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Sage Cowles: A dance activist’s life

“The key thing that people remember about Sage is that she was an artist,” says the Walker Art Center’s Philip Bither.

cowles and cunningham
Photo by Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Sage Cowles with Merce Cunningham in 2008

This article was written for the Walker Art Center, which has granted MinnPost permission to republish it.

“My theory is that we’re not a body and a mind; that we are one whole and no matter what we do, this gesture is going to affect what happens in my mind and my heart. We’re all inter-related, and I feel we aren’t educated in that in any way.”

— Sage Cowles, in a 2012 interview for the Minnesota Dance Pioneers Oral History Project

Mother, wife, grandmother, friend. Philanthropist, fundraiser, benefactor. Networker, cajoler. Feminist, political activist, educator. Softball and fitness enthusiast. Artist: choreographer, performer, dancer. Sage Cowles — who passed away November 21 at age 88 — wore all of these labels, and their attendant responsibilities, with the sincerity and lightness to which we’d all become accustomed. Was there anything out of her prodigious wheelhouse? Seemingly not.

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Sage and her husband, John Cowles, Jr. (who passed away in 2012), are perhaps best known publicly because of their remarkable generosity, philanthropic leadership, and financial largesse. But Sage is also remembered, particularly in the dance community, for something more elemental.

“The key thing that people remember about Sage is that she was an artist,” says Philip Bither, the Walker Art Center’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts. “She had the sensibility of an artist, the openness, and the pure support of innovation that creative artists have for one another.” And that, he adds, informed her philanthropy is unusual ways.

In talks and interviews at the Walker, Sage spoke to artists she helped support, such as Valda Setterfield and her great pal Merce Cunningham, “like a fellow artist and a friend, not a funder,” Bither says. Sage would invite local dancers to her cabin where they could work freely: they only needed to make her dinner. She frequently hosted dinners and other gatherings for dance artists at her home, where she could be found chatting with her fellow artists. Deborah Jinza Thayer, dancer and choreographer, was her great friend; when Thayer was hurt in a freak accident, Sage helped Thayer work her body back to health.

Sage faithfully attended shows at the Walker, her namesake Cowles Center, and the Northrop Dance Series. But she was really keen on new and experimental local work at smaller venues like the Southern Theater, Red Eye, and Laurie Van Wieren’s 9 X 22 showcase at the Bryant Lake Bowl. In these more intimate theaters she could more easily talk with the performers.

‘Driven by her own curiosity’

“The thing about Sage I so appreciated was that she was driven by her own curiosity about things and about people,” says Linda Shapiro, who with Leigh Dillard founded New Dance Ensemble in the 1990s, a venture Sage supported. “There wasn’t any small talk. She was interested in you, in your work. The fact that she was a dancer made a difference when she approached and appreciated dancers. She got what was involved.”

Dance was her heart. Sage and John helped make the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts a reality, giving Minnesota its long-awaited flagship for dance; and helped establish the Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair in Dance at the University of Minnesota, which brings in visiting artists — and many stayed and further enriched the Twin Cities dance community. In 2005, the Sage Awards for Dance were created to honor her profound contributions. In 2001, the Ordway Center honored Sage and John with a Sally Award for their decades-long support of the arts.

Sage and John’s contributions to the Walker Art Center specifically include a $1 million gift for Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (resulting in the Cowles Conservatory), and another gift toward the Herzog & de Meuron-designed expansion. Sage was a member of the Patron’s Circle for more than 25 years and a founding member of the Producers’ Council (whose members provide philanthropic leadership in support of the performing arts program).

Sage supported the multidisciplinary exhibition Art Performs Life in 1998, which featured the work of Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones. She was involved “in one way of another, from the big picture to the smallest detail,” Bither says, in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 15-plus engagements in the Twin Cities, as well as in bringing Cunningham and John Cage’s monumental Ocean to a quarry near St. Cloud in 2008. Sage has also given a number of visual art works to the Walker, including work by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Michael Goldberg, Donald Judd, Barry Le Va, Glenn Ligon, and Kris Martin.

Moreover, Sage’s cultural leadership and “magnetic personality drove people to her,” Bither says. “Aside from the direct contributions the Cowles’ made, they were a model for other people, for the next generation of funders to be responsible corporate and community leaders. So many loved and believed in Sage, that if she was behind something, they would be too. And not just in funding major cultural institutions, but small grass roots organizations, too. Sage in particular understood the ecology of the arts scene, the dance scene, and was always looking for ways support and keep the ecology going.”

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And her influence extended beyond the arts. The Cowles’ funding of the University of Minnesota’s Jane Sage Cowles Stadium for softball indicated the couple’s dedication to community service. Sage served on the board of Planned Parenthood. She and John were fellows at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, where she taught the other fellows to engage with their bodies during movement workshops and wrote a paper calling for a more holistic educational model as the body isn’t “a second-class citizen, separate from the mind.”

Sage had “a real social vision,” says choreographer Bill T. Jones. “Sage and John were interested in Change with a capital C, which earned her high marks in my way of thinking.” Dance, and Sage’s ongoing engagement and curiosity about the body, remained a fundamental part of her life, however.

The artist: In her own words

Jane Sage Fuller was born on May 5, 1925, in Paris: Her father was in graduate school there. When she was three months old, the family moved to Bedford, New York. Her father, Charles Fuller, was an architect. Her mother, Jane White, was a sculptor. After her parents divorced, Sage’s mother married Cass Canfield, who became the chairman of Harper & Row.

Sage studied rhythmic exercise with Portia Mansfield, who came to her school; and tap, folk, and ballet at the Ned Wayburn School of Dance in New York City. She studied ballet privately with Ella Degonava, and she went to the Perry/Mansfield Summer Camp, where she became assistant ballet teacher and actress Julie Harris was her roommate. She went to Lisa Gardner’s School of Ballet in Washington, DC, then found a family in New York she could stay with while studying dance.

“I lived on 55th Street, between Madison and Park,” Sage told me when I interviewed her in 2012 for the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Dance Pioneers Oral History Project (from which all of the following quotes are taken). “I walked half a block to the New York Tutoring School where I could take three-quarters of an hour of a little history, a little French, maybe a little math, and then I could walk four blocks to 59th Street where the School of American Ballet was. Heaven!”

But “as soon as I got toe shoes, I knew I was in the wrong pew,” she said. “That and the fact that the repertory is all about swans and myths and fairytales.”

While at the School of American Ballet, Sage met Cunningham, who had just been asked to join Martha Graham’s company. She saw Cunningham perform at Jean Erdman’s studio in 1944. The piece was The Root of the Unfocused, with music by John Cage. “I just knew I had never seen anything that interested me as much as that.”

In the mid-1940s, Sage had been studying international relations “because I thought somebody had to focus on saving the world and I’d better get out there,” but was also shopping for a new college. Only the University of Wisconsin–Madison responded, so “I packed a suitcase, and what did I find there? Margaret H’Doubler.”

Toured with Wisconsin Dance Group

She earned a BA in art history, but spent most of her time studying with H’Doubler and dancing with Mary Hinkson, Matt Turney, and Miriam Cole. Together they started the Wisconsin Dance Group (which included nine percussionists) and toured to Toronto and across the Midwest in a 1933 Buick, earning $50 a performance.

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“Our goal was to be the intermediary between the lay audience and the professionals,” Sage explained. The opening line of their lecture-demo was: “We live in a world of movement.” The group lasted two summers.

Sage never had any intention of marrying or having children, she said. But she married fellow UW-Madison student Edmundo Flores and moved to Mexico, where she met Rosa Reyna and Raquelle Gutierrez, who had studied with Anna Sokolow. She had her first child, Tessa. When she and Edmundo knew the marriage wasn’t working — but had resolved stay friends — Sage traveled to New York City, “baby on hip,” for her sister’s wedding. There she met John.

When he approached her, she said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve been out in the world, and I have a baby.” She got a job as a chorus girl in Bless You All, choreographed by Helen Tamaris, who was married to Daniel Nagrin. Pearl Bailey was the box-office draw. Sage’s partner for the Charleston was Bertram Ross. “I couldn’t believe I was being paid to have so much fun!” She also danced in The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, a live Saturday-night television program.

One night John picked her up backstage and took her out. “He said, ‘You know, I would like to see more of you, but this may not be a good time for you.’ It was such a brilliant statement; I almost dropped everything and said, ‘You’re for me.’ But no. I said, ‘You are absolutely right. This is a lousy time.’ Edmundo and I weren’t divorced, and I wasn’t in any hurry to be making big decisions about this. So I took a deep breath and said, ‘I would like to see you again but not now.’ So he went away and he came back six months later.”

After John and Sage married, they lived for a time in Kansas (John was in the Army at Fort Riley). When they moved to Minneapolis, Sage began dancing with Nancy Hauser. She taught for Hauser and at the YWCA. Sage and a group of other dancing mothers started the Dancers’ Forum. Then, after her children Jane, Fuller and Jay were born, she and John became involved with starting the Highcroft Country Day School and other social and civic causes. She was in her 40s and “all tangled up, not in dance at all, but in civil rights, kids, school, parents, and I was interested in all of them, but it didn’t feed me.”

In the 1970s, Sage became involved with dance therapy and worked with autistic children at Washburn Child Guidance Center, after which she developed her “I Can, I Can Choose, and I Can Change” workshops for people uneasy in their bodies and needing to make changes in their lives.

At this time, Sage said, “really a lot of my energy was for Merce.” After years of fundraising, she became a board member of Cunningham’s company. “My feeling was I was the luckiest person alive to be on Merce’s board, because if you asked me who in the dance world would you like to support and work for, it would have been Merce.”

She did support several individual dance companies in the Twin Cities, but “was looking for the umbrella, and that’s what made me want to put my energy into MICA [Minnesota Independent Choreographers Association] when Judith Mirus and I finally connected and had a conversation.” In addition to her work with MICA, Sage continued to perform.

She and John lived for a time in the Flash Electric Company building downtown, where they helped pioneer the City of Minneapolis’ revitalization of the Mississippi riverfront. Their place included a dance studio, where Sage taught workshops, invited choreographers to rehearse and perform, and hosted receptions for dance artists and critics.

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Experimental works with film

In the 1970s, Sage collaborated with St. Paul filmmaker Molly Davies to produce a series of experimental works in which the filmed moving image and the live moving performer (always the same person, Sage) were juxtaposed in space and time. In 2005, the two now-older women introduced and showed excerpts from these explorations in a piece titled Space, Time and Illusion. Sage also recreated her role.

“The original piece was so ahead of its time, with its mix of media and live performance,” Bither says. “Then seeing a 20-something Sage on film, juxtaposed with a 70-something Sage on stage, made the piece elegiac in its tone.” Sage had also performed Sage Time and Again, a work with film by Davies in Walker Auditorium.

Cowles also performed as part of the 1993 Walker exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus: “My younger son [Fuller, a sculptor] came up to me after and said, ‘Ma, that was not your proudest hour.’ I choreographed something that I thought was pretty tricky and hard on 11 or 13 treadmills.”

She was part of “A Celebration of Collaborations” in 1980 (performing with Shapiro, Loyce Houlton, Emile Buchwald, and Wendy Morris); and was included in the Walker’s New Dance USA festival in 1981, performing A Reminiscence at the Children’s Theatre. She helped choreograph Suzanne Lacy’s The Crystal Quilt, performed in the IDS Center.

A supporter of New Dance Ensemble and choreographer Donna Uchizono, Sage helped bring in Rachel Rosenthal to collaborate with Uchizono and the company, recalls Linda Shapiro. Sage, along with Shapiro and Molly Lynn, performed in the work — “and at one point we danced naked,” Shapiro says. For Sage, it wouldn’t be the last time.

‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

One day Sage and a group of friends asked each other whether anyone had the feeling “there’s still something inside of you that has not gotten out? That has not found expression?” Sage found her answer. It was Bill T. Jones. More specifically, it was performing in Jones’ epic Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land —  perhaps most infamously, in the nude.

“He asked me to do things nobody had ever asked me to do before,” Sage said. “I had to speak. I had to shout. I was Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was Sojourner Truth, I was Lula, who seduced and then killed a black man. That’s a pretty good list. The nude was nothing compared to all that.”

“There was something about her standing on that table in that white dress, talking to R. Justice Alan, while she was in the character of Lula,” Jones recalls. The scene was The Dutchman by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Lula attempts to seduce Clay (Alan) and calls him an Uncle Tom for not having sex with her. Clay tells the audience: “You never see the pure heart, the pumping black heart… I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit,to keep from cutting all your throats. I mean wantonly.” Lula kills Clay and turns her attention to an even younger black man. It was tough stuff.

“It’s one of those stellar moments in my memory of Sage, watching R. Justice — a recovering heroin addict just out of prison — and Sage going at it on stage,” Jones continues. “She took it as a real, meaty challenge. Willing to try anything. The language is so coarse and abusive. The two of them had great fun. She told me that every night, before that part, they’d give each a knowing look and say ‘Come on, let’s give ‘em hell.’ They had a real relationship.”

Sage recalled: “You know if you care about justice in the world and inequities and any kind of discrimination, [Jones’ piece] just fed into all the things that John and I both cared deeply about. As a part of that show, every night, a local minister or rabbi or somebody from the church … was invited to come on stage and talk with Bill … about the Book of Job. Well, that was probably the highlight of the evening, where Bill was ever ready to say, ‘Well, if you believe that, why aren’t you more aggressive about fill-in-the-blanks.’ We were so proud!”

Last thoughts

“Sage made so many contributions to dance, it’s more effective to talk about her influence as a whole,” Shapiro says. “I really think it was her spirit. She had plenty of money. But more important is that she was always there, at performances, not just the big venues, but lofts, off beat places. People felt buoyed up by her; that someone of her caliber and influence really cared about dance. Sage elevated the visibility of dance in the community. And she wasn’t gushy. She said what she thought.”

When I asked her, during our interviews, how she defined herself, Sage said she often struggled to come up with an answer. Then, “it suddenly popped out, ‘I’m a dance activist.’” she said. “And that covers such a broad spectrum of things that I think that’s a good one for me.”

Camille LeFevre is an arts journalist in the Twin Cities who also once had the pleasure of dancing with Sage and John at a wedding under a tent out in the country.