Modern dance: Nina Wiener

While searching for old news photos of the California condor, I happened across a photo of choreographer and dancer Nina Wiener performing her work The Condor Material. Of course, I had to investigate. Here is some of what I learned.

This is the photo of Wiener, which is credited to Nat Tileston:

01 News photo - The Condor Material

Part of the reason that Wiener’s title The Condor Material caught my attention is that I had recently seen the phrase “condor material” in a scientific article. Loye Miller’s “Bird Remains from an Oregon Indian Midden” appears in the January 1957 issue of The Condor. In this article, Miller employs the phrase “condor material” to refer to all the California condor bones found in the midden.

Wiener’s The Condor Material was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 19-22 April 1979. The program from this performance notes that the work premiered in January 1978 and offers this description:

The completed CONDOR MATERIAL is an evening-length work for five dancers concerned with the relationship between port-de-bras (upper body movement) and leg movement. The dance originated in three different sequences created on the upper body. These were translated into leg phrases and combined in a stream of vernacular gesture and rhythmic variation.

A review of this performance by Linda Small in Dancemagazine for July 1979 notes that

… Wiener has reclaimed a forgotten or underplayed aspect of dance. Hand and arm gestures ….

Wiener’s movements include many hieroglyphic, mime-like, or common signals and gestures, but most often they are clever, abstract shapes, flicks, slides, curls, twists, rotations, and more….

The entire work is performed in silence ….

The Condor Material was also part of 1982 performances by Nina Wiener and Dancers. This is from a review in the New York Times by Jack Anderson (4 April 1982):

Miss Wiener also presented excerpts from “The Condor Material,” a work … that stressed movements for the upper body, including pointings to the eyes and tweakings of the nose. But legs and feet were kept as busy as arms and hands ….

Miss Wiener’s choreographic cocktails are very dry and potent and, possibly, not for all tastes.

A performance in London was reviewed in the December 1982 issue of Dance and Dancers. The reviewer, Jann Parry, wrote that

The Condor Material is all a bit cerebral, particularly in the absence of music.

I have not found any indication that The Condor Material was, in fact, inspired by the California condor. But the work’s emphasis on the dancers’ arm (wing!) movements and the fidgety character of those movements are suggestive of condors. Also, Wiener grew up in Arizona and attended college in Oregon so she may have been exposed to the condor in her early years. And the California condor was in the news when she created the piece in the 1970s.

Others have connected California condors to dance. For example, Zilpha Keatley Snyder titled a novel And Condors Danced (Delacorte, 1987). Matt Kettman wrote of condors “soaring across a dance floor of thermals” (Santa Barbara Independent, 25 January 2016).

Perhaps the most obvious connection between California condors and dance can be seen in these close-up photos of the hand of a ballet dancer and the wingtip of a soaring condor:

02a Kenny Johnson

02b Richard Crossley