Company: Reviews: 2008: Merilyn Jackson

Dance with a German Accent

By Merilyn Jackson, April 6, 2008
for The Inquirer

In October, Susanne Linke - at 63 as lanky and loose as a teenager - arrived at Jeanne Ruddy's Performance Garage on Brandywine Street for the first two weeks of an eight-week residency.

Ruddy and Linke stand on the shoulders of two giants of 20th-century dance - the American Martha Graham and the German expressionist Mary Wigman, each of whom originated techniques in the 1930s that are still influential.

Linke, who studied with Wigman, immediately began putting 10 Ruddy dancers through their paces, launching them on the road to this week's world premiere of her Quasi Normal.

"Head up!" she instructed as she led them through combinations. "If the head is not straight when lunge comes, you look like a suffering lady. Not strong."

Last month, when Linke returned, those head positions had improved. Now the arms dropped from the shoulders, knees bent left while torsos tilted slightly toward the audience. Arms swinging, the dancers moved forward, swiveling heads like soldiers passing a reviewing stand.

A few still seemed uncertain. "Don't worry," she said. "By the time we perform, you will all have it."

That moment of truth comes Thursday, when Quasi Normal opens on a double bill with Ruddy's restaged Breathless.

Ruddy, a former Martha Graham principal dancer, began meticulous restorations on the old carriage house where her dancers work and perform back in 2002; her now-nine-year-old company finally called it home in 2006.

The Linke residency is the second of three Ruddy has arranged with prominent female choreographers. The first was with Jane Comfort in 2006; the series will end next year with Martha Clarke.

Linke worked with Wigman, the founder of German expressionism, in Berlin in the 1960s, and later with Pina Bausch, another prominent German choreographer of her generation. She directed the Folkwang Dance Studio, founded by early German expressionist Kurt Jooss, as well as the Bremer Tanztheater, and is now an independent choreographer best known for her arresting psychological solos.

Impressed by Linke's work, Ruddy took a workshop with her in 2006, then invited her to be part of the current project. Ruddy trains her dancers in Graham technique - hyperdramatic, passionate, and quite different from Linke's abstract, angular Wigman-based style. Ruddy's dancers come from still other disciplines (ballet, contact improv) that influence their movement styles. "But," Linke said, "they are getting the centering, the breathing," adding, "Graham and Wigman had that in common."

Discussing the origins of Quasi Normal, she opens a book of movement drawings by German dancer Dore Hoyer, who taught at Wigman's school and committed suicide in 1967.

"I got a little inch from Wigman, the last three years of her life," she said, and from Hoyer too. This dance begins with echoes of Wigman's The Dance of Niobe and ends with Hoyer's sketches - brought to life one dance step at a time.

It was at Wigman's school that Linke met and studied with Helmutt Gottschild, who, with Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck, came to Philadelphia in 1968 to found Group Motion Dance Company. Gottschild later founded ZeroMoving Dance Company and now makes dance works with his wife, the performer, dance critic and author Brenda Dixon-Gottschild. Both are retired from Temple University's Dance Department.

"Helmutt was a young assistant [to Wigman], for teaching of modern dance," Linke said, "and he brought something more modern because, of course, Wigman was already old" - she died in 1973 - "though still very good."

"For the look of this kind of dance, every movement must begin from the right position and land in an equally correct one," she says, "but for me it is important that they are dancing people, not dancing machines. Personality must come through."

One of the dancers at the Performance Garage, Alexei Borovik, recently retired from the Pennsylvania Ballet and now teaches with Ruddy. After 30 years of strictly classical dance, was it hard to switch modes?

"Very difficult," he laughed. "When I started to work with Jeanne, I started learning the Graham technique. I always found it interesting, but I never had time to study it. These movements have their own proscribed mode, not so rigid, but very different way of expressing."

Linke has enjoyed watching Borovik teach. "His dancing is without any cliche. It makes him good for this work."

Breathless, the Ruddy piece to be performed with Linke's work, premiered in 2005. It tells contemporary stories of male obsession and the murders of three women - Laci Peterson, Stefanie Rabinowitz and Anne Marie Fahey.

"Back in October, I had wanted to deepen the women's characters, flip it around, and actually have it happen sequentially as it would in life," Ruddy said. Not knowing what Linke was going to make, she showed her the original Breathless, "to see if it would make a good match for the show, and then [I] went ahead with my new ideas."

Ruddy completely restaged the work and commissioned Ellen Fishman Johnson, with whom she had worked before, to write new music.

"It will be a high-contrast show from Susa's German expressionism to my pole dancing," Ruddy said with a laugh, "and both Brigitta [Hermann] and I will be dancing in Quasi Normal."

Back at rehearsal, Linke showed the dancers a resistance move in a turn and asked them to run through the section again as she watched intently. They got it. She clapped, put her hands to her cheeks and cried, "Wunderbar!"