Dove, Ulysses 1947–
Ulysses Dove 1947–
Choreographer, teacher, dancer
“I am interested in passion,” internationally acclaimed dance choreographer Ulysses Dove told Sally Sommer of Connoisseur magazine when speaking about his work. “In every embrace, every second of life [should be] lived so fully that there can be no regrets, no retreats, no looking back.” His modem and ballet dance pieces—which have been called sexually charged, bold, powerful, and strikingly original—ardently reflect this theme while celebrating the freedom of full self-expression.
A South Carolina-born globetrotter who was well known in Europe before he began garnering recognition in the United States in the early 1990s, Dove has produced a dozen forceful and contemporary dance pieces that often reach audiences on a visceral level. Through dance Dove conveys a sense of the larger social world, and his pieces, from Bad Blood to Vespers to the award-winning Episodes, reflect his overall concern about human behavior, however unsettling that behavior might be.
Specifically, Dove presents the shifting balance of power between men and women. In some of his pieces men submit to women’s demands; in others women submit to men’s. Concerning this theme, a Musical America contributor commented that the performance of Bad Blood was “terrifically danced by a cast of seven … around a theme of male-female confrontation…. Dove managed a lively, sometimes even a wryly humorous exchange between couples in terms of physical challenges laid down and picked up with gusto by both parties. There’s lots of hard, taut body-contact… as well as some ingenious, even gasp-provoking, solutions to the puzzles presented by bodies interlocked in improbable complexes.”
About the quality of Dove’s work, Gus Solomons, Jr., observed in Dance Magazine, “He translates emotion into movement with stunning clarity: His works resonate with emotional truth. Episodes epitomizes the character of Dove’s choreography. It is a suite of searing encounters between men and women caught in diagonal corridors of light. They hurl themselves against one another in passionate embraces that could at once signify love or hate. High-flung limbs whip the air like blades. Women wrap themselves weblike around the men, only to be shed with shuddering vehemence. The moving bodies become the emotion itself, as they attract and repulse each other at whizzing speeds with courageous assurance.”
Born January 17, 1947, in jonesville, SC; son of Ulysses and Ruth Lee (Smith) Dove. Education: Attended Howard University, 1964–67, and University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1967–68; Bennington College, B.A., 1970; studied ballet and modern dance with Carolyn Tate, Judith Dunn, and Mary Hinkson.
Performed with the dance companies of Jose Limon, Mary Anthony, Pearl Lang, and Anna Sokolow. Dancer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York City, 1970–73; dancer and choreographer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City, 1973–80; choreographic debut, I See the Moon… and the Moon Sees Me, 1979; created solo dance Inside for Judith Jamison of the Ailey company, 1980; assistant director of Groupe de Recherche Choréographique de I’Opera de Paris, 1980–83; free-lance choreographer for international ballet and modern dance companies, 1983—. Choreographed pieces include Bad Blood, 1984; Civil Wars, 1986; Vespers, 1986; Episodes, 1987; and Serious Pleasures, 1992.
Awards: National Choreography Project Award, 1985; Monarch Award for choreography, 1988; New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award for Episodes, 1990.
Addresses: Home—238 East 88th St., New York, NY 10128.
Having performed with legendary dance masters Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, Dove is said to have been influenced by both. Wrote William Harris in the New York Times, “Within his steps, one can see… the precise coolness of Cunningham and the dramatic, sweaty energy of Ailey.” Alan M. Kriegsman further observed in the Washington Post that Dove, along with Bill T. Jones and other fledgling black choreographers, was a “beneficiary of Ailey’s vision and largess.” But the road toward self-expression was not an easy one for Dove to travel.
Born in Jonesville, South Carolina, to Ulysses and Ruth Lee Dove on January 17, 1947, Dove grew up in a non-artistic family. Rebelling against the discipline of his Catholic elementary school, Dove spontaneously made up “interpretive” dances that he performed before his classmates and his parents. “Sometimes that dance would get me sent to bed early,” he said during an interview with Peter Barton, author of the book Staying Power: Performing Artists Talk About Their Lives. Though his parents were intrigued by his youthful performances, the idea of a male dancing unsettled them, according to Dove.
By the time he was ready for college Dove decided to please his family and study medicine. He enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. as a pre-medical student. But he wasn’t happy. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that that would never do,” he told Barton. After seeing the Martha Graham Dance Company perform for the first time Dove was exhilarated and decided on a dance career. “There was no separation between me and the stage,” he recalled to Barton. “I was up there. Rather than thinking, ‘Ahh,’ I thought, ‘I can do that! The only thing that lies between me and that is training.’”
Despite his parents’ objections he transferred from Howard to Wisconsin University in Milwaukee, where he studied dance on a scholarship. Later, he attended Bennington College on a dance fellowship and graduated from there with a B.A. in 1970. During his college years, Dove studied ballet and modern dance with teachers who made a lasting impression on him, including Carolyn Tate, Judith Dunn, and Mary Hinkson. After college he moved to New York City, where he danced with different companies, among them those of Jose Limon, Mary Anthony, Pearl Lang, and Anna Sokolow.
When he received a scholarship to study with Merce Cunningham, Dove ended up performing with that company for three years. “I went to Merce Cunningham for classes to get in shape, so I could audition for Alvin Ailey,” he told Barton. “But my audition with Alvin was disastrous.… They couldn’t come to a decision. Meantime, Merce asked me to join his company. I thought: ‘You can’t say no to this guy. He’s a genius.’” About Merce Cunningham, Dove later told Sommer in Connoisseur, “He made me understand space and time. He taught me about having integrity and belief in what you are dancing.”
Still, after three years with Cunningham, Dove felt artistically constrained because he was performing dances by the same choreographer. “I thought, either I have to stay here and become a Cunningham dancer, or I’ll have to keep going on this journey to find different aspects of dance that fit me,” he reminisced in the interview with Barton. Confused about what to do next, Dove returned home to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1973 and debated giving up dance altogether. But a couple of months later he was back in New York auditioning again for Alvin Ailey’s company, which performed dances by different choreographers. This time he was accepted. He remained with the company for seven years, performing pieces and eventually choreographing his first dance, I See the Moon … and the Moon Sees Me, in 1979.
“Since the first piece I did, Alvin believed in my work,” he told Solomons. “He would take the time to argue with me, because he knew I would just not accept anything unless I really believed it.… The crazier my stuff got, the more I found my own voice, the more he liked it.” Dove has credited Ailey with having a more personal impact on him than Cunningham. “He taught me about humanity,” Dove continued, adding, “His heart beat once for himself and once for the rest of the world.”
In 1980 Dove stopped performing and focused on creating dances. On commission he developed a solo dance called Inside for Judith Jamison of the Ailey company. Three other dances by Dove have since been presented by the Ailey company, including Vespers, which the company continues to perform. Then Dove became involved with the experimental division of the Paris Opera Ballet, the Groupe de Recherche Choréographique de l’Opéra de Paris, as an assistant director, teacher, and choreographer. But after Rudolf Nureyev took charge of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, Dove departed, apparently because Nureyev did not want him concentrating on choreography.
Since 1983 Dove has worked in Europe and the United States as a free-lance choreographer for international ballet and modern dance companies. His works include: Bad Blood (1984), performed by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal; Vespers (1986), danced by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Episodes (1987), presented by the London Festival Ballet and the Ailey company; and Serious Pleasures (1992), performed by the American Ballet Theatre. In addition, Dove choreographed a dance for an operatic saga called Civil Wars, which was performed as part of the New Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1986.
Dove’s dance pieces have generated controversy because of their overt sexuality and perceived aggression. Initial performances of Bad Blood produced mixed reactions. One of these was a commentary by Hal de Becker in Dance Magazine about Dove’s theme of warring sexes: “Ulysses Dove’s Bad Blood gave considerable amplitude to the dancers’ abilities and possessed many original choreographic ideas. But his female characters were treated with so little tenderness and subjected to so much arrogance and roughness by their male partners… that many in the audience grew offended by what seemed to be a pervasive abuse of women.”
His 1986 piece Vespers was praised for the very thing that Bad Blood reportedly lacked. It realistically and sympathetically portrays the trials of women, and black women in particular. Janice Ross of the Oakland Tribune lauded Vespers for its “harsh spectacle of a mad matriarchy of fierce women.” Camille Hardy, writing in Dance Magazine, described the piece this way: “Vespers by Ulysses Dove is as powerful as it is stark. Danced by six women in simple black dresses with no props except half a dozen wooden chairs… Dove has limited the movement vocabulary to a terse selection of spirals, single hands pointing upward, and arabesques that slice like arrows into your heart.… Grief and determination—unvarnished and unadorned—propel the cast. . . through a dance of black women that is, quite simply, a knockout.”
Episodes, one of Dove’s most energetic and accomplished pieces, dramatically expresses his war-between-the-sexes theme. In the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff summed it up as “a tough-minded dance piece… full of energy, sexual connotations and technical polish from dancers who seem shot out of a cannon… the kind of choreography that propels young audiences to their feet and sets them screaming.” She continued, “The work is a visceral turn-on, testimony to Mr. Dove’s incontrovertible gift for exciting the senses, for exploiting a physical and kinetic impact to its utmost. Young viewers identify with its transient street-smart courtships. Older spectators… may admire the piece more than actually like it.” Nevertheless, for her it showed “the complexity of human relationships.”
Many critics have suggested that Dove’s career received a boost after the 1989 U.S. performance of Episodes by the Ailey company. Later, Episodes was shown on television as part of PBS-TV’s Dance in America series. It also won a “Bessie” choreography award. Still, during the 1980s and early 1990s Dove had not really made a big splash in his own country. “I wanted to come back and do all the major New York companies,” he told Martha Southgate of Essence in 1992. By the time his piece Serious Pleasures was performed for the first time by the American Ballet Theatre in Chicago that year, Dove’s notoriety at home seemed assured. Though Dove said in Essence that the piece is about “love in the age of AIDS” and is “serious business,” some reviewers criticized it for being trendy and superficial. “Rather than come to intimate terms with his own vision,” wrote Laura Jacobs in the New Leader, “[Dove] has chosen to play it cool.”
Criticism notwithstanding, Dove has high expectations of his pieces and his dancers. “If I weren’t so particular about what I do,” he told Harris in the New York Times, “I could be working all the time. But I don’t want to be the… special of the month.… I’m not easy to work with, because I want a lot.” Above all, his main concern is how his dancers convey the intense passion that has become the signature of his work. “You have to be there even before the music starts,” he told the dancers rehearsing Serious Pleasures before it premiered. “You’re already alive… and you have to show that to the audience.”
Barton, Peter, Staying Power: Performing Artists Talk About Their Lives, Dial Press, 1980, pp. 126–137.
Connoisseur, April 1991, p. 60.
Dance Magazine, April 1987, pp. 20, 24; April 1988, pp. 38–39; April 1990, pp. 64–65; June 1991, p. 79; May 1992, pp. 54–56.
Essence, March 1992, p. 46.
Musical America, May 1987, pp. 31–32; May 1990, pp. 14–15.
New Leader, June 29, 1992, p. 23.
New York Post, December 14, 1989; December 7, 1990.
New York Times, December 3, 1989, sec. 2, p. 32; December 14, 1989.
Tribune (Oakland, CA), February 24, 1989.
Washington Post, June 1, 1990.
—Alison Carb Sussman
January 17, 1947?
June 11, 1996
Modern dancer and choreographer Ulysses Dove was born in Columbia, South Carolina, the eldest of three children. He began dance study with Carolyn Tate while a premedical student at Howard University. He transferred to the University of Wisconsin to study with Xenia Chlistowa of the Kirov Ballet, and in 1970 he graduated from Bennington College with a degree in dance. Upon moving to New York, Dove joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and also performed with Mary Anthony, Pearl Lang, and Anna Sokolow. In 1973 he joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he quickly rose to the rank of principal dancer acclaimed for his commanding presence, bright clarity of movement, and truthful dramatic intensity.
Dove turned to choreography at Ailey's urging and created the 1980 solo "Inside" for Judith Jamison. He left the Ailey company that year to begin a significant freelance career choreographing dances for the Basel Ballet, Swedish Cullberg Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, London Festival Ballet, American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, and Groupe de Recherche Choreographique de l'Opéra de Paris, where he spent three years as assistant director. Several Dove ballets have found their definitive, punchy interpretations in performances by the Ailey company, including "Night Shade" (1982), "Bad Blood" (1984), "Vespers" (1986), "Episodes" (1987), and "Vespers" (1994). His final projects included "Red Angels," which was premiered by the New York City Ballet in 1994, and "Twilight," made for that company and premiered May 23, 1996. His choreography was marked by its relentless speed, violent force, and daring eroticism.
Lewis, Julinda. "Inside: A Dance." Dance Scope 14, no. 3 (1980).
Supree, Burt. "Ulysses Dove: Beginning Again, Again." Village Voice, July 17, 1984.
thomas f. defrantz (1996)