Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Going Back To Class" Honoring Mary Anthony

Going Back to Class

Honoring Mary Anthony

Flashback to July, 2013

            Housebound in a heat wave, I go to bed early – and dream:       

I approach Mary Anthony’s original dance studio on Fourth Avenue and climb the long flight of stairs. The place is exactly as it was back in 1961 – right down to a rattling eye hook securing the door to the tiny john in the back.  Students chat in the living/waiting room on the street side before taking their places for class. Mary enters briskly as ever from her living quarters at the other end of the studio.  Her long skirt settles around her ankles as she greets the dancers with a determined smile and a twinkle in her eye.  We begin the floor routine.  While she works with others, I slip into form easily and know exactly what to do.  I’m ready to pick up where I left off.  Why didn’t I come back to class sooner?  How silly of me to wait so long!  Mary, moving back to the low bench in front of the mirror, reaches out to touch my hand.  She remembers me!   

            Birds are chattering into the dawn when I awaken very early from this dream and wonder if Mary is still with us.  What is this gentle poke I received in the night?

            A photo from the 50s – on my bookshelf – shows Mary Anthony moving serenely through space on an inevitable curve.  It all looks easy, the upward gesture of the arms, the slight bend in the knees around which a pale costume swirls.  But the very picture seems to breathe.  Behold a world of technique behind such eloquence.  

            That technique was hard won by me.  When Mary taught at Bennington, I was muscle-bound from early training that had emphasized a particular kind of strength in the legs at the expense of alignment, her specialty.  Mary took me apart and put me back together after I came to New York.  I can still feel her hand placed firmly on the curve in my lower back where the vertebrae should suspend lightly, she would say, with space in between them, like properly strung pearls.  I can still hear her address the class as I mastered a combination that involved reversing in place from a plunging arabesque to an upward leg extension:

            “Watch how Lynn is doing it!  That’s what you want.”

            This was the beginning of a productive period in which she mentored the choreography I did for a successful TV show.  I was privileged to perform in “Songs” and other work as a member of Mary’s company.  Eventually, I moved on.

            I find her Facebook page.  At 96, Mary looks uncannily like my mother did at that age.  My favorite picture of her is there, too, and YouTube excerpts from a film about her life in which my name rolls past quickly in the final credits.  


Cut to June, 2014

            A knee problem that developed last spring – before the dream about Mary Anthony – has been dealt with successfully through excellent physical therapy and regular use of a foam roller to untangle fascia deep in the hips and thighs.  I do daily exercises with a big, wide rubber band around my knees, demi-pliĆ©s and less attractive squats.  Humiliated by my first effort to stand unsupported on one foot, I take on balance – which was once an asset – and rediscover my dancing core.  Working out at home to a CD of Brahms intermezzi, I experience total recall at the cellular level.  Of course, I can’t do what I used to do, but I can still feel it.

            I can’t stop thinking about Mary Anthony.  Maybe I should go back to class!  

            The idea makes me laugh out loud.  It’s not as if I just skipped a week or two because of the flu or a badly stubbed toe.   But that’s what you say, and that’s what you do.  You go back to where you belong.  To square one, always a beautiful place to be.  Mary’s website is still up, and the studio on Broadway which I have never seen still seems to be humming.  Am I crazy to be thinking this? 

            “Hello, Mary,” I imagine calling the phone number that hasn’t changed in nearly 60 years. 

            I would testify to something far more enduring. 

            “You have no idea how much of what I learned from you has stayed with me.  The lesson is powerful and pervasive, even when I am not aware of how much it informs how I move, think, feel, and create.”

            There is more I want to say.  How I feel like I channel her when I teach, kind of dance my way through a grammar lesson – how poetry has become part of my regular diet – how I have come to understand her passion for text (and I don’t mean on a cell phone).  

            Maybe I will call.  Maybe I could manage, with the tender amusement I am sure she would bestow upon my effort, not to fall apart.  Maybe she would be proud of me and give herself some credit for it.    

            I unfold the New York Times on the morning of June 5th.   The obit is in section A with a photo of Mary facing her class, her tiny figure reflected in the mirror behind her, the perennial dance skirt falling simply from her waist.  Her arms and her eyes float heavenward on a breath that ascends from her feet.

            Mary Anthony always had it right, and she generously gave it away to me. 
 *   *   *

NY TIMES: Mary Anthony, Choreographer and Teacher of Modern Dance, Dies at 97

VIDEO: Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance Excerpts from the video documentary