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A Long Career Moved by the Spirit

At 79, Marion Scott is still seeking that unexplainable link connecting dance, dancer and viewer


According to dancer-choreographer Marion Scott, who turns 80 next month, "You can dance as long as you can move." These days, the veteran performer--who over the years has undergone three hip replacement surgeries and suffered debilitating depression--is nothing if not true to her word.

Coming off the high of receiving the Lester Horton Lifetime Achievement Award in April, Scott is ready to unveil "Inspired by Isadora," the sixth installment in a series she calls Spirit Dances. Opening Friday for a three-night run at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, the series was conceived in 1999 by Scott and a nucleus of dancers. She directs the improvisatory concerts, and, oh yes, she dances in most of the programs as well.

On a recent weekday, Scott ushered a visitor into her 16th-floor Westwood apartment, walking with a hint of a limp. She's tiny, just 5 feet, and dressed in dancer gear--black leggings and a tunic splashed with color--with her long gray hair pulled back into a neat bun.

The Spirit Dances series, she explains, is one expression of the "if you can move, you can dance" idea, an attempt to connect dancer, movement, theme and audience with as little as possible in between.

"To do a real spirit dance is risky," Scott says. "It's not knowing. You ask spirit in, and sometimes spirit doesn't come. But when it works, the spirit goes to the audience and they're connected. Each performance is different, making it always interesting and direct."

It's an apt process for a woman who, despite her dictum and her self-proclaimed passion for dance, has had to dig deep to stay on her feet.

Scott says her muse came to her when she was 5 or 6, growing up in Chicago. Her father managed a hotel, and her mother loved art and music. One day in a dance class, she had a transformative experience--and again, she uses the concept of spirit to explain it. "A spirit came to me and told me I was beautiful," she says, her blue eyes sharp and sparkling. "Before, I felt I was ugly. Suddenly I felt like a whole other being."

It set her course. As soon as she finished high school, she left Chicago for New York City and a career in modern dance. She studied with, among others, Jose Limon, Hanya Holm and Martha Graham. She danced in Graham's company as well as with modern dance pioneers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. She also was assistant to Helen Tamiris, becoming a lead dancer in the Tamiris-Nagrin Company from 1959 to 1963.

At the same time, the need to make her own dances led her to found the Marion Scott Dance Company, which numbered up to 10 dancers during the troupe's 20-year run. It was based in New York and known for its innovative, boundary-pushing movements. In 1962 Dance Observer magazine noted Scott's ability to excite an audience. "Aftermath," it said, "was packed with emotional intensity." In 1963, Scott was awarded the Doris Humphrey Fellowship at Connecticut College, which was then the only existing award for modern dance choreography.

"It was the biggest honor at the time," Scott recalls. "I knew I was on my way."

While she was choreographing and running her company, Scott was also managing a family. She married businessman Ivan Rosalesky, moved to New Jersey and had two children, Lynn and Peter. But she never stopped dancing--until her late 40s, when she was sidelined by crippling arthritis in her hip. Forced to retire, she gave up her company in 1968. It would be 17 years before she would perform again.

But Scott didn't leave dance behind altogether. In 1969 she joined UCLA's dance department as professor and resident choreographer. Her children were in college, but Scott's husband wasn't ready to retire. So she shuttled between the two coasts.

While she was in academia, Scott's choreography continued to be performed, and she created new work. As part of a university research grant in 1983, she went to Bali to study masked dance. From this trip came "Triune," which Scott mounted at various venues, including Royce Hall, in the mid-1980s.

But she still couldn't perform. Her arthritis had worsened, and in 1972 she underwent her first hip replacement surgery, followed by a second in 1975. She sought out massage therapy, and counseling for depression. Finally, in 1985, she formed her second company, Visions Inter-Arts and got herself back on stage.

"Even with my bad hip and depression, I began to think about how to get back into dance, which was my life, my passion," Scott says.

Visions, an all-women, multidisciplinary performance collective, lasted three years and presented works by, among others, performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, former Scott student Hae Kyung Lee and Scott.

In 1985, Times dance critic Lewis Segal wrote that a Scott solo on a Visions program "developed from weighty groveling to buoyant gestures of affirmation ... a statement of one woman's connection to something beyond the personal."

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