PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.2 (2004) 74-79
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Leslie Satin and the Dance of Memory
Leslie Satin and Dancers, The Construction Company, New York, New York, April 26-27, 2003.
One of the first dances I saw by Leslie Satin, Walking the Plank- ton in Santa Fe, in 1980, upended much of what I thought I knew about dance. It also brought me into dance criticism. She and I were both much younger then, both products of American university arts education (in my case art history in California in the late 1960s; in her case dance in New York in the early 1970s). What continues to astonish me is that I can still recapture the tone of that "Plankton" dance—its playful, punning title, the structural complexity of its movement themes, its real-world references to divers and diving boards, its dance abstraction. And there was the indisputable materiality of its planks: those pine boards, hefted about by the dancers, defining, redefining, and carving up space, that slotted right into my intense interest in minimalist sculpture. Out of that meeting and shared dance-art connections, our long-lived friendship arose.
Walking the Plankton, Cross Sections, Pressing Matters, and Oat Cuisine were part of a flurry of challenging and original dances Satin made in the early 1980s during a three-year stretch in the Southwest, following six years of zigzagging between New York and New Mexico, showing dances in both places. Then, as now, her persistent wordplay and ambiguous, sometimes inscrutable movement and gesture choices resonated with sentient and sensuous human impulses. As an undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1970s, Satin studied ballet and composition with James Waring; this was a formative experience that still reverberates with possibilities. "What I learned from Jimmy Waring was to be open to anything—he taught me to keep my eyes open," she says today. (Satin's essay on Waring, "James Waring and the Judson Dance Theatre: Influences, Intersections, and Divergences," is included in the 2003 anthology Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything was Possible, edited by Sally Banes. Her thoughts on the relation of the dancer and the dance may be seen in the introduction to "Performing Autobiography," a special issue of Women & Performance, a Journal of Feminist Theor, Spring 1999, that [End Page 74] she co-edited with Judith Jerome.) Other influential teachers and mentors have included Merce Cunningham, Peter Saul, and Robert Ellis Dunn, who led the initial Judson Dance Theater workshops of 1962-1964. Long-time colleagues and collaborators include Marjorie Gamso, with whom Satin has danced, on and off, since the mid-1970s; and, beginning in the mid-1980s, Sally Gross. For the past several years, she has been studying Klein Technique with Susan Klein and Barbara Mahler. After returning to New York, Satin combined her dance practice with academia, completing her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at New York University. Navigating the traditional boundary between scholarship and art-making, between interpretation and creation, she remains both artist and scholar.
Satin's scholarly work for some time focused on the interaction of autobiography and formalist dance of the early 1960s. Citing tastes and beliefs that are as deep-seated as they are contradictory, she is drawn to formalist work and work that is demonstrably linked to the world outside the stage. In her introduction to the 1999 issue of Women & Performance that examines autobiography and its variable relationships to truth, she makes a general observation that rings true for her own dances: "Not every autobiographer returns to the past; some anchor us in the present moment or urge us into the future." From the first, Satin's dances have served to anchor this viewer in the present moment.
Still watching Satin's dances more than twenty years down the road, I am struck by the dual paths of continuity and evolution. Market forces of the late-20th century long ago drew most Judson pioneers such as Trisha Brown (whose Accumulation with Water Motor and Talking of 1971-77 some of...