Choreographer for social justice
Anna Sokolow was a prolific choreographer fiercely committed to social justice and unafraid to deal with difficult subjects in her work—like war, poverty, isolation and strife.
Born in Connecticut to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Sokolow moved to New York City as a child and studied dance at an after-school class in Manhattan. She showed promise early on, so her teachers sent her to the Henry Street Settlement and Neighborhood Playhouse to continue training. There, Sokolow met Martha Graham and her accompanist, Louis Horst. At age 20, Sokolow was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company. She swiftly became a principal dancer and stayed with the company for eight years.
While dancing with Graham, Sokolow began choreographing for union and political organizations and soon created her own group, Dance Unit. Though her choreography did contain classic Graham contractions and spirals, technique was always secondary to content. Believing that dance could be a voice for underserved populations, she choreographed pieces that dealt with social and political issues, like antiwar sentiment and workers’ rights.
Sokolow’s Steps of Silence, an antiwar piece, in which people and trash commingled onstageIn 1939, Sokolow traveled to Mexico to give a series of concerts at the request of the Mexican government. She ended up establishing a school and company, La Paloma Azul, in Mexico City, unofficially becoming the “founder of Mexican modern dance.” Over the next 10 years she traveled back and forth between Mexico City and New York. During this time, she started choreographing for Broadway shows like Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953).
In her later years, Sokolow began fusing dance, theater, literature and music to create multimedia works. She also taught movement for actors at the Actors Studio in 1947. In her work there, she used the Stanislavski Method, developing character and choreographic narrative through personal experiences.
In 1958, she joined the dance and drama faculty of Juilliard, where she taught for more than 30 years. She kept choreographing well into her 80s and died in 2000, at the age of 90. DT
Anna Sokolow was the original choreographer for the musical Hair (1967) but was dismissed from the project before it opened, due to staging disagreements.
She served as Louis Horst’s assistant in his composition class at Neighborhood Playhouse, which earned her the nickname “Louis’ Whip.”
Her piece, Rooms (1955), was so depressing that it was dropped from the repertories of Joffrey Ballet (after one performance) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (after a few performances), later to be returned to AAADT’s repertory.
Strange American Funeral (1935) A group piece that explored the harsh lifestyle of American industrial workers, based on a poem about a mill worker who fell into a vat of molten metal.
Rooms (1955) Her most famous work, in which chairs symbolized rooms in a hotel. Dancers moved on and around the chairs, representing urban isolation and anxiety. The piece was made into a short film in 1966 and is frequently set on companies and college dancers throughout the United States today.
Dreams (1961) After reading The Last of the Just, a novel about persecution of the Jews, Sokolow began having recurring dreams about the Holocaust. She translated these dreams into a dance which captured hopelessness and despair in heavy, repetitive movements.
The Legacy Lives On
Choreographers Pina Bausch and Martha Clarke studied under Sokolow at Juilliard; Jerome Robbins and Alvin Ailey both named her as a choreographic influence. Sokolow strongly supported Labanotation as a way to preserve choreography and began working with the Dance Notation Bureau in the ’60s to have her dances notated. Works like Rooms, Dreams and Kaddish (1945) can be seen today in the repertories of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, José Limón Dance Company and Kansas City Ballet. The NYC-based Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, directed by Sokolow disciple Jim May, re-creates Sokolow works and holds workshops at Keystone Studio and Peridance Capezio Center.
“Anna Sokolow: Modern dance choreographer,” by Elizabeth McPherson, Dance Teacher, January 2009
Anna Sokolow: The Rebellious Spirit, by Larry Warren, Routledge Publishers, 1998
No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”:
Photos from top: by Jim Frost, courtesy of Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble; by Tom Brazil, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives