Interview with Daniel Phoenix Singh: Touching Hearts, Tackling Issues and Inspiring Audiences
Daniel Phoenix Singh — who earned his BA and MFA in Dance from UMD — returns with his company, Dakshina, to remount four works by one of the most dynamic and uncompromising figures in American modern dance, Anna Sokolow.
Recently Singh shared his thoughts with us on returning to his alma mater, working with Lorry May and Sokolow’s influence on the modern dance world.
What kind of impact did Sokolow have on the modern dance world?
Daniel Phoenix Singh: Anna Sokolow was a lightning rod and one of the key figures in establishing modern dance in Israel and Mexico in addition to building her company in the U.S. There are very few figures contemporaneous to Sokolow who had such a wide reach during their lifetime.
What about you — how does her work influence you as a choreographer?
DPS: Anna Sokolow found a way to distill movement to its sparest form, yet the power of her dances often leaves me gasping for breath. I admire her ability to speak so powerfully with so little.
As much as I admire her powerful choreography, I also admire the fact that she often dealt with very difficult social justice issues in her dances. What is noteworthy is that she did it simply as an observer of the human condition, and you never feel like she is preaching to you. This is what makes her a unique voice and a role model for me as a choreographer — she never accuses, she only asks you to think.
Daniel’s thesis concert in 2004 was one of the first student productions to be invited back as part of the Center’s season.
You earned your BA from UMBC and your MFA at the University of Maryland. It must be a thrill to perform here again.
DPS: I’m very excited to return to UM. In 2004, my thesis concert, “Songs of My Life,” was restaged in the Kay Theater — one of the first student productions to be invited back as part of the Center’s season.
It’s a wonderful homecoming to be back at the Center for a full-fledged evening of Sokolow’s works. I'm particularly thrilled about the panel discussion with [faculty members] Alvin Mayes and Anne Warren, who were involved in the restaging of Sokolow’s works several decades ago.
[Sokolow] never accuses, she only asks you to think.
Tell us a little about each of the four pieces your company will be performing.
DPS: Frida is Anna Sokolow’s re-framing of Mexican artist [Frida] Kahlo’s life through dance and selected slides of her work. It is one of the last pieces Anna Sokolow choreographed, and we’re lucky to have Lorry May re-staging the work with Dakshina. Sokolow lived in Mexico for many years and was instrumental in establishing modern dance there.
September Sonnet is the last dance that Sokolow choreographed. It’s a touching duet about finding love and comfort. Sokolow was known as the conscience of the modern dance choreographers for tackling issues of gender equality, sexuality, war, loneliness and similar hard questions. It is poignant, and worth noting, that a love duet was the last dance she created. Lorry May was also the original dancer in this piece.
Dreams is Sokolow’s honest and searing look at the Holocaust, and a caution not to forget the atrocities of war. The scenes are inspired by stories and images found in the books The Diary of Anne Frank and The Last of the Just. This is one of Sokolow’s signature pieces, and is powerful in its starkness and unsentimental telling.
Rooms is Anna Sokolow’s commentary on isolation and loneliness in our biggest cities, where people live so close to each other but are never able to really engage with or touch each other in a meaningful way. It is the first modern dance piece that used jazz music and also the first one to use chairs as props. Rooms is considered a pivotal piece in the modern dance continuum and critics often consider it to be a major milestone in the evolution of modern dance to take on difficult topics without using text.
Rooms is considered a pivotal piece in the modern dance continuum … the first modern dance piece that used jazz music and also the first one to use chairs as props.
Together these pieces show the remarkable range of Sokolow’s choreography and the various topics she addressed through her dances.
You mentioned that Lorry May, former principal with the Sokolow company, would be working on this project. What’s it like working with her?
DPS: Dakshina is one of a handful of companies keeping her [Sokolow’s] legacy alive and we’re proud to be able to partner with Lorry May. Lorry recreates Anna Sokolow’s process of creating dances, and it is liberating to take a leap of faith and have the movement and genius catch you and sustain you, so many years after it was conceived and created.
There is the unquestionable genius of Sokolow’s choreography. And then there is the subtler genius of Lorry’s ability to take you through the creative process as if the dance is being created from scratch each time, instead of just teaching us the steps and calling it a reconstruction.
We really are working with two women who are geniuses.
So we really are working with two women who are geniuses. Sokolow’s dances are a testament to the power of movement to survive through generations and across cultures, and Lorry’s reconstruction approach is a shining model of how to coach and give life to these classics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.