Home > Arts/Culture/Entertainment > Amplifying Sally Banes

A contrasting piece of news appeared amidst the clamorous backdrop of my social media feed about the pandemic and our national reckoning with systemic racism: the formidable dance writer Sally Banes died on June 14, 2020. Friends and colleagues in the dance field widely shared and posted Wendy Perron’s fact-filled and beautifully described obituary, adding their remembrances and gratitude for her extraordinary work that gave so many of us insight, inspiration, and context. I myself posted about how Banes gave me a taste of cultural relevance as an artist when she mentioned a piece of mine in Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage, her feminist critique of ballet and modern dance. “Sally’s books are wondrous,” commented Barbara Dilley, a prominent member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as well as the groundbreaking early 1970s NYC-based ensemble the Grand Union. “She made the Grand Union something I could share with students and friends. Democracy’s Body gave me the macro vista for that extraordinary era; and told me stories I didn’t know.” 

When an email from the Reader arrived a few days ago inviting me to write this piece, I felt as if I was being called by Sally herself to join in the practice of exploring, recognizing, thinking, revealing, and writing that was her life’s work—but this time in the service of her own oeuvre and the gifts she has left us. I began my impromptu research by reaching out to colleagues who teach: Cynthia Oliver (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Susan Manning (Northwestern) both described Banes’s work as “foundational” to our collective understanding of contemporary dance practices and thinking, especially as regards Judson Dance Theater, a seminal performance art collective of the early 1960s.

Other folks described how their student encounters with Banes’s writing changed and impressed them: “She was a revelation to me,” says Jenai Cutcher, a dancer and the founding director of the Chicago Dance History Project, who encountered Banes’s books while at Ohio State University. “Her work signalled to me that there was a place for me in the dance world.” Independent choreographer Sharon Mansur shares that Banes’s writing on the postmodernists gave a view of “the inner workings of these artists’ questions, processes, radical experiments, and embodied realities. This lens became my touchstone over the years as I developed my artistic voice. When I was fortunate to cross paths with a few of these artists over the years, it felt like meeting a family member that Sally had first described to me.” 

There is no argument that Sally Banes was an eminent, groundbreaking scholar, and that her writings informed, inspired, and connected many dance artists. Her work will continue to be taught and explored. It has already been pushed against; Manning explains that Ramsay Burt’s 2006 book Judson Dance Theater: Performative Traces and the 2019 MoMA exhibit about Judson-era art, The Work Is Never Done, both revise Banes’s narrative of the postmodern dance era.

It occurs to me that now might be a great time to reread my favorite of Banes’s works, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body; it goes beyond the Judson group and describes the confluence of art and artists in the midst of political upheaval and historic change that presaged what we are experiencing now under the Trump administration, faced with COVID-19 and the urgent activity of the Black Lives Matter movement. Her frame for American dance should continue to be expanded upon; I cannot but recognize that although Banes was responsible for giving early recognition to breakdancing as a burgeoning art form in a 1981 article in the Village Voice, she focused her books and scholarly research primarily on art by iconoclastic white artists. 

However, before Sally Banes became THE Sally Banes, the intellectual powerhouse who made such a tremendous impact on our field, she was once a young creator, performer, and iconoclast herself. People who knew her around the time when she was a student at the University of Chicago (pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in criticism, art, and theater) paint a picture of a brightly shining adventurous mover in the environment of the early 1970s local dance and theater scene. Among Banes’s associates at that time was Ellen Mazer, a fellow dance lover whom she’d met at the University of Chicago. Mazer had been an avid ballet student as a girl; in college she was studying philosophical psychology with Eugene Gendlin and Wendy Olmsted. “We clicked immediately,” says Mazer of Banes. “She was that once-in-a-lifetime best female friend. We had to see each other everyday, talk about everything.” Banes graduated from U of C in 1972, and soon moved to the north side to be part of the dance scene that was erupting there, Mazer tells me. 

Several online sources name Banes as a cofounder of the storied MoMing Dance and Arts Center, a neighborhood center for dance classes and avant-garde performance that operated at 1034 W. Barry from 1974-1989. However, “Sally was a student at MoMing, not a founder,” says Tem Horwitz, who did help to establish MoMing, administer it, and even helped name it. “I had found a tai chi instructor, H. H. Lui. When we were looking for a name he suggested that there was a beautiful lake in China called MoMing.” Lui taught at MoMing; whether Sally studied with him or included his students in her performance work is unclear. However, a Reader review by Meredith Anthony of Banes’s epic, ambitious six-hour peripatetic performance A Day in the Life of the Mind: Part 2 describes the inclusion of tai chi movement in the choreography. “Sally had a great eye, tremendous energy, and enthusiasm,” says Horwitz, “a very fine sense of theater.” 

Banes had conceived A Day in the Life of the Mind as (written in the program visible here) “a series of performance exhibits” in the “shape of a treasure hunt” that started behind the Museum of Science and Industry, created a fictional character and home within Banes’s apartment on East 57th Street, made use of the changing light of sunset on windows behind the U of C library, and concluded at a local bar. The work involved multiple performers including her own grandmother. It played with proximity to performers, various ways of seeing people in space; also with sound, color, and language. It confounded social expectations: the roles between performer and audience were often unclear. After the bar visit most of the participants retreated to a private apartment for a party to drink vodka punch and smoke weed. Barriers dissolved; Anthony’s review even becomes an extension of the project, with its title, “A Day in the Life of the Mind: Part III.” Today art critics might place this work within the realm of social practice or socially engaged practice art. 

Mazer explains that the innovations in Life of the Mind and later works were fueled by the research Banes had done in New York City in 1973 in preparation for the writing of Terpsichore in Sneakers. “She was immersing herself in what would later be called postmodern dance,” says Mazer, “She would write me letters about all the artists and art she was seeing; not all of it was dance exactly, I remember her writing about seeing Carolee Schneeman [the feminist visual and performance artist].” The summer of that same year, Mazer and her then-boyfriend had also taken a road trip to Oberlin College to see Banes perform in Meredith Monk‘s Chacon. As a participant-performer, Banes was engaged in a type of embedded research, which she describes in a clear and direct account in vol. 1, no. 1 of Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts, an academic journal that is still being published today.

Mazer and Banes created a duet together in 1975, performed at MoMing, which by all accounts sounds wild, feminist, and pretty darn punk. Mazer says the piece was informed by their friendship and inspired by their trips to the female-only spaces provided by the Luxor Baths on North Avenue, where “women would wash you off with oak leaves.” The dance’s title, Sophie, was a play on the name Sophia, an exemplar of female wisdom; the piece included references to the floor pattern of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul.

“We overlaid a lot of ideas we were thinking about at the time,” says Mazer, remembering that Banes had a neon sign fabricated for the piece saying HOT GRITS, in homage to the female rage of Mary Woodson, who famously attacked Al Green in his bathtub with a potful (before killing herself in his bedroom). They recited Kant’s antinomies of pure reason and smashed shot glasses while wearing nothing but glitter platform heels. The duet also incorporated an ensemble circle dance by a group of their friends, informed by postmodernist choreographer Deborah Hay‘s participatory Circle Dances. The Reader ran a review of this performance, which hilariously includes an account of the critic, Michael Miner, leaving the performance to go find his friend and then returning to the theater. “We started out that performance by playing ten versions of ‘Let the Good Times Roll,'” says Mazer. “I’m not sure why we did that but I think we were fascinated that so many different people had covered that song.”

I believe it was Banes’s immersion in experimental dance and performance practice as a maker that enabled her to become such a deeply perceptive scholar and writer. The kind of clear and finely-honed critique that Banes evidenced in her writing is born of empathy with the performers she writes about; the fresh and vivid arguments she makes about dance and performance reveal her own embodiment, artistic creativity, and unique way of seeing and understanding the world. In a poignant bit of timing, just a month or so ago, the Chicago Dance History Project began working on a collection of Banes’s scholarship, photos, and ephemera; director Jenai Cutcher hopes it will be available to the public within the year.  v

Special thanks to Jan Bartoszek, Maureen Janson Heintz, and Rebecca Rossen for their help with this article.

Asimina Chremos is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in Philadelphia. She lived and worked in Chicago from 1997 to 2010, during which time she served in various capacities for the dance field including artistic director of Links Hall, instructor at Lou Conte Dance Studio, and dance editor for Time Out Chicago magazine. 

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