Mexican artist Frida Kahlo once said, “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” Belgian artist Rene Magritte said, “If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.” Are they saying the same thing, essentially, or not? I can never decide but contemplated the question once again as I entered Theaterlab’s cozy white-box theater and saw Kahlo’s reality—one of them—projected onto a panel at the center of the room. Her self-portrait watched as we settled into our chairs and scanned the program for the performance. We watched her, too. Shyly.
I rarely dream these days, and when I do it’s the stuff of life: walking, talking, driving in the dark. My dreams are neither vibrant like Kahlo nor surreal like Magritte. My dreams practice realism. And in that way, I like to think I am a bit like the American choreographer Anna Sokolow (1910-2000).
In the Eye of a Dream, presented by Sokolow Theater/Dance Ensemble and hosted by TLab Shares, reconceives two of Sokolow’s greatest works—Frida (1997) and Magritte, Magritte (1970)—as an immersive, multimedia experience. Seeing it is not unlike going to a museum. Not just because the dances pay homage to two visual artists and incorporate their paintings, but because the dances themselves are historic artworks. Dancegoers don’t have the luxury of strolling down hallways browsing the early masterpieces. We must wait, and hope, for organizations dedicated to preserving these dances to revive them. Thankfully, ST/DE does.
ST/DE was founded by Sokolow protege Jim May as a living legacy company dedicated to presenting Sokolow’s repertory spanning her impressive 70-year career in theater and dance. Not only was Sokolow a leader of mid-20th-Century American Modern Dance, but she also choreographed for the Broadway shows Street Scene (1947), Regina (1949) and Candide (1956) and the off-Broadway production of Hair in 1967. She was a founding member of The Actors Studio, teaching movement for actors, and created the first Modern Dance companies in both Mexico and Israel.
Sokolow’s choreography is very much a product of her time and place. She was the daughter of immigrant Russian Jews and grew up in New York City. Her mother worked in the garment industry and was active in the ILGWU and a member of the socialist party. When the workers went on strike, Sokolow marched with them. During the Great Depression, she turned to dance as an act of radical resistance. She performed with Martha Graham’s company in the early 1930s and studied choreography with Louis Horst at the Neighborhood Playhouse. But while Graham was, at least initially, focused on the interior landscape of the dancer, Sokolow was drawn to the outer social issues of the day. Thought of as a “people’s choreographer,” she helped form the revolutionary New Dance Group and the Workers Dance League that organized classes and demonstrations for workers, and then went on to form her own professional companies: the Dance Unit and then the Players’ Project. In the beginning, her works were rooted in social realism—optimistic and moralistic—but after the horrors of World War II, they became more pessimistic and abstract. Later, she focused on the works of other radical artists—writers, painters and musicians—for inspiration, which is where Frida and Magritte, Magritte come in. For Sokolow, dance was not always about politics, but it was always political.
ST/DE has kept Sokolow’s radical spirit alive. It is currently under the artistic direction of Samantha Géracht, a former dancer with the Players’ Project and a founding member of ST/DE. Géracht directed In the Eye of a Dream, collaborating with projection designer Kathleen Kelley of Proteo Media + Performance and lighting designer Saúl Ulerio. The company of seven dancers is joined by two guest artists, Christine Dakin and Clarence Brooks.
It’s important to understand that Frida is not just an homage to a faraway, famous artist. Sokolow and Kahlo were intimate friends, and the piece is a portrait of a portraitist. It is first-hand knowledge of a great woman, translated into movement.
It’s also important to understand that Dakin, who dances Frida, also has first-hand knowledge. Hers is not of Kahlo but of Sokolow and the lineage of American Modern Dance. Dakin started dancing with Graham’s company in 1976 and later became its Co-Artistic Director. She also has a long history with both traditional and concert dance in Mexico, having performed with and taught at many of the companies there since 1981. She has won a Dance Magazine Award and a “Bessie” Performance Award and is one of the founding members of Buglisi Dance Theatre. Dance is one of the only art forms where the practitioners carry its history in their bodies, and to see one of those bodies—a treasure trove of knowledge—perform is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
When Dakin performs the Mexican folk dances (choreographed by Mexican-born company member Luis Gabriel Zaragoza, who also danced with Graham and Sokolow) in Frida’s celebratory opening, we see decades of training spin through her into the room. When she performs a solo in front of a projection of The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1938), we see glimpses of Graham through her flawless contractions and of Sokolow through her gestural articulation. When Frida and Diego dance a duet in front of Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931), Dakin and Zaragoza portray the relationship better than any biography ever could: At one point, he holds her shoulders as she slowly relearns to walk. Later, she tries to move forward, and he puts out his arm to block her. She turns in another direction, and he blocks her again, simply and without emotion. No words could describe the couple’s dynamic better, especially not these. The duet is it. It’s all we need to know.
And when the four women join Dakin in the section I call “The Fridas”, all wearing different Kahlo hairstyles and moving before a collage of her self-portraits, we feel the artist’s presence permeate the white space. All the bright, disparate parts of her.
Sokolow’s final creation is a gift to her friend: after a life of so much physical pain, Kahlo finally gets to dance.
Magritte, Magritte is not an intimate portrait, but it is undoubtedly one of Sokolow’s masterpieces. It combines Magritte’s surreal paintings with the poetry of Paul Éluard, Edgar Allan Poe and John White. Mixing movement and text is often thought of as a contemporary experiment, but Sokolow had been doing it since the 1930s. In works like this, her theatricality and love of interdisciplinary collaboration shines through.
The piece opens strongly with “The Lovers”, a duet danced by Brad Orego and Margherita Tisato, inspired by the painting of the same name. They hover their hands over each other’s cloth-covered faces as if putting a spell on each other, or a curse, or just trying to find each other in the dark. Isn’t that romantic love in a nutshell? But then they do touch each other. She brings his hand to her hip, and he rubs it down her thigh before she pushes it away. Isn’t that, too, romantic love in a nutshell?
Another highlight is Zaragoza’s performance in “The Reckless Sleeper” where he playfully takes on Magritte’s talent of imbuing everyday objects with dream-logic meaning. Also, Ilana Ruth Cohen’s graceful depiction of “Discovery”, in which she was coached by Tonia Shimin who danced the original role.
But the piece—and maybe the entire show—is at its best in “The Threatened Assassin”. This is largely due to Brooks’ incredible performance as L’Assassin (he too danced with Sokolow in the Players’ Project), but it is not only that. Here, the dance matches perfectly with the art. In the spirit of surrealism, it is silly, disturbing and absurd. For example: When Les Flics (Samuel Humphreys and Brad Orego) come in search of a wandering assassin, Brooks (the wandering assassin) says politely, “I’m sorry I can’t offer you a seat,” and gestures to a woman’s strangled body which is hogging the couch. They all go on talking, unperturbed. Krista Jansen is perfectly perky in her pink, shiny unitard as she repeatedly murders and revives La Femme, wiggling her fingers and sing-shouting, for reasons no one understands, “Or… rain!”
Older dancers are rarely highlighted on stage, and this is one of my favorite parts of this multigenerational performance: Brooks, Dakin and Zaragoza are the stars of the show. I can’t imagine anyone else dancing Frida, L’Assassin, or Diego/Magritte as they do. This is my only disappointment—that these pieces won’t always have this same cast.
When watching dance, two layers can be evaluated independently: the choreography and the performance. Sometimes they are of equal caliber, sometimes uneven. But with historic works, there is a third layer, too: time. Another wonderful thing about In the Eye of a Dream is that we can watch time fold in on itself. From 1970, Sokolow reaches out to move a body in 2023 while that body mimics a series of brushstrokes made in 1938. And somewhere between all of that we, the audience, get to exist in the reality of someone else’s dream.
In the Eye of a Dream runs through November 19 at Theaterlab in New York City.