As she neared the completion of her visual arts studies, dance again emerged as Sullivan's central focus and she decided to move to New York for intensive study. Consequently, she traveled to New York during the spring of 1945 and stayed with her Automatist friend, Louise Renaud, painter and design student at Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop and Studio Theatre, in order to find a dance school she could attend during the autumn and winter months. She first took classes with Martha Graham, but she decided that Graham's technique and style were too evolved and codified. "I felt that [Graham's technique] was already closed and complete," she later remembered. "There was nothing I could add to it, no new direction to explore." She also sampled classes with Doris Humphrey at the Humphrey-Weidman school and took a few classes at Hanya Holm's studio.
Although Sullivan would later occasionally study with other teachers in New York, including Mary Anthony, La Meri and Pearl Primus, the majority of her time was spent at the Boas Dance School, which was under the direction of Franziska Boas, the daughter of the renowned anthropologist, Franz Boas. Like her father, who had revolutionized his discipline by challenging its racially biased premises, Franziska Boas was a devoted social activist. Throughout her extraordinary career, her guiding imperative was the facilitation of social integration of marginalized groups through dance. By insisting that talent not be fettered by race, Boas was one of the few teachers in the United States who integrated African-American students into her studio beginning in the 1930s. Although Boas never achieved the success and iconic status of her modern dance contemporaries such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Hanya Holm, she was nevertheless an important pioneer in the field of dance therapy and had been one of the first dance teachers to teach in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. Similarly, Boas was an important figure in the field of dance anthropology. In the 1940s, she organized two groundbreaking dance anthropology seminars series featuring respected anthropologists, including her father, Margaret Mead and Gene Weltfish. Boas later edited the lectures presented at the first seminar series and published them as The Function of Dance in Human Society, one of the earliest texts devoted solely to the topic of dance and anthropology.
At the Boas School of Dance, Sullivan was introduced to Boas' pedagogical methods, which had been greatly influenced by the German Ausdruckstanz movement imported to New York by Hanya Holm, the protégée of the German dancer and choreographer, Mary Wigman. To this end, Boas used structured improvisation exercises as a creative stimulus to expedite the development of each student's personal choreographic style as well as to improve each student's strength and flexibility. Boas, who was a respected percussionist, would accompany the class on a tambourine-like instrument known as a Wigman drum. Boas played other percussion instruments she had set up around her studio, moving from instrument to instrument as she taught. All of Boas' students studied percussion in tandem with dance and advanced students were expected to be able to accompany themselves and their fellow students. At the studio, Sullivan also encountered Boas' insistence that her students have a working understanding of anatomy and proper alignment in order to prevent injuries. Boas had inherited her desire for dancers to take responsibility for the health of their own bodies from the kinesiology-based teachings of her Barnard College professor and dance teacher, Bird Larson. Finally, Boas was not interested in training dancers who could perform unusual technical feats and was not concerned with creating a codified technique that would mould students in her own physical and artistic image. Instead, Boas believed that dance should be accessible and inclusive, not elitist. In her studio classes, Boas used movement and dance to facilitate her students' understanding of themselves as unique and creative individuals and contributing members of their society. In this way, she was aligned with the progressive ideals and child-centred approach to active, experiential learning espoused by the American pedagogical theorist, John Dewey.
Shortly after she arrived in New York in the fall of 1945, Sullivan became a charter member of Boas' short-lived interracial company, the Boas Dance Group. The group was intended to be a creative collective with all members having an equal say in company decisions. Similarly, the company's success was dependent on the dancers taking responsibility for administrative duties. Sullivan was chosen to be the Chair of the Social Committee, which usually meant coordinating the group's public lecture-demonstrations. In addition, Sullivan decided to organize a public exhibition of Automatist paintings in New York that opened on January 25, 1946 at the Boas School of Dance.
In April 1946, the Boas Dance Group staged their one and only production. As the Chair of the Social Committee Sullivan organized students from the school to be backstage dressers and to assist with the lights and sets, among other tasks.
At this time, Louise Renaud was studying stage lighting and design at Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop and Studio Theater. Sullivan recruited her friend to design the lighting for the Boas Dance Group production as well as to create the sets, which were based on designs by Boas. Renaud later recalled that the Boas Dance Group production was not an easy assignment.
There were performances by the Boas group in April 1946 where Françoise's and my name appeared on the program, but I can assure you I was not sharing the stage with Françoise but sweating it out back stage with old lighting equipment that needed a lot of coaxing to get the effects I wanted to achieve.
In the end, there were eight dance works on the programme and six featured dancers: Franziska Boas, Carolyn Bilderback, Mary O'Connell, Minnie Willis, Ellen Wimmer and Françoise Sullivan. Most of the choreography had been created by Boas or by Boas in conjunction with the five other dancers. Sullivan appeared in four of the eight dances presented: Oh Frabjous Day, Dance of the Women, We are the Many and Retribution.
The critics who attended the production generally dismissed the evening as amateurish. They were unimpressed with the leftist revolutionary politics that underpinned some of the dances. Such ideology had been popular among New York dancers in the 1930s, but by the end of World War II, any message of mass uprising sounded dangerously like Communist propaganda. The critics appeared perplexed by the choreographic choices presented on stage and the dancers' apparent lack of technical ability because "pedestrian" or "undancerly" movements such as walking and running - not technical feats - were staples of Boas' choreographic lexicon. Moreover, unlike most of her dance predecessors who used improvisation to begin creating, then set the movement combinations they diligently rehearsed and polished, Boas' choreography retained an air of spontaneity and creative abandon. Process, not a fixed or "finished" product, was always on display in Boas' dances.
In the summer of 1946, Sullivan attended Boas' interracial summer school, which was held in Bolton Landing at Lake George in the Adirondacks. Most of the people who lived or vacationed near Bolton Landing were white and, in 1946, there were still some businesses in the local village that would not serve African Americans or even allow them to enter their stores. At Boas' summer school, however, students of different races, ethnicity and religions participated in the same classes, leisure activities, and co-habitated in the same residences in order to demonstrate how people of different demographics could learn and live together harmoniously.
The summer school in Bolton Landing was not the only unusual or groundbreaking project that Sullivan participated in as one of Boas' students. In the fall of 1946, Sullivan attended the second anthropology seminar series that Boas organized and was particularly enthused to hear Margaret Mead, a former student of Franz Boas and the renowned author of several books, lecture on "Dance as an Expression of Culture Patterns".
Although the Boas Dance Group disbanded in the spring of 1947, Sullivan continued to study and hone her craft at Boas' studio. She choreographed Planètes, a piece for seven dancers, which was inspired by the theme of the movements of celestial bodies. Sullivan also worked on a duet she called Dualité, which was first performed at the Boas studio in 1947 and was to become one of Sullivan's best known works. During this period, Sullivan was interested in Jungian and Freudian theories about dreams and the importance of the subconscious. In keeping with this fascination, Dualité had been inspired by a dream Sullivan had had while she was in New York, which she adapted for a choreographic assignment in Boas' composition class and later showed to Mary Anthony, a choreographer and teacher at the New Dance Group in New York. In her dream, Sullivan had seen two different aspects of herself represented by two different women. One was beautiful and rode a white horse; the other was ugly and followed on a grey horse. In the dance, as in the dream, the two women - really two opposing sides of the same personality - want to break free of one another and temporarily do so. But they are inevitably drawn back together, each half needed to complete the other.
In Dualité there are no pantomimed actions to communicate the narrative to the audience. The two dancers enter the stage back to back. With arms locked together at the elbows, they travel around and around themselves in tight chaîné-like turns across the stage. The dancers move apart, but are ultimately drawn back together and start to mirror each other's movements once again. The dance ends as it began, with the dancers linked together by their arms. In Sullivan's dance the choreographic choice was tied directly to the narrative. When the two dancers separated, they performed different movements. Their physical separation was emblematic of their rejection of one another. In other words, in Sullivan's work the movement was used to support and communicate a narrative and, moreover, to make that narrative comprehensible to an audience solely through the medium of dance.
©2006, Dance Collection Danse