Feature: Sheron Wray remembers Jane Dudley

Friday 18 April 2008

Sheron Wray Sheron Wray talked to Melanie Nix this week about her memories of a mentor and friend.

Jane Dudley in 'New World A-comin'' 1945 Jane Dudley, the choreographer and dancer who died last week at the age of 89, spent the last 30 years of her life here in London.

Sheron Wray, Artistic Director of Jazz Xchange first met her when she was a member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Jane was teaching at the associated school. Wray has recently given memorable performances of one of Dudley’s most famous works, Harmonica Breakdown. It was made in 1938, when Dudley was involved in an informal collective, the New Dance Group, which aimed to make dance accessible to working people, through performances and classes. It was inspired by the music of Sonny Terry, the blues harmonica player. Nadine Meisner in Independent writes: “Whenever it’s performed (as it often is), its moral power and unforgettable imagery are a hit, the dancer moving with her comic-brave strutting walk, forging ever onwards, her jaunty skips erupting irrepressibly through the grinding surface of American poverty.”
For obituaries see news page

What qualities do you think Jane Dudley saw in you which made you so suitable for Harmonica Breakdown?

I define myself as being a strong dancer and Jane was a strong character so I’m sure there were definite parallels. More importantly I think Jane saw that I had an appetite for the blues. Blues is a state of being, it is a feeling that you either have or you don’t. To some extent you can shape that because I’ve seen the piece being taught to people that don’t necessarily have the ‘feeling’, but I think intrinsically somehow I’m very much connected with it and if you think about my life with jazz music, it’s kind of the same.
Jane Dudley teaching in the 1980's You’ve said that she has corrected, guided and shaped you as a dancer. How did she do that?

She always said “Sheron, can you get out on that left hip a little bit more!” because the first posture in the opening position was a contorted isolation of the body. My body isn’t hyper flexible therefore I used to have to really work at how to put my body in this funny position. There are many things like that throughout the piece actually, it’s very specific. I hear Jane’s voice going with me throughout the piece!

In the 1930s she was a member of the New Dance Group, who aimed to fight political oppression through their work. Were you ever aware of/influenced by, her activist views?

She believed in all people’s rights to express and Jane was really someone who made you think about that in whatever it was that you were doing. So in my work, particularly as I am on the outside of the contemporary sector, having Jane as a patron of JazzXchange was like her telling me “Yes! Go and do it! “
In terms of politicizing, my work in itself is challenging the status quo in a sense that jazz, as a dance form, isn’t recognized as an art form, so that is quite a big mountain to take on. However, one of the last pieces that I made, called Live, really was quite political. It was about Aids in Africa which I experienced when I was in Zimbabwe and got so compelled to talk about it. In many ways in our lifetimes, up until a couple of weeks ago, there have been few things that have really made an impact as opposed to in Jane’s time. The politics, the social struggles, the human rights issues, the civil rights movement. . . all of those things were top of everybody’s consciousness. Whereas I think we have been brought up on bubblegum and pop culture and not really on struggles. We haven’t ever really experienced hardship. So the experience that I had made me want to say something.
Her patronage must have been good for JazzXchange. How did she support the company?
She was my mentor. She would come to rehearsals and see the pieces progressing and as far as she could she would come to performances. I don’t know that her involvement made it ‘high profile’ though. I am of the view that many people or institutions did not take note of Jane past a certain time. It’s kind of ironic. When someone passes away everyone is like “Wow! This woman was mammoth.” She was always that. Ironically I think that will happen now. “Oh, she was the patron of JazzXchange. Wow. She made that commitment. Those things don’t seemingly go together.”
Was she frustrated at not being recognised or acknowledged as much as she should have been?

I think she sort of let go at a certain point but I’m sure at some time there might have been some frustration. The very last time we did Harmonica Breakdown was this year at The Place. Jane gave a recital of her sister’s unpublished music works and I performed Harmonica. There were a few students there from the Place which I am sort of mentoring and I introduced them to Jane. I was like, “Here she is! Talk to her! “ and after the performance they must have spent almost an hour on bended knee just talking to Jane.
Jane was one of the last ‘veterans’ of the Graham technique. Do you think this loss, combined with the difficulties the Graham company are experiencing, marks the end of pure Graham technique?

I don’t think so. I say that because I’ve travelled to Cuba where there is an amazing development of the Graham technique and theyproduce really, really fine modern dancers. It also lives within lots of other people in different forms but I suppose what will enable it to surface again is for the institutions that train dancers that have shifted away from it, to re-introduce it. That will dictate if it re-surfaces in this country again. I don’t think we’ve lost though. It’s too ingrained in so many different people.
Is it a technique you use consciously in your work?
I would say that the Graham way of using the body is definitely a vocabulary I use. My body was partly created through that, you know? I can’t just forget it. I don’t teach a pure Graham class but there are elements of it in what I teach. Development is good. That’s what keeps things alive, rather than staying in the same, codified form. Using a dancer’s intelligence and interpretive abilities to make it work.
What do you think you’ll miss most about Jane?

Just visiting her. Seeing her, spending time with her. I’ll miss that. She was a real friend. She was really loved, and she loved a lot of people. She won’t ever be forgotten. She gave a lot of inspiration. To have that kind of a life . . . it was a good life to have.

How would you like to see her remembered?

A wonderful thing for me would have been to share Harmonica with some younger people whilst Jane was still here, but that opportunity didn’t arise. This happens a lot with contemporary dance though because the focus is always on ‘the new’ and we don’t always take stock of what or who has actually brought us to this point. I would like to see a studio named after Jane. There needs to be some remembrance.

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