Daniel Phoenix Singh brings Anna Sokolow's dances to life again

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010

It is a deceptively simple picture: Daniel Phoenix Singh sits in a wooden chair, hands on his lap, staring straight ahead. He's one of nine dancers in this studio at Silver Spring's Maryland Youth Ballet, all of them seated the same rigid way, as if they have been plotted on graph paper and are captive to an unyielding calculus.

Slowly, on the same silent count, Singh and the others lean forward, making a focused appeal to the wall they're facing.

The dancers are members of Singh's company, Dakshina. Karen Bernstein, one of two rehearsal directors watching their run-through of the opening moments of Anna Sokolow's "Rooms," stops them. In this 1955 work that distills the alienation of apartment-dwellers, that forward pitch in their posture is a pleading gesture to the audience, Bernstein tells them, "like, 'Help me -- I have something important to say.' " The dancers scooch back against their chairs and repeat their mute entreaty, making it a little gentler around the eyes, a little more poignant.

Simple enough. Though for Singh, 38, getting to this point has been anything but easy. To this soft-spoken man whose Indian birth certificate is stamped "backward class" as a signifier of his low caste, to this onetime misfit who would be trapped in techie geekdom if he hadn't discovered dance at the University of Maryland -- to Singh, this studio, these chairs, the specificity of Sokolow's work: This is what freedom looks like.

After a few years of dancing works by Sokolow, a pioneer in American modern dance who died in 2000, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh will perform two all-Sokolow programs -- including "Rooms," her most famous piece, with each chair representing an isolated flat; "Dreams," a searing meditation on the Holocaust; and reconstructions of her little-known "Frida," based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo, and the love duet "September Sonnet." Performances are Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

These shows won't be the end of Singh's Sokolow obsession. With the help of Lorry May, one of Sokolow's leading dancers, who now licenses her choreography (mostly to colleges and small regional groups), Singh hopes to acquire Sokolow's existing catalogue, some 30 works.

As it is, Singh's two rehearsal directors, Bernstein and Harriet Moncure Williams, are compiling written notations of the Sokolow works that May has taught the company -- a remarkable act of preservation.

Why is Singh taking this on? How did this Indian immigrant become enmeshed in the biting social commentary of a leftist Jewish woman? As a founding member of the Actors Studio, Sokolow taught movement to such stage and screen stars as Julie Harris and Eli Wallach. But in the centennial of her birth, her dances can be seen only spottily. (As an example of how prominent Sokolow once was in the New York arts scene, she was the original choreographer for the 1967 off-Broadway run of "Hair" -- the showcase that launched the anthemic musical into enduring popularity, as witnessed by its current sojourn at the Kennedy Center. But that kind of success was not to be Sokolow's. She was fired just before the show opened.)

Singh first saw one of Sokolow's pieces at Dance Place 12 years ago -- it was her 1945 solo "Kaddish," performed by Risa Steinberg, a veteran interpreter of Sokolow's work. At just five minutes long, it is a sustained gasp of mourning, in which the dancer wraps herself in her arms, beats her chest and plunges to the floor, then drifts away into the shadows. Brief as it was, it spoke to Singh.

"It's all about the hands," he says, spooning stewed lentils over a mound of rice at Heritage India near Dupont Circle. He demonstrates a few gestures from the solo, reaching across the table with long fingers, then cradling his face in his palms. "It was kind of a cultural trigger for me. I don't know what it was about it, but I felt this powerful longing and pain in her."

And there was something else. "I have seen my mother beat her chest in mourning," he says. "It's an Indian thing, a really physical slap. It's an image you don't forget easily; it still makes me lose my breath when I think about it. To see it from a different cultural perspective -- it triggered something."

But there is more than sentimentality behind the story of Singh's connection with the volatile expressionism of this pre- "Mad Men"-era artist. There is something pure about it. This is the story of art bridging cultural divides, time and mortality. And--at the risk of sounding like another type of chest-beater--it could only happen here.

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