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Revival: A Meditation on Aging, Dance, & Community

In spring of 2017, Ellen Graff, Stuart Hodes, and Marnie Thomas Wood, all former members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Tony award-winning Broadway choreographer George Faison, set out to make dances for a group of older adults, many of whom had never performed onstage. Josefina Rotman Lyons, an older dancer herself, volunteered to film the project. The resulting documentary, “Revival,” is an honest and engaging take on what it’s like to dance in later life. Now available for streaming at Revivaldocumentary.com, the film won jury and audience awards when it made the rounds of film festivals. At a screening hosted by MGDC last week at its Westbeth studio theater in New York City, artistic director Janet Eilber framed the film’s topic as “longevity, aging, and beauty in the world of dance” when athleticism and youth are now so highly valued. “We celebrate that dance isn’t just for those under 40,” said Thomas Wood during the question and answer session that followed.

Michelle van Vlaanderen in rehearsal for Revival, a film by Josefina Rotman Lyons

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The dancers in the film are part of Naomi Goldberg Haas’ Dances for a Variable Population classes that take place at various senior centers in NYC. Most are well over 40. “Naomi is enlarging the definition of dance,” says Stuart Hodes. “As did Martha Graham [in her time].” Hodes, who partnered Graham herself when he was a company member, is an especially articulate and physically vibrant presence. He acknowledges that at 92 he doesn’t have the mobility or balance do what he used to—this project focuses on the opposite. “I wondered if I could make a dance of things they can do,” he says.

Former Martha Graham dancer Stuart Hodes in Revival, a film by Josefina Rotman Lyons.

Graff speaks very candidly in the film, “I’m very aware of the ways in which I don’t like looking at people who aren’t much older than I am—struggling. And at the same time knowing if only I could see this more lovingly, then it wouldn’t seem so fearsome to me. Because that is afterall, what inevitably happens when we age.” She and Thomas Wood, both veteran dance educators, used Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” as a model for their group of dancers because of its folk dance foundation. “It’s well designed for our age group,” says Thomas Wood. We hear strains of the familiar Aaron Copeland music and watch Thomas Wood marking a series of 8-counts around her dining room table while Ellen makes notes on the computer. “Keeping the mind alert is another aspect of this,” says Graff.

Still from Revival, a film by Josefina Rotman Lyons

Meanwhile Faison sets to work on a jazzy piece evoking the Harlem Renaissance period. There’s a wonderful scene where he’s sitting with a lap full of sequined and feathered headresses, scarves, and gloves for his cast as they put together their costumes. “I have a long history of making a way for everyone,” he says, recalling how he helped non-movers like actors and singers look good on Broadway.

Hodes’ contribution is a touching duet about older love for Graff and Chet Walker, the choreographer who originally conceived the musical, “Fosse.” Walker’s presence in the film is especially poignant as he died at 68 this past October.

Naomi Goldberg Haas and George Faison (front) with former dancers of Martha Graham Dance Company in Revival, film by Josefina Rotman Lyons

“Revival” is Rotman Lyons’ first film. A lawyer, she had been studying filmmaking and had assisted others with their projects. She learned about Goldberg Haas’ ambitious plans when she happened to be taking a Dances for a Variable Population class at 92nd Street Y. Rotman Lyons handles her topic with patience and obvious appreciation, circulating between the four choreographers and following the progress of their rehearsals. When it comes to the much anticipated final performance that takes place outdoors at Grant’s Tomb in Morningside Heights, she samples judiciously from the show itself and lets the camera pan out to the crowd so we see firsthand the reactions of passersby. Completely absorbed in their activity, the pure joy on the dancers’ faces is contagious. We felt it too in the screening room. “I learned not to fear aging,” said Rotman Lyons about the process of making the film. “You change,” said Goldberg Haas. “But you can always do something.”

Karen Hildebrand

Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.



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