Obituary: Viola Farber

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The Independent Culture
A FOUNDER member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the dancer Viola Farber had a unique presence on stage which Cunningham exploited in several important pieces.

This came not only from her tallness, long limbs and cropped hair, but from a pronounced ranginess in her movement. "She had a big reach, and always looked as though she was grasping space, reaching right out to its edges," says the British choreographer Richard Alston. This quality informed her own choreography, while her passion for dancing made her an outstanding and influential teacher.

She was born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1931. Aged seven, she emigrated with her family to the United States and six years later became an American citizen. She was a music student at American University, Washington DC; then went to Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where she studied music with Lou Harrison and dance with Katherine Litz. It was here, in 1952, that she met Merce Cunningham and his collaborator, the composer John Cage, during one of Cunningham's visits to teach. The following summer she was one of the dancers who formed the early Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

She was a member of the company for 12 years, producing a vivid impact in roles created for her. In the comic Antic Meet (1958) she had a remarkable solo, full of sudden changes of direction and filigree movements of the feet, during which she carried a beautifully fantastical umbrella, opened, with Christmas-tree lights inside, designed by Robert Rauschenberg. Often her parts required her to dance a duet with Cunningham - this despite the fact that partnering Farber, Cunningham said, was like partnering two people simultaneously. "Once she said to me, don't worry, I'll get there, and I said, I never worry!"

Their duet in the tranquil and mysterious Nocturne (1958) was one of the most lyrical and tender he has ever made, an effect enhanced by the vaporous white net material (another Rauschenberg design), which Farber wore like a hood. Crises (1960) opened with another Cunningham-Farber duet, during which Farber's body seemed impelled by violent dislocations. At one point the two dancers half-crawled, half-slid along the floor side by side, Cunningham propelling her by pushing her arm. "Her body often had the look of one part being in balance, and the rest extremely off," Cunningham said. "Now and again it was like two persons, another just ahead or behind the first."

Paired (1954) consisted of a duet in which Cunningham and Farber's sequence of events was decided during performance. The events were colour-cued, the cue sheet was off-stage and the dancers had intermittently to smear different coloured paint on each other. "We tried doing it without a cue sheet but couldn't remember what colour referred to what movement and what had been done and what was left to do," Cunningham said. "It was a violent dance. Once she kicked me in the forehead, another time I dropped her head on the floor, and again we cracked heads."

During her years with Cunningham, Farber also danced for other choreographers, including Paul Taylor and Katherine Litz. She left Cunningham in 1965 and formed the Viola Farber Dance Company three years later as a showcase for her own idiosyncratic choreography. Like Cunningham she favoured juxtaposing disparate activities, transforming gesture into a dance language alongside more formal steps.

"My dances report what I see," she once said. "They are my response to the way everything is mixed up together in this world - people and microbes and elephants, cassowary birds." Sometimes she used classical music, sometimes she worked with contemporary composers. (She herself was an accomplished pianist.)

She enjoyed high esteem in France where in 1971 she and Jeff Slayton, her dance partner and then husband, won a gold medal at the Ninth International Dance Festival in Paris. Following choreographic commissions from 1977 to 1979 for the Ballet Theatre Contemporain in Angers and the Ballet Theatre Francais in Nancy, she became artistic director of Anger's Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in 1981. There she formed a company of 16 dancers, for whom she made a dozen pieces. She also established a centre in Paris for training dance teachers.

From 1984 to 1987 she lived in London, teaching at London Contemporary Dance School; in 1988 she returned to the United States to become the director of dance at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. But she continued to work as a guest teacher and choreographer for companies in the US and abroad, especially in France.

In 1992 she collaborated with the French choreographer Mathilde Monnier on a piece, Ainsi de suite, shown in Avignon, Paris and Brest. Recently the French government appointed her Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Her last stage appearance was in 1995, in a duet called Threestep (Shipwreck), created with Ralph Lemon, a former student, for his company's season at the Joyce Theatre in New York.

Her formidable achievement in later years was as a teacher. "She was one of the greats," says Richard Alston. "She had a huge following and when I was a student in New York her classes were packed. She had a huge influence on me and Siobhan Davies [the British choreographer]. We were both thunderstruck by her classes. I decided to change my dancing and never to do Graham technique again. Really, she changed my life."

Viola Farber, dancer, choreographer, teacher: born Heidelberg, Germany 25 February 1931; founder member, Merce Cunningham Dance Company 1953- 65; founder member, Viola Farber Dance Company 1968-85; artistic director, Centre National de Danse Contemporaine, Angers 1981-83; teacher, London Contemporary Dance School 1984-87; director, dance department, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville 1988-99; married 1971 Jeff Slayton (marriage dissolved 1980); died New York 24 December 1998.