a coma in the hospital in Bronxville, N.Y. For the ten years before her death, Viola Farber had been the Director of the Dance Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her early death was cause by a cerebral hemorrhage.
Following Viola’s death I was asked to speak at five different memorials for Viola. The memorials took place at Sarah Lawrence College, in the Joyce Theater in New York, at the 1999 American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., at a small theater in Paris in the winter of 2000, and finally at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France that same month. At the Joyce Theater memorial, as many of the former company members performed a very quickly arranged piece of different parts of Viola’s work.
After our marriage broke up in early 1978, I packed up my belongings which fit into two suit cases, and moved to Long Beach, California. I had moved to New York during the summer of 1967 from Garden City with one hundred dollars to my name, and I left New York with exactly one thousand dollars. During all that time of dancing with two of the most famous modern dance companies of the time, I had managed to save exactly nine hundred dollars. Such was the life of a modern dancer in the 1960s and 1970s. What I got instead, however, was something that one could not put a price tag on.
The first thing that I had to do in California was to buy a car, and the majority of the money that I had saved while living in New York went towards a down payment on a bright yellow, two door Datsun B210 with standard shift. It had been a very long time since I had driven a standard shift, so one of the musicians from the Dance Department at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) taught me how to drive it as we were leaving the dealership, but it did not take me too long to get the hang of it. I mention this because the woman who gave me those lessons was Ruby Abeling who would play a large role in my dancing career in the LA area, and who, as I am writing this, is still a dear friend. Ruby Abeling was one of the best dance musicians in the LA area during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s. Her music was not only wonderful to dance to in class, but she was the Music Director for my company and composed the music for many of my works.
When I moved here in 1978 Dr. Joan Schlaich was the Chair of the CSULB Department of Dance. I had been a guest faculty member there during the fall of 1977, and when I called Joan to tell her that I was moving to Southern California, she offered me a part-time job teaching two technique courses. She and Lynn Dally put me in touch with the Dance Department at UCLA and I managed to get one class there for the fall quarter. The Acting Chairperson at UCLA that year was Carol Scotthorn. I met Alma Hawkins, the founder and former Chair of that department only once. She had retired, but I often saw her in the halls of the dance building and at dance concerts in LA. One morning while I was once warming up in the hallway, Ms. Hawkins swiftly ran underneath my left leg as it hit the top of a grande battement. She uttered a brief “Good morning.” and quickly disappeared into one of the studios. That was my one and only meeting with Alma Hawkins. I know that she was the Chair when I performed at Royce Hall with the Cunningham and the Farber companies, but we had never met. I did not see her when I taught a couple of master classes in 1976 on tour with the Farber Company. Odd, but true.
Joan Schlaich, Betty DuPont and Ruby Abeling were also head of the Long Beach Summer Dance Festival on the CSULB campus that rivaled the American Dance Festival on the east coast. Many of the master teachers of dance, choreographers, dance musicians and historians taught there. Started in 1968, it sadly closed its doors in 1985. Although I understood and sympathized with their reason, I was very sad when Joan Schlaich and Betty DuPont decided to end the festival. For the several weeks that the festival ran, it took the remainder of the year to raise money, sign up faculty and to organize the next summer’s activities.
I did not teach at the Long Beach Summer Dance Festival, but I did act as assistant to Viola Farber in 1982 and 1984. Dance artists who worked there included Betty Jones, Jose Limón, Merce Cunningham, Ethel Winters, Bella Lewitzky, Gus Solomons, Jr., Betty Walberg (musician), Anne Halprin, Anna Sokolow, and far too many others for me to mention here. As of this year (2012), the American Dance Festival has continued to thrive, and takes place in Durham, North Carolina. I was on the festival’s dance faculty from 1988 to 1996.
Lynn Dally was the only other dance artist that I knew when I moved to the LA area. We had known each other through Viola Farber in New York. At the time she was the artistic director of Lynn Dally and Dancers, teaching at UCLA. and on the faculty at Pacific Motion Dance Studio in Venice, CA. Pacific Motion Dance Studio was a great studio run by members of the dance company Eyes Wide Open. The company members at that time were Fred Strickler, Gary Bates, Kathe Copperman (later Kathe Howard), Melanie Snyder, Mary Daval, Mary Ann Kellogg, Martha (Cookie) Morrison, Richard Korngute, and Sharon Took.
While teaching there, Lynn Dally commissioned me to choreograph a new work for her company. The dance was finished but I couldn’t come up with a title. While driving on the 405 Freeway one afternoon, I passed the Prairie Street exit and it occurred to me that there was a section in my new work for Lynn that had movement abstractly based on square dancing. So, I titled the work Prairie after an exit on the 405 Freeway! It was so very southern Californian of me, I know!
The first full concert of my work took place in the University Theatre on the CSULB campus I the fall of 1978. Viola Farber agreed to appear as guest artist and we performed a duet that she choreographed during my last tour with her company, Doublewalk (1978). I was thirty-three years old. I choreographed two works working with wonderful dancer I had known in New York, Karen Mullin (Shanley) and several very gifted dancers from the CSULB Department of Dance. My work was well received and I later decided to form Jeff Slayton & Dancers. The company was in operation from 1978 to 1983.
My company received wonderful and supportive reviews from the local critics, and great comments from my colleagues, but it was my total lack of business experience and the illness of my partner, Mark, that forced me to disband the company after only six years. Dancers who passed through my company included Karen Mullin (Shanley), Donna Uchizono, Toula Thompson, Darrell Steel, and Nikki Castro. Donna Uchizono and Nikki Castro went on to live and work in New York City. Donna is now a well-known choreographer throughout the U.S. and Europe living in New York, and Nikki worked with B.B. Miller Dance Company, and the last I heard now lives in San Diego. Mark died in November of 1984 as a result of AIDS at the very young age of twenty-six.
Jeff Slayton & Dancers was a Not-For-Profit Organization with a Board of Directors, which unfortunately never became an active board that raised money for the company. They were friends who agreed to have their names on the board so that I could get the company going. The company was managed by me and a friend named Charles Johnson, Ruby Abeling’s husband at the time, and neither one of us knew anything about management. I did have experience in grant writing and was able to get three Choreography Fellowship Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1979, 1980 and 1981). I never got very far with the California Arts Council, however. I first applied for a Touring Grant, but was turned down due to lack of good management. I then applied for a Management Grant to help pay a company manager’s salary, but was turned down because the company had not toured enough. I was caught up in a “catch 22” situation without the knowledge of how to proceed.
The Dance Resource Center was not as organized as it is now; so much of the help I received from them was in the form of mailing labels and getting the company booked on Dance Kaleidoscope at the John Anson Ford Theatre. Do not get me wrong, they were a great help to me considering how under-staffed the organization was during those years. My company also performed at CSULB, Pacific Motion Dance Studio, a wonderful space called The House in Santa Monica, the Pilot Theater, the Ambassador Theater in downtown LA, and at the Schoenberg Music Hall on the UCLA campus. Unfortunately, four of those spaces no longer exist; Pacific Motion Dance Studio, the Pilot Theater, the Ambassador Theater and The House. Performances at The House ceased when it was purchased by UCLA, who very quickly then sold it to someone else. Rudy Perez, who moved to LA a year after I did, performed there, as did many other of the smaller Los Angeles dance companies. Several of these spaces were affordable and sat between fifty and one hundred people per performance. A young dance company could afford two or three performances at least once if not twice a year. Sadly, finding an affordable performance space for small dance companies is still a problem in Los Angeles.
In 1978 there were several dance studios in the LA area, and the modern dance companies that were in operation included Eyes Wide Open, the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, Rudy Perez, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, the Gloria Newman Dance Company, and Dance/LA. The Los Angeles Ballet was here, but a very different company at the time than it is now. There were many ethnic companies here too, but my very poor memory for names prevents me from recalling them. I will leave that information to others.
Over the years, I have watched these venues and companies shut down one by one, due to the weak financial support and at times, the very poor coverage by the Los Angeles newspapers, and partly because of the lack of audience support. Companies from New York and Europe receive a lot of newspaper coverage, but it wasn’t and isn’t true of the homegrown talent. Ballet companies always receive better coverage than do modern and ethnic dance. Critics generally write about multiple performances of Swan Lake, but often do not show up for the performance of a new work by one of L.A.’s choreographers.
In 1983, I brought back a dance in my company’s repertoire that had not been performed in over two years. It also had an entirely new cast, including the first man to perform one of my roles. The Los Angels Times critic wrote, “The previously reviewed dance Scheduling (1978) was also on the program.” It was a phrase I was to see written in dance reviews for many years, so I know that I was not the only choreographer who experienced this kind of treatment.
Once Jeff Slayton & Dancers was disbanded in 1983, I focused most of my creative energy teaching and choreographing at CSULB and other colleges and universities throughout the U.S. I started teaching full time at CSULB in 1986 and by the time I left there in 1999, I was a tenured Full Professor of Dance. I accomplished this without having earned a college degree; something that is impossible to do now. Aside from the pleasure of working with wonderful faculty members as Joan Schlaich, Betty DuPont, Pat Finot, Tryntje Shapli, Celeste Kennedy, Susan McLain Smith, Rebecca Wright, Sophie Monet, Keith Johnson, Dori Levy and others.
I worked with some of the best dance musicians on the west coast: Ruby Abeling, Eric Ruskin and Mark Uranker. I would be remiss if I left out the amazingly talented lighting designers David Palmer and Andrew Milhan, and the costume designers Michael Pacciorini, Nancy Jo Smith and Liz Pelzter (Carpenter). I was fortunate to be one of the dance faculty members, along with the staff members, who took part in the designing of the beautiful and spacious CSULB Dance Center. The Center includes the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater, which, for this writer, is one of the best theaters for modern dance on the west coast, and six very large dance studios, a computer lab, a dance training center, a video lab, a music lab for the composers on faculty and a separate building for faculty offices. There is also a smaller studio for teaching pedagogy and Pilates, or to use for rehearsal for smaller dances. The CSULB Dance Center is one of the biggest in the country, and the Dance Department is in the list of top ten best dance departments in the U.S.
While I was on faculty at CSULB, we were asked to help development and implement the Department’s BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. I taught all levels of modern dance technique, choreography, pedagogy and I directed the spring faculty concerts for many of my twenty-one years there. In 1991 I was awarded the CSULB Outstanding Professor in Teaching Award.
One of the highlights, however, of my time at CSULB was to collaborated with the French painter and author Françoise Gilot. Ms. Gilot designed the sets and the costume for the work we titled Septet (1992). We performed this work one the 1992 spring faculty concert in the University Theater, and at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. The music for Septet was composed by Ruby Abeling, Eric Ruskin and Mark Uranker. It was an amazing experience for the Department, the dancers and for everyone involved. Françoise Gilot is not only an amazing artist; she is an incredibly generous person! At the time she was married to Jonas Salk, and prior to that she was the muse of Pablo Picasso and the mother of his two children. It seemed that this strong and powerful woman attracted strong and powerful men. I was honored to work with her.
After Jeff Slayton & Dancers, my choreography was not only seen at CSULB; far from it. I also taught and choreographed throughout the United States, Europe, and South America, and in Seoul, Korea. Before and after CSULB, I have been on the faculty of N.Y.U Tisch School of Performing Arts; University of Utah, Salt Lake; CSU San Jose, Mills College, UC Berkeley, the North Carolina College of the Arts, the American Dance Festival, to name a few. I have choreographed group works for Lynn Dally and Dancers, The New Dance Ensemble in Minneapolis; DanceArtCompany in San Francisco; Vox Dance Theatre, and solo works for Viola Farber, Maria Cheng, Mirjam Berns and Donna White (in Salt Lake City, Utah). My work has been performed by numerous students of dance throughout the U.S. and in the countries abroad previously mentioned.
I may not appear as visible in Los Angeles as I was back in the 1970s and 1980s, but I continue to perform, teach and choreograph. Viola Farber used her Guggenheim Grant in 1985 to collaborate with Dartmouth College in Devon, England and Television South West (London) to use former members of her company to make the dance film January. I performed in that. Other Los Angeles performance credits include: Feet Speak (1998) at Occidental College, the 1999 debut performance of From The Horse’s Mouth, my solo Remembering Viola (2001) with American Repertory Dance Company and Dance Kaleidoscope at the Alex Theater. In 2003 I was asked to help reconstruct Merce Cunningham’s How To Pass, Kick, Fall and Run for the 50th Anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performances.
In 2008 I went through hip replacement surgery that now limits my movement, but even following the surgery, I have choreographed a solo titled Verbal Translation (2008) for Kerry Kreiman of Contemporary Dance Fort Worth (Texas) and two works for the students at what used to be called the St. Joseph Ballet; now The Wooden Floor in Santa Ana. I have also taught part time for two semesters at CSULB and been a guest teacher at CSU Fullerton and Pomona College.
When I look back at my life and career, and at the artists and dances that have had an influence on my work, I definitely have to give credit to my very first dance teacher, Evelyn Chapman Puffenbarger. She instilled in me the love of dancing without destroying my joy of moving. My next angel and mentor was Frances Wessells. She introduced me to modern dance and she encouraged me to pursue a career in dance. She convinced me that I was talented enough to get into a company, and she helped me find my path to New York. My most influential mentors were, of course, Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham (in that order).
Viola’s teaching and choreography greatly influenced my own teaching and choreography. She taught me that what was important was dancing and that technique was there to make it possible. The way she structured a class was so brilliant and logical that I never tried to change it, except by putting my own movement into it. Merce Cunningham’s work challenged me and taught me how to be a better partner and company member. Working with his company has opened many doors in the dance field that may have otherwise been closed for me. I owe almost everything that I know as a dancer and performer to these two amazing talents.
Dance works that influenced my own choreography were Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964) and Viola Farber’s Tendency (1970), Dune (1972), Turf (1978) and Private Relations (1978).
Winterbranch was the work that made me want to dance with the Cunningham Company because it was like nothing I had ever seen. As far as dance technique was concerned, there was very little that stood out. What there was, however, was the total marriage of dance, theater and life! It made me think, it scared me and it inspired me to excel.
The three works of Viola’s mentioned above inspired me to seek out ways to incorporate set material for the dancers, sections that would give the dancers a way to partake in the creative side of the dance during performance (Tendency and Turf), and ways to put my life’s experiences into my work in a way that wasn’t too personal or necessarily obvious (Dune and Private Relations). Tendency was considered Viola’s and my trademark duet, and friends who knew us well could tell how we were getting along in our private life by how we reacted to one another onstage. We performed this duet from 1970 to 1976. It was also what we called our courting dance, as it was during the making of Tendency that we started dating and fell in love.
There were two other elements that show up in my work, but not in an obvious way. One is the rhythms that I learned during the many years of tap dancing during my youth. These rhythms are ingrained in my muscles, and will never leave me. Without realizing it at first, I musically phrased movements in my work that were based in tap, and the wonderful sense of being grounded.
The second element was my training in acting. For many years I was called the acting dancer, especially once I began to choreograph solos for myself in Los Angeles and Long Beach. In my late teens I wanted very much to become an actor, but after one year of studying the craft, I came to the conclusion that dancing was my true passion. I really had no interest in becoming a choreographer until after many years of teaching, and wanting to have a place to put the beautiful movement phrases that were coming out of me in class. I certainly did not want to start a company after seeing the struggle that Viola Farber had gone through, but all my friends and colleagues encouraged me to do so after seeing my first self produced concert at CSULB in 1978. I only wish that they had warned me about the perils of raising money, writing grants and dealing with dancers who wanted me to be both mentor and parent when all I wanted to do was to make dances.
Outside of dancing, performing and choreographing, my greatest accomplishment has been my book The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber. When I was teaching at CSULB and at other universities around the U.S., I found that very little was written about this amazing woman. Dance students would tell me that they wanted to write a paper about her, but couldn’t find enough material about her in the library. After having many students and professional dancers interview me regarding Viola Farber, I decided that I was probably the person to write her biography. I was in her company, I was married to her for eight years, and I was her closest friend. Few people knew Viola as I did, but to be honest, no one truly knew Viola Farber; including Viola Farber. I set out interviewing her family, everyone that I could find who had studied or worked with her and Viola herself. Not long into the project, however, Viola suddenly died. For several years I simply could not touch the book without weeping. Finally around 2005, I was ready again and after trying unsuccessfully to find a publisher, I self published The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber through authorHouse Publications in 2006. At this writing, the book is still available through authorHouse and at Amazon.com.
Dancing allowed me to get out of the south; it opened my eyes to other people and cultures in the world and in many ways it helped to save my life. I have been greatly blessed with the talent of dance and with the ability to teach. I have never tired of the art of dance or the people who do it. I have had dinner with Marcel Duchamps, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Max Ernst, Carlos Menotti, Sally Wilson, David Tudor and many other amazing artists. When I first joined the Cunningham Company, I went out and bought an art book in order to learn about all the famous artists that I was meeting.
Dancing has led me to an education beyond what any institution of learning could have given me and beyond my wildest imagination. I dreamed of a life as a professional dancer, but had no idea that it would continue to be an endless reality of riches.
© Copyright 2012 Jeff Slayton All rights reserved