Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Article Repost, Playing for Pliés

Juilliard Alumni News Spotlight

Playing for Pliés—A Life in Music and Dance

Marjorie Landsmark-DeLewis (Photo by Chris Downes)
More than five decades since receiving a degree as one of Juilliard’s first African-American graduates, Marjorie Landsmark-DeLewis (Diploma ’48, piano) occupies a special place in the ranks of American dance musicians. Over the course of her distinguished career, she worked with Agnes de Mille as rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theater, accompanied classes for dance legends Antony Tudor and David Howard, and served as music director for dance at Sarah Lawrence College. At age 90, she remains active as a composer and performer, and was recently featured as a special guest artist at the International Guild of Musicians in Dance’s 20th anniversary conference in Tucson.

Landsmark-DeLewis was born and raised in Harlem, where she began music lessons at age 5 with her uncle, a classically trained pianist who taught her in the same way he’d been instructed as a youngster in St. Kitts—by rapping her knuckles when she made a mistake. Seven years and a few sore fingers later, she began studying with Edward H. Margetson, a prominent black composer, conductor, and church organist who lived in Washington Heights. Lessons, Landsmark-DeLewis recalled in a recent interview with The Journal, cost 50 cents.

When it came time for college, Juilliard was the obvious choice. Not only did she have the talent and a strongly developed sense of discipline instilled by two demanding teachers, but the School, in its previous Morningside Heights location, was within walking distance of her family’s home. At Juilliard, Landsmark-DeLewis’s instructors included Karl Friedberg, Lonnie Epstein, and Arthur Newstead, with whom she continued to study for several years after completing her degree. As she remembers, there were very few black students enrolled in the School at the time, but “we didn’t stand around and talk with each other—we were so happy being at Juilliard we didn’t want to waste time.”
It wasn’t until the excitement of graduation was over that she asked herself, “Now what am I going to do with this [degree]?” By luck—or divine intervention, if you ask Landsmark-DeLewis—she found the perfect opportunity on Juilliard’s job placement board, where Aubrey Hitchens (an influential dance teacher and one of Anna Pavlova’s last partners) had placed an ad for a pianist to play Bach’s Italian Concerto for rehearsals and performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. Having just performed the concerto on her graduation recital, Landsmark-DeLewis immediately contacted Hitchens and aced the audition. She went on to become his rehearsal pianist, quickly demonstrating an exceptional sensitivity to dancers’ needs and gaining a vast knowledge of repertoire from the piles of scores he gave her.

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