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Visiting dancer inspires Mills

Courtesy of Rose Eichenbaum

Mills was one of twelve venues chosen by the Phi Beta Kappa Society to be visited by the east coast dancer and choreographer, Gus Solomons Jr.

Solomons was introduced last week to a Dance Improvisation class at Mills as “a person of whom you can ask anything at all because for fifty years he has been associated with any and all dance companies and dancers you may have heard of or seen.”

His public lecture was a multi-course feast interspersed with dance improvisations. The lecture demonstrated some of his composition strategies, and as he moved about the stage he invited the audience to interact with him and improvised movement to illustrate concepts, and then interviewed himself.

His presence, grace, and flexibility belie his age. He says he has worn four inches off the length of his spine over the years, and describes his legs as having become “two-thirds of his body.”

He believes that all dancers have a lifelong “little ball of pain that moves around from place to place in their bodies and never leaves.”

“A mature dancer’s work transcends the movement of body parts,” he said. “There are things that you can no longer do, but in fact the whole body still participates in a different way.”

This is not wishful thinking, as he demonstrated in his public lecture when he improvised on some of the concepts he presented there and on questions he posed such as, “Who knows?” “Is this a good time?” “How are you, really?” and “What did I miss?”

In his view, older dancers carry their autobiography in their bodies and share it whenever they move. Speaking of choreographing for them, he said, “Mature dancers distill whatever you give them, and it becomes so much more than it was to begin with.”

He emphasizes that his community includes his New York University students. “I make work for the kids at school, and I make work for us,” he said, the latter being the master dancers in his homegrown dance company, Paradigm.

In a class on Dance Theater, Solomons recalled the fork in the road he encountered fifty years ago when, armed with a B.A. in architecture from M.I.T. and some years of dance training, he saw a performance of the work of postmodernist Merce Cunningham, and chose dance as his vocation and Cunningham as his model, even though at the time “there was no one who looked like me in the company”-no African American dancers, that is. Despite this, Solomons soon integrated the company.
He has written that his dances are neither a vehicle for the expression of social ills, nor are they about the African American traditions and history that fuel the work of others.

Though he has, for example, choreographed for Alvin Ailey’s company, his ongoing product is more abstract. For him it is “subtleties, rough edges, and awkwardness that make movement fresh.”

Solomons embodies the fact that a dancer can earn a living and attend to his creativity at the same time, evidenced by his having been awarded a coveted “Bessie” (New York Dance and Performance Award) for lifetime achievement. He is a teacher-a full time job in itself-but his creativity has gone apace with his longevity in the field because he found that there was a conduit between his teaching and his dances, and that it was possible to integrate the two.

Other things that he has folded into this integration are lecturing and journalism.

In the 1960s, postmodern dance evolved into pedestrian movement without stage, music, sets, or costumes and a dance might possibly be performed simultaneously by dancers on apartment building rooftops separated by city blocks without an audience.

Solomons was intrigued by the disengagement of the 1960s but still “not willing to relinquish technique.”

Games, geometry, architecture and collaborations with artists in other fields figured into his composition process.
Like certain architecture that exposes and focuses on its building materials, Solomons’ works often expose their construction technique.

Though he believes that media can obscure the dancing in a work and may create “a dichotomy of focus in which media usually wins,” a media work of his own that he feels is successful is “CON/text,” in which dancers are separated into two studios, each with audio, projection, camera and an audience.

They first dance simultaneously, their movements passing through an electronic beam which triggers music and other sound. They then change studios and audiences and perform against the video projection of the first section.

This piece and others projected during the lecture were performed by dancers in powerful command of technique.

In the piece, “Site Line,” a long panel consisting of opaque or transparent materials, with entries and exits, divides the audience in two so that they never get the same or complete picture of the dance.

“Dance is not a language of movement,” said Solomons, contradicting the aphorism. “Dance suggests, and the viewer draws conclusions.”

He calls choreography “melted architecture” and he suggests that when you walk through an innovative piece of architecture you may find the same elements that shape a piece of choreography-line, rhythm, movement, ingenuity, curiosity and broken rules.

During the ingenious self-interview of his lecture, he asked himself to list the attributes of a good dancer. Moving to another chair his self listed “stamina, intelligence, ingenuity, good humor, persistence, and strength.”

As to the attributes of a good dance the self responded that you have to break the rules to find something new and if there are no rules you must make them so as to break them. His advice on longevity in the field: “Refuse to leave,” was the response. On advice to a young dancer entering the field, the self responded, “Really love it.”