Feeding on the Fruits of Memory
I have two friends who can identify ingredients, especially the spices in foods at restaurants. They click their tongues against a mouthful, screw up their eyes and declare red pepper, or wild garlic, or fresh something or other. They agree or disagree, occasionally congratulating each other for some minute trace found by one but not the other. I feel no need to do this and usually am halfway through the course before they’ve analyzed it.
That said, standing where I am in the arc of life, I do feel a need to reflect, to look back at the things that made me what I am. This has resulted in many (probably too many) semi-biographical and autobiographical stories. Until now I have dealt with the question ‘why a dancer?’ by saying – I had no choice; or it was the only thing I wanted to do; or it was what gave me joy – all of which are true. But, just as my family influenced who I am, so my dance teachers influenced the dancer/choreographer I became.
In my first thirty or forty years of teaching, I thought often of my favorite teachers, especially when, like ghosts, memories of Marie Gavone, Jan Veen or Frank Wagner would flash across my mind in the midst of class, as I realized I was teaching space like one, using language like another, dynamics like another. Movement memories survived in my body, emerging unsummoned from those early experiences – how I held my arms, my hands, the way my feet connected to the floor. This was body memory, unconscious. But there were also conscious memories – what they wore, how they interacted with others, how they used music.
The first was Marie Gavone -, a short Italian woman with stringy muscles, short copper colored hair in bouncy curls all over her head, a bit like the very young Shirley Temple. Not old, not young, perhaps in her fifties, she had a wide smile showing a bad set of dentures. She wore a set outfit for teaching: sleeveless satin top, sash at the waist, ending in a ruffled skirt short enough to reveal most of her bare legs. Her shoes, once silvered, had sturdy heels and a strap across the instep.
I was first brought to her studio when I was three. I was a very shy child but when Miss Gavone put music on, I danced. Practicing at home, I was injured, probably a disjointed hip, and was not allowed to dance again until I was ten. In January 1949 it was Miss Gavone again, still in the shiny satin costumes but this time in ballet class, with ten minutes of tap dance at the end of class as a sweetener (my favorite part). While I came to my lesson every week in the same black cotton leotard, Miss Gavone had a different colored outfit every time I saw her – peach, lime, rose, always the same style and always a different pastel color – a costume for dancing. I think she must have danced in musicals in the Thirties and Forties. She had a courageous but worn air about her that now reminds me of how I felt going to open auditions in New York years later. She radiated pluck and the idea the show must go on. She was the first teacher to tell me to finish strong, even if you fall, get up and finish strong.
Not that I fell often, but it was obvious – I would never be a classical ballet dancer – too tall, too sturdy. I had no trouble improvising although I didn’t know the word then. I just thought I had lots of ideas. Somewhere I had picked up the word “choreographer” and decided I would be that, would make up dances, for me and for others.
When I was eleven, Miss Gavone retired and sold her studio to an uninspiring show biz refugee from New York. After a year with her I stopped going to lessons but kept on dancing in school and at camp. It was a counselor at summer camp who urged me to go to the Boston Conservatory for modern dance classes with Jan Veen. I didn’t know what Modern Dance was, but thought it must be close to what I was doing, otherwise she wouldn’t have suggested it.
This was my first step out of Brookline, home territory. The conservatory was in a seedy area in Boston, between the Fenway and Boylston Street, an adventure for me. Bars and pawn shops lined Boylston Street in those days, but the dance department was in the basement of a new building on a quiet side street, an island of safety.
Downstairs it was crowded and noisy, full of young people, male and female, in a hurry to get to class or rehearsal, very different from the 3-4 girls who quietly came to class at Miss Gavone’s.
Jan was Viennese, tall, thin, olive-skinned, with a beaky nose and a bald head which he hid under various exotic crocheted beanies. He had a light German accent and a sense of the dramatic, plus a nice sense of humor that could easily turn sarcastic. He used his hands when teaching- clapping, pinching, pulling and once bit me on the thumb I had again forgotten to tuck in. He called us teenagers ‘Cookie’, with a very long ‘O’ in the middle and was exuberant in class. He had fun and always declared he was never bored. In the breaks or before or after class he would tell stories of his past performances, mishaps and successes. He was born in Vienna then went to dance school in Dresden. Jan brought a sense of the wide world, of all kinds of possibilities to that subterranean studio.
It was 1952, there was a need for ‘systems’, even in dance. The stars had their own systems.- Martha Graham with ‘contract and release’, Doris Humphrey, ‘fall and recovery’. Jan had several: a barre exercise, stretches on the floor, the Laban scales. We must have done some improvising. I remember we could add our own arm gestures to a given foot pattern, use different spatial levels or dynamics for a given movement. And I remember a strong sense of approval and encouragement in class, very different from correct and incorrect in other classes.
By the time I was sixteen Saturdays – dance class days – were my favorite. I took the advanced class at 10:15, demonstrated for the beginners at 11:15; lunch in the corner drugstore; subway to Boylston Street where the legitimate theaters were; bought a ticket to whatever matinee was available; home in time for supper. Heaven!
Around that time I took an even bigger step away – a school trip to New York City. On the advice of the jazz teacher at the Conservatory I found my way to Carnegie Hall, the International Dance School and jazz classes with Frank Wagner. Frank was a tall man, somewhere in middle age, with a large rib cage, long legs and very small feet. He dressed for class casually – a T shirt, jeans, soft rubber soled suede oxfords on his feet. I watched a class: a warm up on the floor, standing isolations (moving separate body parts individually to different rhythms). A drummer arrived. More musicians came as the class moved to the head of the long narrow studio. Frank murmured something to musicians, chose three people to lead, snapped his fingers to give the speed and counted off the famous 5,6,7,8 which haunt me to this day. The class was off, in orderly lines of three, doing movements I knew I would be able to do.
When I finally took class, it felt like coming home. Ballet was foreign, modern was more comfortable, but jazz was obviously where I was meant to be. Although I took jazz classes with many teachers, Frank’s classes were the best. He was very clear and very precise, demonstrating and correcting. Asian, Indian and African influences were filtered through complicated rhythmic structures with many dynamic changes. Every class was different after the warm up. Frank taught a jazz barre in the advanced classes that was as challenging as any ballet barre. I taught that barre for years in Germany. It fascinated ballet dancers, amazed to see there was technique involved in jazz, not just hip-wiggling.
As a bonus, beside the dance itself there was the music, always live, and the excellent dancers from Broadway shows who came to take class with him.
This was how I remembered my favorite teachers. Approaching retirement I began to wonder how these three felt when it was time for them to retire. Did they look forward to it? Could they afford it? Would they miss dancing and teaching? What would they do? And what were their memories?
Although my feet have slowed and my knees have stiffened over the years, ideas keep popping into my head just as fast as they did when I was ten. Maybe Marie went back to Italy; maybe Frank became a physiotherapist; maybe Jan…the choice is endless. I lost contact with all of them as I grew up and away. Who knows what lives they lived, what memories they took with them? Could I now, with all my experience, find their body memories, their stories?
The three Gavones – a phalanx
They were always together. It was always just the three of them- Tony, Theresa and Marie – on the ship from Naples, arriving in New York in 1917. Marie, seventeen, became, thanks to her looks and sparkly personality, first a dancer on Broadway (George White’s “Scandals”, “Girl Crazy”, Ziegfeld’s “Show Boat”) then in nightclubs. Theresa, eighteen, went to work in the garment industry, sewing lace trimmings on “fine lingerie”. Tony, twenty-one, better working with his hands than with his head, found work mending shoes with a shoemaker on the Lower East Side. By the late Thirties, Theresa was sewing theater costumes, a job she had gotten through Marie. Tony had his own shoe repair shop. They lived together no matter how small and crowded the apartments were. By the mid-Thirties they were living in Hell’s Kitchen, close to the theater district for the sisters’ work. In 1938, tired of the rat race in New York, they moved to Boston together. During the war, they volunteered for war work together, showing patriotism for their adopted country. Marie performed in USO shows, teaching ballet to children on Saturdays. Theresa sewed uniforms instead of theatrical costumes, Tony worked in a munitions factory. Then there was the accident in the factory. Tony was put on unemployment and disability insurance. Money was tight.
But by that time, 1944, the country seemed on the verge of celebration. At kitchen tables everywhere plans were made – when Daddy comes home, when we can have our own house, when rationing is over. The optimism was infectious. The Gavones too hoped for change. Now in their forties they thought more often of Italy and the village where they grew up. In hindsight, the Calabrian countryside was beautiful, nature was kind. Droughts, poverty, failed crops were forgotten. They began taking Sunday trips together into the countryside around Boston, ranging farther and farther south toward Cape Cod.
One Sunday near the village of Mashpee, they saw a big white house standing alone on a hill. There was a sign on the fence for an auction. They walked around the house, found a barn, a shed near what had once been a garden. It was all dilapidated, neglected and probably needed work. That was something the Gavones were good at. On the way back to Boston they thought over the possibilities. A hotel – too much drudgery. But a camp in the summer with dancing, arts and crafts, nature (the garden) seemed perfect.
Theresa could sew and cook, Tony could take care of the garden, Marie could take care of the children, teaching them ballet and tap. There was a lake nearby. They could hire someone to teach swimming. It seemed perfect.
The auction on the next Sunday was very sparsely attended. No one made an actual bid. The entire property was sold to the Gavones for a song, a bank loan and a mortgage.
When Camp Windy Knolls opened its doors in summer, 1945, there were enough
campers to pay the bills. Each succeeding summer brought more children to the camp. The three siblings worked harder. Theresa, helped by the older girls cooked meals for thirty. Marie gave up her room, slept on a narrow couch in the hall in case a homesick camper cried or a cough threatened to become chronic.
After the summer of 1948, working in the studio all winter, in the camp all summer, Marie collapsed. That winter she was sent for a time to a tuberculosis sanitorium in western Massachusetts. Theresa was diagnosed with colon cancer. They tried one more summer, 1949, the summer I was there. Marie coughed often in the classes in the barn. Late that winter she died. The next spring Theresa lost her struggle with cancer. Tony buried them both in the churchyard in Mashpee.
Hannes had a suitcase
One of the things his mother gave him when he left Vienna was a small pigskin suitcase. That first year in Dresden, 1923, it carried his dance clothes to and from the Wigman school. When he left Berlin in 1924 it held the pointed hat from his costume for Laban’s piece “The Dragon Killers”. It was packed full of stage make-up when he left the State Theater in Gera in 1926 for the nightclub tour to Sofia and points east. Istambul was as far east as the troupe got before it was suddenly disbanded. What was left of the make-up was sold and for a brief minute Hans thought of selling the suitcase itself, but no-one in Istambul was interested in a pigskin suitcase. Maybe it brought him the luck his mother had wished, for just as desperation set in he was hired again, this time for a tour of nightclubs and cabarets all the way to Cairo, then from Suez via ship to Shanghai, billed as the Paris of the East, the New York of the West. By the time they arrived there, the suitcase was held together more by the stickers than by the stitching.
Shanghai had lots to offer – Europeans from the International Settlements, soldiers, sailors. The cabaret jobs – tingletangle in his native German – had been fun, the change, the travel, the many pretty boys, but he was tired of touring. Hans decided to settle down, offered dance classes in one of the hotels, performed at thé dansants and private parties, scraping along but loving it all. He taught the expressionist dance he had learned in Dresden and Berlin. The Europeans, interested in the newest trends in German Dance, crowded his classes. Things were developing nicely, the pigskin suitcase in early retirement, when Sol Hurok appeared in 1928 to offer a booking in New York.
Even the famous S. Hurok was affected by Black Friday, the day the stock markets crashed. The date for Hans’ opening was postponed. Stranded in New York but never at a loss, Hans started teaching the young ladies in the gyms at the Barbizon Hotel for Women on East 63rd St , among them the actors Helen Hayes and Gemmze de Lappe. After class with the young ladies he taught the kids at the Henry St. Settlement House (where I also taught thirty years later). Showing the kids the stickers on his pigskin suitcase he would make up dances to go with them, involving the kids as waving palm trees, angry natives or storm-tossed waters. The kids loved it.
1931 found him in Boston, connecting with many painters and musicians in the town once called the Athens of America. Ten years later he changed his name from the too-German Hans Wiener to Jan Veen. His suitcase now was filled to overflowing with pictures and reviews, a portable curriculum vita. All the photos and newspaper clippings finally found a home at the offices of the Boston Conservatory Dance Department in 1946 when he became it’s founder-director. The pigskin suitcase was stored in the costume fundus and was occasionally used in improvisations. I was one of the favored few allowed to rummage through the hats and dresses in the fundus, donated by Boston’s better-dressed ladies.
Jan spent his vacations in Puerto Rico or in Jamaica where there was so much dance and so many pretty boys. When he was 64 he suffered a stroke, dancing and having fun in Jamaica.
Martinis at Lunch
Frank, drafted in 1940 at eighteen, was one of the few in his high school graduating class happy to receive his draft notice. It was clear to him the army would take him away from Peoria and that was what he wanted most. There was no money at home to send him on to school or indeed to send him anywhere. The army would be his ticket to the world.
He never made it very far. New Jersey for training, then Georgia, Texas and finally Puerto Rico. When he was discharged, the army brought him back to New Jersey.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, He took courses at Hunter College in New York. After class one day he followed a pretty girl and found himself in the college dance studio. Staying close to the girl and almost without noticing he followed the teacher’s movements, carried along by energetic drumming coming from the corner of the room. In his exhilaration after class he lost the girl but found a new goal.
He stayed at Hunter taking enough credits to maintain the payments from the GI Bill, but spending more and more time at dance studios around New York. Eventually one teacher asked if he was interested in a dancing job. Jack Cole was choreographing a show and needed men who could dance. “The Thrill of Brazil” was not a success but it gave Frank a union card and the chance to meet fellow dancers who were professionals, not just college students filling their course requirements (and the women were just as good-looking). He danced in several shows in theaters and nightclubs, easily adapting to Cole’s distinctive mix of oriental and indian styles. He followed Jack to California for a film job but life in Los Angeles was not for him. It was a long way from New York and from Judy, who was dancing on Broadway in “South Pacific”. Frank returned east and looked for work. He began teaching at a studio in Carnegie Hall, close to the apartment he shared with Judy on West 53rd Street and to the theaters and rehearsal studios. His classes were full but the studio owners were not happy when he had to leave for a tour or an out-of-town tryout in Boston or Philadelphia.
After talking it over with Judy, Frank decided to concentrate on teaching. He’d performed enough, the tours were exhausting and his body tired more easily. A friend recommended him for a job choreographing for a new cabaret. “Upstairs at the Downstairs room” was on West 56th Street. The producer, Julius Monk, loved Frank’s work and invited him to continue staging and sometimes directing the original revues. Frank loved the work, the challenge of finding exciting moves that fit the small cabaret stage, the celebratory martini at the end of rehearsal.
In Julius Monk’s obituary in 1995 The New York Times wrote:
“Mr. Monk’s shows … marked by their topicality. Long before there was a “Forbidden Broadway,” he was first with a spoof of a trend, fad, best seller, hit show, popular film or poll-winning politician. The sketches and songs were insouciant rather than savage. In a profile of Mr. Monk in The New Yorker in 1992, Whitney Balliett remembered the elegance of his revues: “The women performers wore black cocktail dresses or black evening gowns, and the men wore tuxedos. The shows had a fast, hide-and-seek quality. Heads and arms and gloved hands popped out of a paneled front cloth and disappeared. . . . The only props were stools of various sizes.”
And guess who choreographed those gloved hands and stools! Julius Monk’s revues never went on tour, were essentially for the sophisticated, literate New York audience. Frank’s choreography had the same sophisticated quality, indicating never insisting, it had none of later “Tits and Ass” show choreography.
Only when reading this review did I remember I had used stools and gloves for a musical revue I directed in Berlin in 1965. I thought I was so original.
Eventually Frank and Judy retired to Sanibel Island in Florida. His obituary lists two children, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild as surviving family members. I like to think he taught cha cha and samba to his fellow condo owners but, going his own way again, Frank wrote for the arts section of the Sanibel Island newspaper. He had danced long enough.