by J. Taylor Basker
Friends, family and fellow creatives celebrated Edith Stephen’s 100th year birthday in Westbeth Artists Housing in Greenwich Village with two parties: one private, for family and close friends in her studio; and the other for the public in the Westbeth Community Room, for fans and neighbors, that included a puppet show by Penny Jones, poetry, dance, film and music. Edith read a moving poem, “Sing the Body Image,” that she wrote early in her dance career, which was danced to by Melissa Yu, who edits Edith’s films. After many guests gave speeches and shared fascinating memories and testimonials about Edith, the party ended with disco dancing.
Edith Stephen was celebrated last year as a Westbeth Icon in a program documenting Westbeth residents who have made extraordinary contributions to the arts, both in this country and globally.
Edith, as a dancer, worked with the most famous dancers of the modern age, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham and José Limón. She formed her own dance company, Electric Currents, and travelled the world with her multimedia, unique approach to choreography that included the effective use of props such as rubber pipes, gas masks, curtains, fishing nets and plastic tubes, as well as special lighting effects. This dramatic theatrical approach to performance helped her evolve into a filmmaker at age 89. She produced her first film, Split/Scream: A Saga of Westbeth Artist Housing, winning an award from the New York International Film Festival when she turned 91 years old.
She is now completing her seventh film, No Labels, which examines the destructive use of labels in culture and society. The film she made last year that documented the life and career of her husband, Alan Kapelner, The Invisible Writer Becomes Visible, inspired a Massachusetts publisher to publish a new edition of his landmark book, Lonely Boy Blues. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, of Scribner publishing, who had discovered Hemmingway and Faulkner, recognized Alan’s enormous talent and published his work in 1944. Alan and Edith were married for 48 years; they supported each other’s careers and creative challenges to conventional society.
Edith continues to be a “take no prisoners” personality, with an acidic wit and sharp insight into society and politics. She combs the New York Times daily. She has lived through much, and says she has seen it all in the past 100 years in America. She was a strong early advocate for women’s rights, and was invited to perform at the first International Conference on Women in 1979 in China. Yet speaking to her guests at her birthday party, she reminded us that the past is over and the future has not yet come, “so the only thing we have is the moment, so seize the moment.” And she exhorted all to “never stop dancing!”