Battery Dance Festival celebrates the American centennial of women’s right to vote

Battery Dance Festival online
August 18, 2020

David Mead

The organised fight for women’s suffrage began in the United States in 1848 at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The House of Representatives finally approved the move on May 21, 1919, quickly followed by the Senate two weeks later. Fifteen months after that, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. Battery Dance Festival marked the centennial with a programme of work by female choreographers past and present.

As a dancer, Jean Erdman was a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1938–43, where she originated many roles. While she may not the first name that comes to mind when discussing seminal American women choreographers, along with Merce Cunningham, with whom she shared a choreographic debut in 1943, she became a leading light in forming the more abstract nature that was to come to define American modern dance.

Miki Orihara in Nancy Allison and Paul Allman's film adaptation of Jean Eardman's HamadryadPhoto Glen Mordechi Hama
Miki Orihara in Nancy Allison and Paul Allman’s film adaptation
of Jean Eardman’s Hamadryad
Photo Glen Mordechi Hama

Hamadryad, a vision of a passionate wood nymph, was made in 1948, inspired by the sounds of a lone flutist practicing Debussy’s Syrinx heard while walking through a forest. While historically interesting, reproductions of old works often struggle. Even if authenticity can be guaranteed (which mostly it cannot for a host of reasons), we watch through today’s eyes and with today’s knowledge. We cannot help but perceive differently.

Nancy Allison and Paul Allman’s film works because it brings things up to date. We follow Bessie Award-winning dancer, Miki Orihara through the streets of Manhattan to 55 Bethune Street, now the home of the Martha Graham School, but once that of the Merce Cunningham Company. Just looking at the space brought back personal memories of open class there, which Cunningham had the slightly scary habit of dropping in on, just to sit and watch.

Miki Orihara in Nancy Allison and Paul Allman's film adaptation of Jean Eardman's HamadryadPhoto Glen Mordechi Hama
Miki Orihara in Nancy Allison and Paul Allman’s film adaptation
of Jean Eardman’s Hamadryad
Photo Glen Mordechi Hama

But back to Orihara. Erdman’s dance is a free-flowing, lyrical solo. The sheer joy of moving in that vast, light, airy space, shines through. That is good but better is to come. The film really comes alive when she dreams herself back in that forest where it was all first imagined. As we flit back and forth, she may be dwarfed by the trees or by the space, but Orihara is quite mesmerising.

Jean Erdman passed away on May 4, 2020, aged 104.

The other two dances from the past fare less well. Revolutionary, Isadora Duncan’s solo from around 1924 is a dance of directed anger. Dancer Lori Belilove’s arms open and reach upwards, clenched fists beat downwards. Perhaps it is a problem of film and detachment from the live performer, but I struggled to find any attachment. It did not compel me to watch.

In the following Quasi Waltz, a short 1929 piece by Doris Humphrey, Meggi Sweeney Smith gambolled pleasantly enough around the stage but, if anything, it engaged even less.

Ashley Menestrina in Combative EchoesPhoto courtesy Battery Dance Festival
Ashley Menestrina in Combative Echoes
Photo courtesy Battery Dance Festival

Combative Echoes, created and performed by Ashley Menestrina opened the programme with a welcome contemporary air. Danced largely to parts of Symphonie pour un homme seul by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, an important early example of musique concrète made famous by Maurice Béjart’s choreography to it, there is a sense of forces being bounced back in forth in odd ways. As they do so, they buffet her, causing her to twist and turn in often quirky ways. Elsewhere there are lots of sweeping limbs and incredibly deep arching backbends. Helped by the setting of the Battery Park stage and her simple black dress, Menestrina stands out against the harbour and sky, her movement superbly clear.

I also enjoyed the nearness of you by Annalee Traylor, which focuses on the idea of relationships, distance and memories. The most telling moments come when the central figure is alone with her thoughts, especially when on a beach.

Inspired by the Persian tale of Shahrzad (Scheherazade), Layla Means Night by Rosanna Gamson for RGWW suffered from what was presented looking suspiciously like a promotional trailer, although not advertised as such.

Kathryn Posin made her choreographic debut in 1967 at the New York’s 92nd St Y and it was there that the film of her Kathryn Posin Dance Company dancing the Third Movement of her Triple Sextet to Steve Reich’s Double Sextet (Poisin’s third group is her dancers) was recorded.

It’s a colourful piece that bounces along happily enough although it does often seem to be stuck in third gear. Even then, there are too many times when there is a lack of clarity. Movements blur and never reach a conclusion. I also have no idea what the pointe shoes add. All in all, while Reich’s third movement may be subtitled ‘Fast’, and while the choreography has plenty of pleasant partnering and patterns, it feels solid rather than exciting. I wanted the hood (i.e. roof, for our American readers) down and the wind in my hair.

Kathryn Posin Dance Company in Triple SextetPhoto Liz Schneider-Cohen
Kathryn Posin Dance Company in Triple Sextet
Photo Liz Schneider-Cohen

Finally, to the still young Futorian Dance Theatre and the premiere of Suite of 3 by Melanie Futorian. The long middle section with its themes of compassion, nurturance and dedication are a dream. Dancers Evita and Elias Re are as one is some delicious partnering. There are plenty of tender yet strong supports and lifts but what really makes it is Futorian’s willingness to pause and let things soak in, to keep it simple. Although I was less taken with the short bookend sections, which also have clunky transitions, Suite of 3 is a piece I would like to see again, but indoors and properly lit, which I suspect would ramp the mood up even more.

Battery Dance Festival: Celebrating the Centennial of Women’s Right to Vote can be watched on YouTube until August 28. For full programme details visit