Anna Sokolow: Dancer and Choreographer

An American Jewish artist with an international legacy.

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Excerpted with permission from the Jewish Women's Archive (JWA). For more information on Anna Sokolow, go to JWA's Women of Valor online exhibit.

"I felt a deep social sense about what I wanted to express, and…the things that affected me deeply personally [are] what I did, and commented on." 

Anna Sokolow was a dancer and choreographer of uncompromising integrity. Believing strongly that dance could be more than mere entertainment, she explored the most pressing issues of her day--from the Great Depression, to the Holocaust, to the alienated youth of the 1960s--and challenged her audiences to think deeply about themselves and their society.

A key figure in the development of modern dance in both Israel and Mexico, Sokolow worked in numerous countries, from Holland to Japan. She also worked with a variety of theatre forms; in addition to regular involvement with both Broadway and off-Broadway stage productions, she often experimented with combining dance, mime, and the spoken word into a single piece.

anna sokolowSokolow frequently found inspiration in Jewish history and culture. Not only did her upbringing amidst the left-wing movements of New York's Jewish immigrant communities shape her interest in social and political injustices, but biblical and modern Jewish figures, Jewish rituals, and other Jewish themes formed the basis of diverse compositions.

Sokolow's compositions were generally abstract; rather than following a narrative structure, they searched for truth in movement and examined a broad range of human emotions. Exploring as they did many of the social, political, and human conflicts that characterize life in the modern world, they often left viewers feeling shaken and disturbed.

But even when dealing with the darkest of subjects, Sokolow's appreciation of the dignity of the human spirit and its resilience in the face of trouble and despair was evident. As a reviewer wrote in 1967, "Miss Sokolow cares--if only to the extent of pointing out that the world is bleeding. I find hope in such pessimism."

Dancing Jewish Themes

Prior to her stay in Mexico, Sokolow created only one piece with clear Jewish content, The Exile (1939). In part influenced by the strong role of religion in Mexican culture, she began to draw more frequently on Jewish history, religion, culture, and society in her work.

Many of Sokolow's Jewish compositions explored themes of exile and suffering, as did her work as a whole. Her 1945 Kaddish, choreographed just as the Holocaust ended, drew upon traditional Jewish elements to express her intense pain and sorrow. Beating her breast and invoking tefillin by wrapping a leather strap around her arm, Sokolow created a heartwrenching manifestation of mourning. Her Dreams, premiered in 1961, was the first serious dance exploration of the Holocaust.

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