Go Deeper

Susan Hess, Past and Future

Posted June 10th, 2010

We’ve all heard how the Susan Hess Modern Dance studio had its final performance the other week, and it was reported on much like a final farewell. And it is, but only to that Sansom Street studio space.

Still, after fostering contemporary dance in Rittenhouse Square for 30 years, it is a time of transition for Susan Hess. We thought it was a good time to catch up with Susan about where she’s been, and where she’s planning to go.

Having spent a year traveling around the world in the early 1970s, Susan Hess returned to New York.

“It seemed gruesome to me,” she says.

After growing up in Baltimore, Susan studied dance at Juilliard and lived in New York for nine years, where she worked with people like Jose Limon and organizations like Dance Theater Workshop. But when she came back, she says funding for new work and money from the State Department that had sent artists on international tours had both dried up.

On her travels, she met a woman in Greece who invited Susan to come visit Philadelphia.
She moved here, met her husband (architect and woodworker Richard Herskovitz, who helped construct Verizon Hall), married, and stuck around. In 1981, she founded Susan Hess Dance Company, which just completed its final season in its longtime home on Sansom Street in Rittenhouse Square.

But fear not: the company lives on.

Susan Hess Dance Company hasn’t been merely a performing organization; in addition to developing young dancers and choreographers, they’ve also worked hard to educate Philadelphians about the history of dance.

In 1984 the Pennsylvania Humanities Council awarded the company its first-ever grant, and Susan put together a living history series. Five American dance pioneers told stories of their lives and careers, including Anna Sokolow (known for her pieces Rooms and Dreams) and May O’Donnell (an early member of the Martha Graham Dance Company).

“Anna performed Rooms and Dreams. She was a tiny rebellious woman. Her mother called her ‘corva,’ which in Yiddish means whore. [Anna] encouraged stealing! We couldn’t afford anything [when we lived in New York], so we’d break in. Our teachers would be performing! We’d have to go.”

In 2001, the company reprised the living history series with “A Look Back, A Leap Forward,” featuring six other dance pioneers including Trisha Brown, a founding member of Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union dance collective.

After the jump: dance R&D, and serendipity at the studio.

Even with such heavyweights, Susan says that getting traction for dance performances and discussions can be difficult.

“It’s not an easy city. It’s hard to do it here.”

Nonetheless, out of that second series emerged the masters exchange program.

“Carmen [de Lavallade, one of the featured dancers in “A Look Back, A Leap Forward”] was our first. We started with a half-day program, then moved to a full day, then twice a season.”

Emerging choreographers work with these established figures. In 2009-2010, participants (pictured above) included Meg Foley, Erin Foreman-Murray (also pictured right), and Megan Mazarick. For the 2010-2011 program, which will take place at the Performance Garage, two new choreographers—Raphael Xavier and Bronwyn MacArthur—will join Mazarick, who is returning for another year.

“It’s a lab, a research-and-development kind of program for them,” says Susan. “Usually the choreographers are in the program from two to three years.”

There is no formal application process for the exchange program. People have to get in touch with Susan directly.

“I don’t choose choreographers by video. Dance is here and gone. Throughout a year, I see everybody who gets in touch. I’m the curator, both for good and for bad.”

I asked Susan what she looked for in young choreographers.

“Somebody who’s in their body, but not technically. Movement has to be in the body; it can’t be in a brain. If I see work that has originality, that’s not generic. Not perfect. I hate perfect work.”

The program has a surprising component of something akin to lifestyle education. Susan says that many of her “kids,” as she calls them, let the business of piecing together income interfere with the rich stuff of life.

“How can you make art when you’re so bound up by your have-tos? Do you cook? Do you sleep? Do you read a book? Do you make love?

“Isn’t this our world? We live in total fear. We’re terrified the storm is coming. I grew up with air raid drills.”

When asked about Lucinda Childs’s piece Dance, Susan lights up.

“I fall in love with work when my body wants to do it,” something Susan says she felt when seeing Dance last fall.

“You’re so lucky to see it for the first time! I said to Lucinda that I was so glad I saw it twice.”

As a mentor in Susan’s Masters Exchange program, Lucinda Childs looked to her own past.

“She did exactly what they did at Judson,” says Susan. “She did a grid, a deck of cards. She said that if you find a Picasso in your mother’s house, you don’t throw it away,” referring to the effectiveness of the old technique.

When Susan announced the final performances at her former Sansom Street studio, Childs sent a note and said she’d try to make it. And she did, with a surprise.

“When I picked her up, she said, ‘Do you want me to dance?'” Susan says, pantomiming astonishment. Susan asked her if they could surprise the audience with Childs’s performance.

“She came out among the chairs like fairy dust. The theatricality of it!”

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marilyn Jackson wrote, “To an excerpt of long-time collaborator Philip Glass’ music, she pranced forward like a fox, staring at the floor as if it were prey and pushing the heavy air before her aside, redefining the space. Then—basta!—the hand snapped up, a magic moment over as she vanished.”

Childs turns 70 this month.

“You see this maturity, and these simple articulations that are just heavenly. The ego is out of it. And this is how the studio’s always worked. When Simone Forti came, she asked, ‘Can I do an evening performance?’ In my one-room schoolhouse! It was just this spontaneous. I’m going to miss my home. It’s had an amazing amount of influence. The molecules there are very filled and significant.”

More than anything else, Susan tried to cultivate a comfort with experimentation and exploration at the studio, something that she says will continue as operations move to the Performance Garage.

“The gift is of freedom. I say to [students], if you’re doing something, think of it in a real way, but an imaginative way. But you don’t start with a grain of rice when you’re making dinner. Know who you are.”

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos courtesy of Susan Hess