Erick Hawkins has a face that looks like it belongs on Mt. Rushmore, carved in stone. There's nothing counterfeit, though, about the suggestion of rugged pioneering strength in his craggy physiogomy.
The 68-year old dancer-choregrapher, who's appearing with his dance troupe at Lisner Auditorium tonight and Saturday evening, weathered the early tempests that surrounded the emerging "modern dance" in the late '30s. Then, having been first a ballet dancer and afterwards Martha Graham's leading male partner, he set out on a highly individual course in mid-career.
With his own troupe since 1951, he has not only persevered, but grown increasingly in stature and reputation.
Full recognition of his gifts has come late, but it finds him still bristling with creative energy. This year, for the first time, Hawkins was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in choreography, and he was exultant in talking about it the other day.
"I had applied 14 times, since the '50s," he said with an incredulous grin. "I had finally given up. But my friends kept pressing me. 'Keep trying', they said 'sometimes it takes cops'." By coincidence, his long-time musical collaborator, composer Lucia Dlugoszewski, received a Guggenheim in the same recent batch. It was a first for her, too.
Hawkins will use the award to complete work on a dance to be called "Ahab," based on Melville's "Moby Dick." The idea for the work goes back at least 30 years, Hawkins noted. "That's why the Guggenheim is so important to me right now," he added. "Somehow, you've got to have a little freedom from normal concerns and pressures to be able to work on something like this."
Because he's mulled it over for so long, much of the choreographic plan is already in Hawkins' head. "I haven't begun to set the actual movement yet," he says. "I felt for years I couldn't get started until I worked out the right visual convention for Ahab's ivory leg. Now I think I've got it solved. The peg leg will simply be represented by a white stocking, from the knee down, and a white shoe, while the other leg will have a regular trouser and boot."
Visual imagery of an emblematic sort plays a considerable role in Hawkins' work. In "Parson Weems and the Cherry Tree, etc.," which is having its Washington premiere at Lisner tonight, there are whimsical costumes, masks and props that tok four designers to concoct, working under Hawkins own very explicit direction. The piece was made possible by a triple grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- to composer Virgil Thomson for the score Hawkins commissione; to the visual artists; and to Hawkins himself, for the choreography.
"Weems invented the cherry tree myth for the 5th edition of his Washington biography, you know," Hawkins remarked, "and now I've inserted a little comic stroke of my own -- a Clown character, who is Washington's alter ego." In Hawkins' dance, it's the Clown who gets Washington off the moral hook, by taking the rap for axing the tree. He also helps the General cross the Delaware, and bucks up his courage at Valley Forge. Hawkins himself will dance the Clown, in a cast that also includes the American flag as a character.
Thomson's 25-minute score for "Parson Weems" will be performed by the seven-man ensemble, led by Joel Thome, that Hawkins travels with --Hawkins, alone among modern dancers, invariably insists on live musical accompaniment for his performances.
The Lisner program also includes two works with music by Lucia Dlugoszewski -- "Lords of Persia," a dance for four men drawn from the kingly sport of polo; and "Black Lake," a beautiful abstraction based on the imagery of the night sky.