Gus Solomons jr: How I Teach Cunningham

Photo by Kyle Froman

From the corner of his window-lined studio near Manhattan's Union Square, Gus Solomons jr has his eyes carefully trained on the dancer before him. The dancer is struggling to remember the quick-footed combination, with rapid-fire directional changes and difficult spinal shifts, that he's just reviewed with Solomons in preparation for this photo shoot. When he's successfully completed a pass of the exercise—Solomons calls it "fast feet"—his relief is visible. Solomons swiftly approaches him from the corner, his arms outstretched for a hug: "That was hard," he says appreciatively, enveloping the student in his embrace.

Like his hugs, Solomons, 78, is warm and effusive. He's also whip-smart, eloquent and a legend in New York City's downtown dance scene. He's spent the last six decades performing, choreographing, teaching, mentoring and writing dance criticism. But it's his association with the famously avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham that is perhaps his most lasting—despite the fact that he only danced in Cunningham's company for three years. Widely regarded as a master of the Cunningham technique, Solomons spent more than two decades teaching its intricacies and benefits to New York University undergrads and grad students.

Dance has been a part of Solomons' life from nearly the beginning. At 4 years old, he got up during Sunday school—"which was not appropriate," he chuckles—and began dancing to a hymn. Though he briefly studied tap, acrobatics and ballet as a preteen in Boston, Massachusetts, he was more interested in forming what he refers to as a "subtle" theater company in his basement with his brother and two girls who lived on his block. Later, he discovered puppetry, which he found attractive due to its solitariness. "I could do that all by myself," says Solomons. "I was in control."

Photo by Kyle Froman

While pursuing a degree in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ("Architecture seemed like the least reading," he quips), he was tapped to choreograph a school musical. Soon he was taking dance classes at The Boston Conservatory and other local studios. A successful audition for a Broadway show choreographed by Donald McKayle brought him to New York after graduation, and although the show closed in previews, Solomons found other concert dance work easily. "There weren't that many male modern dancers, so I had a lot of jobs," he says. He danced briefly for Pearl Lang and Martha Graham but found himself most drawn to Cunningham, never missing a class at the West Village studio.

What he appreciated most about Cunningham's technique was its self-sufficiency. "His technique did everything it needed [for the work]," he says. "I was always enamored of Merce Cunningham's approach because it was so articulated. So quiet. With Graham, you used everything all the time—you emoted it. With Merce, you became really calm and asked, 'What muscle do I need to do this?' And then you could do everything, because you had a sense of where everything was."

Solomons was as surprised as anyone when Cunningham invited him to join the company in 1965. "I never aspired to dance in his company, because there was no one in his company who looked like me," he says. "I was taller than he was. I was black. But then he asked me to dinner one night—we went to a little Italian restaurant on 16th and 6th—and said [here Solomons lowers his voice and speaks much more softly, in a gentle imitation of Cunningham], 'I think I'd like for you to come dance with us.'"

A debilitating back injury forced Solomons to leave the company after three years and was the impetus to begin seriously making his own work. The Solomons Company/Dance enjoyed a 22-year tenure before closing in 1994. Around the same time (1992), he was approached by NYU's then-dean of dance, Lawrence Rhodes, about an adjunct position. That eventually became a full-time professorship, in which Solomons taught technique, composition and improvisation.

His technique classes, though rooted in Cunningham, were an amalgam of things he'd learned from other choreographers—plus a few things he'd picked up on his own by learning what felt good in his body, like spending the first 10 minutes of each class warm-up doing floor work. "They were all based on the Cunningham approach," he says, "but I had Don McKayle in my body, I had Graham in my body, Merce in my body, I had Pearl Lang in my body. I wanted to give the dancers stability, balance, speed and control. How do you do that? Well, Merce knew. You have them move very slowly. That gives you strength and control, when it takes 10 minutes to do a passé. And you have them move very fast. Merce would say, 'When you want to move fast, move your feet.'"

Photo by Kyle Froman

Though he retired from teaching in 2014, Solomons still has fingers in many dance pies. His second company, PARADIGM—which he created to celebrate mature, older dance artists and with which he won a Bessie Award—is on hiatus, but he helped found a mentoring program, the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab, and occasionally coaches Cunningham pieces at New York City Center. Coaching, he says, has given him a new perspective on many of the pieces he danced while a part of the Cunningham company. "There's a solo in Walkaround Time that I had, and I didn't really appreciate it," he says. "I entered the stage in a long lunge, and the whole company picked me up and carried me across the stage. I didn't even think of that as a solo. But when I saw it this time, I thought, 'Holy moly!'"

His perspective on the importance of Cunningham technique has evolved over the years, too. "When you learn an instrument," he says, "you learn the basics of how to play it. You learn rhythm, reading notes, different timbres. So you have choices. You can pick up a violin and just scratch on it—that makes interesting sounds—but that's not playing it. When you're a dancer, you have to learn how to marshal your body, to learn how to get it to do what you want it to do. And that's where technique comes in. It's about the mechanics. It teaches you how to play the instrument."

Gus Solomons jr is a graduate of MIT and danced in the companies of Pearl Lang, Donald McKayle, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. He founded two companies of his own, The Solomons Company/Dance (1972–94) and PARADIGM (1996–present), and is currently a mentor in the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab. He writes dance criticism at and has been honored with two New York Dance and Performance Awards ("Bessies") in 2000 and 2010.

Nicholas Grubbs
is a BFA dance graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

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