Interview with Richard Moten
Philadelphia Dance Projects
LOCAL DANCE HISTORY PROJECT
Interview with Richard Moten by Terry Fox, October 14, 2016.
At Carlos Café at 2101 Walnut St. Phila PA 19103
Terry Fox: Richard Moten I want talk about your experience as a dancer with Joan Kerr, and that’s going to be our focus, but first tell me a little bit about yourself. Let’s start with where were you born.
RM: I was born right here in Philadelphia, in North Philadelphia. The funny thing is, because I’m an only child, and I found out later, much later—I guess I was in my early twenties—that my mother was told that I would be born dead, and that she would die. They told my grandparents all of this, because I refused to turn around. So what happened was they pulled me out, and broke my arm.
RM: And back then, they didn’t care, because they could have reset it, but didn’t. So being an only child, made a lot of issues for me growing up. I kind of knew early on that I liked the arts, and things like that, and that wasn’t really the best thing for me then, being male and black. So I tried to suppress all of that. But my mother had a friend who knew someone that knew Melvin Brooms, and Melvin was a dancer going to Sydney King’s school. Sydney, who’s still alive—she’s about 97 now. I went to Sydney, where I was introduced to ballet and all types of dance. And oh, gosh, there were so many people there that are still around, and so many that aren’t, that I can’t even talk about those days with.
TF: So when would you say that was that you started?
RM: In my teens – that was about sixteen, at least, But there weren’t a lot of male dancers.
TF: Right. So you were in great demand.
RM: I was in great demand. And then I was enjoying myself, so I was excelling. I tried to do other things. I actually got a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Ballet when they opened on Walnut Street.
TF: This was the late sixties?
RM: I’m going to leave all of that up to you, because I am terrible when it comes to dates I really am.
TF: Ok I’ll find out but I think they started about mid-sixties, mid- to late sixties. Maybe it was earlier, because Joan got started at the end of the sixties. So maybe it was earlier.
RM: I studied with Barbara Sandonato at Pennsylvania Ballet, I felt that I was really doing good. I was taking classes, and I asked Barbara Weisberger [Director/founder at that time] about joining the company. And she said to me, “Well Richard, after all, you’re no Arthur Mitchell.” Now I understand implication of that statement but then I didn’t. I did not realize how racist that was, that just because I was black I had to be, either look like or be, Arthur Mitchell who was the only male black dancer in New York City Ballet. It never dawned on me until much later, because I knew I was keeping up with the guys in class, and I was doing well. She told me that, and it went right over my head, like lots of things, I’ll tell you. I was really not on that channel, in terms of race, because the entire time I was performing with interracial companies including with Joan Kerr, of course. The company included Kathy Pira, Helen Truehart, Gary Celain, Faye Snow and others.
TF: I think that was the Horton tradition, having a very integrated company. She took that on. She was very liberal that way.
RM: Because she really knew the true Horton technique, and she had Joyce Trisler and Jimmy Truitte come to teach and choreograph. That was really kind of exciting.
TF: They were all original members of the Horton Company.
RM: Right, and I didn’t realize their importance until later.
TF: Kerr was first generation using Horton technique here. She was a really excellent teacher of it.
RM: She really was loyal to the technique. She taught us “Dimensional Tonis” “Deep Floor Vocabulary” all of Horton’s studies. (Of course, that hip stuff was a bit much)
TF: I know so difficult, especially for somebody who started late in dance.
RM: But I was really enjoying it, and having a good time. I got so involved. Then I was also dancing with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet. At that time I was also teaching with Marion Cuyjet, at her invitation.
I didn’t want to. She kept asking me, but I didn’t feel qualified. And she said, “Come on. I’ll be there. I’ll help you.” Then I realized I knew—you know more than you know.
TF: So you were taking class every day ?
RM: Yes. And I was working everyday for the City of Philadelphia.
in Public Property, as a clerk.
TF: I think that’s when I met you. You were a City employee.
RM: My days were full and I’m glad I did that.
TF: You worked during the day, and then you had rehearsal.
RM: Yes, I also took classes with Elmer Ball and John Hines.
. They were teaching classes all over the city, just to make ends meet. And I said to myself, “You don’t want this. You’re enjoying this, but how are you going to make any money?” So I decided to go to Temple. I thought that, “If I get a degree, then I’ll be able to teach in a college, or so something like that.” I thought maybe a degree in Dance might insure a better career in either performing or teaching so I applied to the Dance Program at Temple University and was accepted. When I was at Temple there was an audition notice posted for male dancers for a Washington Ballet, for the Jones and Haywood, Capitol Ballet Company. So I jumped on the bus and went there, and we just had a big love affair. These were two black women, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. I started dancing with that company. I used weekends and vacation weeks from work to rehearse and perform with the Capitol Ballet. At this school, they were very classically ballet trained, and that’s what we learned, mostly. George Balanchine came to the school and watched a class, because they were so well known for their teaching.
They had a principle dancer, Sandra Fortune. We danced together quite a bit. She was the type of a dancer that was so secure, that as a partner, you really had to have your game on, because when you were supposed to lift her, and if you weren’t there and properly on time, she would just go up by herself, almost ! She was that type of dancer. Anyway, Balanchine said the kids were good, but that nobody would ever be anything, because we didn’t have feet. We didn’t have legs. You know, he was into his whole thing. But then Sandra Fortune went on to Russia, and she won a medal classical ballet. [In1972, the prestigious Second International Ballet Competition in Moscow, Russia. She was the only African American to ever compete in this competition.]
( Hello, Balanchine…)
TF: There you go.
RM: She’s been extraordinary. There is a recent wonderful documentary on her. That school was my really big, big influence.
TF: You were going there, and then coming back to the city and working with the other company?
RM: Coming back to the city—
TF: You were a dancing fool.
RM: I went to Temple. I got a BFA in Dance. Choreography was my major.
TF: So you went back to school after Kathy Pira left the department. It would have been early seventies when the dance department opened up there.
RM: … I don’t know how this interview’s going to sound, because I’m skipping around as things happen. But just to say, at Temple, we were on opposite sides of the table all the time, because I was technically motivated.
TF: Was Eva Gholson there then?
RM: Eva was there. I had a great time with her. I enjoyed her classes—we were good friends. So the thing was, the Department was very post-modern. I was taking ballet and modern. When we had to do choreographic projects, I had people all over the place, moving, and coming in and out, and turning, and falling. And they were like, “Oh, no, no, no.”
TF: No? Just stand and eat a sandwich?
RM: Well, yeah. This is classic. They said to me, you’re always concerned about high legs, and kicks, and turning, and all that stuff. And I said, well, yeah, because if you take an audition for whatever it is, even if it’s modern I’m sure they’re going to begin with eight grand battements a la second, and if those legs don’t go up, they’re going to say, “Thank you.” They’re not going to say, “How does it feel when you walk across a room?” So we were constantly at battle. But still it was a wonderful experience.
TF: But you got your degree, despite it?
RM: Yes, yes. I did.
TF: Was a degree helpful then, in terms of finding employment?
RM: No. I never used it once.
TF: That’s when you went to hairdressing school?
RM: No! Actually, I was teaching for Arthur Hall. I was also dancing with Hall’s African American Dance Ensemble. So I had an adult class, which is wonderful, because adults come because they want to come. They’re going to have fun. They were my best inspiration. We used to just have a great time. Well, one day three of the girls—this was the seventies, now, because disco started happening – three of the girls came to me and said, “Guess what? We have a record contract. We have been asked to be the voices for this record.” Because even though they were putting out these records digitally, they did have singers, and they were the three singers.
And she said, “We gave your name as choreographer.” So this company was in New York, and they did have somebody. But they called me anyway, and asked me to come in. I went to New York, and basically just talked. They said, “We’d like to try you for three or four songs, and see if we like you.” They were called the Ritchie Family, and it was because the Richie Rome orchestra. Two Frenchmen, Jacques Morali and Henri Belleleau, who were producing. I went to New York; they said they liked me. I returned and did some choreography. They said, “We’d like to hire you, temporally just to see if we like your work.” And I had a ball. The funny thing is, I have to say, is that it was a dream to choreograph.
TF: To the disco, was it like an MTV thing?
RM: No, they hadn’t gotten to MTV. The song was called “The Best Disco in Town,” and these girls were called The Ritchie Family.
TF: You choreographed for them, the singers?
RM: I choreographed for the singers.
TF: Did you commute back and forth, or did you live in New York?
RM: I commuted. People would say to me, “Move to New York,” but I was also still going to Washington. They said, “Why don’t you move here?” But I think, now that I think back, I was an only child. My family was here, all my connections. The thought of doing that… Even Arthur Mitchell, when I was studying on a scholarship with Dance Theater of Harlem stopped me and said to me, “We really like you. Would you be interested in not joining the company yet, but studying, and being sort of groomed for the company ? And I said, “Well, I don’t know.”
When I told my friend Sara, she said, “Are you crazy? People come here. They dream of somebody walking up and asking them!” But my insides were telling me—because I was inexperienced. I was thinking, “How am I going to live in New York?” He was offering me maybe like $50 a week. She said, “Well, you room with five or six people.” Well, I’m spoiled, basically. I’m thinking, I could never do that. So I thanked him very much, and I didn’t take his offer. I didn’t move to New York. But I also had great opportunity of taking classes with Carl Shook while I was there.
TF: I don’t know him.
RM: He was wonderful.
TF: I don’t know names in the ballet world.
RM: So I’m doing the Ritchie Family. Oh, and then we had an audition for dancers, so I auditioned for guys in New York. Of course, that was something new for me. They came in; it was unbelievable. These guys could dance, but they would come in with tight outfits on, and buff bodies that, to get them over the audition (i.e. mask their limited skills). We picked a couple people, and then the producer said to me, “Why don’t you take one of the jobs, as a back-up dancer and singer? And that way, if we go away, you’ll be able to make adjustments and rehearse them, and we’ll give you a little extra for that.” So I said okay. Well, then one day they came in and said the record was a huge hit, and that we were invited to go to California to do Soul Train.
Everybody was jumping up and down, and that was some experience. They picked us up in a limo. We went to LA, but you know, when you do all that traveling, you hardly get to see anything. You get there; they rush you to the studio. You’re just spacing, checking sound, and everything. They record it all, and do whatever, and then you’re done. You go back home. So sometimes we did get to see the city, but often not.
RM: The girls and I reunited about 8 years ago . They had a big dinner, They gave me a tape of us when we appeared on the Mike Douglas Show.
RM: We went all over. In places like Germany, they would have sets. We would be coming down long flights.
TF: Amazing! Around the world!
RM: Well, then the producer came in one day, and he said to me—he was French, and he was a lot of fun, and he really liked me. He was trying to get me to go to dinners, and things like that, which I wouldn’t do. He says, “Ree-shar, I have a fantastic idea, and I want you to be part of this.” And he’d say, “Your skin—you can be an Indian.” And he says, “I have this idea, and I’m going to call them the Village People. And I want you, too.” I said, “Well, I already have a job.” Who knows what these Village People are going to do? We’re doing a lot with the Ritchie Family and everything. So we went away. We went to Paris, and when we came back the Village People were all together. He had a choreographer in New York, but he didn’t like any of it. So he said, “I want you to do this.” So I choreographed the first five albums for the Village People.
RM: Yes. So that was a lot of fun, because they were just like—
TF: I never knew this about you!
RM: You didn’t?
RM: Yeah, I think I have a picture of me with all the guys.
TF: I’d love to see that photo.
RM: It was very difficult, because there were five guys, five different levels of performance. I was pulling my hair out. Because one guy would get the step immediately, then the other one wouldn’t, so he didn’t like it. Then another one would be working on it, and then somebody would tell him he wasn’t doing it right. I mean, they wore me out! I didn’t have the temperament or the personality to say, “Look, do this or don’t do it. If you get it, go on and rehearse it.” I was trying to work with everybody. And like I say, the one who did the step, he was there.
But the producers liked it. They liked what we were doing. I went to Australia with them. We went to Poland. We went to Germany a few times. We went all over—Italy, London. And sometimes it was so big we would get off the plane and it was almost like Beyonce. We would get off the plane, and there would be guards, and people screaming. They were giving you clothes, and jackets and things. Often times, they liked the back-up dancers with the Ritchie Family and the Village People. They would get to a place where one record was big, that wasn’t hit here in the United States, so I would have to choreograph. So we would be up until three o’clock in the morning, trying to get this piece together for the TV show the next day.
RM: You’re making me bring back all this stuff!
TF: It’s wonderful! I want to get back to Joan Kerr, but I just want to see this trajectory. So you working with others during the seventies. You came back to the city, because you never really actually left it because of your family and friends. You started teaching at UArts, or you did hair?
RM: No, I was teaching all over, but this whole Village People and Ritchie Family thing lasted for quite a while.
TF: It sounds like it.
RM: And during that disco time, I met a lot of talented and interesting people. I remember Donna Summer was on the show we were on. She came up to me and she said, “Richard, I really need a choreographer. I love what you’re doing. I will pay you very well.” But I was very loyal. I mean, I was flattered, but the thought, no. Now today I see people do ten different things at once, but at that point for me—well, I had no role model, you know? All of this was just me.
TF: It’s hard to be mercenary, in some way.
RM: I thanked her. There were others like Claudia Berry ,I remember, made a similar offer.
TF: So that’s wonderful. It’s great that you have some videos of that.
You must have been really good. It must have been fresh.
RM: Especially now after the internet and Facebook, I’ve found some people. A guy got in touch with me from Germany. He said he was a huge fan of the Ritchie Family. He sent me a tape of us performing in Germany, with the whole band and everything, and that was a lot of fun.
So I was working with Evelyn “Champagne” King, and then Evelyn was doing an album cover, and she went to New York and she worked with a friend of mine. She comes back, and she said, “Oh, the guy that did my hair says he knows you!” So I called him, and he said, “Listen, you should do hair. You’re always talking about it,” and this and that. “If you have a break, I’ll get you lots of work.” So then I said, “Well, why not?” So I enrolled at Jean Madeline. I was very worried, because I was 50 by then and I’m, like, “Good Lord!” These kids were eighteen and nineteen.
TF: The years had gone by, right.
RM: I went there, and the guy said, “I can see you’re really nervous, but guess what? You’re the type of person that we want, because you’re here because you want to be. You’re not here because you’re a teenager, and you’re trying to get out of school.” So they kept me. They gave me a scholarship to do the teacher’s course, and I learned teaching, and I did teaching. That’s how I started doing hair, in that barber seminar. I got a job at Saks, and that was a lot of fun, too. And then my friend Jeffrey, who was the one who was doing Evelyn Champagne, he said to me, “I’ll get you work. Move to New York.” I’m like, “Yeah, right. I can’t do that.” But the first job he got for me was in 1997, so that’s one year I remember for some reason!
It was with the Essence Awards. I was his assistant. He flew to Detroit to confer with Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker, because he was going to do them for the show. So I was the assistant, so my role was to stand there and not talk, just sort of prep the hair, and be there to hand him the comb and all that kind of grandeur.
TF: What excitement!
RM: It was nice. He liked me because, he said, “You know, I have so many assistants that in awe of these people. They’re asking for autographs.” And you know, you don’t do that. At this particular show, they were honoring Lena Horne. Anita Baker was singing “Stormy Weather” for her. Patti LaBelle was there. Aretha Franklin was there. It was just, every time you turned around, there was somebody else.
I would sort of stand by, if he needed a brush or he needed spray, or anything like that. So I’m standing there, and Patti LaBelle comes, and she’s standing right in front of me, and then Aretha Franklin, which I didn’t know, was behind me. So they started hugging with me in the middle, and we laughed and laughed and laughed! They said, “We got this man in the middle here. We’re just having fun!” It was a lot of stuff like that, and I just—I was really enjoying it.
But the interesting thing, and I don’t know where I got this from—I realized they were who they were, but I wasn’t, like, “Oh, my god!” The only person I actually, my heart started beating faster, was Lena Horne. She was so gracious, and so gorgeous, and so nice. And I’m thinking, “You’re standing right here in the same room with Lena Horne.”
TF: That’s amazing! What a story!
RM: So now we have to get back!
TF: So let’s get back to Joan, because we want to talk about one of the first Horton companies, if not “the” Horton company, in Philadelphia. How did you first hear about Joan?
RM: John Hines. I was taking classes with him at a studio at 52nd and Market Streets. I think he had a studio right there. You would get off the El train, and you could see. I was going to John, and he said, “I know this woman, Joan Kerr. She’s looking for dancers, so why don’t you go and audition for her?” And that’s how I met Joan. Joan, she was really warm and genuine, and really nice, and we laughed a lot. We used to jump in her car, because we also did the Young Audiences program.
TF: Her car, was a Morris Minor ! It was tiny.
RM: We used to squeeze props and things in that car, and then we would have these directions but we’d get lost all the time. It was interesting with that program, too, because sometimes we would go into the school, and they would have a buffet, coffee and everything, because it was an early morning assembly. And sometimes we would go there and they would go, “Oh, I forgot you were coming!” So they didn’t have lights; they didn’t have any place to change. So we had lots of stories about that. But Joan, being Joan, she demanded, “I have to have this, and have to do this.”
TF: So you started doing the school programs with her?
RM: We did the school—we would do “The Fox and the Grapes,” and “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and run around. Of course, we would improvise a lot because it was fun. We were just having fun. We would get the kids to come up on the stage. I also did a lec-dem program with the Civic Ballet, which was quite different.
TF: My impression with Joan is that she also hustled those jobs on her own. That may even have been before Young Audiences. She did a bit of both.
RM: We performed at the Painted Bride on South Street.
TF: I think that’s because she was friends with Gerry Givnish.
RM: She demanded professionalism always. We always had to take class. For performances and school programs she wanted full make up, which meant two layers. You had to put on a layer of make up, powder everything, brush that off, and go over it, because she said that way if you sweat, it wouldn’t be running.
TF: At seven a.m., before school starts.
RM: Yes! And I used to try to get away with it, but she would come up to me and say, “No, that’s not two layers.” I do remember when Joan got sick, and I went to visit her. I’ll never forget. In the hospital, she said to me, “Richard, do you think I’m going to croak?”
I mean, that’s the way she was!
TF: I know.
RM: So all of that was the best she foundation for being professional
RM: Because it was good foundation. And actually, when you work as a choreographer, that’s the stuff you have inside of you, that you’re able to bring out that counts
TF: That’s right.
RM: I think that’s what helped me, even with the commercial stuff.
TF: My impression is that she really pulled a sense of emotion and expression, and artistic understanding from her dancers.
RM: She did. And she encouraged me to choreograph, because I was, “Hell, no, no, no.” “Oh, come on. Try! You can do something else that you learn.”
TF: I can see that she would be that way. Who were some of the other dancers at that time?
RM: Oh, my goodness. There was Helen Trueheart. Helen and I are still friends. I haven’t talked to Helen in a while
RM: Joan changed studios quite a lot.
TF: I met you on Third Street, the Third Street studio.
RM: Oh, okay.
TF: She got me an apartment above hers on Sixth Street.
RM: Jackie Menacker was one of the dancers.
TF: Jackie Menacker and Danny Rosensweig was her boyfriend.
RM: Oh, that’s right. He’s in some of the photos I have.
TF: I’d like to scan some of your photos. Okay?
RM: That was Jackie and I.
TF: Now, was that piece “Frevo?”
RM: “Cuba Antiqua,” it was called. That was very Horton. Everything was Horton-based. We had to do a lot of those figure eights. That’s so interesting, because that whole technique did provide a lot of background support for a lot of other dance that you’d do, combine it. She encouraged you to take ballet classes and everything.
TF: That was Jackie, you.
RM: This is in the studio. It was Jackie, me; that’s was Kathy Pira, I think.
TF: Oh, here’s a company photo.
RM: There’s Danny.
TF: Is this you?
RM: That’s right. Yes.
TF: Now, is this Seamus?
TF: James Murphy. And here’s Helen.
RM: Oh, Lidia Kryzanowsky. Lidia was one of the dancers.
RM: Oh, there’s Althea (Leslie). This is Gary (Celain). That’s Kathy (Pira)
RM: Those things are like dynamite, I think. Jumping rope, or something, they wouldn’t stop.
TF: I remember when she was just doing this piece, “Herodia.”
Because she was reading Mallarmé, and she was talking about the take on the mother of Salome as inspiration for the piece, rather than Salome herself.
TF: Let’s talk a little bit about the repertory, in terms of, like here this picture is, this “Cuba Antiqua” and then there were these heavier kind of themes, Classical Greek or Biblical influences.
RM: That was really where she came from often. That’s what she liked. She enjoyed a lot of lighter topics, but those others were definitely more her spirit, I think.
TF: Here looking at a printed program Childermas, Herod set out to slay all the children. Here, Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba. But then she starts with e.e. cummings. And the music is interesting, too. Here, the Villa Lobos, Anton Weber. I love this music, Harold Boatrite. We improvised to that. He was a harpsichordist and composed for the harpsichord
RM: Here’s Kathy, Gary, me, Althea.
TF: Carol Coles, is that that woman?
RM: No, that’s not her.
TF: Let’s see. Who’s this?
RM: Matthew Hopkins. Did you know Matt Hopkins?
He did music. He composed a lot of music.
TF: Cynthia Post? Cynthia Post. She’s very pretty.
RM: No, that’s not her.
RM: There’s Lidia.
TF: Lori Dadis.
RM: Oh, Lori, yeah.
TF: There’s Lori there. Monteverdi. Very classical music.
TF: What was the scene like in Philly during this time, would you say? What were the other groups and artists, like in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, before you started doing all the disco? Was she the primary company? Were there other companies?
RM: Oh, Therese Nelson was around. Well, Malvina Taiz and Audrey Bookspan.
TF: But Audrey’s more like a soloist, don’t you think? Or a tap dancer?
RM: I think she did everything! She was wonderful.
TF: Yes. That famous witch piece, where she gets into the kettle.
RM: Is she still around, Audrey?
TF: She may well be. We used to have her perform at the Bride in ‘On Tap” Day, but that was years ago. Maybe not.
RM: But she was up there, then. So she’d have to be really—
TF: …be ancient.
RM: But some of those people—I mean, like Iona Nash. I think Iona Nash is still dancing. I think she’s still teaching.
TF: Joan invited Arthur Hall to perform at the Y, at the Gershwin Y, so I think Arthur Hall was getting started then, too, because he started out as a modern dancer, and then did his own unique hybrid work.
RM: He got that cultural arts grant from a Federal program, The Model Cities. He began that wonderful Ile Ife, that wonderful building in Germantown.
TF: He started that whole movement.
RM: Arthur was way ahead of his time.
RM: Way ahead of his time. I mean, all the African movements he did were definitely original—not that he created them, but he knew. He knew everything he was talking about, about that.
RM: He went to Africa a few times, and he lived that whole thing.
TF: In this city, anyway, I think he initiated that interest in that style, in exploring roots that way, dance roots.
RM: He knew more of it, really, than others. His was a personality that was like a magnet, drawing people in. I mean, people were constantly coming into the situation, and thoroughly enjoying. I think a lot of that pride in blackness was just kind of coming up.
TF: That’s what I’m saying. I think he started that here. He really made that of interest.
RM: I still am in contact with Karen Warrington.
We laugh and talk about those days sometimes.
TF: We’ve been talking about some of the memorable experiences with Joan, and her classes. Do you want to talk about the technique, or any of the other particular interesting aspects of her work ?
You mentioned musicians, and collaborators. Where did you perform? Where were the places?
RM: We performed all over. A lot of colleges, and Young Audiences. Young Audiences used to branch out, because a lot of the schools that we would go to would bring the dancers in to teach dance, and make a connection with, say, English or History, etc. I would always get chosen, maybe not because they just liked me, because I was a male, and black, and in the schools they needed that. I would go right in and just say, “Okay, I’m running. This is my show to the kids.” Otherwise, they’d eat you alive, those kids. I couldn’t even imagine doing that now, the way they’re carrying on.
But I would go right in, and if they were talking, I would just stop. “Okay, well then you’re going to do this. I’ll just sit down.” It was quiet then, and the teachers, they used to say, “Look, we want you to come back, and substitute,” and things like that. You know what? When I think about this, and I’m really grateful that you even came, asked me to do this, because I haven’t thought about these things for so long!
And now, I think about Joan often. I really do. I like the fact, and I admire the fact that she felt so strongly about what she did, and she supported the dancers, in terms of looking out for them. She would check spaces, and if floors weren’t right, she would say, we need have this right.
TF: The dancers aren’t going to perform on a hard surface.
RM: Exactly. She was funny, and like that picnic picture. We would do stuff like that. She’d have dinners. I think we were pretty close. Actually, I don’t know if I should even say this or not, but I used to dream about her. I’m not sure that means.
TF: While she was alive, or after she died?
RM: After she died.
TF: Right. I think we all do, because she is such a strong personality!
RM: Not only that, but people and things that you don’t seem to want to let go of. Because I dream a lot about my friends and family, and my dreams are not huge, like I wake up and the next day and it dawns on. I’m actually dreaming about Joan, and Joan is no longer here. It would just sort of be that interior, sort of a spiritual thing.
TF: So it sounds like she had a culture within her company where she kind of fostered a familial feel.
RM: She did, and she liked that. Sometimes we would leave the school program, and then go to a restaurant and have some breakfast, and we would laugh and talk. She really did encourage me to choreograph, to step out of the box, because I think now, even, I have such, sort of, standards. But I know now, when I hear music, I automatically a lot of times see movement. I feel that I probably should still be choreographing. I do. It’s just that the whole climate has changed so much, with the reality TV, and people are flipping, and splitting, and these judges. So I really feel like it was very valuable, my relationship with her. Sometimes they would have teachers come in for these special Horton classes, and I would be amazed when I’d sit there and know, this is exactly what she taught us. To think that you know this ! So I am grateful for that.
TF: Who do you think the audiences were for Joan, besides the young people?
RM: Well, at the universities and people then who were interested in modern dance. We did a couple things at the Convention Center when it was over in 34th Street. We had various audiences. Certainly the Painted Bride would draw a certain audience.
TF: Perhaps other artists, musicians, poets.
RM: And the musicians, yes.
TF: Were there any were there splinter groups or companies formed by members of her company?
RM: Kathy Pira was associated with Temple. I’m not sure where Gary Celain taught.
TF: Right, but they didn’t start their own companies. They were all sort of identified as dancers in other companies. They worked with other artists. What about Faye Snow? Did she come to Joan’s studio?
RM: Faye was there. She was there during the time, I think, when Althea was there, because Faye really went on to become a choreographer.
TF: So Faye was the legacy, then, of Joan, maybe.
RM: She was known for teaching Horton technique throughout the high schools, because I think she was at the High School of Performing Arts, and her specialty was Horton.
TF: Well, how about Lavida Davis?
RM: No. But she’s still, I think, around here.
TF: But she didn’t come through Joan. But Faye, I think, is a direct connection.
RM: Faye’s in a nursing home.
TF: I know. I’m going to interview Wayne David to talk about Juba Contemporary Dance Theatre, because I know that we, at the Bride, presented Juba as well.
RM: She had a hard time, lost a lot of kids. [Her dancers to HIV-AIDS] I thought about a school, but I was really having a good time doing what I was doing. ?
TF: It sounds like it, traveling around the world.
RM: I was so grateful for Joan, because what’s inside of you, like I say, you have different moods. I did the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris.
And that was a result of the guy who was the director and owner, who saw the Village People in Florida, and he called them, and I auditioned for him. He did the same thing. He said, “Well, we’d like you to come to Paris and work with us, just do a couple things, and see how you like it.” Because they had 23 women.
RM: And they rotated, so they all had to learn different things. They were nude at the end of the show. So, that was definitely totally different for me. But, there’s tons of movements that you can do in a costume that you cannot do nude! The body is not, you know. A lot of stuff… So I was grateful for all of that, and I was kind of aware of that. The Horton technique, the classical and then that other stuff that would come my way
TF: That still fits all together somehow. It’s about her legacy, in terms of your experience, and your teaching, and your dancing and choreographing. But just in terms of any companies being formed, the only one I can think of is maybe Juba. I don’t know. I know that when I was there Judith Jamison would kind of show up. I also remember her being at the studio, and Jimmy Truitte, and Joyce Trisler. But I don’t know if there was a connection to Joan’s company at all with Philadanco. I’m not sure. Maybe some of the dancers did both, came to Joan and then also to Danco.
RM: Oh, sure. I think everybody went through there. Actually, when I was with the Capitol Ballet in Washington, my mother called me and she said, “Some people called up here for you from Alvin Ailey, or Alley.” She said, “They said they heard about you, and they wanted you to come audition.” So I did go audition, and Judy was just wonderful. She was there then.
TF: She knew, because she’s from Philly. She had that connection.
RM: But Dudley Williams could see my limitations, which, from my arm being broken, I did have that. There were certain things. But I think it got to the point where I never thought about it. When there was choreography to do, I made adjustments. I did go back to the hospital once and asked if there was anything they could do. They said, “Yeah, we can break it and reset it.” And of course, I said, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t really need to do fifth position.”
TF: I remember that your arm almost goes all the way up. All right, here’s another question: the economics of being an artist. I remember going to Joan’s apartment, and she had public welfare (what was it called then? ) peanut butter and cheese on the table. A lot of artists survived on public welfare.
RM: That’s the reason why, number one, that I worked for the city, and did what I could do. But there was not a lot of money.
TF: She didn’t get much support, grants, or anything like that.
RM: No, no, she really didn’t. She struggled.
TF: But I think she had a connection with the Gershwin Y that helped her present work, and Plays and Players.
RM: And the Young Audiences, that really was a help. We would get paid for each one of those performances. And Joan was not one of those people that she had to go, and “Where’s my check?”
And you know what? The truth of the matter is we were having so much fun. That was like gravy, because some of that Arthur Hall work, we didn’t get paid for that. We would do ten pieces in one program—run, put on something. And again, that technique, all that stuff, comes out with that. Even with Joan Myers Brown, I know she’s really reluctant about the hip hop stuff. But people want to do all of that, but they don’t want any background. They don’t understand that.
TF: What other questions should I be asking?
RM: I don’t know. We’ve covered so much stuff now!
I guess there is, for me there probably is the racial issue.
TF: Let’s talk about that.
RM: Like I said, I didn’t really wasn’t attuned, especially with Barbara Weisberger’s comment. But I did remember Arthur Mitchell when Dance Theater came here to Walnut Street Theater. The female dancer that is in this picture was going to Pennsylvania Ballet.
RM: Barbara Weisberger came up to Arthur Hall and said, “The company was wonderful. And we have this girl at the school.” And Arthur said, “Yes, but what did you do with her?” Which was, again, you know dismissive of her in terms of having a black woman in her company. Anyway, I wasn’t interested in trying to do ballet in New York City and at Temple, there wasn’t a really racial issue, at least not that I felt.
TF: In the dance department?
RM: In the dance department, because I took my classes, and did what I did, and had my point of view. I guess I was secure enough in that, and that probably helped me learn more. But like I say, I never used that diploma or anything, which is just a paper. But the experience was wonderful! Lately, even, I’m thinking about going back for a master’s, just because it forces you to do something—to study, to read.
TF: I agree. I like to think, and learn about more about our art form in a different way.
TF: It has its merits, I know. If only it didn’t cost so much.
RM: Well, I’m sure there are scholarships and things. I’d try to figure that out.
TF: I think that Joan was very, very in tune with more radical political, and I would say on the right side of justice.
RM: Yes. And Joan, I remember I used to try to fix her wild hair, you know. I was like, “Joan, let’s do something.”
TF: Kinky hair.
RM: She wasn’t having any of that. And of course, her vocabulary.
RM: It was always spiced up.
TF: She called it like it was.
RM: She did. And that’s what I admired about her.
TF: It was refreshing, and it was necessary, actually. Everybody else was tiptoeing around things. And she would say, “Well, it’s really this.”
RM: And those were the people, to me, that really have the rich life.
TF: That’s right.
RM: They’re not worried about who’s going to think this? Who’s going to say that? That was another lesson that I got from her, because I lot of times, I found out, when people were doing choreography, it was a lot of it just for the audience. What are they going to like? She, really, it was for her. It took me a while to understand that, because I know what I like, and what I feel now, and that’s where I’m coming from. And that, to me, is the real artist. I’m grateful for all of that. I think that if you don’t have an art base, I don’t think you’re really living.
TF: You’ve missed out on something in life, for sure.
RM: I really do. Because when you see beautiful dance, you see Ailey, that whole solo that Dudley used to do [from “Revelations”], was all Horton technique. It was just basically technique, but it was so beautifully done, so beautifully connected. And sometimes you see that, and you feel like you want to cry! You think, how can people go through life and miss this kind of experience? I’m so grateful for that, when you go through the art museum, or when you hear music. It just makes me—you can see movement. It’s just gorgeous. I should have prepared it so you could hear it.
TF: I think Joan Kerr was definitely moved by music as well.
She used it to make each choreographic gesture build into the next, and have meaning that developed into some sort of message that she was trying to get across, usually very emotional in that way.
RM: And like I say, what she was feeling. She had respect for the art, and the creative process.
TF: Joan died at age 48, so it would have been interesting to see how or if her work would have bridged into a post-modern era, and if her company would have evolved n any way.
RM: She definitely would have had a strong impact, because of the type of woman, person, she was; artist that she was.
TF: Well at least be acknowledged and respected more, perhaps. Shall we leave it there for now?
RM: Sure. I’m just thrilled, because it brought back so many wonderful memories! I’m happy that you’re doing this, too, because a lot of people didn’t know about it. Some of the kids, you say, Judy Jamison—they don’t know these people.
TF: Lester Horton, too. It can all fall away.
RM: Oh, absolutely
[End of Interview]