On Dance: Writings, Pictures of Dancers
15 February 1979, Philadelphia
“Dance and the Sculptor Boris Blai”
Born on 24 July 1989, in Russia, Boris Blai studied sculpture at its Imperial Academy, then continued exploring the art in Paris. He worked with Rodin, then joined the French Army in World War I. After the war he moved to the US where he became a citizen. From 1930 to 1960 he was the Dean of the Tyler School of Art (which he founded) at Temple University in Philadelphia. At Tyler Blai designed a special curriculum for incoming students, combining sculpture, color, dance, music, drama—everything together in one package.” Blai died in 1985.
My encounters with Blai began in 1978 when I saw his 1932 Modern Dance (a sculpture based on Mary Wigman) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Correspondence and a phone call led to my taped, in-person interview with Blai on 15 February in Philadelphia.
RH: Do you feel that dance and sculpture are the same thing?
Blai: For me, that big figure, Rhythm of the Sea—that is a dance of myself. I danced in clay and then in bronze. In this [points to a relief of Isadora Duncan] I couldn’t get over the “presence” of Russia, and I gave it the name The Balalaikas—she was dancing with balalaikas in this studio. It is carved in mahogany.
RH: When did you meet Isadora Duncan?
Blai: When she was in this country, and (had) got married to Alexeiv [Sergei Esenin]. He nearly killed her in this house when she took off her clothes and danced the “March Slav” [in December 1922].
RH: Very early you studied with Rodin. Did you discuss dance with him?
Blai: Rodin had the same conception—that the medium of the sculpture and the dancer should be unified. When I opened the Tyler School of fine Arts, here at Temple University, I put Moltkin, Anna Pavlova’s partner [on the staff]. Then I had Hanya Holme. I [brought to Tyler] the best dancers in this country, France, and Russia.
The big figure with the fish, it is the “rhythm of the sea,” it is a dance of fish and human beings, what it makes for our vision.
We balance—to put these figures, on this side, one on that side. It is organization. [In] the dance we have to [also] organize to make something. There is organization in creativity, in balance—in the theatrical performance.
Now they are beginning to [go into the] abstract; they are going to lose a lot of the expression of the dancer in the modern dance. I am not worried: the classic, academic artist will never lose—they will go on, and create ….
The dance is the material for sculpture, for painting. Look how many paintings have been done of dancers, for all time. The dancer is really, what we call, the spiritual thing—for the sculptor. The sculptor produces the main thing of the dancer, not in movement, in quiet … still life.
RH: Dance is an art form. Sculpture is an art form. Would you approach, or if you were going to do a sculpture of a nude, a person just standing ….
Blai: I wouldn’t do it.
RH: So you see a difference between sculpting a nude and sculpting a dancing nude.
Blai: That’s right!
RH: And the difference is?
Blai: I have to find a graceful composition of the body, that has to do with the dancer … who by may years of studying, working …[arrived at that] shape … possess rhythm.
When I opened the school here at Tyler, I had the greatest dancers, Moltkin, and a lot of German dancers. Nobody was as good as Mary Wigman. She was creative, from nothing she made something. She did not have a beautiful body, like Pavlova.
Wigman was like Duncan too: Duncan had a pair of big breasts, and when she started dancing the “March Slav” all the flesh used to fly all over the studio. It was marvelous. People used to drop [almost] drop dead! They could hardly imagine that a body like her’s could perform with such gracefulness.
She gave me the idea for the composition, and then I modeled her. Rodin tried to model her, and couldn’t get her. She was too big, and too quick, to put fixative on one movement of her. She always danced with a drape, so I made a drape she would like, in the two balalaikas, and the Russian peasants who were confused watching her.
RH: Did Duncan want to dance nude. Did she ever talk about that?
RH: Did Wigman see the piece you did of her?
Blai: She was terribly upset at the swastika. That’s all I saw at the time. I was against Hitlerism. Once in a while she actually danced the swastika. She herself looked like a ‘militaress.’ Her body is built so muscular.
RH: She looks like a Valkyrie.
Blai: That’s right.
RH: Did she know you were going to sculpt her nude?
Blai: She wanted that.
RH: Very few dancers are depicted nude. Most are like Pavlova, in ballet costure.
Blai: That’s right.
RH: When you did the Wigman, or Duncan, did you make a small model, or sketch—what did you work from?
Blai: A working sketch, and then a small plaster model that takes about ten minutes to make.
RH: You came here from Russia?
Blai: I was thirteen years of age when I was making my first compositions in Russia in the Academy of Fine Arts. Apart from me, the youngest students there were 35. After I graduated they sent me to Munich and then the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. There Rodin saw my work and invited me to come and work with him. When he died I was already in the United States.
RH: Ho long were you with Rodin?
Blai: Oh, five years.
RH Do you know why Rodin didn’t sculpt her [Duncan]? [Note: this is a variation of an earlier question, a deliberate attempt to obtain more of an answer than had been offered earlier.]
Blai: She was too fast—you have to be able ‘to go to sleep,’ to take your time. She would start off with one idea in her mind and end up God knows where!
RH: But you were able to do her later. Did you treat her differently than Rodin?
Blai: Yes. I was interested in the Russian program, like two balalaikas, and the Russian dances—and the “March Slav.” That was the greatest thing she ever did. I saw the “March Slav” a hundred times, and I was never tired of it. She posed for me for a full day.
RH: The sculpture you make is different from Brancusi, or Arp ….
Blai: I like Brancusi very much. The simplicity.
11 June 1999, Manhattan
Two of Amy’s friends performed tonight at the Shine Club in Tribeca. Their program was supposed to begin at 9, but the opening of this “Red Vixen” show was delayed until 10 (sound equipment was delivered late). We had stage front seating on a couch, and watched Bonnie Dunn open with one of her torch songs—her voice much improved since I last saw her in Amy’s “Raw Edged Women” two years ago. Bonnie was followed by a couple of pallid strip acts, and then by a Brazilian dancer named Dolores. She was wrapped in cellophane strips, then peeled them off, snaking each through the air as the lighting changed to strobe flashing. She was dynamic, “electric,” nearly cinematic. Athletic and small-breasted, she danced with agility and twisting speed. Amy liked her as much as I did. Under the new city regulations strippers have to wear bikini bottoms and at least some kind of covering on their nipples, which I feel is an obscene violation of the body. But Dolores either had nothing on her breasts, or something natural color—in addition to the sparkles all over her body—so her appearance was not corrupted by the ordinances. After the intermission Amy’s other friend, Catherine Hourahan, appeared with an even more stunning piece. With an Ennio Morricone choral musical score (The Mission?) she initially appeared crouched, swathed in gauze on a low platform, then unfolded into an upright posture, revealing three foot long angel wings mounted on each shoulder (I thought of Cocteau and Fellini). Reaching upwards, then sinuously turning, she shook off the gauze above her waist (again, no visible breast coverings), quivered in a kind of ecstasy, and very suddenly pitched forward into a shocking crash onto the stage floor. After a long pause she rose to her feet, as if dazed, with a blood stain on the gauze below her waist. Ethereal, yearning, tautly integrated with the music, and then climaxing with the sudden fall that looked as dangerous as it then came to be recognized as metaphorical … this was the piece Amy wanted me to see.
2 November 2001, Manhattan
Catherine Hourihan in “Excerpts from Tender Suite”
Hourihan is a dancer I met through Amy two years ago. First I saw here playing an angel with consummate grace, in a burlesque review, and then performing solo in her “Torn” on 17 November 2000. She is from Australia.
“Excerpts from Tender Suite” was at the Eye Theater in Times Square, the third and last part of a group performance. “Excerpts” is a variation on a solo performance, “Torn,” that Amy and I saw about a year ago downtown. In “Excerpts” three women (previously there was only one) are dressed in wedding gowns with trains. They start walking with stuttering, semi-mechanical steps, staggering rigidly, to a sound track, with a voice talking about a bride and bachelors and a chocolate (grinder?) that suggests Marcel Duchamp. (After last year’s solo performance Catherine denied to me that she was intentionally referring to Duchamp.)
Gradually the three dancers movement become more fluid, even, and they gracefully whirl. About ten minutes in the piece the dancers on the left ad right move to the respective walls and go rigid. In the center, Catherine slips back into the staggering mode of movement, soon is flinging herself against the rear wall—with such violence that we can see red blotches on her naked back (this too echoes “Torn” and her “Red Vixen” piece). Then all three women move in unison, graceful again, eventually falling to the floor, undoing the clasps on their gowns as the light fades to dark. When the light wells up again they are seated on three stools, nude from the waist up, facing away from the audience. Cello “scrolls” are inscribed on their lower backs, like Kiki in Man Ray’s well known photograph.
The three women move their arms and shoulders in unison, as if a wave was sweeping across and through all of them—it is an image, a rite, of deep gentleness. Then the light died again, with finality.