"Can you imagine what it was like for me to walk into this club? The first year I came here, I'd just go through my workout, totally isolated, not talking to anybody."
Dancer Blondell Cummings sits in the "health bar" of the Vertical Club, an ultraposh exercise palace on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Sipping her French onion soup, she speaks animatedly about the works she has created, about a life that has somehow managed to encompass a childhood in Harlem, studies at the Martha Graham School, involvement in both the downtown art scene and a number of black dance companies, tours of China and Africa, and this shiny realm of weight machines and indoor tennis.
For three hours most every morning, Cummings puts herself through an original and grueling physical routine. Until recently, she had access to a roomy, unoccupied space at the club -- rather than rent a rehearsal studio, she honed her pieces in full view of other Vertical patrons.
"Considering that I used to do my barre outdoors, on a railing overlooking the East River, this place was a lucky find," she says. "Gradually, people here started asking me about what I was doing. I guess my movement looked a whole lot different from what they were accustomed to" -- to demonstrate, she sends her arms zig-zagging rapidly across her chest -- "but now I get respect as an athlete. Some of these folks even come to my performances! They don't always understand my work, and they wonder why I don't uncover my body more onstage, but . . ."
As if on cue, a chic, bejeweled woman comes over to say hi and, when informed that an interview is in progress, declares, "Blondell has the best body in this whole place!"
Cummings laughs and banters easily with this upwardly mobile type, yet behind her freckled face one can picture the brain hard at work, taking in mannerisms, gestures, speech patterns that may crop up someday in yet another of her detailed character studies.
"My characters might seem like they're coming out of the blue, but they take a long time to develop," she says. "I'm constantly adding information. Sometimes the initial impression comes out of another form -- a photograph, for instance. And I've done a lot of traveling alone, which has made me a real observer, real interested in detail, and in basic but universal things -- food and eating styles, friendship, the menstrual cycle. Sure, my pieces come from being a woman, black, and American, but they're mostly concerned with the human condition."
"Chicken Soup," for example. In this resonant solo, Cummings veers back and forth in a rocking chair, slaps her thigh, taps her foot while jiggling an iron frying pan over an imaginary fire -- and conjures up both a personal history and an entire culture. Her blues-infused "The Ladies and Me" turns a skein of improvised stretches, slumps, wild shimmies and silent cries into emotionally searing portraits of black women. In this year's "The Art of War/9 Situations" -- an excerpt of which will be presented tonight at Mount Vernon College as part of the Evening of Exchange series, in a program titled "New Voices of Women in the Arts" -- Cummings portrays both a soldier and a nun, and points out the connections between them.
"Religion is not so far away from the military," she says. "Both the nun and the commanding officer wear the uniform, impose morals on a large number of people, place them in a kind of psychological prison . . . You know, as a young child, I was attracted to Catholicism, even though I was raised a Baptist. I was fascinated by the saints who could make miracles, by Joan of Arc, by the discipline and self-sacrifice one needed to be a nun.
"Sort of like dancers, don't you think?"