AMES email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-04-11 published
Visionary performer waged war on trivial art
Her trademark was a experimental process that embraced dance, music, text, mime, clown, ritual and mask
By Paula CITRON Friday, April 11, 2003 - Page R13
Canada has lost a powerful force in experimental theatre and dance. Director, dancer, actor, writer and choreographer Elizabeth SZATHMARY died last month in Toronto.
While she will be remembered as a dynamic figure, her artistic life will remain a contradiction. At the beginning of her career, Ms. SZATHMARY was one of the gilded darlings of Toronto's burgeoning experimental theatre. At the end, she was seen by some as a marginalized, religious eccentric who put on plays in church basements.
To her long-time Friends and loyalists, however, Ms. SZATHMARY's life was a spiritual journey in which art, religion and morality were inextricably intertwined in a nobility of purpose.
Ms. SZATHMARY was born in New York on October 12, 1937, to Jewish-Hungarian parents. Her mother was an unhappy former opera singer and vaudeville performer and her father was a composer and arranger who wrote the theme for the popular television show Get Smart and who abandoned his family. Ms. SZATHMARY attended New York's High School of Performing Arts and later performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet under choreographer Antony TUDOR.
A ravishing beauty with masses of long, jet-black curls and compelling light-coloured eyes, Ms. SZATHMARY attracted followers throughout her career. She was, says Toronto choreographer David EARLE, a powerful, mysterious presence and a charismatic performer.
Another admirer was Canadian Robert SWERDLOW. Mr. TUDOR's piano accompanist, he fell in love with the beautiful young dancer and followed her to France where Ms. SZATHMARY danced with such companies as Les Ballets Classique de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Contemporains de Paris. He was the first of many artists to be inspired by Ms. SZATHMARY.
"Elizabeth was a theatre philosopher who wanted to save the world through the beauty and truth of her art," Mr. SWERDLOW said.
The couple relocated to Montreal in the mid-sixties where Mr. SWERDLOW got a job with the National Film Board. One assignment brought him to Toronto, and it was Ms. SZATHMARY who persuaded him to settle there because of the city's "happening" dance scene. Performing under the name Elizabeth SWERDLOW, she first worked with Mr. EARLE and the future co-founders of Toronto Dance Theatre.
In 1969, Mr. SWERDLOW took an unexpected windfall of $30,000 and built his wife a performing venue of her own. In this way, Global Village Theatre emerged from a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police stable and the couple went on to became synonymous with a new wave of provocative, political, issue-oriented theatre.
Mr. SWERDLOW provided the words and music, and co-wrote the shows Elizabeth co-wrote, choreographed, directed and was the featured performer. Importantly, she was the visionary who came up with original concepts and her trademark, multidisciplinary theatrical process embraced dance, music, text, mime, clown, ritual and mask.
Among their better-known collaborations was Blue.S.A., an indictment of the "American empire," and Justine, the story of a young girl who gains wisdom through the vicissitudes of life. A huge hit, Justine went to New York where it won off-Broadway awards and enjoyed a long run.
Its success meant Global Village became a stopping place for others. Gilda RADNER, John CANDY and Salome BEY represented just some of the talent that passed through. Later, when Ms. SZATHMARY founded Inner Stage Theatre, she helped propel the early careers of Antoni CIMOLINO and Donald CARRIER of the Stratford Festival, Jeannette ZINGG and Marshall PYNKOSKI of Opera Atelier and Native American performer Raoul TRUJILLO.
In the mid-seventies, Ms. SZATHMARY experienced a religious conversion and became a devout Christian.
For Mr. SWERDLOW, it was the last straw in an already turbulent relationship. After the couple split up, Ms. SZATHMARY founded Inner Stage, a name that expressed her desire to produce art that would transform and heal through spirituality. To better strike out on her own, she also shed the SWERDLOW name. Until the 1990s, the main work of Inner Stage was a series of acclaimed morality tales -- or modern fables as Ms. SZATHMARY called them which toured schools from coast to coast. She also explored the storytelling power of Native American myths and turned to such themes as the plight of street youth or to the Holocaust from a teenager's point of view. Her final project, No Fixed Address, attempted to air the true voice of the homeless by both telling their stories and casting them as actors.
By all accounts, Ms. SZATHMARY was a true eccentric who personalized everything. Her computer, for example, was called Daisy. Her home was a living museum dominated by a family of cats who occupied their own stools at the dining table, held conversations and sent out Christmas cards to the pets of Friends. Spiritual sayings, religious art and theatre memorabilia covered every scrap of wall and floor space. On an even more personal level, Ms. SZATHMARY kept a journal of religious visions and dreams written in ornate calligraphy and illustrated in Hungarian folk-style art. What is more, she described ecstatic events and augurisms, including a personal affinity with bison, as if such occurrences were as routine as the weather.
In her work, Ms. SZATHMARY demanded perfection, which meant she often proved impossible to work alongside. Friends and colleagues Robert MASON, Julia AMES and Peter GUGELER all talk about Ms. SZATHMARY's middle-of-the-night phone calls -- and the fact that she brooked no criticism or contrary opinions. All the same, their devotion never lessened.
"She was a queen and we were her subjects," said Mr. GUGELER. "Elizabeth never left you once she got ahold of you."
Guerrilla theatre, grass-roots theatre, shoe-string theatre, theatre against all odds, a "let's-make-a-show" mentality -- that was the brave, artistic world in which Ms. SZATHMARY waged her war against what she saw as frivolous or commercial art. In 1989, Inner Stage lost its operating grant and from that time on she financed her own productions. During the last year that she was able to work, she earned a pitiful $5,000.
Ms. SZATHMARY continued to perform in all her productions, turning more to straight acting as her dancing powers declined. Even so, she never gave up the stage to anyone.
Elizabeth SZATHMARY died of rectal cancer in Toronto on March 28. A memorial service will be held at the Church of the Redeemer, 162 Bloor St. W., Toronto, at 3 p.m. on April 27.
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