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Obituaries

P. Koner; Pioneer Modern Dancer

February 10, 2001|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Pauline Koner, pioneer modern dancer, choreographer and teacher, has died.

Inspired to become a dancer by seeing Anna Pavlova in "The Dying Swan," the small, dark and intense Koner died Thursday at her home in Manhattan. She was 88.

Although best known for the roles she created and performances she gave in such modern dance masterworks by Jose Limon as "The Moor's Pavane" (1949), Koner was a widely respected choreographer before and after her 14-year association with Limon. Her works have graced the repertories of major companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel, along with others in The Hague, Rome, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile.

In 1945, Koner and Kitty Donner created 11 "Choreotones" for CBS television--a very early experiment in tailoring modern dance to the small screen--and thereafter Koner made many more television appearances.

Her 1963 Dance Magazine award cited her "unique sense of perfection," but she preferred to speak of her achievements as an example of what in 1965 she labeled "intrinsic dance--basic, essential, organic internal--as opposed to extrinsic, the kind of dance that is composed from the outside, not motivated by the inner necessity of the creator's being."

"Dance is so hard, so physically and emotionally demanding, it has to be an obsession," she said three years ago. "Otherwise, why bother to go on?"

She was born in New York City on June 26, 1912, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. Beginning in the late 1920s, she studied ballet with Mikhail Fokine, contemporary Asian dance with Michio Ito and Spanish dance with Angel Cansino (Rita Hayworth's uncle), dancing in Fokine's company and Ito's during the 1928-29 season.

She first presented her own choreography a year later at the Guild Theatre in New York and throughout the 1930s toured the Middle East and the Soviet Union, developing solos influenced by the traditional forms of dance and social issues that she encountered.

"In Palestine . . . at an experimental kindergarten, I learned the dances of an ancient Jewish tribe that was once the most cultured of all," she said in 1937. "I danced, the children danced and again I grasped the basis of their rhythms, taking it away with me."

A Times review that same year said, "Miss Koner has youth, impeccable rhythm and a remarkable vigor. Her characterizations are aggressive and widely varied," and it singled out her Palestine dances as "stylizations of recognizable Hebrew idioms in action . . . clever and keen-witted."

She toured extensively with her solos until joining Limon's company in 1946 but also founded her own independent ensemble a year later, sustaining it until 1963.

Beginning just before her Limon years, she formed a close working relationship with his artistic advisor, the great modern dance choreographer Doris Humphrey, with Humphrey becoming her mentor until her death in 1958. Koner's half-hour solo "The Farewell" is a personal tribute to Humphrey, set to music by Mahler, and was conducted by Koner's husband, Fritz Mahler (second cousin of the composer) at its 1962 premiere. He died in 1973.

Although she ran a second company, the Pauline Koner Dance Consort, from 1976 to 1982, she spent much of the last quarter-century as an inspiring educator and guest lecturer worldwide. Starting in 1986, she taught on a regular basis at the Juilliard School in New York.

In 1989, Koner published her autobiography, "Solitary Song," and in 1993 "Elements of Performance."

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