by Andy Piascik
Anna Sokolow was born in Hartford on February 9, 1910, the third of four children of Samuel and Sara Sokolowski. Her parents were garment workers active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Socialist Party. Anna’s father came down with Parkinson’s disease while still a young man and the family struggled financially throughout Anna’s youth.
Sokolow began taking dance lessons as a young girl. When she was 15, she overcame the objections of her parents and dropped out of school to pursue dance in a more rigorous way. The family had moved to New York City and Sokolow was able to earn a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Transforming Working Class Experience Into Breath-Taking Art
The Neighborhood Playhouse was a heady, exciting environment for a talented young woman. Among those Sokolow studied with there was Martha Graham. When Graham formed the Martha Graham Dance Company, Sokolow taught choreography there and performed in many of the company’s works, most notably Rite of Spring in 1930.
At the same time, Sokolow developed her own works that were staged by companies she formed, or helped form, such as the Theatre Union Dance Group and the New Dance League. Major turning points were performances of a number of her original pieces in 1936 and a performance on Broadway in 1937. It was a remarkable period of creativity in which Sokolow presented a stunning body of work that made her arguably the second most important figure of modern dance, behind only Graham.
Like many in the 1930s, Sokolow was strongly influenced by radical political ideas. The same was true of others who revolutionized modern dance along with her, including Graham, Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley, and Helen Tamiris. Her contemporaries inspired and challenged her and Sokolow explored serious themes in Strange American Funeral, Inquisition ’36, Anti-War Trilogy and Excerpts From a War Poem in a series of critically acclaimed performances.
Sokolow’s Connecticut Performances
Sokolow returned to Connecticut to perform many times. In 1961, she debuted Dreams at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. A troupe she established, the New Players Project, also performed in the state under her direction. One such event took place in Hartford in 1981 when the New Players Project staged a new Sokolow work, Variations on a Jewish Theme.
Sokolow became a founding member of the Actors Studio where she taught movement for actors. She also worked on Broadway many times, choreographing for shows such as Street Scene and Camino Real and working briefly on the original Hair. In addition, she staged many works for the New York City Opera, remaining true to her radical politics with Time+, an impassioned 1966 dance piece staged in opposition to the Vietnam War.
Despite Sokolow’s death in 2000, her creations remain timely and are regularly featured in the capitol of American dance, New York City. As recently as March of 2018, the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble performed a number of her works, including Preludes, a piece with its roots in the 1930s, and Poem, which Sokolow developed in 1995 when she was 85.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for numerous publications and websites over the last four decades and is the author of several books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.