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Writers & Readers

There’s Someone Else in the Room

Choreographer Judith Marcuse on the Life and Legend of her Dance Accompanist Mother
  • Phyllis Margolick

By Judith Marcuse

 

My mother, Phyllis Margolick, dance accompanist extraordinaire, recently passed away at the age of ninety-six. Her deep musicianship and understanding of dance inspired generations of professional and aspiring dancers in Canada and the United States.

Born in Montréal in 1919, she trained in ballet from a very early age with the Russian teacher Ezak Ruvenoff and studied piano with several of the city’s best teachers. After three years in London with her family, she returned Canada in 1940 and was immediately snapped up to perform in troupe shows for Canadian soldiers. She and my father, an electronics engineer and designer, met and married in 1942. It was a union that lasted 72 years. The first of their four children, I was born in 1947.

Mum initially played for classes taught by my Aunt Elsie Salomons, and then with virtually every professional company and teacher in Montréal, in several cities in the United States and, for the last fifteen years, in Vancouver. Wherever she lived, she was the pianist of choice for visiting companies, playing for a remarkable variety of renowned teachers of ballet and contemporary dance.

Her range was vast and idiosyncratic; she improvised music for the moment, never using traditional sheet music. She transposed orchestral and other classical music from Bach to Bartok, adapted music from traditional ballets and contemporary scores, played tangos, folk songs, jazz and ragtime. She responded to dancers’ requests and helped teachers to better understand musical structures. Until just three years ago, she played for classes at Ballet BC.

Mum was a pivotal force in my life as a dancer and choreographer. My earliest memories – I was three or four – include dancing in our living room with her at the Steinway grand, which I could, in those days, dance both around and underneath.

My sister and film producer Betsy Carson also became a professional dancer. When we were both young and taking lessons with Aunt Elsie, one of the most treasured parts of every class was the twenty minutes at the end when we were divided into two groups of “storytellers.” One group would plan a story, whisper their ideas to the pianist and then perform it while the other group watched. Then, the children described what they saw. Occasionally, the performance and the explanation would meet up, but as often with six- and seven-year-olds, the fantasy woven in the mind and the reality of creating that in “readable” movement left some gaps. Mum’s genius lay in listening and somehow musically improvising their storytelling into a full dramatic arc with a beginning, middle and end. One day, however, she was almost stumped by a proposed story that, for some unknown reason, featured green Kleenex. After some thought, a variation of Eine kleine Nachtmusik came pouring out of her piano. I don’t think she ever thought of that particular piece of Mozart’s as anything but green Kleenex music from that day forward.

Mum took me to see performances and concerts of all kinds. We shared moments of ecstasy (Ulanova as Giselle comes to mind as well as the thrilling Moiseyev Dance Company, all performing on a stage built over the ice in the Montréal Forum hockey arena). Over the decades, we have attended countless performances together – the last one only a week before she died.

My musical education was filled with the presence of eclectic live and recorded music in our house. I still remember fragments of dances I created to Mozart’s country dances and horn concertos. I developed an ongoing appreciation of early American jazz artists. We sang in the car. This exposure was combined with my parents’ lifelong commitment to social and political justice. We grew up with the art of Käthe Kollwitz, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera on our walls, and I can still sing the songs of Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. Family dinners consisted of food for both our bodies and minds; we discussed the news, talked about politics and social justice, and I began to develop critical perspective. I never felt that my own voice was unimportant. This all had a profound influence on the way I experience and act in the world.

As it became clear that dancing for me was – as Leonard Cohen put it – a verdict rather than a decision, Mum made sure that my training was both solid and eclectic. When I was fifteen, she delivered me (and Jennifer Penny) to the Royal Ballet School in London where she had lived for several years before the war. Taking full advantage of that vibrant city in 1962, Mum and I attended live performances almost every evening during the short time that she was with me there. Much later, on a visit when I was dancing with Ballet Rambert in London, she had lively exchanges with the company’s excellent accompanist Carlos Miranda and played for several of our classes. Whenever possible, she accompanied my own classes and even recorded music for company class on tour.

Mum was an excellent writer, writing professionally in her early adulthood, and she passed on her love of reading and writing to me; literary themes have often informed my work. A lifelong volunteer, she worked in many different settings – including in hospitals, in political organizations and reading for the blind. Before there was any real union presence for dancers in Canada, she helped with a forty-six-page basic agreement that a group of us wrote during a gruelling three-month bus tour of one night stands in the States with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

She was strong, curious and not afraid of taking risks. In middle and later life, my parents were huge world travellers. Mum booked the airline tickets, but after that, their itinerary was often improvised, whether in Africa, India or South America. My own international work has been inspired, in part, by the stories she wrote about their adventures. 

She was not cowed by authority and constantly challenged ideas and behaviours she deemed inappropriate or destructive. But she also celebrated some traditions. One of many stories I have recently heard about her was about a day when she called everyone back into the studio at the end of a class: the relatively inexperienced teacher had forgotten the reverence, a traditional bow of thanks to the teacher and accompanist. Everyone returned and tradition was upheld.

My mother’s unswerving support helped me through difficult times, and I could always count on her to let me know what she thought of my work. She was a demanding critic and my best fan for over sixty years. We were very close and I miss her terribly. 

She often decried the relative “invisibility” of dance accompanists – so the next time you walk into class, perhaps you’ll acknowledge the presence of the important musical artist in the room. I know Mum would be pleased.

 

Phyllis Margolick, aged ninety-six.

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