Sara Rudner at Sarah Lawrence.
In September 1999, the Brooklyn-born Barnard College graduate donned the auspicious mantle of two remarkable predecessors, Bessie Schonberg and Viola Farber, as chair of dance at Sarah Lawrence College. During our ninety-minute conversation, she eloquently recounted, with hardly a pause, her dancing history, and thoughtfully articulated her vision for dance at Sarah Lawrence under her stewardship.
As a child of first-generation Russian immigrants, she was encouraged to pursue the arts, but only as an avocation: her brother studied music, and she, dance. She took to it famously, but as a teen she chose not to specialize in dance at New York's High School for Performing Arts; she attended a "normal" high school. In 1964, at the precocious age of 20, she graduated from Barnard College with a Bachelor of Arts in Russian studies.
While at Barnard, she ventured downtown to study Paul Sanasardo's muscularly taut, dramatic dance style--a synthesis of Martha Graham modern and Mia Slavenska ballet. She reminded me that we had actually danced together in the Sanasardo concert that marked her professional debut. But she found the emotional intensity of that atmosphere not her cup of tea. "I was very provincial," she says, grinning, "even though I'm from Brooklyn." Dance for Rudner was quintessentially about moving, without applied theatricality.
In 1965, her next door neighbor Margaret Jenkins introduced her to Tharp, who was looking for another dancer for her first foray into choreography. "I was substituting for an injured dancer in a piece of Barbara Gardiner's at Judson Hall on Fifty-Seventh Street," she recalls, "Margy brought Twyla to see it. Twyla watched for a few minutes and said, `She'll do.'" That was the start of an artistic collaboration that lasted more than two decades.
"Our temperaments were very different," she says, "but kinetically we really understood each other." Rudner related completely to Tharp's movement style; she enjoyed the kinetic exploration and formal analysis, dissecting and reassembling phrases, mastering odd coordination, modulating dynamics, conquering the physical and intellectual challenges that Tharp confronted her dancers with.
"The first years with Twyla were the experimental years. The company was all female and we were the `pariahs,' working in the basement gym of Judson Church. We performed without music, we didn't take bows; we loved to challenge all the accepted notions and conventions of our art form."
While she was dancing with Tharp between 1965 and 1974, she began to do her own choreography. "My own work dates from 1971, when I did a collaboration with Douglas Dunn, but I did not officially form a company until later. The Sara Rudner Performance Ensemble, under the auspices of the Eighteenth Street Dance Foundation, Inc., existed from 1976 to 1982."
Her interest was not in making proscenium ballets, but in presenting dancing as a process. "I was interested in layering movement," she says--not unlike her mentor Tharp. In 1975, she made a quartet, Dancing-on-View, for Wendy Perron (now Dance Magazine's New York editor), Wendy Rogers, Risa Jaroslow and herself. It lasted five hours. "At that time, I was thinking mostly of breaking the convention of an evening of dance presented in three parts, lasting two hours, etc. I wanted dance to occur as dancers experienced it--constant effort lasting many hours. We worked without music or sound other than our own breathing and footfalls.
"I wasn't concerned with presenting `finished' dances. Our audience was invited to come and go as it liked; we kept dancing. Dancers dance whether or not there is an audience. I still believe that. I did not address why we dance, but rather that we dance. The very effort holds meaning and significance for those who participate, and hopefully, for our witnesses."
Continuing to dance with Tharp while directing her own troupe, in 1981 an overworked Rudner began to see bright flashes of light during a stressful Tharp rehearsal. A friend recommended that she see a good eye doctor she knew. "You'll probably have to wait for weeks to get an appointment," the friend told her. But when Rudner called and described her symptoms, the doctor said, "Come right over!" It was a detached retina, requiring immediate surgery. After her recovery, in 1983, she gave up her own company and devoted herself full-time to Tharp's work.
In January 1984, she was experiencing pain and stiffness in her right hip after a Tharp season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "The doctor said, `You have degenerative osteoarthritis,' then left the room so I could cry," she recalls, "I had no desire to do myself any more harm by continuing in such a strenuous repertory, although I did continue to perform with the company through 1984 in a more limited repertory."
In 1985, she married attorney Edward C. Marschner and son Eli was born. She continued teaching and choreographing around the country, until, after one arduous residency, commuting weekly to Texas, her son pleaded, "Mom, please don't do that again!"
In 1994, she participated with improvisational dancemaker Dana Reitz and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton in the critically lauded light/movement collaboration Necessary Weather at the Kitchen in New York. Pain and stiffness in her hip had progressed so far, she says, that "my 9-year-old son was tying my shoes for me!" Shortly after the project, she had a successful hip replacement.
In 1997, Reitz suggested she get her master's degree at Bennington College. She did, and the following year, anticipating completion of her degree, she began looking for employment in academia. She wrote to Viola Farber--then the chair of dance at Sarah Lawrence--who was interested in the possibility of her teaching there. But that December, Farber fell ill and died, and Rudner thought it inappropriate to pursue the issue further at that time.
But she recalls the fateful phone call that came next spring: "Barbara Kaplan, dean of the college at Sarah Lawrence, left me a message on May 4, 1999, asking me to call when I had a moment. When I returned her call that same day, she informed me of my appointment as director of dance at the college."
Rudner has already faced some difficult decisions in implementing her vision for the program. "I scheduled classes for the benefit of the students, not the faculty," she says. Several of her adjunct faculty members had time conflicts with the proposed new schedule, and they--not altogether without bruised feelings--resigned.
Rudner is characteristically astute about the unique nature of dance in a liberal arts institution. "Sarah Lawrence has a small student/teacher ratio, offering a diverse education with an interdisciplinary approach to subject matter and access to faculty for individual studies. Dance in this situation is one mode of deepening our knowledge and understanding of the world and ourselves. It's not a conservatory, although the dance program asks students to be rigorous and consistent in training.
"I believe in cross-training, that is, allowing different movement techniques to enhance and develop a student's knowledge and proficiency. At Sarah Lawrence, crosstraining includes yoga, tai chi chuan, applied theory, improvisation, contemporary styles, West African forms and European classical dance. Classes in composition, history, music, repertoire, stagecraft and lighting challenge the students with other aspects of the field.
"Since we are so close to New York City, we invite guests, often alumni, to speak, try out new work and dialogue with our students. I hope we can expand our offerings as the program grows. We are in close contact with the athletic trainer at the sports center as well as starting to make a closer connection with the theater program."
Sarah Lawrence has turned out some of the most illustrious and independent-minded artists in the profession, Meredith Monk, Carolyn Adams and John Jasperse among them. Rudner's spirit remains staunchly independent. Hers is an ambitious and comprehensive philosophy that promises to preserve the institution's nonconformist legacy.
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|Title Annotation:||Sara Rudner appointed Sarah Lawrence College's chair of dance|
|Author:||SOLOMONS, GUS JR|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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