The images of hunger and need projected onto the rear wall at Dance Place are unforgettable: outstretched hands, so enlarged and cavernous they seemed to reach for our throats; mothers with blank, hollowed eyes, draped in crying children. These details from the works of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros formed a powerful backdrop for a dance by Anna Sokolow that paid tribute to Siqueiros’s concern for those cast aside.
The dance, “Homenaje a David Siqueiros,” was the highlight of this weekend’s program by Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company, a small D.C.-based troupe that has become a treasury of Sokolow works. Sokolow was a major 20th-century modern-dance pioneer, revered in her day for her work around the world as well as on Broadway and off (“Candide,” “Hair”). A founding member of the Actors Studio, she taught Faye Dunaway, Eli Wallach and other screen stars how to move.
But since her death in 2000, Sokolow’s choreography has faded into the shadows of the dance community. Her chief artistic subject was human struggle and smothered self-expression, themes she treated brilliantly. But they’re not easy to sell.
Yet Singh, director of Dakshina, refuses to let her be forgotten. Nearly 20 years ago, at Dance Place, Singh saw a performance of Sokolow’s mournful solo, “Kaddish,” and fell in love with the choreographer’s gift, the ability to evoke concealed suffering and turn it into poetry. He credits that performance for launching him into a dance career, and over the years he has acquired a dozen of Sokolow’s works for his company’s repertoire.
Singh continued his remarkable preservation efforts with the rarely seen and deeply moving “Homenaje a David Siqueiros,” which Sokolow created in 1984, a decade after Siqueiros’s death. She had befriended the artist in the 1940s, when she left her native New York to work in Mexico, and fell in with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other like-minded creatives. Siqueiros, like Sokolow, brought politics and social consciousness into his art with a free hand.
“Siqueiros” was originally performed in the Siqueiros museum in Mexico City, surrounded by the artist’s vigorous, colorful murals. Lorry May, a former Sokolow dancer and director of the Sokolow Dance Foundation, taught the work to Singh’s dancers, though she never danced it herself — it was never performed in this country, May said. It needs the paintings to truly sing; Sokolow’s choreography, which gathers the eight dancers into circles or sends them running from one corner to another, is deliberately simplified to throw attention on the artworks. May selected and photographed the painting details from a book of Siqueiros’s work that Sokolow had given her.
The program also included the fine company premiere of “Ballade,” a Sokolow work from 1965 in a lighthearted, lyrical vein, and excerpts from Singh’s “Chakra,” a work in progress that fuses the Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance styles.
Harriet Moncure Fellows and Karen Bernstein, Dakshina’s longtime rehearsal directors, helped bring these works to the stage, and with their written notes on the Sokolow revivals they have created a valuable, practical archive. Judy Hansen’s costumes were among the evening’s pleasures; soft, harmonious shades emphasized the simple lines of “Siqueiros” and melded beautifully with the projections of the artworks. It was this work that left the strongest impression, and in the end, “Homenaje a David Siqueiros” became a homage to its creator, and to the efforts of the entire Dakshina organization to raise her voice, and by doing so to call attention to the suffering around us that knows no boundaries and has no expiration date.