Sokolow, Anna (1910–2000)

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Sokolow, Anna (1910–2000)

American choreographer and teacher who was an innovator in the field of modern dance and introduced modern dance to Mexico and Israel. Born on February 9, 1910, in Hartford, Connecticut; died on March29, 2000, at her home in Manhattan; daughter of Samuel Sokolow and Sara (Cohen) Sokolow; never married; no children.

Studied dance with Martha Graham and choreography with Louis Horst at the Neighborhood Playhouse; was a dancer with Graham's first company, the Graham Dance Company (1929–37); assisted Horst in dance composition classes; formed her own company, the Dance Unit (1933); studied ballet with Margaret Curtis at the Metropolitan Opera House (1938); taught at Herbert Berghof acting studio, the American National Theater and Academy, and the Juilliard School, in addition to numerous universities, including Ohio State University, University of Utah, City College, and New York University.

Anna Sokolow, who enjoyed a lengthy and prodigious international career that changed the course of modern dance, was born in 1910, in Hartford, Connecticut, to Polish immigrants. She spent her childhood in New York City where, after her father Samuel's death, her mother Sara Cohen Sokolow worked in the garment industry and became an early member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. Sokolow became interested in dance after observing a settlement house class and, against her mother's wishes, began to take lessons herself. She studied with Bird Larson at the Emanuel Sisterhood Settlement until the age of ten, when she was sent to study with Blanche Talmud at the Neighborhood Playhouse. By her mid-teens she was a student in classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse. It was there that Martha Graham and Louis Horst (Graham's musical director and the first teacher of modern dance choreography in the United States) were exploring their theories of modern dance. A student of the Children's Professional Company at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Sokolow studied with Graham and Horst and became Horst's assistant.

In 1929, at age 19, Sokolow joined the Graham Dance Company, where she performed many important solo roles. At the same time, she also danced with the Workers Dance League, which sponsored her own company, the Dance Unit. Her work in the 1930s focused primarily on social issues related to the Depression. In 1934, she toured the Soviet Union with the Dance Unit but met with resistance on the part of the classically trained Russians, who preferred ballet. Sokolow and the Dance Unit made their Broadway debut in 1937 at the Guild House, in a concert sponsored by the New Masses. Sokolow left Graham's company in 1938 to study ballet with Margaret Curtis at the Metropolitan Opera House. A year later, she assisted with choreography for the WPA Federal Theater Project's Sing for Your Supper, which enjoyed a successful run in New York City.

Attracting critical attention by this time, Sokolow accepted an invitation to take her company to Mexico City for a six-week engagement, after which she agreed to stay on and teach at the Mexico City Opera and Ballet. Finding Mexican audiences more receptive to the dramatic elements in her work than the Russians, Sokolow formed the first modern-dance group in Mexico and began to weave Mexican themes into her work. She stayed in Mexico for a year and afterwards returned regularly for the next several years to train dancers. In the early 1950s, Sokolow received another international invitation, sponsored by the American Fund for Israel Institutions, to teach at the Inbal Theater Dance Company, a Yemenite dance group in Israel. As in Mexico, her unique talents led to bigger projects and repeated visits to Israel. In 1962, she founded the Lyric Theater there, largely as the result of her teaching, choreographing, and written proposals to the government. This company pioneered the development of several other modern-dance groups in Israel. Sokolow was acknowledged as the founder of modern dance in both Israel and Mexico.

Anna Sokolow's distinguished work for the Broadway stage included the choreography for the 1947 musical Street Scene, with a libretto by Kurt Weill, based on the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice. She also choreographed Marc Blitzstein's Regina, Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, and Leonard Bernstein's Candide, plus the Public Theater's original off-Broadway production of the rock musical Hair in 1967. In her 1961 piece Dreams, Sokolow delved for subject matter into the subconscious and its unleashed demons of the dream world as she reflected upon the victims of Nazi horrors. Her most significant and abiding work, however, is 1955's Rooms, with a jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins, which deals with the crushing loneliness that individuals can endure. Critics recognized that in the universality of its theme, Sokolow had created a masterpiece. In the late 1950s, Rooms was presented on national television.

Despite the tendency of critics to recognize Sokolow solely for her socially significant choreography, she did not so limit herself. Her dramatic, comedic, and lyric work includes a vast array of expression beyond her frequent theme of alienation, and such notable companies as the Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Rambert, José Limon Company, and others include her works in their repertoire. Her talent was officially recognized by several honorary degrees and prestigious awards, including an American Dancer Award (1938); a Dance Magazine award (1961); senior Fulbright scholarships to Japan (1966) and England (1975); the Creative Arts Medal from Brandeis University and the Tarbut Medal from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation (both 1974); the Aztec Eagle—the highest Mexican civilian honor given to a foreigner (1988); and the Samuel E. Scripps Lifetime Achievement Award (1991). In 1998, Sokolow was inducted into the C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance. She died at the age of 90 at her home in New York City on March 29, 2000.


Current Biography 1969. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1969.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Warren, Larry. Anna Sokolow: The Rebellious Spirit. Harwood Academic, 1991.

Lisa Frick , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri