Manuel Alum…Close to the Earth

By Omonike Akinyemi
December 4, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A group of 12 headshots of a man, each with a slightly different facial expression

In 1989, Omonike Akinyemi was an apprentice with Ballet Hispanico, where she danced for Manuel Alum. Alum was a modern dancer and choreographer born in Puerto Rico, who trained with and danced for some of the most significant modern dance companies, including the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Paul Sanasardo Dance Company. He left the Sanasardo Company in 1973 to focus on his own choreography, which was performed widely both by Alum’s own company and others, including the Ballet Rambert, Bat-Dor Dance Company, Dance Theater of Harlem, and Ballet Hispanico.

Film and theater director, choreographer, and dance teacher Akinyemi shares her experience of rediscovering Alum’s work and her personal connection with him, which she explored in a 2022-2023 Short Term Fellowship in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. On December 27, Akinyemi joins us for our Dance Historian Is In lecture series, where she will speak about Alum.

One day I rediscovered a video from 1989 in my family home that eventually led me to research the work of choreographer Manuel Alum. It said "Ballet Hispanico Recital" on the sleeve, and there, on analog videotape, lay a piece of choreography that I had only performed publicly once. It was "Nightbloom II," choreographed by Manuel Alum for 10 dancers, mostly members of the Ballet Hispancio of New York Apprentice Company. I recognized in his work a certain humility mixed with daring.

He seemed to have an idea of what it meant for people to move together: We were all reduced to body parts cycling to create a giant octopus, and made greater by becoming this new larger-than-life self in the opening. 

It was clear that in Manuel’s work we were dancing differently than in the other pieces we were featured in that year. In "Tangillos de Cadiz" we flirted with the audience wearing hats like Spanish aristocats and in "La Bamba" we moved with the sureness of island women making long, white skirts flow in unison, but in "Nightbloom II" our feet cackled like busy bats making noise until silenced by the wind. We were close to the ground and would fall and recover, not by listening for the counts in the music, but through a sense of timing based on the feeling of the people around us on stage. I wanted to know more about this man who was my dance teacher, and I began to dig.

A man sits against a wall before an empty dance floor

Manuel Alum in the loose fitting clothing in the style her wore for work with youth dancers

The collections of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts revealed images of Manuel and his dancers in performance and rehearsal. I recognized the movement that I had experienced in "Nightbloom II," in the movement of other people: dancers Manuel worked with when choreographing for the Paul Sanasardo Dance Company and then dancers he worked with after establishing his own company. 

Some of these works displayed the lush feel of modern dance in its bloom—the 60s and 70s—an era far from the early moderns, and yet not fully what one might refer to today as "contemporary" dance. The dancers also seemed to have levels of balletic technique with the daring of modern dance bodies sometimes thrown into space. 

I was especially drawn to the videos of Manuel’s development of the dance pieces "Era" and "To(get)her" which seemed to have a rawness to them. It is a rawness I have also felt in watching Eleo Pomare’s dance pieces, which tell of the stark lives of people on the streets. But Manuel also seemed to dig into a certain religiosity that may have come from his Puerto Rican background. "Palomas" is one piece that says something about "Christ" and the idea of worship, yet Manuel also used smooth sensual movement in "Yemaya," a piece which recalled the goddess Yemanya, who appears in African-Caribbean folklore.

A group of people dancing in a jumble of forms of bodies

Paul Sanasardo Dance Company

The stark movements of his choreography—a person who crawls instead of walks, people compelled to crawl using their arms like legs across the stage, falls requiring close cooperation—all signified a choreographer who was clear in his sense of the dynamism of the human body and its ability to express love, grief, joy, ecstasy, reverie, and shame through movement. 

The more I could see his perspective on the body used to convey messages, the more I wanted to know what had happened to him. The early life of the Manuel I did not know—a young aspiring dancer with boyish good looks and grace—was apparent in the portraits taken of him in a Sears-Roebuck-like film studio.

Two people dancing

Manuel Alum

And yet, the young dancer revealed a curiosity and hunger to his movement, an ability to lift another person and then tilt them into space with caring determination. It seemed clear to me why Martha Graham had invited him to be a part of her company. His clear technical ability and emotional range was apparent in the solo and group pieces in which he was photographed. Yet, why was his work not widely performed anymore? His fall from the spotlight seemed abrupt. To have danced for Manuel in 1989 and not known he died four years later, I felt somehow robbed. Why did I not know?

I saw a brief clipping of Manuel’s obituary from The New York Times, published May 12, 1993, stating simply, "He was 50 and lived in Manhattan… the cause was cancer, his family said." Somehow these words did not ring true for me—did he really die of cancer? As a youth, I had met an artist on a mission. The Manuel Alum who had choreographed "Nightbloom II" was vibrant and mysterious. He entered the studio dressed in white, like a sort of Jedi knight, he seemed to be on a quest that was deep and secretive from the very start. His socks and dance shoes were laced to his feet as if to hold in the energy and keep it from bursting into the air. I soon realized that to learn the truth about his death, I would need to go beyond the archive and talk with people who knew him, the people in the pictures. 

I decided to first contact Judith Blackstone, a dancer of energetic force. 

In image after image, she reappeared as a dance partner of Manuel—sometimes tangled with him in a knot, sometimes moving in sync with him in an off-center phrase, or being lifted into the air by him. In conversation with Judith, I learned that she felt close to him and had developed a sense of who he was by dancing "with him." She said she knew he was gay. She was shocked to learn that the newspapers listed him as having had cancer.

A man curled up in a fetal position reaches his hand out to the corner of the photo

Manuel Alum

He had died of AIDS. She stated this matter of factly.

Judith’s journey from dancer to healer—she practiced as a clinical psychologist for thirty five years following her dance career, with a specialization in somatic psychotherapy—also revealed something to me about the quality of people Manuel worked with. They all seemed to have moved from dancing to other pursuits, without leaving dance behind. Mark Franko, another part of this group, now wrote about dance, and Judith had her own dance practice. Judith explained that after a back injury that occurred while performing with Pina Baush’s company, she found she could no longer move the same way, but she had taught herself to move again. Her process of healing her own body became one she could share with others experiencing bodily pain.

Through Judith, I also learned of the strong connection between the dancers working with Manuel Alum and Paul Sanasardo’s companies and Pina Bausch. Manuel had also been invited to dance with Pina, but chose to form his own company in New York and eventually acquire his own studio space. 

A group of students dressed in white with purple and pink lights shining on them dance

A moment from “Nightbloom II” with students from Albany High School

Manuel and Pina’s similarities extend to their practice of developing travel diaries as a way to generate movement. But rather than learn about Manuel Alum from his work with other choreographers, I decided to engage in more oral research. Judith Blackstone suggested I speak with a dancer named Margaret Beals, who had known him later in life. 

I would soon contact many others to learn more—including Joan Lombardi, a dancer who formed part of the original "Nightbloom" cast in 1966; she expressed a real joy about performing in Manuel’s work. "It was lush," she told me. "Very different from other modern choreographers at the time."

She also confirmed that he had died of AIDS. Somehow learning this news over and over again, my heart sank and then would rebound. I felt that the knowledge of what happened to my teacher was a signal. He was one of many of a generation that youth like myself had never had a chance to mourn. AIDS had taken our teachers from us without our even knowing it. Our goal as his students was to learn, and it seemed we were still learning from him.

I decided to call another dancer who had been a member of the Ballet Hispanico apprentice company with me. My fellow dancer, Jeannette Domenech, remembered Manuel smelling "rich." His fragrance seemed to embody life: gardens and flowers. How interesting that her memory held an aroma. I remembered Manuel watching us dance other repertoire, like Spanish dances. He seemed perturbed that we were dancing "like gypsies." His reaction helped me realize that the Latin experience did not mean one way of expressing the self; there were many ways to engage with our heritage. 

Although I did not consider myself Latino, I had come to feel that the dance was somehow my own. Another friend of Manuel’s confirmed that "he did not wear his Puerto Rican-ness on his sleeve." And yet, I felt that there was still something distinctly, culturally connected about the way his dances were created. His work felt like the other side of the coin: a ritual-based side that could not be easily mistaken as entertainment.

I felt compelled to learn more but felt that the words and images I saw in the archive could only tell me so much. So, I decided to re-enter the work, and began the process of re-staging "Nightbloom II" with my own students at Albany High School.

Our journey was tough. I realized the piece was not easy. It was one thing to be a dancer in "Nightbloom," and another to experience the piece from the outside. I realized that Manuel’s choreography was not based on counts, but on eruptions and beginnings, with culminations that were experienced by the group. We began together, but then one person’s fall seemed to compel the group to scatter—like birds driven apart by a sonic disturbance. And then, like a tidal wave, we began again to find our harmony.

I could tell by the way the students reacted to the movement that the choreography made them question their own limits.  

Some students whom I expected to abandon the process stuck with it. I realized that I could utilize their limitations as first- and second-year modern dance students to dig deeper into the essence of Manuel’s message. It wasn’t about how high a leg could go in arabesque, but why it would go into arabesque. Student dancer Hilary Anne Tejero realized that she could “find the flow” from sensing what she needed to do in relation to the group. I felt a sense of completion in beginning again the cycle of learning "Nightbloom II," which had begun with my generation.

I remember that moment on stage in 1989, with my chiffon vest sticking to the sweat on my chest, enjoying an eight-minute adventure moving from shape to shape. The eruptions in "Nightbloom II" came out as solos. Manuel gave us each a chance to find something interesting to say—a fall to hit the ground with our hands and then rise up on our toes with open arms—that meant so much.

Now looking back at the piece, I wonder if it was a prophetic work. Did he know that we would one day want to know who he really was? I was delighted to find that there in the archive was the program from the recital where we performed "Nightbloom II."  Manuel had documented his own life in a way that helped us retrace our own steps.

Getting to know Manuel through his choreography by practicing it with others enriched my and my students’ lives, making us reach deeper into being in the moment with each other. With great pride we performed the piece on May 18, 2023 at Albany High School’s main auditorium accompanied by the school’s orchestra.

During this process of learning and teaching "Nightbloom II," I decided to contact Margaret Beals, a skilled dancer of improvisation. She shared with me her knowledge of the last days of Manuel Alum’s life—she had invited him to stay at her country home, where he spent most of his days out on the porch. He had grown weak, but was able to meditate to step away from his pain, and she spoke of his wanting to use every moment of his life to live.

I am struck by how Manuel, like his friend Judith, was able to use movement to step away from pain. Manuel still went on a trip to Puerto Rico during the last year of life, even though traveling with medical devices was difficult for him. Margaret decided to choreograph her own work, "Pathways," based on her conversations with Manuel Alum in his last days, which she described as "wonderful."

"Made in Japan" is one of Manuel Alum’s most celebrated works, and can be seen at the Library for the Performing Arts. Watching how Manuel became affected by Japanese culture, I saw a side of him that I had felt in his presence as a young student. He carried that ritualistic sensibility with him into the studio as he taught us. "Made in Japan" tells the story of Manuel in Japan, and part two explores Japan in Manuel. His legacy is in us—those who worked with him and experienced his message—just as Japan was in him. During a lecture-demo while in Japan, Manuel explained that once he turned 80 years old, he would finally know how to move his arm "just right" in dance. This year, 2023, would mark his 80th year. I am honored to have worked with him and to have been given the opportunity to explore his work as a dancer, researcher, and dance maker.

Omonike Akinyemi will further discuss the life and career of Manuel Alum as part of David Vaughn’s The Dance Historian is In, on December 27, 2023, at the Library for the Performing Arts. Register on our website.