I created Susan Hess Modern Dance (SHMD) because, in the mid-1980s, there was literally no place in Philadelphia outside Temple University where emerging choreographers could work and receive artistic and practical support. The city was challenged in contemporary dance, lacking serious interest in creating new works and any available classes, and was at a disadvantage in experience with bringing significant artists to present to audiences. This need was behind my creation of the Choreographers Project (CP) residency for artists who showed particular potential and weren’t supported by academic institutions, and it motivated my development of the In Performance presentation series. Integrating other types of performance, collaboratively and separately, seemed natural in CP explorations and IP showings, as part of the creative process.
Coming from the “uptown” dance world in 1960s–1970s New York City, I did not perform in the Judson Church environment, of which David Gordon was such a critical member, but was very much aware of its diversity and was interested in it. I took classes with Merce Cunningham and Joe Schlichter and saw performances by Simone Forti and Lucinda Childs. The development of that generation of artists is part of my history, as significant to me as studying under Louis Horst and performing for José Limón. In a way, I have participated in the evolution of Judson artists’ careers — as a company director in conversation with them as well as in the role of audience member. (Trisha Brown even told me that in the next life, I can be in her company.) As these artists have talked about their experiences, influences, and changes in direction, they have illuminated for me areas to explore with today’s generation on their journeys. Usually I feel the master artists themselves can best lead this sort of conversation — which is why I started the Masters Exchange for our choreographers.
Overcoming resistances from my Juilliard training has not always been easy. I remember Leah Stein, in our CP, suggesting the audience be moved mid-performance to view a work — as if departure from the proscenium wasn’t enough! But encouraging these artists to explore — as their established senior colleagues, such as David Gordon, have done — is critical to their growth and to dance in this city. These are the values that motivate us.
David Gordon’s use of text and narrative is an example of the encouragement to experiment that we promote. My Development and Planning Director, Joanna Mullins, recently noted that Daniel Nagrin — with whom I worked and studied, and with Helen Tamiris — encouraged theatrical training for dancers, while academic environments tend to isolate “pure” movement from the questions that guide actors in their roles. Theater students usually have to take movement courses as part of their training. While different in affect from Simone Forti’s use of text in her “Logomotion” process, David’s texts guide his artists in understanding language’s “impulse to action.” He is terrifically detailed, examining and questioning movements and choices repeatedly, in every possible way — a depth I have encouraged among our choreographers and sought to show in performance. The choices at the heart of creative development are a crucial part of our approach.
It is important to me that both local artists and audiences be acquainted with the experiences and choices of figures in dance history. David Gordon is the latest “footprint” in Philadelphia from this rich body of talent I have been fortunate to engage: for “Meet the Artist” sessions, Masters Exchanges, and my Five and Six American Dance Pioneers series. These movement practitioners — from Anna Sokolow and Pearl Primus, through Merce Cunningham and Daniel Nagrin, to Lucinda Childs and Ralph Lemon and, now, David Gordon — demonstrate the quality, diversity, and unique experiences of movement artists in American history. These are local artists’ historical peers, and they can guide emerging artists in examining their practice and repertoire.
As Lucinda Childs said when she conducted her Masters Exchange with SHMD: when you find a Picasso in your grandmother’s attic, you don’t throw it away.
Susan Hess, Executive & Artistic Director, Susan Hess Modern Dance