Stephanie Clemens

Why did you start re-staging historical works of choreography and how did you choose the works you reconstruct?

My company, MOMENTA
began doing historical works in 1988 when we decided to celebrate the life and work of Doris Humphrey who was born in Oak Park in 1895. We began by going to the Dance Notation Bureau and did the first two works from labanotated
scores, with a reconstructor.

Soaring  (1920), a collaborative work that Doris Humphrey
made with Ruth St. Denis was one of the works that we presented. A student of the company was the granddaughter of  Marion Rice, the woman who had helped to
notate that version of Soaring. In the process of reconstructing this dance we met Doris Humphrey's son Charles Woodford, with whom the company has had a close connection for almost 20 years.

In 1988,
dance critic and writer Ann Barzel handed me a folio of dances collected by Mary
Wood Hinman who was Doris Humphrey's teacher at Frances Parker School. She told
me to reconstruct two of the little dances in the folio that were attributed to
Doris Humphrey. From notes and research I did these two myself, along with two
others. Since Humphrey had worked with Ruth St. Denis, I decided to reconnect
with my own early childhood in Los Angeles. Two of my babysitters had been St.
Denis dancers. They would either take me to Miss Ruth's studio or have the
dancers come along to our house to practice. I called one of them,  Karoun
Tootikian,  to see if she would remember me , which she did!  Karoun
had worked with Miss Ruth for the last 20 years of Miss Ruth's life and knew
many, many dances and had all Miss Ruth's notes and costumes. She spent the
next 10 years teaching us many of the St. Denis/Denishawn works.

We also
continued to do various Humphrey works– some we did learn from a notated score
- but we soon learned that the value of having a coach who had the works in
her/his bones. Some of these coaches have been original Humphrey dancers:
Ernestine Stodelle, Eleanor King and Leitita Ide.

These three
women danced in the Humphrey-Weidman company along with Jose Limon.  They
had formed a "Little Group" within that  company for a number of
years. The knowledge and memories of these three women have been the
cornerstones of our work.

In the
1990’s we received a grant from the National Inititative to Preserve
American Dance (NIPAD) and produced 6 teaching coaching videos on Humphrey's
works. We applied for this grant together with Ernestine Stodelle, Amy Reusch,
the Doris Humphrey Society (founded in 1989 in Oak Park) and MOMENTA, along
with Princeton Book Publishing, (which Charles Humphrey Woodford owns) .

It has just seemed logical to explore first Humphrey, then St. Denis, then the
works of Eleanor King, Charles Weidman, Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller. Eleanor
King taught us her works herself.  A dancer who had danced with Charles
Weidman taught us some of Weidman’s works (Brahms Waltzes and Lynchtown). 
Lori Belilove from the Isadora Duncan Foundation taught us the Duncan dances
and we worked with Jessica Lindberg on the Loie Fuller works.

What type of organization is MOMENTA exactly?
MOMENTA is the resident
performing arts company of The Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park.
MOMENTA is in reality two companies. The Senior Company is a small group of
seasoned professionals augmented as needed by highly skilled advanced students.
The Junior Company is a large group of talented young dancers who are
developing their performing skills.

Incorporated in 1983, MOMENTA grew out of a
need to create opportunities for local choreographers and composers and to give
young artists performing experience. In 1988, MOMENTA broadened its scope and
began to acquire the rights to perform dance works by American Dance pioneer
Doris Humphrey, a native of Oak Park. In addition to these internationally
known works, MOMENTA has expanded its repertoire to include choreography by
Humphrey’s associates Ruth St. Denis, Charles Weidman and Eleanor King. During
the past 22 years, MOMENTA has presented more than four dozen of these historic
works; this commitment makes MOMENTA’s repertoire of historic American modern
dance one of the largest of any company in the United States.

Why do you choose to present contemporary and historical works on the same program and how do you select the contemporary work?
I do not program the contemporary works in relation
to the historical ones, but I love to show relationships between historical
works. An example of this is the extravagant use of silk in Loie Fuller’s, St.
Denis’s and  Doris Humphrey’s work. Another example is the the
relationship (well-documented) between Isadora Duncan's dances and Mikhail
Fokine's Les Sylphides. Or the relationship between an early Denishawn
floor plastique and Humphrey's 1928 Water Study.  I will
consciously program these works together in order to emphasize the relationships
between them.

Our programs are full of historical information, with biographies of these
dance history legends always included - and, if there is a pause for costume
and set change, I often talk to the audience about the program. Our audiences,
many of whom are captive since their children are dancing, are pretty well
educated in dance history and we strongly believe in teaching the students
dance history live. When dancers grow
up seeing and performing in works where the choreographic craft has survived
the test of time, and the choreographers live in a pantheon of dance legends,
they take into their minds and bodies problems solved, patterns developed and
inspiration that they can use as they develp their own ideas. 

I know that watching our young dancers tackle works like Humphrey's Water
Study
from 1928 as well as Petipa classics gives them a foundation on which
to build their futures. MOMENTA started out
in 1983 as a company that would give choreographic opportunities to our

resident choreographers/Chicago-based
choreographers.  That mission has never been abandoned.
In 1988 we began to do the historical works and they
have danced side by side ever since. Some of
this has to do with an admiration for the historical
works and a sense of continuing our original
mission, but I have also found that our contemporary
works can be made for our dancers - and most
dancers love the experience of having work created
for their strengths.

Most of the contemporary  work is done by "staff" or
"in-house" choreographers - many of them are multi-faceted dance
professionals who still perform, who teach and who
really want to choreograph. The professional
choreographers usually come to me with a vision and
then it is my job to see how it will fit into our
overall programming and challenge our dancers - and
to produce it for the stage (costuming and
staging).

We also hire outside choreographers.  Some
through old friendships- like Randy Duncan (who did some of his first ever choreography for us). And others, like
Ron De Jesus
, Frank Chaves, and Jon Lehrer through trying to work with Chicago area choreographers whose work I have
seen and liked.
  Sometimes through just the highly networked dance
world and its connections.

Why not just present a program of historical
reconstructions?

I don't see much difference in this way of programming from what a good
orchestra programs, or an art museum . 
Our Oak Park
audiences seem
to really like having a variety of short works, and really enjoy any verbal
introductions
to the historical
work that help them understand the background or the time. We recently did

Charles Weidman's 1941 Flickers, and helping the audience understand something about
silent films and their origin in Vaudeville styles of acting, about the
characters being portraits of leading ladies and
men of the 20's really deepens the experience of
watching the piece. I think it is a shame to ignore the
lessons of the past, but it is also important to
build works for now so there will be more past in the future. Artists need to
create, and choreographers need dancers and a stage - and we can give them that
opportunity.

What I am sharing with my dancers and the audiences we present programming to is my own
past, which was, for me, a very vivid present that I lived. Even in childhood I
had programs from performances my parents had seen in the 30s. I guess I either
have to say I like these works because they are old and so am I, or that
these were the works that inspired me, and they need to be seen and shared -
because they are good. I think the Joffrey has this same sense in putting
historical works on the stage.  Our audiences
really like the
variety, and I
think our young dancers, although they appreciate and admire the older
aesthetics, seem
to resonate
more with the newer dance. I know my son, who dances in Luna Negra, loved
performing the reconstruction of  Jose
Limon’s
There is a Time,
but he feels, as critic Laura Molzahn
mentions in her review, that most people are living too fast to be able to
 truly
slow down and savor some of the craft in the older masterpieces.

In what other ways do you mentor young dancers?
We have a Young Choreographers
Workshop every summer. Students submit
ideas and music, and request a certain
number of dancers - they have seven weeks - 14 rehearsals to bring the work to
the stage. The best of these are then selected for inclusion in our Fall
concerts -usually in the matinees, but a few make it to the evening show. This
year a 15 year old choreographed a work to spoken words - a poem by Sekou
Sundiata, an African-American poet. The cast of
 five
young girls (14 - 16) spoke the words as they danced them -
there was no music. It was
a
wonderful work - for anyone, any age.

It is interesting to watch bits and pieces of ingredients from works these students have watched or danced emerge in
a new form in their own choreography. 
So
we end up with a
piece that will have Humphrey falls, next to Graham contractions next to

completely contemporary movement.

What is your approach to teaching choreography?
When we start our summer Young
Choreographers Workshops each summer, I copy out the first page of
the summary chapter from Humphrey's Art of
Making Dances
and give it to each
choreographer. It is
a succinct
and wonderful list and includes "Symmetry is lifeless", "All
dances are too long" and "a good ending is 40% of a dance". This
helps the kids think a bit and avoid some basic mistakes. Sometimes the
mentorship means just walking in to a rehearsal and seeing a choreographer
working with four dancers, and seeing how else you could work with four dancers
besides “2 + 2" . The lightbulb goes on in their heads. Or telling them
that,
 the eye tires more quickly than the ear. When your
music repeats, how can you make a variation on your theme to tease the eye?”
Stuff like that.

Can
you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your training/career in dance
prior to founding the Academy?
I began my
dance studies with Adolph Bolm (Pavlova's partner in the original Ballets
Russes with Diagheliev) in Southern California. I made my stage debut as a
child with The Ruth St. Denis Concert dancers and then continued my dance
studies with Maria Kedrina, Michael Panieff, Gene Marinaccio and then at the
San Francisco Ballet School.

When I was
a child, Adolph Bolm lived next door to us and told my parents I should dance.
As I mentioned previously, two of my babysitters were St. Denis dancers. Having
St. Denis dancers in our living room was pretty exciting - nautch skirts and
ankle bells.  I had another baby sitter who was an absolute balletomane …
as were my parents. I was taken to see Danilova, Frederick Franklin, Alonso,
all the greats as a child. Seeing Margot Fonteyn when I was ten years old was a
revelation: exactly what I wanted to be like (never mind that I grew to be 5'
9"!).  I wish I hadn't had such ballet blinders on as a
teenager. 

I attended Juilliard in the late fifties where my teachers were Anthony Tudor,
Alfredo Corvino, Lucas Hoving, José Limón and members of the Graham Company I
would have liked to have been more open to the modern dance giants around me at
Juilliard - although having Anthony Tudor as a teacher was incredible and eating
lunch with him in the Juilliard cafeteria was pretty wonderful. He had 
such a sarcastic, delicious wit! Other heroines for me were celebrities like
Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn. And these were not from afar, as my father was
a portrait painter and he painted them--- these were people in our house! Ava
quite liked me and would take me with her to MGM during the filming of
Showboat.

--Interviewed by CAR Dance Researcher Rachel Thorne Germond
 

Stephanie
Clemens
began her dance studies with Adolph Bolm in Southern California. As a
child she made her stage debut with The Ruth St. Denis Concert dancers and then
continued her dance studies with Maria Kedrina, Michael Panieff, Gene
Marinaccio and at the San Francisco Ballet School. She attended Juilliard in
the late fifties; there her teachers were Anthony Tudor, Alfredo Corvino, Lucas
Hoving, José Limón and members of the Graham Company.

She has performed on the West Coast with The American Concert Ballet and
The Cosmopolitan Opera Company and in the Midwest as a guest with Chicago
Contemporary Dance Theatre. She is the co-owner and director of The Academy of
Movement and Music in Oak Park and is one of the artistic
directors/performers/choreographers of MOMENTA, a Performing Arts Company that
has been actively involved in the reconstruction of works by Doris Humphrey.
She appeared as a soloist with MOMENTA in New York and at the Kennedy Center in
Washington, D.C., during 1989-90, performed a one-woman concert of St. Denis
solos in summer, 1993, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in 1994 at the Harold
Washington Library in Chicago. Since 1988 she has worked on reconstructions of
works by St. Denis, Doris Humphrey and Eleanor King with Karoun Tootikian,
Ernestine Stodelle, Letitia Ide and Eleanor King. She is a founding member and
was executive director of the Doris Humphrey Society and is a founding member
and director of the Tidmarsh Arts Foundation. She served on the board of the
Oak Park Area Arts Council for more than ten years. In 2000 she received an
award of recognition from the American Library Association for her efforts in
producing six videos documenting the work of Doris Humphrey.

In
2001, she was awarded a Ruth Page Award for Lifetime Service. Stephanie has
served on the Dance Panel for the Illinois Arts Council and on the Awards
Committee for the Chicago Dance and Music Alliance. For more info see:
www.momenta-dance.org


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This
article was co-developed for the Chicago Artists Resource Website and Cultural Chicago E-Zine.

 

Published by CAR_Rachel on Fri, 10/03/2008 - 6:07pm
Updated on Thu, 10/01/2009 - 2:53pm
Stephanie Clemens | Chicago Artists Resource

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