Anna Sokolow, Steps Ahead


She put modern dance on a new footing by infusing it with dramatic expression and social consciousness. Now, Anna Sokolow, the revolutionary Jewish choreographer who inspired many of the leading actors and dancers of the 20th century, takes center stage again next week in two shows that commemorate her remarkable legacy. Highlights from her work will be performed in “Anna Sokolow Way,” and dancers who worked with her will recount their memories and demonstrate her techniques in “From the Horse’s Mouth.” The shows are being performed in repertory through this weekend at the 14th Street Y.

Born in 1910 to immigrants from Pinsk, Sokolow grew up on the Lower East Side. She trained with Martha Graham in the 1930s before forming her own company, where she created works with themes that ranged from the Great Depression to the Holocaust to the youth culture of Vietnam war. After getting major dance companies in both Mexico and Israel off the ground, she turned to Broadway, where she choreographed “Street Scene,” “Candide,” “Hair,” and other musicals. In a long teaching career at Juilliard, she trained Patti LuPone, Robin Williams and many others. Her Jewish roots came to the fore in “Kaddish,” (1945), in which she wrapped a tefillin-like leather strap around her forearm, and “Dreams” (1961), about Holocaust survivors grappling with their pain. She died in 2000.

Jim May is the artistic director of the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble, which is producing “Anna Sokolow Way.” His piece, he told The Jewish Week, will trace the trajectory of Sokolow’s life and career, showing in particular how her work influenced other artists. For example, he said, Jerome Robbins borrowed the snapping fingers of the Jets in “West Side Story” from Sokolow’s “Rooms” (1955), in which she dramatized loneliness in the modern city. While she was renowned for her prickliness and even her cruelty, Sokolow, he pointed out, “introduced the world to American dance.”

The second piece, “From the Horse’s Mouth,” will present more than two dozen dancers, actors and others who knew Sokolow. Jamie Cunningham, who conceived the piece along with Tina Croll, called it a “three-dimensional portrait” of Sokolow that will showcase her ability to help dancers and actors to express themselves emotionally. It will include videos of Sokolow’s performances.

Sokolow’s brand of “dance theater,” which blended music, dance, theater, and mime, is “now in vogue again,” according to Croll, after the period in which the more abstract aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor was regnant. “Sokolow’s work was so innovative,” Croll noted, “that the threads of her work continue to blossom, and to have far-reaching effects in the world of dance.”

“Anna Sokolow Way” and “From the Horse’s Mouth” will be performed in repertory this weekend at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St. For performance times and tickets, $30 ($18 students/seniors), call (800) 838-8806, x. 1 or visit