Sally Gross (1933–2015)

Josh Blum, Mamaluschen, 1983, color, sound. Choreography by Sally Gross. Sally Gross.

I DIDN’T KNOW SALLY GROSS SOON ENOUGH. We were both born during the Depression, but she grew up in New York and I was a Los Angeles tomboy. She played games in Lower East Side Streets; I climbed challenging trees. In the 1960s, we were in New York—dancing, teaching, and learning to choreograph—but our careers moved on parallel tracks. She had studied with Alwin Nikolais, who focused on imaginative designs with space and human beings, while I had been working with teachers and choreographers more involved with emotion and narrative. When Gross was performing at Judson Church in Yvonne Rainer’s We Shall Run in 1963 (the title and the content were pretty much identical), I was performing in Pauline Koner’s trio The Shining Dark (Koner was channeling Helen Keller). I didn’t see any works by Rainer and the other radical postmodernists of Judson Dance Theater until 1965, when I began to cover dance for a radio program on WBAI-FM called “The Critical People.”

At first, I “knew” Sally only in the way people in the New York dance world know each other (it isn’t—certainly wasn’t then—a huge community). We grinned and nodded and said hello when we met. Then in 1990, when we were both in our late fifties, we undertook to perform in a piece that Phyllis Lamhut was choreographing for her company’s twentieth anniversary; Gross and Lamhut, a former member of Nikolais’s company, had been friends since the days when Nikolais taught at the Henry Street Settlement House and put on performances in the adjoining Playhouse. There were five of us in Lamhut’s Cavatina; none of us was young.

Sally’s wit: I became enamored of it—and maybe a tiny bit frightened. You might say something in rehearsal a bit off-base, and she would look straight at you, her mouth twitching into the hint of a smile, and say a few very smart, possibly ironic words that might cause you to reexamine your original remark. It took a while for me to move from thinking, “Does she not like me?” to “She’s teasing me again,” and enter the game. During that rehearsal period and in the ensuing years, the hellos when she and I bumped into each other became warmer and fuller.

From The Pleasure of Stillness, the 2007 film about Gross’s work by Albert Maysles and Kristen Nutile, I learned things about Sally that I hadn’t known before, but which I now understand gathered—transformed—in her work. As a writer, I like knowing that words played a part in her choreographic process—especially verbs related to the subject she was exploring; these could trigger the improvisations that were so crucial to her creative process. Someone in that film mentioned that Sally’s dances were usually autobiographical. I began to think of her life as somehow haunting (not quite the right word)—giving an edge of mystery to her succinctly poetic, seemingly forthright dances.

Albert Maysles and Kristen Nutile, The Pleasure of Stillness, 2007, black-and-white and color, sound, 52 minutes. Sally Gross, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, and Lucinda Childs.

In 2007, I wrote about the piece of hers that gave its title to Maysles and Nutile’s film. I mentioned the “clop-clop” rhythm in Robert Poss’s accompaniment and zeroed in on a section in which Heather Lee and Gabriella Simon sat side by side on two chairs: “At first Lee seems to be training Simon—taking one of her hands, moving her arm. Could they be writing? No. Soon they’re making something together with give-and-take care and concentration. We never understand exactly what delicate thing they’re molding, only the complexity of the task and the purity of their concentration.” I had not yet learned that little Sally, the youngest child in a large family born of Polish-Jewish immigrants, often sat beside her father, a fruit vendor, as he drove his horse-drawn wagon.

Gross as performer-choreographer created her spare poetry through movement in space, polishing succinctness into beauty as ringingly as any writer of haiku. The women who populated her dances—prominent among them Jamie Di Mare, Tanja Meding (a coproducer of the Maysles-Nutile film), and Gross’s daughter Sidonia—performed imaginative tasks in an elegantly designed environment from which excess had been banished. Costumes, props, lighting all combined with choreography to create images as precise as what you might see if the statues in a sculpture garden had been set in motion at a particular hour of the day.

Some of the movements in her dances were bold, but never athletic or showy. Others were small, gestural. Words might be spoken; I recall Gross, who grew up speaking Yiddish, telling a story in one of her dances; non-Yiddish speakers might not have known the particulars, but her gestures and tones brought to life what could have signified a clash of alternatives or an argument of neighbors—embodying those (or something else) rather than simply narrating them.

Left: Sally Gross, Not Everything Is Seen, 2014. Performance view, Henry Street Settlement, New York, March 2014. Sally Gross. Right: Sally Gross, Two, 2011. Performance view, Henry Street Settlement, New York, March 2014. Tanja Meding and Jamie Di Mare. Photos: Karen Robbins.

Serenity was a quality that suffused Gross’s work, along with stillness and thought-filled pauses. You sometimes felt that the performers were learning or remembering something they needed to know or once had known. But a certain terseness or bluntness militated against anything that might have verged on sentimentality. Gross transmuted episodes and atmospheres from her life into words that suggested movement and then into dance, further transforming reality. I hesitate to label the process as abstraction—which, in a sense, it was—because everything in her dances appeared so concrete, so frank, so sensitively “itself.” And at the same time enigmatic.

I last saw Gross perform in the spring of 2014 on a program shared with two other choreographers named Sally: Sally Bowden and Sally Silvers. The title of her new solo was Not Everything Is Seen. As slim and precise as ever, she entered from behind the audience striking a pair of claves together softly, their rhythm sometimes faltering. She removed a gold jacket to reveal a black jacket underneath. She spoke meaningful words so quietly that I’m not sure she wanted us to hear them. She died a little over a year later.

Deborah Jowitt is a dance critic and historian; she teaches in the dance department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.