Anna Sokolow (1910–2000) was a woman of integrity. Possessed of deep convictions and a fierce commitment to social justice, she wasn’t one to do something just because it was popular. A dancer, choreographer and teacher who contributed to modern dance for nearly seven decades, Sokolow remained true to herself and devoted to dance as an expressive artform.
Her parents, Samuel and Sarah, emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s with their young son Isadore, joining the vast number of Jews who were fleeing religious and economic persecution. The family’s destination was Hartford, Connecticut, where they had friends who could help them adjust to a new life. It wasn’t easy—Samuel had few practical job skills and struggled to make a living.
Meanwhile, Sarah gave birth to three daughters: Rose in 1908, Anna in 1910 and Gertrude in 1912. Soon after Gertrude’s birth, the family moved to New York City, where they hoped Samuel would more easily find work. However, shortly after, he became incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease, and Sarah was forced to take over as the breadwinner, working in the garment industry. She became a proud union member and socialist, which made a lasting impression on the young Anna.
At age 10, Sokolow had her first encounter with dance in an after-school class. There she discovered an Isadora Duncan–inspired expressive movement style, and in her own words, “fell madly in love with dancing.” When she was about 15, her dance teachers recommended that she continue her studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Sokolow followed their advice and was awarded a scholarship. Soon after, she quit school and left home, supporting herself with various odd jobs like tying tea bags.
At the Neighborhood Playhouse, two of Sokolow’s teachers were Louis Horst and Martha Graham, both of whom would have an enormous impact on her career. Horst, Graham’s accompanist and composer, was beginning to develop a method of teaching dance composition through studying musical forms and applying that structure to dance. Sokolow excelled at this, meeting each challenge Horst presented. “Anna was his prize, really,” Agnes de Mille once said. “Everything she did was a little work of art, a large work of art.” Horst acted as Sokolow’s choreographic advisor for many years.
Sokolow joined Graham’s company in 1929, dancing in Heretic, Primitive Mysteries and Celebration, among other works, over the next few years. She was a strong dancer with intense, focused energy, well-suited to Graham’s stark but expressive early style. She often joked that she should have been a ballet dancer because she had such good jumps and turns, but that would have never suited her temperamentally. Sokolow was radical through and through.
By 1931, she had already begun to choreograph and present solos, often for union and political organizations. In 1933, she established her first company, Dance Group of the Theatre Union, and left Graham’s company four years later. Graham needed a faithful, devoted following, and Sokolow was moving away from her mentor philosophically and developing her own voice.
Sokolow’s company would go through many evolutions over the next 60-plus years, the last version being The Players Project. She created more than 150 dances for her troupe and also choreographed for the theater, including the first off-Broadway production of the musical Hair in 1967.
Her works reflected the broad range of the human experience, from the bleak (Rooms, an exploration of human isolation, and Dreams, a response to the Holocaust) to the lighthearted (Ballade, a lyrical portrayal of the discoveries of youth) and the hilarious (A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime as Presented by Jelly Roll Morton). Today, her works are performed by the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble and are in the repertories of companies around the world.
Sokolow’s interest in teaching took her to studios and universities throughout the U.S. and abroad, and she taught and choreographed extensively in both Mexico and Israel. On the company’s first trip to Mexico in 1939, Sokolow was mistakenly billed as “La Gran Bailarina Russa,” or “The Great Russian Ballerina.” Mexican audiences admired her work nevertheless, and Sokolow was asked to stay in the country to teach and help found a government-sponsored modern dance company. The Mexican dancers devoted to her work became known as Las Sokolovas, and Sokolow earned the title “La Fundadora de la Danza Moderna de Mexico”—the Founder of Mexican Modern Dance. She continued to teach and choreograph there for decades.
Sokolow first ventured to Israel in 1953, having been recommended by Jerome Robbins to introduce the American style of modern dance to Inbal Dance Theatre, a company steeped in the Jewish Yemen folk tradition. After nearly a decade she returned, this time sponsored by the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation, and formed the professional Lyric Theatre with 13 Israeli actor-dancers. The company lasted 10 years, with Sokolow returning to Israel each year to choreograph and coach. She went on to work with the Batsheva Dance Company in the early 1970s and continued to visit and teach in Israel for the rest of her life.
In New York City, Sokolow taught at The Actor’s Studio for several years and had a home on the dance and drama faculty at Juilliard for more than 30 years, starting in 1957. She influenced generations of young dancers and actors. “Anna taught me to believe in myself as a performer,” recalled dancer and Juilliard alum Lance Westergard. “She also taught me what it means to love the art of dance beyond just myself doing it. She took the ‘I’ out of it.”
Sokolow demanded honesty, meaning that movements had to initiate from one’s inner being. A superficial gesture was unacceptable, and she made this clear in no uncertain terms. Students and dancers through the years remember her saying, “No, I don’t believe it,” over and over as they repeated a simple gesture.
With Sokolow’s spellbinding intensity came her occasional and unforgettable tirades. Many performers feared rehearsals with her, but most came out of the process better dancers, more in touch with their personal motivations and convictions. In a 1966 essay, Sokolow wrote: “To the young dancer I want to say, ‘Do what you feel you are, not what you think you ought to be.’” She continued: “The artist should belong to his society, yet without feeling that he has to conform to it.” This, in many ways, was the anthem of her life as well as the philosophy behind her teaching.
Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor at Montclair State University. As a student at Juilliard, she had the honor of being coached by Anna Sokolow in two of her choreographic works.