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Sophie Maslow, 1911–2006: The Choreographer for the Working Class…

December 24, 2012
Sophie Maslow in her 1942 work Folksay. A collaboration with Woody Guthrie, incorporating American folk songs and the Carl Sandburg text "The People, Yes," Folksaywas praised by critic John Martin as "one of the most beautiful and genuine works in the whole range of contemporary dance." (Photograph from the archives of the American Dance Festival.)

Sophie Maslow in her 1942 work Folksay. A collaboration with Woody Guthrie, incorporating American folk songs and the Carl Sandburg text “The People, Yes,” Folksaywas praised by critic John Martin as “one of the most beautiful and genuine works in the whole range of contemporary dance.” (Photograph from the archives of the American Dance Festival.)

Sophie Maslow was the choreographer for the working class, setting dances to folk music and reflecting scenes from the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Born in New York City in 1911, Maslow joined the Martha Graham Company in 1931. She was a leader in the New Dance Group and a founder of the Sophie Maslow Dance Company and the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio with Jane Dudley and William

She was a member of the Martha Graham Company from 1931 to 1940, a leader of the New Dance Group, a choreographer and performer in the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio, and director of the the Sophie Maslow Dance Company. Maslow was a founding member of the American Dance Festival and the New York City Center Dance Theater. She was married to Ben (Max) Blatt; the couple had one daughter.

Sophie Maslow in her work Two Songs about Lenin, ca.1934. Beginning in 1934, Maslow was a teacher and guest artist with the left-wing New Dance Group. Lynn Brooks writes, "Maslow's thematic concerns typically lay with socially relevant issues such as equality, workers' rights, anti-fascism, and democracy, but her dances never lost their humor, theatricality, or warm-hearted appeal." (Photograph from the Sophie Maslow Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Sophie Maslow in her work Two Songs about Lenin, ca.1934. Beginning in 1934, Maslow was a teacher and guest artist with the left-wing New Dance Group. Lynn Brooks writes, “Maslow’s thematic concerns typically lay with socially relevant issues such as equality, workers’ rights, anti-fascism, and democracy, but her dances never lost their humor, theatricality, or warm-hearted appeal.” (Photograph from the Sophie Maslow Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Maslow boasted that her father, a Moscow socialist printer, gave her the revolutionary spirit and ability to work with a group. Like many other modern dance pioneers, Maslow attended the Neighborhood Playhouse, that unique cradle of dance that produced the early Graham Company. She also went to Camp Kinderland, a Workman’s Circle camp. One of several Jewish modern dancers who went to and later worked at Camp Kinderland, Maslow joked that without Camp Kinderland there would have been no modern dance. As a member of the Martha Graham Company from 1931 to 1940, she appeared in such Graham productions as Primitive Mysteries (1931), American Document (1938), and Letter to the World (1940).

The start of Maslow’s dance career coincided with the Great Depression and the labor movement of the 1930s. Workers’ groups along a wide political spectrum were formed, and dancers joined, in turn forming the Workers’ Dance League and the New Dance Group. The dancers, often divided by ideology and allegiances, struggled to reconcile revolutionary and bourgeois dance—dance that proclaimed the workers’ movement of the future and also dance inherited from traditional forms, even incorporating the new, personalized forms developed by Martha Graham. “Their muscles (and joints) and sinews were trained to express power—artistic and social. Clenched fists, aggressive lunges, and themes of hard physical work were common in revolutionary dance” (Graff).

Maslow saw her work as inspired by a personal heritage rather than by politics or ideology. Her classes at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were devoid of political content. “Movement was not a privileged activity.” Although dance could and did communicate left-wing ideology, “dance was perceived as a form of expression that could enrich the lives of workers in and of itself,” according to Maslow.

Another controversy that emerged in the 1930s among dancers and critics was the source of dance itself. Most staunch left-wingers believed that folk dance was the ultimate source. Maslow, with her lyric ability and strong Graham training, was able to master an idiom that brought the adaptation of folk dancing to the concert stage. This was folk dancing as only a trained dancer could perform it. Her earliest solo, Themes from a Slavic People (Bartok, 1934), was praised in the left-wing press for its lyricism and evocation of folk culture. Also applauded were Two Songs About Lenin (1935), inspired by Soviet music, and the film Three Songs About Lenin. Stacey Pricket remarks that, “Even if Maslow herself was not drawn to political themes, the evocation of the Soviet Union in her dances touched a responsive chord in the immigrants and new Americans who were heavily represented among the era’s radicals.” Maslow’s work also received praise from Edna Ocko in the Daily Worker. She was described as having “quiet strength and power [that] grows more effective with each successive appearance.”

CityDanceEnsemble performing "Sweet Betsy from Pike," an excerpt from Sophie Maslow's Folksay, in 2008. One of Maslow's most enduringly popular works, Folksay"celebrated American pride in emerging from the Depression, patriotism as the nation entered the Second World War, and the concept of the Western plains 'everyman,' yet it appealed to urban, intellectual, and largely immigrant artists and audiences," writes Lynn Brooks. (Photograph by Paul Gordon Emerson. From the collection of the Dance Notation Bureau.)

CityDanceEnsemble performing “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” an excerpt from Sophie Maslow’s Folksay, in 2008. One of Maslow’s most enduringly popular works, Folksay”celebrated American pride in emerging from the Depression, patriotism as the nation entered the Second World War, and the concept of the Western plains ‘everyman,’ yet it appealed to urban, intellectual, and largely immigrant artists and audiences,” writes Lynn Brooks. (Photograph by Paul Gordon Emerson. From the collection of the Dance Notation Bureau.)

With Anna Sokolow, Maslow participated in Workers’ Dance League concerts in 1934, choreographing eath of a Tradition and Challenge to the music of Lopatnikoff. In 1936, she choreographed May Day March. With Jane Dudley, another member of the Martha Graham Company, she danced Satiric Suite in 1937 and Women of Spain in 1938. Ever a good Louis Horst student, she too produced a program of preclassic dances in 1941.

The first example of her signature work, produced in 1941, featured dances to American folk music that depicted the American experience. To the music of Woody Guthrie, Maslow danced the songs of the migratory workers in Dust Bowl Ballads. In 1942, one year later, she developed her first masterpiece, Folksay, a folk medley based on verses from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, interspersed with ballads sung by Woody Guthrie.

Folksay was performed in 1993 at the New Dance Group Gala Concert, held at La Guardia High School of Performing Arts in New York by the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble. Dance critic Edwin Denby praised the work: “The audience… is invariably delighted with Folksay. They take it perhaps as the reflection of a lovely summer day, and that is what it really is.” Margaret Lloyd, one of the earliest dance writers, called it “radiantly outflung, joyous and free … the whole is simple and heart-warming and endearing.”

If “popular” means “of the common people,” Maslow wanted her dances to be popular. She wished dance to have as direct an impact upon as wide an audience as the theater and film do. She believed that the artists are part of, not apart from everyone. Because folk dancing grows out of the common experience of large groups of people the world over, she danced in folk terms. Her dances followed instinct with folk feeling. They are modern in form, and lean toward theatrical presentation.

After World War II, the destruction of folk traditions, so revered by Russian-Jewish immigrants, finally had an impact. The people were gone, and with them the traditions were vanishing as well. In 1950, Maslow sought out the writings on Russian-Jewish village life by Sholem Aleichem and choreographed The Village I Knew. It was first performed at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut, by the New Dance Group. Long before Jerome Robbins amplified those stories into Fiddler on the Roof, Maslow built seven episodes, each depicting village life, the celebration of Shabbat, and the exodus following a pogrom. The program notes state: “In Czarist times Jewish communities were frequently uprooted by the authorities and the people driven from their homes. The Village I Knew depicts a series of scenes culminating in the despairing, hopeless flight of people once again made homeless.”

Martha Graham (Center), Anna Sokolow (right) and Sophie Maslow (left) \ Primitive Mysteries, (1935, Barbara Morgan)

Martha Graham (Center), Anna Sokolow (right) and Sophie Maslow (left) \ Primitive Mysteries, (1935, Barbara Morgan)

Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, and Bill Bales formed a unique trio that emerged from the Bennington Summer School and the New Dance Group. The New Dance Group survived the politicized 1930s, the period in which “dance was a weapon in the class struggle,” and went on to fulfill its promises to bring dance to the masses. Only a very few members of the group were professional dancers; most were blue-collar workers who came for recreation. When other classes were unaffordable, the New Dance Group charged only fifty cents a month for membership—and threw in a lesson in Marxism. In the 1940s, one could study many styles of modern dance, ballet, “ethnic dance,” choreography and, later, notation. There were children’s classes as well. Hundreds of people taught, studied, and even slept in the New Dance Group studios. Maslow was an important part of the New Dance Group, teaching children and adults, choreographing and dancing.

The Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio brought warmth and humor to modern dance in a way that other choreographers could not. Most notable is The Lonely Ones, based on William Steig’s cartoons and choreographed by Dudley in collaboration with Maslow and Bales. Other Trio works include Bach Suite (1942), As Poor Richard Says (1943), Caprichos (1942), Furlough, and Passional (choreographed by Dudley). Each member of the Trio contributed dances “for and about the people.”

In later years, Maslow formed the Sophie Maslow Dance Company and continued to develop dances on Jewish themes. After The Village I Knew, people assumed she was primarily a Jewish choreographer, often forgetting her years in the Graham Company. In 1956, she commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto in Anniversary at the 92nd Street YMHA.

Sophie Maslow died in Manhattan on June 25, 2006, at the age of 95.

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