Opus 51 in 2012

Last Spring, Margaret O’Sullivan worked with dancers at Montclair State University to stage the Opening Dance of Weidman’s fifty-first creation Opus 51. The process culminated in showings at the University as well as a Friday’s at Noon performance at the 92nd St Y. In May, Margaret worked with  a handful of NYC dancers to teach a technique class and some of the Opus 51 Opening Dance. With so many of today’s modern dancers taking a turn at Opus 51, it’s time to give some background information on the piece!

Opus 51 was first performed on August 6, 1938 to music by Vivian Fine (also entitled Opus 51). The performance was held in the Vermont State Armory in Bennington, VT.  Costumes were created by Pauline Lawrence, a former Denishawn alumnus who worked for many years with Weidman and Humphrey as an accompanist, costume and lighting designer. During the time Charles created Opus 51, modern dance had not been focusing on what we like to call “movement for movement’s sake” dancing and Charles decided to go ahead and do just that. He created Opus solely on the principle of finding elation and enjoyment in the movement. The Opening Dance was created on five women clad in long green skirts swinging their limbs in attitude positions while crossing through each other. Like all Weidman dances, the movement is incredibly musical, following the swing and accents of Fine’s music with traditional modern dance shapes.

NYC dancers Liz Montgomery, Brighid Greene, Phoebe Sanford, Sarah Hillmon, and Michael Gonzales- Cameron rehearsing Opus 51
Photo by Julia Jurgilewicz

Following the Opening Dance, men and women came together to perform the next section”Commedia”. While Weidman often formed his dancers into characters, this section focused on the exaggeration of  movement performed by each character, for example “there were gestures drawn from … daily tasks of sweeping and gardening all linked together in a blizzard of movement that did not attempt to tell a history but just to present kinetically related gestures” (Don McDonagh The Complete Guide to Modern Dance 1976).

After an interlude of bizarre Mazurkas performed by men and women, the finale “Spectacle” culminates in a circus-like performance of understated gestures and modest bows. After all this miming and unexpected grotesque movement, the Opening Dance seems out of place with its normalcy, leading one to believe that he set the stage with a conventional modern dance to make his audience feel comfortable before exposing them to his crazy collection of pantomiming oddities.

Opus 51 exemplifies Weidman’s new take on what modern dance could be as well as introducing us to his incredible use of “kinetic pantomime”. Kinetic pantomime left representational miming behind by taking normal, human gestures and continuing them throughout the rest of the body. “He simply followed the trajectory of a gesture as it metamorphosed into a whole skein of movement that suggested bits and fragments of characterization as it progressed but did not tarry or linger over any” (McDonagh 112).  In the video documentary “Charles Weidman On his Own”, Charles is shown teaching a group of dancers kinetic pantomime. They start with “picking strawberries” to the left and right of themselves and then suddenly switch to sitting, legs splayed playing a violent game of jacks. In retrospect, Weidman’s kinetic movement is what contemporary and theater dance is leaning towards in today’s dance world; spontaneity, unpredictability, character play, and enough normal or pedestrian movement to be recognizable to audiences.

Charles Weidman

After learning and performing the Opening Dance, I asked MSU dancer Marissa Lynne Aucoin about her experience with Weidman repertory. After expressing her enthusiasm with learning the dance and the challenges of Weidman technique I asked her the million dollar question: “Is it important to continue the teaching of Weidman technique to today’s dancers and if so, why?” to which she responded “clearly I am very adamant about the continued teaching of Weidman technique. It is such an integral part of the history of modern dance and holds a direct relation to many of the principals used by choreographers today. Continued teaching not only ensures that Weidman’s technique and repertory are preserved but provides moderns dancers with a stronger technical foundation and more humanistic approach towards movement.”

Marissa Aucoin performing Opening Dance of Opus 51 at MSU

What surprised and thrilled me about studying Weidman’s Opus 51  is how similar it is to the work I want to both dance and create: mixing character studies with strong technique; however, what made we want to applaud Charles myself was that it’s creation created controversy and discussion. Among his odd caricatures of “Commedia”, he also threw in some mocking of what American Modern Dance was at the time which was applauded by some and looked down on by others. “Opus 51 caused a controversy between one faction who took it as an insult and another which delighted in this ribbing of Modern Dance, but it …restored the American contemporary dance to its original exuberance– the joyous rebellion rather than the propaganda tool” ( Olga Maynard American Modern Dancers: The Pioneers 1965).

It goes without saying that Opus 51 is relevant and relate-able to the modern dance we see today, and that it did what most contemporary choreographers strive for: to surprise it’s audience and spark them into discussion. Thumbs up Mr. Weidman. The fifty-first one is apparently the charm.

MSU Dancers performing Opening Dance from Opus 51
Photo by Mike Peters


American Modern Dancers: The Pioneers by Olga Maynard, 1965 (New York Library for the Performing Arts)

The Complete Guide to Modern Dance by Don McDonagh, 1976

To purchase the video documentary “Charles Weidman On his Own” go to http://www.dancehorizons.com.

Post by Julia Jurgilewicz

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