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IMPRESSIONS: "Revival," a Film on Meditation, Aging, Dance and Community by Josefina Rotman Lyons, Presented by the Martha Graham Dance Company

IMPRESSIONS: "Revival,"  a Film on Meditation, Aging, Dance and Community by Josefina Rotman Lyons, Presented by the Martha Graham Dance Company
Catherine Tharin

By Catherine Tharin
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Published on March 6, 2023
Dances for a Variable Population. Photo by William Kitchings

Featuring Naomi Goldberg Haas' Dances for a Variable Population with Choreography by George Faison, Ellen Graff, Stuart Hodes and Marni Thomas Wood

Director/Producer: Josefina Rotman Lyons

Original Music: Jared Samuel

Cinematography: William Kitchings

Film Editing: William Kitchings

Cast: George Faison, Ellen Graff, Naomi Goldberg Haas, Stuart Hodes, Chet Walker, Marni Thomas Wood and Dances for a Variable Population

February 7, 2023

Josefina Rotman Lyons’ eloquent and inspiring 2020 documentary, Revival, a meditation on aging, dance, and community, opens with a slow motion shot of a broadly smiling, beautifully toned woman. Wanda Chabrier, a dancer in her 60s,  joyfully dips and bobs as blue-gloved arms sweep across her body. Her thick, brown ponytail trails her turning head against the backdrop of green-leafed trees and a light blue sky. An emblem of health and vitality, she is mesmerizing.

Woman with long ponytail, smiling brightly, wearing a bright yellow sleeveless dress and elbow length blue gloves. A gold necklace of large flowers and dangling gold earrings adorn her. She is dancing against a light blue sky.
Wanda Chabrier of Dances for a Variable Population. Photo courtesy of Josefina Rotman Lyons

As those of us who dance discover, “When that leg can’t go up, they’re finished with you,” rues the Tony-award winning choreographer George Faison.

Dark-haired woman dressed in a pink top look to her right smiling. An elderly Black man in a light colored knitted beanie wearing glasses hugs two women. One woman who is Black on his right is gray haired wearing a blue shirt, smiling. The other elderly woman is white with long dark hair speaking. The man's arms encircle both women.
(Far left) Naomi Goldberg Haas, dressed in pink; (center) George Faison hugs Dancers for a Variable Population dancers. Photo courtesy of Josefina Rotman Lyons

So, what do you do? Dance more, of course!

Naomi Goldberg Haas, founding director of Dances for a Variable Population, offers dancing opportunities to elders who range in age from their 50s to 90s. Haas “enlarges the definition of dance,” remarks Stuart Hodes, Martha Graham’s longtime dance partner. “You never know what you can do as long as you don’t close yourself off to anything.”

Choreographers invited to create works on DVP dancers are also in their later years. In addition to the 72-year-old Faison, Martha Graham Dance Company luminaries, Ellen Graff and Marni Thomas Wood, in their 70s and 80s respectively, and Hodes, 92, spent several months in spring 2017, creating original dances for over 70 New York City performers. The dances were performed out-of-doors in a culminating event at Grant’s Tomb, 122nd St, NYC. While DVP's choreographers address older dancers, their life-learned ruminations are food-for-thought for all.

Dances for a Variable Population dancers performing at Grant's Tomb. Photo courtesy of Josefina Rotman Lyons

A first-time filmmaker and an older dancer, herself, Lyons gets close to her subjects. Her light-handed approach earns their confidence. Inner thoughts are revealed. As dancers, accustomed to her presence, they become more body confident.

First rehearsals can be unnerving especially when moving is a challenge, but the dancers begins to relax as the personable choreographers explain their objectives. “We’re talking about building a community. The dancers contribute… it is coming from inside them,” says Wood.

Elder dancers fill a light-filled, grey-floored studio.
One of Ellen Graff and Marni Thomas Wood's rehearsals for Dances for a Variable Population. Photo courtesy of Josefina Rotman Lyons

“I’d like something that surprises the audience a little bit. We’ll make a dance out of things they do,” Hodes discloses. Dancers “covering ground” pass through one another, then stop to gesture with an extended finger. “We’re embarked on some sort of event.”

White-haired elderly dancer dressed in a plaid shirt wags a finger while smiling
Choreographer Stuart Hodes. Photo courtesy of Josefina Rotman Lyons

Faison, at the first rehearsal for his dance, asks Shirley Black Brown Coward to walk across the floor. The grey braided Coward, shoots him a look, and comically slouches around an inside circle of seated dancers. Then something remarkable happens. Coward's spine and stride lengthen, her head and chest uplift, her face becomes magnetic. This transformation, to the whoops, claps and cheers of fellow performers, reminds us of the enlivened consciousness the elder dancer can embody. “He’s making us use what we got.” says dancer Susan Vann. “The best person that you are is your own invention,“ offers Faison.

A Black woman dressed in a yellow T-shirt observes a man performing for her in a dance studio.
Shirley Black Brown Coward and Chuck MacDonald. Photo courtesy of Josefina Rotman Lyons

The film quiets as Hodes choreographs a love duet for Graff and Broadway star Chet Walker (since deceased). In rehearsal, Graff and Hodes play with a scarf. He wraps it around his hips, she throws it at him, he wags it at her and skip chugs, she evades. Says Hodes, “If you’re crazy in love with somebody, how do you feel 40 years later? It’s different from young love.

A white-haired woman faces a gray haired man as they dance close together.
Ellen Graff and Chet Walker. Photo by Kelly Stuart

We observe Haas’ slight impatience with dancers who struggle to invest their physicality as fully as she believes they are capable. But, in the end, the dancers, well-rehearsed and adrenalin pumped, succeed. “There aren’t enough positive words for the joy of performing,” declares DVP dancer Joyce Steinglass

During the introduction of and the discussion following the screening, Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, and moderator of this event, comments on the over emphasis of athleticism and youth in our culture. This film delightfully forefronts the uninhibited joy and expression of age.

Ellen Graff, Josefina Rotman Lyons, and Marni Thomas Wood. Photo by Melissa Sherwood

 “What evolves is that you celebrate the fact that dance isn’t just for those under 40,” exclaims Wood. “I am here doing this. You are here doing this. We’re going with each other through this celebration.”

Perhaps, the most affecting reflection is by Haas, “Beauty isn’t about how high you lift your leg. Or how many times you turn. The beauty is about the effort of extending yourself. The effort of opening yourself up.”

A wiry woman sporting short dark hair, sways to her right with her left arm lifted horizontally. She wears a light pink, no sleeved shirt that hits her thighs. She is wearing black pants. Her look is serene. She dances in front of a light blue sky. .
Naomi Goldberg Haas, founding director of Dances for a Variable Population. Photo by William Kitchings

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