A Dancer Passes the Torch To the Next Generation
Two soloists find harmony in a requiem's revival
NEW YORK — After the soloist makes her final exit, her lifeline remains behind, stretching the width of the stage. A luminous ribbon of white elastic, it signifies the dancer's lingering, lasting presence.
The dance is called ''The Farewell,'' and when Pauline Koner premiered it in 1962, she dedicated it to the woman she calls her ''outside eye,'' the choreographer Doris Humphrey. Many consider it the crowning achievement of Koner's career, which spanned 43 years as a soloist and perennial guest artist for the Limon Dance Company, which Humphrey directed.
To date, no one has performed ''The Farewell'' as a solo since Koner retired from dancing more than two decades ago. No one, that is, until Margie Gillis mounted a revival at the Joyce Theater.
''We can't hang our dance masterpieces on walls,'' Gillis said at a rehearsal before the performance. ''The only way to keep them alive is to perform them.''
Koner offered Gillis her magnum opus after seeing her perform at the Joyce two years ago. What impressed her most was the Canadian soloist's ''tremendous presence,'' she says. ''Margie could sit on stage and do nothing and people would applaud. It's something she was born with.''
In an interview earlier this week at her Upper West Side apartment, Koner, who is now 82, described the dance's genesis. ''I really hit bottom for a while after Doris died,'' she said, rocking gently in her black leather chair.
''Then suddenly I started to hear all the things she had said to me over the years. 'Don't do anything fancy,' 'You have too much material,' 'Explore what you already have.' Her advice was etched in my mind, and I thought, so that's the legacy she left for me.''
The dance evolved, not as a eulogy for Humphrey, but as a parable of spiritual transformation. Set to the sparsely orchestrated final movement of Mahler's ''Song of the Earth,'' it is ultimately a meditation on the belief in a spirit that lives on in the lives of others.
Gillis was an obvious choice to reprise the role. Like Koner, she had trained outside the mainstream of modern dance and developed her own ways of moving. Also like Koner, who studied Spanish and Japanese dance in addition to ballet, Gillis derives much of her movement vocabulary from gesture. Her forearms have a way of slipping fluidly through the space around her while her wrists and fingers release a torrent of discrete motions.
Finally, Gillis exudes an uncommon emotional intensity and range. ''That's the problem with dancers today,'' says Koner, who teaches a seminar at the Juilliard School. ''They're so involved with the externals, with the technique. With the doing rather than the dancing.''
After a pause, she carries the thought further. ''I believe strongly in the human condition and the quality of compassion and the necessity of participating in the lives of other people. But too many dancers are just involved with their own little bodies. They very rarely dance outside of themselves, beyond themselves.''
Gillis, she says, is different. In ''Slipstream,'' a brief exuberant work that closes the program, she seems to swim through her mane of chestnut hair like a mermaid frolicking in the surf. She even does a backflip. In ''The Heaven I Cannot See'' and ''Vers la Glace,'' her emotional intensity takes a gothic turn.
Egos often take a bruising in collaborations of this sort, but the difficulties Koner and Gillis faced in mounting ''The Farewell'' were of a different nature. As they worked together, they discovered that Gillis's sense of rhythm was leading her to do exactly the opposite of what Koner's choreography called for.
''I told her, 'Just do what you want in those places,''' Koner says. ''I don't mind if she embellishes it. I'd be rather intrigued. Who knows, she might be able to improve on it.''
Gillis is still digesting the experience. ''I would imagine that a lot of what I've gained from Pauline I won't be able to articulate verbally for several years,'' she says. ''I'm still in the process of knowing it. First you have an experience and later you can discuss what your experience was.''
As Gillis performed Tuesday night, Koner leaned forward in rapt attention.
''I'm enormously fond of Margie,'' she says. ''I have hopes that she'll do all of my dances.''
*Margie Gillis appears at the Joyce Theater through Feb. 19.