By Walter Rutledge
Carolyn Adams danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for seventeen years. To hear Adams describe the experience one quickly realizes that despite the fact that she no longer performs, she remains a Taylor dancer for life. Adams auditioned for the Taylor Company during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in dance. When she was asked by Taylor to join the Company, he immediately contacted one of her professors Bessie Schonberg at Sarah Lawrence, who made arrangements for Adams to learn the Taylor repertoire while completing her senior year.
She officially joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1965 after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. That year a number of female dancers left the Company, and Adams literally leaped onto the stage. At that time the company only consisted of seven dancers including founder Paul Taylor so everyone was an integral part of the team. Adams artistic growth was equally tempered by the support and camaraderie received from her fellow performers, and from Taylor. There was a feeling of family, of dancers/artists working together and of friends sharing experiences both on and off stage; this quality is still evident in the present Company.
Recognized by the public for her lightness and fleet-footed attack she will be forever linked with the Taylor masterwork Esplanade. Taylor also created roles for Adams in such classics as Airs, Arden Court, Cloven Kingdom, and Big Bertha. On Sunday May 2, 1982 Adams danced her last performance with the Company, and New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote:
“An excellent dancer’s retirement is inevitable, but it always evokes a twinge of regret. Carolyn Adams, a member of Mr. Taylor’s company for 17 years, has decided to leave the troupe, although her continued excellence makes this decision obviously premature. Her final performance on Sunday was marked by the admiration she has earned from all. Her fans threw flowers at her, and Mr. Taylor came on stage to thrust two huge bouquets of roses into her arms. She took a solo curtain call – highly unusual in modern-dance’s nonstar ambience but only fitting on this occasion.”
Her life as a teacher and Harlem preservationists began long before her departure from the Taylor Company. These decisions had a great deal to do with the values instilled in her as a child. Her father, Julius Adams had been the managing editor of the Chicago Defender Newspaper, and in 1938 he moved to New York and became the managing editor of the Amsterdam News. It was at the Amsterdam News where he met a young women working in the circulation department, Olive Arnold. Olive was an accomplished writer, composer and pianist with a special gift for playing Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Mozart. The couple married in 1941.
A native New Yorker Carolyn grew up in Washington Heights, but her family moved to Harlem in 1960. Over time as many of the residents of Harlem became more upwardly mobile they moved to the suburbs. The neighborhood with its impressive architecture, wide tree-lined boulevards, and manicured parks began to fall into disrepair.
Harlem became a community in flux; many of the once prized brownstones including Harlem’s chic Strivers Row were subdivided into rooming houses; and in an attempt to promote urban renewal the city would bulldoze buildings in the middle of the night without permits. Adams family acquired a brownstone in 1969, which had become a rooming house for 22 “legal” occupants, and restored it to its former glory. Her love for the community and its rich architectural heritage made saving and preserving the neighborhood a personal cause. She was instrumental in helping the Mount Morris Park Historical District achieve landmark status and helped bring renewed interest in preserving Harlem’s residential architecture. “The thing that was interesting was the culture never went away, the churches remained here so even the people who lived in the suburbs would come back on Sunday,” states Adam.
In 1969 Adams and her sister, Julie Adams Strandberg founded the Harlem Dance Foundation. The Foundation, which served the Harlem community with a dance school and center for neighborhood preservation and restoration, was originally located in the family’s brownstone. In 1989 Adams became the Founding Artistic Director of the New York State Summer School of the Arts School of Dance. The summer school is now celebrating it’s 25th season, and offers dance training and performance opportunities for students throughout New York State.
Adams taught at the Juilliard School from 1983 until 2010 where she currently holds the title of Faculty Emerita. While at Juilliard Adams began to mentor a young dancer with aspirations of choreographing, and now that student, Robert Battle is the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In 1991 Adams conceived and created the concept of the Repertory Etudes (TM). These were short studies based on larger seminal works designed to give dancers and teachers access to important dance works.
With her sister Strandberg, Adams co-founded the American Dance Legacy Initiative in 1993 at Brown University’s John Nicholas Center of Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. This organization strives to build a dance literate public by transforming how people think about and experience dance. The Initiative has created Repertory Etudes (TM) based on the works of prominent choreographers including; Donald McKayle, Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, Pearl Primus, Robert Battle, David Parsons and Carla Maxwell after Limon.
After receiving a Master’s degree in Social Work from Fordham University in 2004 Adams developed a dance curriculum for autistic children. This program was a forerunner to the ground breaking dance based work now being implemented for people with disabilities. In addition to her work with her own arts organizations and the community Adams is also a faculty advisor to the Ailey/Fordham BFA junior year students, and teaches Taylor-based modern dance classes at the Ailey School.
Carolyn Adams continues to share her gift for the dance and commitment to preserving the community with a new generation of artists, educators and Harlem residents. It is a wonderful coincidence that the on Sunday, March 24 the final work to be presented in 2013 Paul Taylor New York season will be Esplanade. In many respects no matter who dances on Sunday Adams will be on stage in spirit.
In Photo: 1) Carolyn Adams 2)Bettie de Long, Eileen Cropley, Paul Taylor and Carolyn Adams 3) Mount Morris Park
Photo Credit: 1) Courtesy Sarah Lawrence College 2) Jack Mitchell 3) Momos