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DANCE : Erick Hawkins--Still Going Against the Wind

February 07, 1988|DONNA PERLMUTTER

NEW YORK — Fleeing a wind-chill factor of minus 20 degrees, members of the New York Athletic Club, swaddled in mufflers, rush in through the club doors off Central Park South, the bitter cold encoded on their red faces.

But not Erick Hawkins. He enters without the least trace of climate harassment. No cowering. No huffing and puffing. No beating of fists. Ever serene, the 78-year-old modern-dance classicist refuses to acknowledge the eastern seaboard's latest Siberian Express.

"We know adversity is out there," he comments with metaphoric flourish, the collar of his 1949 houndstooth Burberry neatly folded down and no scarf or gloves in sight. "Why is it necessary to wallow in it?"

Hawkins is as impervious to the harsh elements as to the passing fads in modern dance. For half a century he has let himself be guided by a single slate of aesthetic principles: simplicity, positivism, beauty and accord with nature.

While his experimental brethren knock about from one raucous or Angst -ridden or nihilistic craze to another, Hawkins has managed to be Hawkins: the choreographer of gentle, poetic abstractions. He is to dance what Thoreau is to literature. One only has to consider the titles of such pieces as "Early Floating" and "Classic Kite Tails" to recognize his imagery.

Remarkably, when the Harvard-educated dancemaker's company returns to Los Angeles for the first time in eight years for performances at Royce Hall, UCLA, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Hawkins himself will take the title role in "Ahab."

Based, of course, on Melville's "Moby Dick," this one-act 1986 work represents Hawkins' solution to a perplexing challenge.

"I had always wanted to do a study of Ahab," he says. "The theatrical image of the harpoon being thrown to the interlocutor, its metaphoric potential, has hung in my mind. I just couldn't figure out how to translate the peg-legged hero to the stage.

"But finally I pulled it out of a hat: The ivory tusk prosthesis he walks on could be represented by a white stocking and white shoe."

As it turned out, finding the funds for "Ahab" was another stroke of serendipity, he says. At a Harvard dinner party Hawkins attended in 1986, two men--a wealthy Australian and a New York lawyer--made a bet. When neither could remember his position in the wager, the choreographer became the recipient of a $15,000 gift, just by bearing witness.

The pair of wealthy men decided to use the money to commission a work from Hawkins, one that he could offer at Harvard's 350th anniversary. "Ahab" was that birthday present.

There were many times, however, when Hawkins, who began his dance training in 1934 at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, says he "could barely hang on." It was in 1975, just after losing $20,000 in an engagement at Carnegie Hall, that his company nearly disbanded. The Mellon Foundation rescued him then "and somehow or other," he says, "we always survived."

Not only did they survive, but they held to high standards. In a day when dance companies commonly resort to recorded music, Hawkins brings his ensemble of nine instrumentalists; he has always insisted on live music. From the troupe's beginning (1950), he has commissioned scores by Virgil Thomson, Alan Hovhaness and Wallingford Riegger.

His constant among them, Lucia Dlugoszewski, is otherwise engaged for this tour, so none of the dances for which she wrote the music will be seen. But besides "Ahab" and a number of West Coast premieres, Royce Hall audiences get Hawkins' most recent work, "God the Reveller," and his most popular piece, "Agathlon."

The slogan he follows and which he thinks best summarizes his oeuvre as well as his outlook is: "Less strain, more gain." It applies physically to a system of movement that eschews extreme tension and even dynamism, while exalting the soft leap and the cushioned landing.

"Tight muscles cannot feel," he explains. "So every slight contraction must be followed by an instant decontraction. Otherwise injuries are sustained. The same goes for one's attitude in life. The art of letting things happen and balancing 'doing' with 'not doing' is a paradigm of healthy thought--as Jung and Zen Buddhism see it.

"Unfortunately, audiences like to see the strain. That's why I ain't so famous," he says, unabashedly. "What I'm about is still not understood."

In search of answers to troubling emotional and philosophical problems during his 12-year association with Martha Graham--he became her company's first male dancer in 1938 and they were married briefly--Hawkins availed himself of psychotherapy.

"The marriage was a dumb mistake on my part," he says. "The age difference alone (15 years) made for problems, although I believe a young woman can be happy with an older man. But the worst part was Martha's jealous fury over my success.

"One time a critic singled me out for a favorable notice--in fact, saying that no one else on the program, including Martha, amounted to much. For the next week, my life was unbearable."

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