PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Remembering Blondell Cummings, with Paloma McGregor

Episode Summary

Paloma McGregor remembers the life, work, and legacy of Blondell Cummings. McGregor frames this exploration through Cummings' dance work titled "Chicken Soup", designated as an American Masterpiece by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.

Episode Notes

Paloma McGregor remembers the life, work, and legacy of Blondell Cummings. McGregor frames this exploration through Cummings' dance work titled "Chicken Soup", designated as an American Masterpiece by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.




Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to pillow voices, a production of Jacob's Pillow dance festival with content from the Pillow archives. I'm Norton Owen in the Pillow’s director of preservation, and it's my pleasure to introduce Pillow Research Fellow, scholar, and choreographer Paloma McGregor, who will honor the life and legacy of Blondell Cummings. We'll hear personal stories and rare recordings, as well as reflections on an iconic solo by Cummings entitled Chicken Soup.

PALOMA MCGREGOR: The first time I met Blondell Cummings was in the Jacob’s Pillow Archives. It was 2002, and I was a student in the Cultural Traditions program, which that year was honoring Katherine Dunham. I had just left a budding journalism career to go to graduate school for dance. I knew in my gut I was on the right path. But the Archives helped me to understand more about the paths that preceded mine. As I said, there, in the cozy archives I met the multifaceted choreographer, Blondell Cummings. She was a founding member of Meredith Monk’s company “The House” and appeared in Yvonne Rainer’s 1976 film Kristina Talking. In 1978, Cummings created her own interdisciplinary arts collective, Cycle Arts Foundation. Her work was presented at The Kitchen, New York Live Arts, Danspace Project and the 92Y, as well as touring Africa, Asia and across the US, including Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where she was an artist in residence. Among the many master works I watched during those two weeks, video of a dance entitled Chicken Soup that Blondell adapted for the camera is one I can still picture vividly.

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: The kitchen was the same. The table was enamel table, common to our class. Easy to clean, was wooden under corners for indigent and old cockroaches couldn't make the kitchen sink.

PALOMA MCGREGOR:Blondell’s signature staccato movement had a visual effect like flipping through a stop-motion photo album. One moment, her head is thrown back in laughter. A couple of quick, successive movements later, she’s doubled over in grief. I was both stunned and affirmed in witnessing this work, a legacy I considered myself an inheritor of -- yet had not encountered before. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw a clip from 1984 of a performance at the Pillow’s legendary Inside-Out Stage, that I understood more deeply her innovative work’s roots. 

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: When I was about 11 years old, my father gave me a camera. And it opened up a whole new world. I started focusing on people and really looking at portraits with, you know, studying people. And the thing that I liked most about photography was that I could look at a picture a week later, two months later, six months later, and it would always bring me back to that moment in time in which that picture was taken and all the events around it. And so, when I started studying dance, the thing that I noticed is that once the performance was over, that was it. And, also, that people didn't have the same kind of memory recall to to that fleeting image. So, what I decided to do to work on something that I'm still working on is a combination of photographic image with the kinetic energy and try to put them together. So, what I'm going to show you now is a small part of a study, but it is something that you will tend to see in my work, and I call it moving pictures.

PALOMA MCGREGOR: Chicken Soup interestingly found some seed in Walt Whitman’s famous line: I am large, I contain multitudes. Cummings said she wanted to show the multitudes that live in the Black woman’s body. Blondell’s aesthetic, decidedly Black and womanist, was developing at a time when Black postmodernists were considering their place - as individuals and as a group - in the downtown New York City dance scene. She was part of the original Platforms: Parallels, curated by colleague Ishmael Houston Jones - at Danspace Project, which included Blondell, Fred Holland, Christina Jones, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Harry Whittaker Sheppard, Gus Solomons, Jr., and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Chicken Soup displayed a singular power to transform and to represent; where one body sat, so also were many - a choreographed extension of the Black diaspora experience in America. 

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: Also, I like to put that laughing and crying together, to me they’re very close. When I'm really upset about how things are going quite my way, and that happens more often than I would like to sometimes. And I'm crying hysterically usually right in the middle of it, I think about how ridiculous it’s going to be in the next week or the next month. And then I started laughing. And then when someone tells me a joke, that's so funny that I'm down the floor, my whole body is shaking with laughter I always find myself in the midst of that crying. So, for me they are very close together.

PALOMA McGREGOR: Beyond the art itself, Blondell was a brilliant translator of the experiences her work was drawing from to audiences who may not share those experiences, like those gathered at the Pillow. From the vast Inside-Out space, she guided dozens of them into her world, sharing everything from her technical approach to her philosophy, connecting her work to sign language, photography, and improvisation practice. 

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: And I love food. And I find that when I'm touring, I’ve been to a lot of homes, looked in a lot of refrigerators. I can usually tell what the person’s like. You know, one can of beer. Or one bottle of champagne, or Chef Boyardee or one artichoke, or whatever, um. But the refrigerator is like someone's bookshelf, it can tell you a lot about the person. And so, I thought I wanted to do a piece that connected food and a certain kind of person. So, Chicken Soup is about a woman. It’s about someone who nourishes. And I’m gonna do just the first section for you. What I'd like you to do is listen to not only the words but see if you can connect the disposition of the gestures and the words together. Since I work with characters, it’s important for me to change costumes just to help me get into the character. 

PALOMA MCGREGOR: Blondell combined a keen sense of humor with a clear sense of purpose. After sharing a beautiful excerpt sitting in a chair, she sauntered across the stage and casually said: I forgot to mention that sometimes I’m considered postmodern. Whatever that means. 

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: What postmodern really means to me, I don't think any artists really puts a label on themselves. I think you use whatever you need to use in order to save oneself. And that's what that's all about. I guess some people might say, is that dance. I don't know. I never I never asked myself whether or not it's dance. I just asked myself was it not it feel right for what I wanna to do.

PALOMA MCGREGOR:Blondell cultivated that intuitive sense in her practice, which made her seem fearless being in process in front of an audience. At the Inside-Out performance, she shared that she’d just gotten a haircut. 

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: Getting a new haircut is pretty risky business. If your hair grows fast, it's less risky, than if your hair grows slow. Well, I called up a hair-dresser friend and he said sure I’d love to give you a new look. And I thought to myself, hmm. So, I went to his house, and he was wearing an interesting haircut of cropped with two orange lines in his hair. And he said, “What do you think of this?” I said, “I don't know, you know, I tour a lot and I go out west and down south and to the mid-west. I don’t know if they’d understand this. And, so, trying to be progressive, I said, “let's talk about it when you get to that part.” So, he started cutting. And because I had been working out, I sort of, fell asleep. It was kind of nice having someone taking care of you, so it’s kind of easy to fall asleep. Well, when I woke up, he said, “ready, I’m finished.” I said, “okay, let me see. I look in the mirror and I went “oh my god, I thought we were going to discuss this.” And he said I think you ought to be a little more daring.” So, it was a little late to worry about it. So, I left thinking to go back in a few weeks. And I went home to my mother, and she said, “that looks ridiculous!” And I said don't worry, mom, it’s gonna grow out. And then when I came back to Jacob’s Pillow, everybody said, “how chic!” So, you probably see it next month.

PALOMA MCGREGOR: Blondell then did an improvisation about it that really warmed the audience up, then invited them to contribute words for her to improvise about.

BLONDELL CUMMINGS: Aerobics USA! No matter where I go, everybody’s doing it. I like to see the men doing it. They might be a little off, but they're so courageous. When you get one that's totally on, there’s not stopping them. There's a kind of of style you have to learn. You wipe yourself out to the beginning. You pull yourself together in the middle and you wipe yourself out in the end. And then you feel good. I never feel good. But aerobics is a great American export. All my best friends are getting jobs all over the world, teaching aerobics.

PALOMA MCGREGOR: The content Blondell was drawing from grounds us authentically in the 1980s; but the form and energy transcend time. We could now insert yoga or soul cycle into her structure and find ourselves rolling on the floor. Her artistic impulses were timeless. And in that way, it allows her to stay with those of us whose powerful work she helped inform and inspire. Blondell’s influence on many of us was not just manifest in her body of work. It was in her being, and her being there. It was personal. She showed up for us -- as an audience member and elder -- to champion, coax and encourage. I met Blondell in the flesh in 2007, five years after poring over her work in the archives. That season, she came into Urban Bush Women rehearsals to re-stage Chicken Soup on two of the new dancers in the company. The year before, The National Endowment for the Arts had designated Chicken Soup an American Masterpiece. As part of this designation, the work was reconstructed and re-staged on Urban Bush Women and performed at the Joyce Theater. It was a marvel to witness these young dancers transform as artists with her focused, disciplined guidance. I ran into Blondell many more times afterward -- and each time was meaningful. A few years later, between dances at an Ailey concert, she gave me a thoughtful lesson in finding value in a work that frankly wasn’t my cup of tea - pointing out choreographic elements that did work. Later, at the 2012 revisitation of Platforms/Parallels, Blondell relished taking a post-show photo that I cherish; in it, choreographers Gabri Christa, Marjani Forte-Saunders, Nia Love and I -- all living in the legacy of Blondell -- surround her smiling broadly. 

Perhaps my most meaningful encounter was the time, later that same year, that Blondell made her way to the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance in Hunts Point to witness the birth of my Dancing While Black platform, now about to celebrate its 10th Anniversary. I was proud to be organizing a platform to support other artists and honored that she was there. After the show she approached me warmly; I assumed she was going to thank me for organizing the night, but instead she praised the choreographic work I showed in the program -- an early exploration of my Building a Better Fishtrap project. I should keep going in this direction, she said. Keep going…

I’m not sure if she understood the significance of her presence and words -- on many of us. And I regret that I didn’t have a chance to tell her before her passing in 2015. So, I want to say for the record, you are still with us Blondell, and we are richer for both your work and your being.

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.