Gus Solomons Jr.

Q&A: Gus Solomons, Jr.

The New York dance legend, who performs at Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth's Modern Dance Festival this weekend, on his career, architecture, inspiration and writing.

published Thursday, July 28, 2016

Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Gus Solomons Jr.

Fort Worth — Gus Solomons Jr. is a vital and essential part of American dance history. As a dancer, he drew and captured the attention of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. As a choreographer, he has created more than 170 works that have been performed on stages around the world, in art galleries and museums, in warehouses, and on film. As a teacher, he has motivated and mentored dance students for over two decades. As a writer, he is creating literature that will hold true as the genre evolves. Yet, he continues to challenge himself, shifting seamlessly between these roles and creating new forms and new understandings of the art form that has given him so much.

For the 13th annual Modern Dance Festival at the Modern, presented by Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Solomons will be performing his recent work, I Used to Be Taller, while Kerry Kreiman of CD/FW will restage his Steps #13: Thirteens. Solomons will also be talking about his memories of Scramble, a work he did while dancing for Merce Cunningham, which had a set design by Frank Stella, the artist whose work is currently in a retrospective at the Modern, organized with New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. (This entire CD/FW festival is dedicated to the Stella exhibit.)

Solomons has a long standing connection to Fort Worth and the state of Texas. Kreiman is one of his University of Illinois students, and the two of them kept in touch while she was forming CD/FW, and he completed a couple of residencies at Texas Christian University. They have always been in each other’s lives, so this reconnection during the 13th annual Modern Dance Festival seems almost kismet.

I spoke with Solomons last week while he was in Berlin performing and preparing to return to Texas to perform at the Modern Dance Festival at the Fort Worth Modern on July 30.


TheaterJones: What was the first dance performance you ever saw? 

Gus Solomons Jr.: I guess the first one was the annual recital of my dance school, which I was in of course…I also remember watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies. Those were my inspirations. I would go watch the movies a couple of times through and then go home and try to copy what they did.


Would say that is what motivated you to study dance and to pursue it as a career?

Well, I knew I wanted to dance forever and I did this little bit of training when I around 12 for about a year…tap, acrobatics, and ballet. But I got bullied in the neighborhood where the studio was so I didn’t stay with that for long. I didn’t really start to study dance seriously until I was in college. I was at MIT, studying architecture, and they asked me to choreograph a show, because I was always dancing around. And I thought, “Oh! What does that mean? Choreograph a show? You mean make some dances? Ok. Yeah, I can do that.” So I went over to the Boston Conservatory and started to take modern classes…one class a week lead to two classes a week lead to three classes a week to as many as I could squeeze in.


Was that the moment you knew this was it for you? That dance was your future?

This is when I started training and actually studying what it was that I was supposed to be doing. That was absolutely fascinating…and I started studying with a lot of different teachers. They had an organization in Boston called the Dance Circle that brought New York choreographers to the city every Wednesday night…they would teach a couple of classes a night, so I got exposed to a lot of different styles.


And that’s when you met Merce Cunningham, right?

Yes. Him, Erick Hawkins, Donald McKayle, he actually started my professional career.


You joined Merce Cunningham in 1965 as the company was enter a new era. What was your favorite memory with Merce?

I guess maybe the first rehearsals…when I was expecting that we were all going to throw coins…but we came to rehearsal and he gave us movement! All that other stuff was his homework, so we were learning movement that he imagined and wanted to try. We didn’t know them, and he didn’t know them, but together we made them possible. So that was great fun, learning how to make things happen in the studio. Because all the other choreographers that I had worked with prior had the steps. That was the day when choreographers made up the movement and you just learned it…and with Merce, it was kind of trial and error, but there was very little error because he accepted everything that happened. And tried to make it work. Because there was no good movement or bad movement. That was a revelation.

Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Gus Solomons Jr.


Collaboration. That’s really what was going on in the studio. You all working as a group.

Yes. Actually, yes. Very much so!


How did that end of affecting your creative process as a choreographer?

Collaborating with the dancers…not so much for me at the beginning. I made up the movement and taught it to them. But I did collaborate with composers and visual designers. So that was the nature of my collaborative process, and it was a different kind of collaboration than with Merce. He would just send his collaborators off to make 20 minutes worth of whatever, while he made 20 minutes worth of movement, and then we would come together at the performance, if not before. And it would happen. I was much less able, or willing, to leave it that much to chance. I didn’t have his vision. But I was very lucky to have composers make music for my dances.


Which is a huge part of collaboration, just like working with a set designer. Do you think your background in architecture has also been an influence?

Yes, very much. It influenced the nature of the dances I made. I was very much into grids and progressions. I was also very much interested in making work for alternative spaces. So, we danced a lot in gardens and plazas and galleries and so forth. Rather than just on the stage. That was, in a way, the influence of the Judson Group, which I was connected with at the very beginning when it started as a composition class with Robert Dunn in Merce’s old studio. But at that point, I was not willing to give up technical movement, so I didn’t remain attached to the Judson Group, but I was always interested in breaking up the form, finding new forms, new locales…and new ways of combining movement and sound.


With your first company, Solomons Company/Dance, what was that experience like for you to finally be in charge?

Oh well, I was always in charge. I’ve been in charge since I was eight (laughing)…oh, wait a minute, I was 10…I had a little theater in my basement and I was the director. I wrote the material, made the costumes, sets, etcetera! But seriously, I had always been making dances since the time I started studying. And when I moved from Boston to New York, the ideas of improvisation and composition were always with me.

I had the company right after I left Merce…and soon after that I had depression. For most of the heyday with my company, I was depressed. And the dances I was making were in a way therapeutic. I wasn’t having a lot of fun in a conventional sense, but I was sort of staying alive. The company had a lot of work then…the NEA [National Endownment for the Arts] had started the national touring program and we were on that. So, we did a lot of touring to colleges and universities. We were very busy and I was not fully able to enjoy it.


I feel like you’re speaking directly to me and where I am with my own practice and health. It’s empowering to hear that you found your way out of the darkness.

It gets better.


I hope so. But back on topic. Your current company, Paradigm. This is a different type of company than your first.

Yes. We still exist as a company, but we are not active at the moment. It’s a company of dancers over 50, because I knew a couple of dancers who weren’t noticed as choreographers, but who still wanted to dance and had things to say as dancers. So, I made a trio for us, and then another trio, and then I thought, “Let me commission choreographers who interest me to see how they would work with dancers who don’t have all the tricks.” And that was the beginning of Paradigm. And we’re still working as dancers today.


You also have a career as a dance reviewer. How important have your found your dance education and experiences to be beneficial to your writing?

Oh, absolutely, everything. I have seen a lot because I have been what’s called a “Site Visitor” for the NEA, and I have also done that for the New York State Council. So, it was a natural segue, and I love to write. I don’t like to read, but I love to write. Because it’s like building. I like putting words together to get across an exact meaning. So, my writing was clear and a colleague on the NEA panel said to me, “You should be writing reviews.” So, that’s how that started…The major benefit for me is that it has allowed me to keep abreast of what is happening and the evolution of the field.


What have you noticed?

Oh, all the things young choreographers go through. Being hyper, confessional, and digging down into the depths of their souls…and talking while their dancing…and really the whole evolution and birth of what we now call “postmodern.” I attribute it to Trisha Brown, where the movement itself was less important than the energy that took to produce it. Because modern dance is all about making movement, and postmodern is about motion.


When you come to Texas this week, will you be teaching or dancing, or both?

I will be performing a solo that I made last September called I Used To Be Taller. It’s, of course, autobiographical. [Laughing] It’s very short and sweet…and Kerry [Kreima] is reviving one of my steps dances which were all about rhythm and geometry. Steps #13: Thirteens is the thirteenth one in the series and is made of five phrases that were each 13 counts long and when I combined them and did all the permutations, it came out to be 13 minutes long. And I thought, “That’s karmic.” [Laughing] There’s something right about that!


» The Modern Dance Festival at the Modern continues at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Admission to the galleries to see the Stella exhibition is free on Sundays. Regular admission ($10 adults/$4 students and seniors) applies during Saturday events for patrons who plan to visit the galleries, too. Gallery admission is always free for children 12 and under.

Below is a list of performances for each day:


Saturday July 30

1 pm, Grand Lobby

*indicates portions in the Museum Auditorium

Hilary McDaniel Douglas/Project In Motion  “STELLAAA!”

M2 – Mel Mobley & Tina Mullone  (Monroe, LA) “topological mixing”

Kelly Kocinski Trager (Dallas)  “Full of Scratches”

* Gus Solomons jr “I Used To Be Taller”

*“Stella & Cunningham” lecture, films, Q&A with Gus Solomons jr (NYC) and Jeff Slayton (Long Beach)


Screening of rare clips within the lecture will include:

The first 23-minutes of “498, 3rd Ave.” [1967, Written & Directed by Klaus Wildenhahn, which tells the story of the making of “Scramble”

A short clip from GREAT PERFORMANCES:  DANCE IN AMERICA:  #314 Merce Cunningham:  An Event For Television (1977)

Both clips feature Gus Solomons jr performing as an original cast member of “Scramble.”

CD/FW performs Solomons’ “Steps #13:  Thirteens”

Marianne Ruth (Dallas)  “Done”

jhon r. stronks (Houston) and Wayne M. Smith (Memphis)

*Remainder of “498, 3rd Ave.” will be screened in the Museum Auditorium when performances in the lobby are completed (estimated start time of 3 pm to see remaining 58 minutes of the documentary)


Sunday July 31

1 pm, Grand Lobby

*indicates portions in Museum Auditorium

Hilary McDaniel Douglas/Project In Motion “STELLAAA!”

Amy Sleigh (Fort Worth) & Brittany Padilla (Denton) “A Butterfly’s Parasol”

Kelly Kocinski Trager (Dallas)  “Full of Scratches”

M2 – Mel Mobley & Tina Mullone  (Monroe, LA)  “topological mixing”        

Shapes Dance – family friendly audience participation opportunity

* Gus Solomons jr “I Used To Be Taller”

CD/FW performs Solomons’ “Steps #13:  Thirteens”

Collective Dance Force Company “Spinning Carousels”

Momentum Dance Company (Irving) “Whirlwind, Deconstructed”

jhon r. stronks (Houston) and Wayne M. Smith (Memphis)

CD/FW and guests -- “ConStellaTions:  Cosmos to Chaos” Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Gus Solomons, Jr.
The New York dance legend, who performs at Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth's Modern Dance Festival this weekend, on his career, architecture, inspiration and writing.
by Danielle Georgiou

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