Life Remembered: Blossom 'was driven to create work'


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Dot Kane came to the University of Illinois without a major, thinking she might become a marching band director.

Then she took for fun an improv-dance class taught by dance faculty member Beverly Blossom.

"I fell in love with her," said Kane, now of La Grange Park. "I wanted to take another class with her. I had to audition for the dance department to take a 200-level class but I thought, 'I'll do anything to spend time with Beverly Blossom. I'll become a dance major.' Again, I wanted to be around the magic of Beverly Blossom."

Ms. Blossom, a dancer and choreographer who left colorful and indelible rather than ephemeral impressions on her audiences, died Saturday (Nov. 1, 2014) at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She was 88; her only child, Michael, attributed her death to cancer.

In her Nov. 3 obituary about Ms. Blossom, New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning described the modern-dance choreographer and teacher as "a daring, vividly imaginative solo performer" who later in her career was "one of the most distinguished — and zaniest — solo performers in modern dance.

"She had only to walk quietly onto a stage, statuesque and slightly quizzical, and disparate worlds would be evoked, bursting into the light," Dunning wrote.

Ms. Blossom, a pioneer of post-modern dance, performed here often as well, starting in the late '50s at the UI Foellinger Auditorium as a principal dancer with the Nikolais Dance Theater, a company that toured the United States, Canada and Europe. She returned to Illinois in 1967 as a dance faculty member, leaving in 1989 to return to New York.

As a dancer, Ms. Blossom was known for her colorful and outlandish costumes. She also was known for her use of props. They included top hats, inner tubes, silver hoops, basketballs, old photographic slides, parachutes and her father's old ties.

She used the ties to create a swirling skirt and headdress for "Dad's Ties" (1983), one of her signature solo pieces. She created it after her father's death.

Her use of props and color and her timing have influenced countless students, among them Kane, who as a professional storyteller draws on those aspects of Ms. Blossom's work.

"I thought she was the most wonderful person in the world," said Kane, who became Ms. Blossom's "self-appointed personal assistant" after the dance artist moved back to Chicago in 2001.

"I would do anything to spend time with Beverly Blossom. It was an adventure. Doing anything with her turned into a piece. She was amazing."

Norma Marder, a writer who lives in Champaign, spoke of Ms. Blossom in a similar vein. As a singer, Marder collaborated with her in avant-garde performances in the '60s in New York, when both women lived there.

Marder remembered their first performance together on a proscenium stage in Manhattan; Marder sang the aria "Una Voce Poco Fa" from "The Barber of Seville" while "Beverly, a thick rope over her shoulder, laboriously tugged a birdcage containing her cat."

Ms. Blossom then lived in a loft at 2 Pitt Street on the Lower East Side. Any performer could try out new material there.

The loft "was home to wild, wonderful concerts — I see/hear snippets of them — music, dance, happenings, all called Pitt Street Concerts," Marder said.

"After the building was demolished the composer Philip Corner and I stood across the street and marveled that such a huge space had a footprint like a postage stamp. Her own footprint is enormous."

Ms. Blossom was born in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1926, to Theodore and Florence Schmidt. He was a dentist; her mother, a homemaker.

Ms. Blossom told The News-Gazette in 1976 that her dance experiences began when she was 3 when she and her mother took a tap dancing class together in Chicago.

Later, they were in a performance in which Florence Schmidt danced in a chorus line of young women who used tennis rackets as props.

"You know, they wore those cute little tennis skirts with the pleats and I thought then 'That's so glamorous. I want to be a chorus girl,'" Ms. Blossom told The News-Gazette. "And even to this day, many of my dances have chorus-type lines — I love them."

In 1950, she received a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Roosevelt University. Three years later, after obtaining a master's in dance from Sarah Lawrence College she moved to New York, where she danced for 10 years with the Nikolais Dance Theater and then formed her own company.

In 1957, as a Fulbright scholar, Ms. Blossom studied in Germany with Mary Wigman, a pioneering artist of German modern dance. There, Ms. Blossom also came under the influence of the work of Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist poet, playwright and theater director.

Ms. Blossom began to choreograph in the '60s. Over the years she remained prolific, putting on concerts of her pieces once a year. As an Illinois faculty member, Ms. Blossom would often cast the more "awkward" students in her group pieces, said Pat Knowles, a former head of the UI dance department..

"We other faculty would shake our heads gently but she would find something in them," Knowles remembered. "They would turn out to be imaginative and bold too. They were kindred spirits with Beverly.

"Beverly was bigger than life. Coming from academe, I was always amazed at her potency as an artist. She was driven to create work. I had never been around an artist that driven, potent and imaginative, who could survive academe."

Ms. Blossom didn't love academe and always dreamed of leaving it, Knowles said. Yet after she left Illinois, Ms. Blossom remained kind to its dance department, helping in whatever way she could.

After returning to New York, she became an underground favorite on the performing arts scene, according to Dunning. In 1993, she received for lifetime achievement a Bessie Award, the equivalent in the dance world of a Tony or Oscar.

After she moved back to Chicago, Ms. Blossom continued to teach and choreograph — and invite neighbors to her apartment on Sundays to perform for them. Her last public performance was in 2010, part of a Nikolais tribute at Hunter College in Manhattan, according to Dunning.

Visitation will be from 8:30 a.m. today until funeral services at 10:30 a.m. at Michalik Funeral Home, 1056 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago. Donations in Ms. Blossom's memory may be made in the name of UIF/Beverly Blossom and Carey Erickson Dance Award and mailed to the UI Foundation, P.O. Box 3429, Champaign, IL 61826.

There are no plans yet for a memorial event here. The UI dance department plans to put together a DVD compilation of Ms. Blossom's best work and to re-create some of her dances live in next year's concerts.