Life & Culture

The Phoenix Project: Finding Our Beauty in Older Age


“I like it, I loved it, but I don’t pine for it like Martha Graham did. She died wanting to dance. My first passion was writing. Now I write. I’m writing a book that takes place six years into the Trump presidency.” — Stuart Hodes

Stuart Hodes has balance issues. He’s 91, and his doctor has given him a daily series of movements designed to stop the problem from worsening. Hodes, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham company, has added some moves and turned these exercises into a dance.

He’s making an art of necessity.

Along with seven other dancers in their 70s, 80s and 90s who’ve worked everywhere from the Martha Graham Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Broadway, Hodes is part of an ensemble that’s performing in “The Phoenix Project” this month in New York, a program of choreographic works that aims to find the beauty in aging.

When he dances now, Hodes says, what he’s most aware of is “how lousy I am at it…. I feel almost like I’m faking it.”

Nevertheless, he got raves after a recent performance. (Hodes is pictured in the photo above.)

Where Is the Beauty?

“The Phoenix Project” is the work of NYC-based dance organization Dances for a Variable Population. DVP artistic director Naomi Goldberg Haas says her work is focused on the ways that older bodies can use memory, expectation and power to reveal the surprising beauty of age.

Dance is a physical language — its moves and gestures embody attitudes, ideas and feelings. No surprise, then, that the way “Phoenix Project” dancers talk about dance can sound like a philosophy on aging. These “legends,” as Haas refers to them, have been using their bodies to express themselves, even as they’ve physically changed over the years. They’ve had not only to keep themselves in shape but also to live in the moment, accept limitations and creatively adapt — a lesson for us all.

“I tell people, you can’t get frustrated over something you can’t do,” says Rita Carrington. The retired executive director of the Central Harlem Senior Center, Carrington is one of three accomplished amateur dancers who were invited to participate in the project. “If there’s something you can’t do, put something else in its place.”

Dances for a Variable Population’s free year-round programming, called Movement Speaks, puts younger dance professionals together with older non-dancers for weekly workshops, culminating in performances. The Movement Speaks participants are the corps de ballet for the “Phoenix Project” performances.

Over the past several months, Haas has been working with the senior dance legends on the project, which is informed by where the members are in their lives and inspired by their creative impulses. “We approach everything with an awareness of celebrating age, celebrating the beauty of age,” she says. “This year we were thinking, where is the beauty?”

The participants looked for beauty inside older people as well as at the locations where they’d be performing: a Queens community, the Hudson River and the New York Botanical Garden.

Dancers Alice Teirstein and Jim May. Photo: Meg Goldman
Dancers Alice Teirstein and Jim May. Photo: Meg Goldman

Older Dancers — Living in the Moment

Senior Planet attended two recent rehearsals and caught up with some of the project’s dancers to talk about how growing older has changed how they think about dance — and about their aging bodies.

One of the professionals is Alice Teirstein, 87, who has been a choreographer, artistic director and teacher in New York since the 1970s. She says aging hasn’t changed her approach to dance.

“I’m beginning to realize there are some limitations,” says Teirstein, who takes a daily class. At the barre recently, “things didn’t move the way I wanted them to. I called my son and said, ‘I didn’t know it would happen so suddenly.’”

But the next day, the movement was back.

“I can’t imagine not being able to do this forever,” she says. “But I know…. But I can’t imagine. In a sensible moment, I guess I realize, but I don’t believe it.”

Jim May, 72, is artistic director of the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble. He says he’s become a better dancer with age. “I’ve now clarified what I want to do as a dancer. I did ballet. Then I did Broadway. Now I do me.”

“Age forces them to really expose who they are. Age makes you more who you are,” Haas says.

We asked Haas whether working with these older dancers has changed the way that the younger company members see themselves and what lies ahead. “For the younger dancers,” she says, “It’s really an experience of how to be more. Just how to be more.… They have to really absorb who they are as performers, as human beings. Through the process of working on the piece with these older dancers, they become better. They become better performers in all ways. There’s an essence in performing that is something an older dancer really understands. The seniors in our Movement Speaks program are also really learning that.”

George Faison, 70, a former Alvin Ailey dancer who won a Tony Award winner for his choreography of “The Wiz,” choreographed a section of the “Phoenix Project” to “Everything’s Coming up Roses.”

“You watch the youth and say, ‘I’ve done that,’” Faison says. “The value of older people is the history, the legacy they carry. Movement is our gateway. It’s great that we dance together. This is a way to being younger, living longer, being happy.”

“Dancing together, you communicate without really saying anything,” he says.

Hodes, the former Martha Graham dancer, says, “I don’t miss dancing. I like it, I loved it, but I don’t pine for it like Martha Graham did. She died wanting to dance. My first passion was writing. Now I write. I’m writing a book now that takes place six years into the Trump presidency.”

Hodes says he often looks up old friends, only to find that they’ve died. Returning to dance, he says, is like looking up an old friend who’s still there.

(As we were publishing this story, we learned that “Phoenix Project” dancer Loretta Abbott, who danced with Alvin Ailey and was in the movie “The Wiz,” died on Sunday, June 5. Our conversations with the dancers quoted do not reflect this loss.)

Photo: Meg Goldman
Photo: Meg Goldman

“The Phoenix Project” will be performed at the Queensbridge Riis Community Center in Long Island City on June 11 (click here for details) and as a Family Day event on June 18 at the West Harlem Piers Park (click here).

Photos:  Meg Goldman


4 responses to “The Phoenix Project: Finding Our Beauty in Older Age

  1. Wonderful piece. I love that people are accepting who they are and loving it! As a young performer, one is constantly trying to be better, to be perfect, to follow rules of trying to be best… an older performer, you are who you are….warts and pimples included….and you are now expressing your own true self, not particularly trying to please anyone – sort of “come along with me” attitude rather than “take me, take me, I’m good!”

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