After 30 years at 2030 Sansom St., Susan Hess Modern Dance Studios presented its final concert there Sunday night. But instead of a wake, it was a celebration of the far-reaching dance legacy shaped in that space. Former Philly dancer Steve Krieckhaus came in from St. Louis to honor Hess, and so - surprise! - did famed global choreographer Lucinda Childs, whose spectacular 1979
will have its Philadelphia premiere at this fall's LiveArts Festival.
Krieckhaus was one of many who went on to success through Hess' 26-year-old Choreographers Project (others include Rennie Harris and Eric Schoefer). And Childs participated in Hess' Masters Exchange series, also begun in 1984, which brought in dance icons including Deborah Hay and Daniel Nagrin.
The evening, despite bittersweet moments, was upbeat. As Krieckhaus said during the closing honors, "After all, Susan is not dying." Indeed, Hess told me earlier that she'd received funding from Dance Advance to move her two signature projects to choreographer Jeanne Ruddy's Performance Garage on Brandywine Street next season.
"For the choreographers exchange, Megan Mazarick will return and Raphael Xavier and Bronwen MacArthur will be the new people," she said. "And for the Masters Exchange, Ralph Lemon returns."
Hess, who taught modern dance at Juilliard and the Pennsylvania Ballet, found the uppermost floor space on Sansom Street in 1980. "It had been a Ford assembly plant at the turn of the century, but it was the only space that didn't have poles down the middle," she said. "My husband, Richard Herskovitz, redesigned it. I taught there, always accompanied by live piano."
She lost her lease, she said, when the building's owner said theater companies that work on the floors below complained the dancers made too much noise. "So," Hess said Sunday, "we're going to dance after tonight's show - a stomping party."
The show's three dances-in-progress were by this year's choreographic residents. Erin Foreman-Murray's intriguing LLSSv3 began with Lisa Rothstein writhing chrysalis-like across the floor. Joined by Foreman, she stood upright and they began a very lovely duet with isolated shoulder rolls, later switching to rhythmic dancing.
Meg Foley danced her Orienteering = you getting lost in the woods. Or walking into a fence. In a white T-shirt, black pants, and gray hoodie, with her throat painted red, she reminded me of a woodpecker. Seated spread-legged on the floor, she clapped a staccato beat until it resonated through the space. Comical runs, including an awkwardly backwards one, heightened that avian impression. A little like birdwatchers, seven dance buddies came out to pose in a tableau.
Mazarick is one of Philly's zaniest yet most serious choreographers. She and Ben Asriel danced her Untitled Duet on a large canvas that they dragged out and unfolded to reveal a mound of dirt - a grave. To texts from Flannery O'Connor, the two shuffled the soil until it was evenly distributed, then sank into it, struggling with each other as the dirt flew in what seemed an impossible relationship.
The evening ended with a big surprise - Hess' announcement that Childs, 69, would dance. To an excerpt of long-time collaborator Philip Glass' music, she pranced forward like a fox, staring at the floor as if it were prey and pushing the heavy air before her aside, redefining the space. Then - basta! - the hand snapped up, a magic moment over as she vanished.