The lead in "The Princess Who Didn't Know How to Dance" was Dawn Kramer's first big role. She was 6. It was more than 50 years ago, in a recital in Westchester County, N.Y., where she grew up. Kramer has spent the last half century showing that she can dance very well indeed, although primarily in a fashion that is hardly princess-like. She's made a dance about housework, a dance in which she clambers over a mountain of televisions, a dance that's a reverse striptease.
Some of her works are on this weekend's Tsai Performance Center program celebrating the 30th anniversary of Dance Collective. Kramer was one of the founders of Boston's longest-running modern dance troupe. With this farewell show, she becomes the last of the original directors to leave. A more recent recruit, Micki Taylor-Pinney, will find herself in the odd position of running the "Collective" by herself while she considers candidates to bring on board. In the '70s, the era of feminism, radical politics, and alternative lifestyles, collectives were in: Pilobolus, which grew out of a Dartmouth dance class, was the best-known example. While Pilobolus went on to global glory, Dance Collective, although it toured occasionally, basically stayed in Boston, becoming a major force in the arts community here. The group's endless rounds of school performances and outreach programs have brought modern dance into the lives of thousands.
Dance Collective's choreography has tended toward mixed-media works, and that means pulling in a wider audience than the minuscule one that exists for modern dance here. The group's choreographers -- the mainstays have been Martha Armstrong Gray, Judith Chaffee, Ruth Wheeler, Susan Dowling, Taylor-Pinney, and Kramer -- have frequently collaborated with writers, composers, and visual artists. The set for one program in the Cyclorama included a ton of sand. Another, in the same cavernous space, was choreographed on a giant scaffolding of ladders, platforms, corridors, and cagelike contraptions.
Their subjects have been just as adventurous. Wheeler once choreographed a hysterically funny dance about the role that elastic protein plays in powering the jump of a flea, and she set it to a dry "Scientific American" narration. Gray's martial-arts duet, "Flowering Into New Battles," premiered to an audience of just seven -- but became so popular that it entered Boston Ballet's repertoire. Kramer's striptease solo, "Mercy," is about violence against women. Despite the worthy message, it was censored out of a Boston College show because of its near-nudity.
One of Kramer's most poignant pieces, "The Body Hesitates," says a lot about her as a person as well as an artist. It was a tribute to Carlo Rizzo, a superb dancer and longtime Dance Collective performer who was stricken with severe arthritis. Kramer wove his limitations into the work: His gestures were slow and sometimes spasmodic. But thanks to her, the regal bearing that had been his trademark remained intact.
So have Kramer's integrity and generosity, in both her personal and professional lives. It all goes back to early childhood, when her main preoccupation, besides dance, was running a doll hospital at home. Nowadays, "when I'm not taking care of my mother," she says, "I'm taking care of my two granddaughters," both babies. She volunteers for Ethos, a group that provides transportation and other services for the elderly. She earns a modest living -- and the all-important health insurance -- by teaching half-time at the Massachusetts College of Art.
Anything but materialistic, she says that she and Stephen Buck, the lighting designer she lives with, are "trying to figure out how much money we need to get by."
"This is it for me as far as administrative work," she says of her departure from the Collective. At one time, the group had a professional manager, but funding cuts meant the demise of that position. "The Collective is a lot of hard work," says former codirector Susan Dowling, who left in the late '70s because she needed a job that paid. She turned to television and is the cocreator of the current series "art21," in which contemporary artists talk about their work. "For the past few years," Dowling says, "Dawn has done the bulk of that work, along with Micki. It's draining." Dowling praises Kramer's unique voice. "She has her own vocabulary, energy, intensity, and focus. She was wonderful to work with. We all knew each other so well; that made things easy."
Kramer is indisputably one of the finest modern dance choreographers Boston has produced. While others in her league -- Beth Soll, Susan Rose -- left to seek more supportive cities, Kramer stayed. That decision was key to what happened -- and didn't -- with her career. She had a good start. "I was lucky not to have gotten stuck in the ballet-tap-jazz kind of school," she says. "I was doing improvisation from the start." After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, where the legendary teacher Bessie Schonberg was her mentor, Kramer could have tackled New York. Instead, she moved around the country, married, had two children, got divorced, and stayed in Boston. "I certainly haven't been in the thick of downtown [New York] dance trends," she says, "which is good in terms of independent development, but not for a career."
On this weekend's program, though, is a work that might bring her to New York. Her "Walk in Progress" is a duet co-choreographed with Sean Curran -- who appears in video form, on a huge screen. Kramer dances live, reacting to his movements. Curran, who trained in Boston, has built an international career, including a four-year run with the percussion extravaganza "Stomp."
"Sean is begging me to perform 'Walk' with him in New York next June," Kramer says. "I told him, 'but Sean, I'd have to stay in shape for another year!"
"Dangling by a Thread," Dance Collective's 30th anniversary gala, will be held tomorrow and Saturday at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston University, 685 Commonwealth Ave. 617-353-8724.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.