Elaine Summers papers

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Collection Data

Elaine Summers (1925-2014) was an American dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and artist. The Elaine Summers papers date from 1929 to 2015 (bulk 1958-2014) and document her career as a choreographer and filmmaker, and as the founder of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company, and the Kinetic Awareness Center. The collection contains published articles and reviews; programs; press releases; personal and professional correspondence; photographs; slides; printed material; notebooks; administrative documents from the Experimental Intermedia Foundation and the Kinetic Awareness Center; and subject files created by Summers.
Summers, Elaine, 1925-2014 (Creator)
Experimental Intermedia Foundation (Creator)
Kinetic Awareness Center (Creator)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1929 - 2015
Library locations
Jerome Robbins Dance Division
Shelf locator: (S) *MGZMD 422
Elaine Summers Dance and Film Co.
Choreographers -- United States
Independent filmmakers -- United States
Performance artists
Energy changes (Choreographic work : Summers)
Illuminated workingman (Choreographic work : Summers)
Theater piece for chairs and ladders (Choreographic work : Summers)
Movement therapy
Multimedia (Art)
Postmodern dance
Biographical/historical: Elaine Summers (1925-2014) was an American dancer, choreographer, experimental filmmaker, and artist. Born Lillian Elaine Smithers in Perth, Australia, she and her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts around 1929. Despite studying dance as a child, Summers earned her degree in art education from Massachusetts College of Art in 1947. After a brief period as an arts supervisor for the Wallingford-Connecticut school system, Summers moved to New York City in 1951 to revisit her interest in dance. Throughout the 1950s, she attended classes at the Juilliard School of Dance and the Martha Graham Studio. During this time she also taught children's dance classes and began developing her own practice of somatic bodywork, Kinetic Awareness, a term she coined. Summers was a founding member of the workshop-group that would form the Judson Dance Theater. The group was comprised of performing and visual artists who took part in Robert Dunn's choreography class at the Merce Cunningham Studio from 1962 to 1964. The class was experimental, and played on many of the ideas shared by Dunn and John Cage. Many avant-garde dancers blossomed out of the group, including Judith Dunn, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, Fred Herko, and David Gordon. Summers played an integral role in combining film, dance, and sculpture. Preferring the term "intermedia" in regard to her own work, she saw film as choreographic in nature, and the combination of dance and film only natural. Through this philosophy, The Experimental Intermedia Foundation (and The Elaine Summers Dance & Film Company) was founded in 1968. The Foundation's first board of directors included Robert Dunn, Stanley Vanderbeek, Jack Perlman, Frank Jewett, and Jan DeGaetani. Summers's first successful intermedia piece was Fantastic Gardens (1964), which she produced at the Judson Memorial Church. Among her other well-known works are Energy Changes, Crow's Nest, Theater Piece for Chairs and Ladders, Walking Dance for Any #, Two Girls Downtown Iowa, Windows in the Kitchen, Judson Fragments, Illuminated Workingman, Hidden Forest, Kinetic Athletic Frenzy, and Solitary Geography. Throughout her career she worked closely with artist Davidson Gigliotti and composer/musicians Philip Corner, Carmen Moore, Phill Niblock, Malcolm Goldstein, and Pauline Oliveros, many of whom served as member artists or took on other directional roles for the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. In 1989, Summers was awarded the Western European Regional Research Fulbright Scholarship to study the history and development of 16 mm filmdance in Italy. That same year, she earned her M.A. from New York University. She was included in the Art and Dance: Images of the Modern Dialogue, 1890-1980 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1982-1983). In the 1980s, Summers created SkyDance/SkyTime/SkyWeb. In its beginnings, it was intended to be a sort of happening: a worldwide, collaborative, 24-hour event incorporating performances, exhibits, rituals, and other activities devoted to the sky, simulcast via satellite. Noted performances include SkyDance (1982) at the University of Iowa, featuring local dancers and inflatable sculptures by German artist Otto Piene, with music by Carmen Moore. A similar iteration, SkyDance/SkyTime, was produced at the Guggenheim Museum in 1984. In 2010, SkyDance/SkyTime/SkyWeb, Improvisation for Sun + Moon + Stars was performed at the Danspace Project, featuring music composed by Pauline Oliveros. After years of teaching and practicing kinetic awareness, Summers opened the Kinetic Awareness Center (KAC) around 1983. There she held classes for dancers and others interested in bodymind studies. She also created a teacher training program and further developed somatic dance techniques that she integrated into her choreography. Summers continued to work on various SkyDance and KAC-related projects until her death in 2014.
Content: The Elaine Summers papers date from 1929 to 2015 (bulk 1958-2014) and document her career as a dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and founder of the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company, The Experimental Intermedia Foundation (EIF), and the Kinetic Awareness Center (KAC). The collection primarily focuses on Summers's career after the founding of the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company in 1968, with particular focus on the company's activities between the 1970s and the 1980s; the history and administrative undertakings of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation (EIF); and Summers's deep involvement as a practitioner and teacher of Kinetic Awareness (KA). Many of her intermedia works are thoroughly documented in the collection, including Crow's Nest, Energy Changes, Illuminated Workingman, Theater Piece for Chairs and Ladders, Invitation to Secret Dancers, Flowing Rock/Still Waters, Solitary Geography, and SkyDance/SkyTime/SkyWeb (henceforth shortened to SkyDance). The collection consists primarily of correspondence, EIF files, KAC files, notebooks, photographs, slides, and subject files. Also present are posters, scrapbooks, clippings, programs, and publicity materials. A small amount of files for the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company are also present. They generally hold administrative documents, project descriptions and notes, budgets, lists of the company's accomplishments, and other financial or business materials. The subject files were prepared by Summers throughout the course of her career. They are arranged alphabetically by subject, person, or work, and contain a wide range of document types, including articles, press materials, notes, project descriptions, and letters. Among the more robust files are those for specific intermedia and choreographic works, such as Hidden Forest, Illuminated Workingman, and Crow's Nest. These files typically contain choreographic descriptions, performance information, notes, articles, sketches, and press releases. Multiple files document the different aspects of SkyDance, such as advertising, performance planning, fundraising, and meetings regarding the short and long term goals of the project. Researchers should note that the subject files were retained as Summers kept them, and that several of the subjects documented therein are most likely further represented in other areas of the collection, particularly the administrative and programming endeavors of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation and the Kinetic Awareness Center. For a complete survey of these topics, researchers should refer to the correspondence, EIF, and KAC files. EIF files document the administrative and programming activities of the foundation and contain foundation descriptions, letters, notes, board of directors meeting minutes, newsletters, resumes, financial documents, and grant files. Grant and fundraising files document the foundations efforts to secure funds through several entities, including the New York State Council on the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Many of the grant applications contain detailed descriptions of projects taken on by the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company. Correspondence is arranged chronologically and is both personal and professional in nature. The majority of the correspondence consists of professional letters regarding EIF, KAC, and various performances. Many of the letters are outgoing calls for funds or contain information about the projects of EIF and the projects of the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company. Correspondents include friends, colleagues, and members of the board of the Kinetic Awareness Center, such as Mimi Cherney, Pearl Bowser, Barbara Leverone, Marguerite Thomas, Paula Court, Amy Guggenheim, George Ashley, Leeny Sack, Charles Allcroft, Patti Bradshaw, Thomas Houser, and Dorothy Friedman. "Letters of delight" consist of incoming, personal letters sent to Summers that she filed separately. KAC files document the development and programming of the Center from its inception in 1983 until Summers's death in 2014. Materials consist of articles on movement, kinetics, and anatomy; publicity documents; memoranda and meeting notes; and information regarding the Center's Teacher Training Program. Documents pertaining to the Center's finances and board of directors are also present. Photographs date from 1929 to 2014 and are primarily arranged alphabetically by dance title. A small amount of contact sheets and chronologically arranged photographs precede the alphabetical run. Portraits of Summers throughout her life are present, including dance portraits from the 1950s taken by Eugene Friedman and Dan Budnik. Many of the photographs from the 1960s were taken by Peter Moore and depict rehearsals and performances for several dances from Summers's repertoire. Titles include Dressing and Undressing, Theater Piece for Chairs and Ladders, Fantastic Gardens, Walking Dance for Any #, Suite (from Judson Dance Theater Concert #1), Country Houses, Illuminated Workingman, Crow's Nest, Tumble Dance, White Wind Dance, Solitary Geography, Windows in the Kitchen, SkyDance, and Kinetic Athletic Frenzy. Energy Changes is particularly well-documented through the photographs, with images from various performances dating between 1973 and 1982. Dancers in the photographs include Elaine Summers, Rudy Perez, Phoebe Neville, Tedrian Chizik, Edward Barton, Robert Kushner, Tony Nunziata, Alexandra Ogsbury, and Roberta Escamilla Garrison. Other artists and musicians photographed include musicians Phillip Corner, Carmen Moore, and Pauline Oliveros; and photographs of other works, such as the filming of Huey's Grace, A Portrait of Grace DeCarlton Ross and the rehearsal of Sounds Out of Silent Spaces at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Photographs of street dancers in Italy are also present. Slides consist of images of Summers and her company dancing during rehearsals and performances, as well as images captured for research and inspiration, what Summers sometimes referred to as movement studies, or "found dancers," primarily for her Illuminated Workingman. These images depict construction workers, police officers, firefighters, construction sites, scaffolding, and street images from different angles. Other slides depict athletes in motion-- studies for Athletic Frenzy; pictures of the sky, planets, works of art in museums, and slides that Summers altered using different methods of painting or etching. Dances that are documented include Illuminated Workingman (Buffalo, NY, 1973, 1975 and New York City, 1977) Energy Changes (MoMA, 1973 and Boston College, 1974), Castle Clinton (Battery Park, 1983), Crow's Nest (Judson, 1979), and Invitation to Secret Dancers(Vienna, 1980s). The slides are accompanied by contact sheets and negatives depicting Crow's Nest, dancer Matt Turney for Windows in the Kitchen, portraits and performance stills of Summers, most likely at the Judson Memorial Church, as well as other contact improvisation stills from the 1960s. Notebooks primarily contain teaching notes from KAC or other ideas concerning somatics. Many of the notebooks are incomplete, and contain a combination of the teaching notes, contact lists, to-do lists, meeting notes, stream of consciousness entries, and recipes. Some of the notebooks present KA students' physical symptoms and describe the movement exercises used, including bodywork and ball work. A small amount of autobiographical essays are also included. Summers frequently wrote meeting notes or personal reflections in her appointment books in addition to daily plans. Programs and publicity materials document Summers's performances from 1964 to 2012. Articles and announcements primarily relate to performances put on by the Elaine Summers Dance and Film Company. A small amount of published periodicals and journals containing articles about Summers's work are also present. The writings and biographies chiefly contain essays, blurbs, and notes created by Summers. Interview transcripts, resumes, and biographical sketches are also present, as well as drafts and a final version of her thesis: Choreography and Filmdance. The thesis is accompanied by a small amount of correspondence.
Physical Description
Extent: 24.03 linear feet (59 boxes, 1 oversized folder)
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b20945617
MSS Unit ID: 23214
Archives collections id: archives_collections_23214
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): eabceef0-6e2f-0135-086d-31f795cffa26
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