Anna Sokolow; Modern Dance Pioneer


“The artist has to be a bastard,” pioneer American modern dance choreographer Anna Sokolow once wrote.

And though she reportedly mellowed somewhat in her later years, developing an unlikely affection for vintage film musicals, the feistiness and uncompromising standards that made her a legend in the dance community endured right up to her death Wednesday at her home in Greenwich Village, New York City, of complications from pneumonia.

Many sources say she turned 85 on Feb. 9, though others make her as old as 90. Some observers insist that the only reason she isn’t as well known as some of the acknowledged titans of modern dance is that she never established a long-lived company to perform and preserve her body of work. Experts, however, agree that she remained one of the most articulate representatives that dance ever had for a dark--indeed, hopeless--view of existence. “I haven’t got that happy philosophy,” she conceded, “but what the hell is there to be happy about?”

She answered that question in a starkly innovative body of work that included one of the earliest American rock ballets, the confrontational “Opus ’65,” a study of social alienation and defiance. Her most famous work, however, is arguably “Rooms,” a 45-minute depiction of urban isolation and despair, choreographed in 1955 to an astringent jazz score.


Restaging it locally in 1976, she spoke contemptuously to The Times of dancers “who want it too easy. I work more and more, and I am never satisfied. For me dance is a language to communicate feelings--and I never lie. It’s my sense of justice. It doesn’t make me popular, but I don’t give a damn.”

In 1961 she won a Dance Magazine award; the citation read in part: To Anna Sokolow, whose career . . . has been distinguished by integrity [and] creative boldness, and whose recent concert works have opened the road to a penetratingly human approach to the jazz idiom.”

“The body of her work is about the human experience,” wrote her colleague, choreographer Jerome Robbins, in 1986. “It unfolds with composure, strength, intuitiveness and compassion.”

She was born in Hartford, Conn., of Jewish immigrant parents, and grew up on New York’s Lower East Side. When she was 8, she saw a dance class at the Emanuel Sisterhood Settlement and, despite her mother’s objections, began studying there. Later she studied at the old Neighborhood Playhouse.

In 1930, she joined the Martha Graham company, “doing nothing but standing in the background while she danced up front,” she recalled a half-century later. The first public performance of her own group work “Anti-War Cycle” took place three years later, and she continued making social protest dances throughout the decade.

She began choreographing in Mexico City in 1939, creating a number of major works there into the 1960s. She made Israel another major base of operations, and also developed into one of the most influential modern dance teachers, beginning a long association with the Juilliard School in New York, as well as accepting shorter-term teaching stints in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan.

She stopped dancing in 1954, but the list of her choreography kept growing--not just modern dance milestones such as “Dreams” (1961), “Steps of Silence” (1968) and the full-length “Hommage to A. Scriabin” (1977), but also dances for operas, plays and musicals. Besides Robbins, she worked with composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, playwright Bertolt Brecht and actors Marlon Brando and Eli Wallach.

She was the choreographer for the original off-Broadway staging of “Hair” in 1967, but personal conflicts led to her dismissal just before the opening and the removal of her name from the credits. She later turned down the Broadway version, though it would have made her rich, and never looked back.

As choreographer Agnes de Mille said at a tribute in 1991, two years before her own death: “Anna never did a dance because it was commercially easy to do. She always did the best she could, and with the highest vision. We are all grateful to her for holding true, for forging down the road, no matter what the cost. The best, always the best--oh, Anna, thank you.”

A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday at the Redden Funeral Home, 325 W. 14th St., New York City. (212) 242-1456.