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Alumnus choreographer Solomons leads students in dance

Muh Award recipient Gus Solomons demonstrates some dance moves.
Muh Award recipient Gus Solomons demonstrates some dance moves.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Dancer-choreographer Gus Solomons Jr. (SB 1961, architecture) choreographed, rehearsed and directed a dance featuring MIT students and faculty and accepted the first Robert A. Muh Award for noteworthy contributions in the humanities, arts or social sciences last Thursday.

The Muh Award was presented by Associate Provost for the Arts Alan Brody at a dinner at the Faculty Club.

The New York-based Mr. Solomons is the founder and director of the Gus Solomons Dance Company. He has performed with both the Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham Dance Companies, and his dance criticism has appeared in Dance Magazine and The Village Voice.

Mr. Solomons is currently in a trio known as Paradigm. He will be featured in Free to Dance, a three-part series presented on PBS's Dance in America, scheduled to air in June.

To judge by his whirlwind-force energy, Mr. Solomons hasn't changed much from the MIT student he was -- a young man who studied architecture, performed in nine shows at the same time and who, by his own account, "burned the candle at both ends."

Within moments of his first contact with the 20 or so dancers who would perform Thursday's "random chance dance," Mr. Solomons had explained the structure of the dance and the role of the deck of playing cards placed on a black cube in the performance area. (Each dancer was to select a card and follow the hand-drawn instructions on the back.) Within an hour, the dancers were ready to perform.

Thomas DeFrantz, assistant professor of music and theater arts, introduced Mr. Solomons to the audience. Professor DeFrantz and Isaura Oliveira, a lecturer in theater arts teaching Afro-Brazilian Dance, participated in Mr. Solomons's "chance dance."

"As a colleague, I would not have missed this great opportunity. I am from Bahia, Brazil, and Gus is from Boston, USA. We are artists of color with different backgrounds but experimentingwith similar life steps. Dancing with Mr. Solomons was magic," Ms. Oliveira said.

The students who performed in Mr. Solomons' card-trick-turned-dance became instant fans. "Dancing for Mr. Solomons was like nothing I'd ever experienced," said freshman Irit Rappley. "It was a whirlwind of activity. He said that the philosophy behind the piece is that any movement, performed in any order, will convey some kind of story to the audience. The dance was completely random, but the audience seemed to read something into it."

Said freshman Kimberly Chao, "I was very impressed to learn that he had graduated from MIT and had become a dancer and choreographer despite the race-related obstacles he had to overcome."

Karen Wang, a graduate student in the Laboratory of Computer Science, said, "Mr. Solomons begins with a movement itself, and he explained that it is out of the movement that the emotion emerges. I'm used to doing things the opposite way around -- taking the emotion and letting it drive the movement. His concept strikes me as so counterintuitive. It has really turned my thinking upside-down."

Following his dancers' performance, Mr. Solomons presented his life story in words and in movement. Using the same space that had just been crowded with bodies, he read from text while he stood at a podium. Every few minutes, he stopped reading, put down one text, walked 10 feet, sat on a black wooden cube and read from slightly different text.

The podium version of Mr. Solomons' autobiography was more formal, while the sit-down version was more visceral, including childhood memories of having been "punished every time I danced." Each version noted successes, failures, a mugging, his depression and his lifelong commitment to dance.

Later, he was asked to join two different threads in his own life -- his study of architecture at MIT and his life in dance. "Architecture and dancing are exactly the same. You design using all the same elements -- time, space and structure -- except that in dance, time is not fixed," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2001.

Press Mentions

The Boston Globe

Gus Solomons Jr. '61, a “groundbreaking force in modern dance” has died at 84, reports Bryan Marquard for The Boston Globe. “Teacher, student, dancer, and choreographer, [Solomons Jr.] was based in New York City and commuted to Boston to spend each Tuesday teaching,” writes Marquard. “Performances with numerous dance groups in both cities packed his calendar, even before he made history as the first Black member of the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company.”

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