“If I Can’t See It, It’s Not There!”

Dean Speer

Phyllis Legters Stonebrook Photo courtesy of her family

Phyllis Legters Stonebrook
Photo courtesy of her family

One of the most seminal influences in my life and career was the great modern dance pedagogue and choreographer, Phyllis Legters Stonebrook whose Dance Theatre Seattle [headquartered at Seattle’s Russian Center on Capitol Hill, just three doors down from where my great-grandfather had a house] not only gave me a scholarship to their school but who also mentored, directed and redirected me is so many ways. This was also true with what became her Pacific Dance Center school and Repertory Dancers Northwest company, of which I was an original member.

A proud graduate of Randolph-Macon Women’s College, when Phyllis came to Seattle in the early 1960s, the only other modern dance teacher of note was someone whom we referred to as “the other Martha”– Martha Nishitani who worked in the U District for many decades; Martha Nishitani’s Modern Dance Studio.

Dance Theatre Seattle was begun by a small handful of Seattle modern dance pioneers who pooled together to create what was then Seattle’s premier modern dance center which included Seattle’s only professional modern dance company. Fanchon Schur, Pamela Schick, and Stonebrook.

In addition to the school having a men’s class – taught by William [Bill] Earl [my first male dance teacher], a composition class, a repertory class, Stonebrook very methodically put us through several weeks of careful and progressive Graham Technique work. I could tell right away that this was for me and the progression of the work made sense; I got it. It also fit me, my body, and what I found myself aspiring to express as a performer. This progressive approach trained us thoroughly and very well. So I stuck with it and with my ballet training.

Stonebrook’s strengths were not confined only to teaching but she also expressed this talent through her choreography, her master work being Käthe Kollwitz Study 1, where she explored the serious topic of peasant wars, based on this German artist’s powerful lithographic work. It felt like a deep honor to learn and perform this dance, where we each were the peasants, enacting key tableaux from several of the lithographs including desperate rebellion – a fight these peasants were doomed from the outset to lose and protection of future generations – the hope that a colleague of hers felt she had to include when first made. The synthesized sound score played on a reel-to-reel tape, was of Phyllis saying in German, “Never again war” but whose words were distorted and changed into sounds that impressed as those associated with conflict of this type. A 30 minute work – for which we instructed not to blink if we could [I was able to do this a couple of times – try not blinking for 30 minutes!], it was a monumental dance that never failed to move audiences.

Stonebrook with Elizabeth Reyes in Stonebrook’s "Kathe Kollwitz Study No.1"

Stonebrook with Elizabeth Reyes in Stonebrook’s “Kathe Kollwitz Study No.1”

One anecdotal story is that we were doing this in a weekend program of multiple performances, funded by the King County Arts Commission and once in between a matinee show and the evening show, the sound technician forgot to rewind the tape, and so put it in not only backward but this meant it also played in reverse – something only possible with reel-to-reel tapes. All we heard was a slight hissing noise. Instead of stopping the dance, Stonebrook, whose role in the dance was central, opted not to leave the stage and have the dance start all over. Instead, we did it entirely in silence [the opening of the dance was meant to be in silence on purpose, but not the rest!], the audience thinking – as we were later told – that it was part of its powerful message. I was personally the cue to start the concluding section and MY cue was from the sound score – now silent, and lying on the floor facing where I could not see anyone, a couple of the off-stage dancers, had to yell to me [as discretely as they could] “Dean, ROLL!” [I was to do a very fast and rather violent roll; a tumbling body, which I did, believe me.]

Phyllis was proud of having studied dance composition with the great Louis Horst [1884-1964] himself and passed this disciplined work on to us through teaching his Pre-Classic Dance Forms and Modern Dance Forms. We learned how to create a short motif then strictly apply compositional tools such as repetition, inversion, fragmentation, transference, and how these could be developed into studies and then perhaps later expanded into full-fledged dances.

Dean Speer with other members of Repertory Dancers Northwest in "Kathe Kollwitz Study No. 1" Photo © Hayne Bayless

Dean Speer with other members of Repertory Dancers Northwest in “Kathe Kollwitz Study No. 1”
Photo © Hayne Bayless

Another learning tool was to take us, one at a time, out of a large group dance and have us see it from the front – what the audience saw, which was a revelation.

Demanding and adhering to the highest technical standards, she also enjoyed being a hostess and her famous company parties at the Legters home in the Madrona neighborhood were legendary and a great time to socialize and visit outside of work.

One of the most memorable was a Graham Company cast party during one of the times they toured to Seattle. While Martha herself was invited, we didn’t really expect her to attend, although we were slightly hopeful. But the entire performing company did and the affair elicited one of the funniest comments ever.

You have to understand that the Graham teaching, like so many things, goes through phases, and in the ‘70s seemed to have devolved to certain catch phrases such as “being lifted onto the pelvic floor” or “where does it come from?” among others.

Phyllis had fully outfitted a buffet and when principal dancer Peggy Lyman went through the line, she pulled off and held up high a turkey leg and intoned for all to hear, “Ah, the passion of the inner thigh!” A total crackup.

This was the year that we joking commented to ourselves that our Pacific Dance Center should be renamed the Pelvic Dance Center.

The title of this tribute is one of her favorite phrases – “If I cannot see it, it’s not there!” Meaning that too often too many dancers imagine they are doing something, when it fact quite the opposite is true. This somewhat echos Martha’s great saying, “Dancers are realists. Either a foot is pointed or it is not.” Another was “Put your head up on the ceiling.” Now think about that one for a second. What she meant was, of course, to look up, keeping the chest high with the head tilted back.

Phyllis was committed to her art and never stopped learning, often spending a few weeks in late June and early July taking classes herself at the Graham School for Contemporary Dance [Martha didn’t like the word “modern”] and immersing herself in New York culture. She always came back inspired and sometimes she’d come back with a dance she’d acquired, to either be staged by herself or, if we were lucky, by the choreographer.

I was partly able to join her for one of these, studying myself at the Graham studio and also taking ballet classes in the Village [Joffrey School, Marjorie Mussman] or at ABT. Phyllis’ sister, Betty Sue Moehlenkamp, was sometimes in my Graham classes, and we’d occasionally repair after class to a nearby Chock Full O’ Nuts [a coffeehouse chain]. We later acquired for our repertory, Moehlenkamp’s wonderful solo suite set to the marvelous “Songs of the Auvergne” that both of our principal women were wonderful in, Sally Sweet, and also, as a guest, the now former head of the UW’s Dance Department, Hannah Wiley.

It was through Phyllis and my work as a principal dancer with Repertory Dancers Northwest, that I got to meet Sharon Tyers who became an inspirational friend and colleague. Sharon was from a tiny Northwest town, Snoqualmie, but managed through talent and hard work to become a soloist with the Graham Company. When Sharon was on tour or home on leave, she’d come in and give us a masterclass – “from the Source” taught us repertory and regaled us with stories of what it was like to directly work with Graham herself. Through Sharon, we got the honor of watching Graham herself conduct a rehearsal where she was in the midst of creating a new work. [The general public might not realize that, while on tour, time is used to create and work on pieces, in addition to polishing the pieces being performed.] Martha choreographed verbally, sitting in a director’s chair, calling out the codified [Graham] steps and movements. We all realized how special it was to observe this – historic for us – and a thrill.

It wasn’t just that Phyllis’ standards were high; she wanted and expected dance to be great and to tell of the human condition, not to be merely entertainment, although it could be that too. What seemed to her the relentless trend of completely abstract and non-narrative work drove her crazy and she more than once stated that Balanchine and Cunningham [Merce] were the worst offenders, as she felt – in her own words, ”They didn’t say anything.”

When Phyllis was in between jobs and marriages, I felt fortunate to be able to have to join her join the faculty of the Chehalis Ballet Center, where I was the director. She continued on, past my departure, and was pleased to learn that she married her high school sweetheart. My last contact with Phyllis was when I called her at their home in Maryland.
A keeper and passer-on of the flame, Stonebrook deeply influenced generations of students, dancers, and artists with whom she collaborated and touched.