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The Ballet of Bolton Landing

The Ballet of Bolton Landing July 5, 2023
Photo of Franziska Boas dancing.
Franziska Boas dancing.

Franziska Boas, the modern dance icon who operated a summer school in Bolton Landing from 1942 to 1949, figures in two new museum exhibitions this summer – The Hyde’s “Songs of the Horizon: David Smith, Music, and Dance” and the Bolton Historical Museum’s “She Did…What?” an exhibit that profiles ten women with Bolton connections who had profound and lasting impacts on American life.   

A 1945 steel sculpture inspired by Boas’ classes, “Boaz Dancing School,” as well as several, related drawings, are among the works by David Smith included in The Hyde’s show, which will remain on view through September 16.

“It’s really exciting to see this work, which has been shown only three times since it was first exhibited in New York in 1946,” said Dr. Jennifer Field, the executive director of the Estate of David Smith and guest curator for “Songs of the Horizon.”

Boas, Smith and Dehner

Boas, Smith and Smith’s first wife, the artist Dorothy Dehner forged a mutually supportive artistic and intellectual network during the years they lived near one another as Bolton Landing neighbors, art historian Paula Wisotzki writes in an essay included in the catalogue for “Songs of the Horizon.”

Dehner and Smith would visit Boas’s studio on a Bolton Landing side street and sit in on her classes, interacting with her students, some of whom posed for Smith. Dehner made sets for performances; they were a featured part of Hugh Allen Wilson’s three-day Bolton Music Festival in August, 1948. (Years later, Dehner would contribute artwork to an album of compositions by Boas’ music director, Meyer Kupferman.)

According to Wisotzki, who interviewed the late Theta Curri about the reception Boas and her dancers were given when they arrived in Bolton, “The permanent population regarded them as ‘Bohemians,’ outsiders both because they were temporary summer residents and because they were engaged in the arts.”

Nevertheless, “Bolton Landing residents were curious about the dancers who appeared each summer,” writes Wisotzki.

(As David Smith himself could not help but be aware of, something Jennifer Field acknowledged in a gallery tour of “Songs of the Horizon,” in which she noted that eyes on one side of ‘Boaz Dancing School’ represent the eyes of curious or perhaps suspicious spectators.)

The Boas Summer School of Dance

By 1945, the school’s roster had grown to eighteen, forming “a real presence in the small town,” Wisotski writes in another essay, “Art, Dance, and Social Justice: Franziska Boas, Dorothy Dehner, and David Smith at Bolton Landing, 1944–1949.”

“We don’t teach dances; we teach how to dance,” Boas told an undoubtedly perplexed reporter from the Lake George Mirror in 1948.

The Mirror’s first article about Boas appeared in 1946, when the editor announced that “Miss Franziska Boas is holding her Summer school of modern dance in Bolton Landing for the third year in a row.”

While Boas’ Bolton Landing school was, for the most part, a retreat for the students and members of her New York-based dance school and company, “Amateur classes in dance and percussion music are held for adults and children” the Mirror noted, adding, “The school also offers complementary work in painting, sculpture, music and writing.” (Free, morning exercise classes for Bolton residents would be added later.)

The Mirror concluded its first report on Boas’ dance school by reminding its readers that “the name of Boas has long been known at Bolton. Dr. Franz Boas, the anthropologist, maintained a summer home on Federal Hill for many years, so in establishing her summer school here Miss Boas has returned to familiar territory.”

Franz Boas, Anthropology and Modern Dance

Boas’ interest in percussion can be understood, at least in part, as a legacy of her more famous father.

At the summer school, “Boas encouraged a symbiosis between the dancers and the authentic instruments that her anthropologist father brought back from his expeditions,” writes Michael Brenson, author of the recently published biography, “David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformational Sculptor.”

According to the Lake George Mirror, those instruments included “Chinese gongs, played with a stick, cymbals of various kinds, Chinese and African drums and American tom toms, hoops played with sticks, Chinese wood blocks and Korean temple blocks.

“She had an incredible collection of drums, cymbals, rattles,” one of Boas’ students told Michael Brenson.  “She even had the guts of a baby grand leaning against the wall, like a harp. A great variety of sound.”

Boas was also among the first choreographers to use masks in performances.

Those instruments and masks cannot, of course, be abstracted from the non-western societies in which they evolved, and which Franz Boas researched, recorded and described in numerous books.

Those studies were no less a part of Franziska Boas’ inheritance.

According to the late, local author Barbara Meyer (“Alma Farm: An Adirondack Meeting Place,” 1999) “Multiculturalism was a prime element of Boas’ work. Brought up to consider all cultures and ethnic groups equally valuable… she was determined to see that reflected in her classes and her company.”

The Boas Family and Bolton Landing

The Boas family played a crucial role in the creation of that “Adirondack Meeting Place.” It was composed, in part, of Franziska’s mother’s family, the founders of the experimental Alma Farm; the Knauth brothers and their families (which included the philosopher Suzanne Langer); physicians Abraham and Mary Putnam Jacobi, as well as Carl Schurz and his family. Franz Boas was the nephew of Dr. Abraham Jacobi, who began visiting Lake George with his wife Mary Putnam Jacobi in 1873.

Boas’ interest in multi-culturalism was not unrelated to her commitment to civil rights, a commitment that she shared with David Smith and Dorothy Dehner, as Paula Wisotzki emphasizes in her writings.

Boas set up a scholarship program named in honor of her father that enabled African American students to attend the school in Bolton Landing at no charge and she “integrated African American students into the studio at a time when the civil rights movement was in its infancy,” writes dance historian Allana Lindgren in “From Automatism to Modern Dance: Francoise Sullivan with Franziska Boas in New York.”

“Boas was an unapologetic social activist,” writes Lindgren, a point confirmed by Wisotzki.

Franziska Boas and the Development of Modern Dance

Boas became interested in dance as a student at Barnard College in the 1920s. By the 1930s (after studying with modern dance pioneers Hanya Holm and Mary Wigman), Boas opened a dance school in New York and founded a dance company, the Boas Group.

Today, Boas is best known among historians of modern dance as a proponent of improvisation, which she “used as a pedagogical tool and a creative stimulus… challenging the parameters of aesthetic acceptability,” writes Lindgren.

Her school in New York was founded with the explicit mission of stimulating “co-operation between different people with different personalities… to be achieved through improvisation, which would encourage participants to learn to move in concert with one another.”

One of her methods of teaching dance was to recruit visual artists to render dancers’ movements in sketches; other dancers would then translate the artists’ interpretation into new physical movement.

(Barbara Meyer organized a tribute to Boas in Saratoga Springs in 2002, where that method of teaching dance was demonstrated. Among the dancers and artists participating was David Smith’s daughter, the artist Rebecca Smith.)

Among Boas’ students and later, instructors, were John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

After Boas closed her school for dance and disbanded her company in 1950, she taught at Shorter College in Georgia until retiring in 1965.

Before her death in 1986, she made one last visit to Bolton Landing, Rebecca Smith recalled.

“She just appeared out of nowhere, hoping to see some of my father’s sculptures,” said Smith. “Her presence was both majestic and powerful.”

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