By J. Taylor Basker
We lost our Westbeth icon, the dancer/choreographer/filmmaker Edith Stephen, on March 18th at 6:55 p.m. Her friend and neighbor, jazz guitarist Steve Berger, was holding her hand; there were six of us with her. My dog put his head and body flat, across from her—he knew she was gone. She was surrounded by love in her studio, with friends and family, as she wished. I had just shown her the latest version of her new film, Sound into Silence, that Don Pollock, Maia Buljeta, and I were working on with her, just before she passed on into silence. Edith would be 102 in two weeks. Her life spanned great cultural, social, and political changes in our world. World Wars, the Great Depression, the cultural revolutions of post WWII and the ‘60s, politicians great and venal. She was born during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, and 18 presidents later she happily saw Biden defeat Trump, although she was a devout Bernie fan.
One of Edith’s favorite creatures was the butterfly—and this describes her amazing life and career. Emerging from the confining cocoon of an Orthodox Jewish family in Buffalo, New York, Edith soared to great heights, exploring vast fields of diverse color, forms, movement, and experiences. What made her break away from the conventional life she was born into? How can we explain the mystery of the human who discovers their inner creativity and freedom and flies out of the box she was expected to remain in? Edith Stephen represented one of these anomalies; her entire life and career was one of exploration, combining conflicting paradigms, reaching for the impossible, and evading the nets meant to restrain her.
Dance became Edith’s wings and her passion from childhood. She worked with the most famous dancers of the modern age including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham, and Jose Limon. She formed her own dance company, Electric Currents, and travelled the world with her unique multimedia 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. Previously, she had formed the distinctive dance company Dance Innovation, which engaged an early exploration of the use of multimedia, which she continued to expand upon. She was in the vanguard of new frontiers in the arts, and used her work as social commentary, where dance became a mirror presenting a dramatic and provocative picture of humanity in the universe. This dramatic theatrical approach to performance later helped her become a filmmaker, when hip replacements made it difficult for her to continue to dance and choreograph. She produced her first film, Split/Screen: A Saga of Westbeth Artist Housing, when she was 91, which won an award from the New York International Film Festival.
Two years ago Edith made an extraordinary film, The Invisible Writer Becomes Visible, about her husband Alan Kapelner. It inspired a Massachusetts publisher to issue a new edition of Kapelner’s landmark book Lonely Boy Blues. Kapelner’s editor, Seymour Krim, who had worked with Hemingway and Faulkner, discovered his enormous talent and published the book in 1944. Kapelner and Edith were married for 48 years; they supported each other’s careers and creative challenges to conventional society. Their marriage was unique—each was independent and free to pursue their individual creative paths. Edith, a butterfly traveling on tours, attending international dance festivals (including the First Women’s Conference in Beijing in the ‘60s), seldom stayed in one place for long, while Alan, stationary in his apartment, surrounded in clouds of cigarette smoke, wrote his novels and seldom ventured out.
Edith’s last film, Sound into Silence, is a meditation on improvisation in music and nature ending with John Cage’s silent concert performance “4:33.” We are still editing it and will be presenting it this spring. She was directing it until the end, when she entered the silence she loved.
Edith had a “take no prisoners” personality, with an acidic wit and sharp insight into society and politics. As a communist in her twenties, she reported that she was rejected by the political party because she refused to be restricted by what she perceived as its ideological confines, just as she had challenged the orthodox training of her childhood. She combed the New York Times daily. At the end, she asked me to read her the headlines and still had hilarious biting comments on them. She said she had seen it all in her long life—nothing surprised her. Yet 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 us all to “never stop dancing!”
She had been planning her 102nd birthday party on April 2nd and told me she wanted to wear pink and get a new outfit with her stimulus check. So, we will honor her request and hold a Zoom birthday party memorial! Contact me at WestView News if you would like the link to join. Her last month was spent conducting a frustrating ongoing battle with health care agencies, and I became her primary caregiver when she was discharged from the hospital without the 24/7 care that she needed. It was difficult but I was grateful to be able to kiss her good night every evening. I know that she is happy now, flying with the spirits and choreographing cherubic dancers.
Her flyer from the Rotunda Arts Festival at Riverside Park, probably in the ‘70s, fell out of a box that a relative was going through today as we prepare to clear out her studio and archive her materials. I rescued it, noting that it described Edith Stephen’s work as “sometimes confusing, sometimes amusing, but always original and profound.” She is survived by her niece Alison Welles and husband Sasha of Munich, Germany, her niece Susan Graziano and her husband Tim of Manhattan, many other nieces and nephews, and William Weintraub and his wife Susan of Brooklyn.