Dr. Felicia McCarren, a former student of Trudl Dubsky Zipper, for whom Colburn’s Dance Institute is named, describes her work with the Zipper Archive’s photos, letters, clippings, compositions, and documents from Trudl and Herbert Zipper’s life together. In a conversation with Silas Farley, Colburn’s Dean of Dance, she reflects on dance history, transmission, and how Trudl’s influence is ever-present today.
Choreography in exile
Silas Farley and I are talking about ballet. About bodies and histories. And we are talking about Trudl Dubsky Zipper.
It is a magical evening: we are at the Colburn School gala, where the patio has been transformed by lights, greenery, tables decorated with flowers and écrins Cartier, and by Colburn students performing all around us throughout the evening. Why does Trudl Zipper feel so present here tonight, in this gala mise en scène? Not only because Carol Colburn Grigor, like me, was a pupil of Trudl Dubsky Zipper—we were very special pupils. And not only because I’ve been finding gems from Trudl’s remarkable life in the Zipper Archive at the Colburn School during the week.
Born in Vienna more than a century ago, Trudl was a transnational dancer, choreographer, teacher, visual artist, costume and jewelry designer. Vienna before WWII was a hothouse both for classical ballet training and for avant-garde dance, with new ideas about women’s physical well-being and children’s imaginative space. As a teenager, Trudl joined and toured with Gertrud Bodenweiser’s modern dance company, all over Europe; later she studied with child psychologist and psychoanalyst Anna Freud, and danced with German choreographer Kurt Joos in London; she founded the Manila Ballet Moderne, performed and taught in the Philippines; and worked at the New School in New York and off-Broadway, then taught dance and composition to young people in Chicago and Los Angeles.
I want to tell Silas Farley how Trudl lives on in this dance institute named for her, and how the choices he has made resonate with hers. Like Silas, Trudl excelled both in performance and choreography; she was deeply invested in dance history, and like him, she was passionate about its transmission to young dancers. She lived in a time, however, when she did not get to live in her home country. She left Europe before the Third Reich “annexed” Austria in 1938 and traveled the world as an exile, and years later, when I was not quite five years old, my life intersected with hers in her dance classes at what is now the Music Institute of Chicago. Although I studied with her for eight years, her teaching has inspired everything I’ve done on the stage, in the classroom, and in four books of dance history.
Trudl trained in ballet, then moved into modern; she knew the theatrical potential of all dance forms. Many years later, I realized that my book French Moves, which is about how hip hop became a form of concert dance supported by socialist cultural policy in France, was inspired by the kind of community arts that Trudl and Herbert fought for in the Philippines and in the US.
As we talk, students come up to Silas and won’t let him go. I try to explain to him how Trudl chose this in her life—with Herbert Zipper; they both gave their lives to bringing young people up in the arts, and took them—me, included—very seriously as artists.
What confidence that instilled in us! What curiosity about the world! What community that created for us with our peers, with older, and younger people. It rooted us in history and training and freed us to explore powerful ideas.
The archive is a theater
Silas Farley asks me about my work in the Zipper archive. Any archive is a treasure chest: this one has precious documents, photos, scrapbooks, and artwork inside. As an archival historian of performance, I look for the traces of choreography, the living art, in these sleeping objects. But there is also content here in the Zipper archive that I think is important for dancers and faculty who work in the program named for her to know. This archive is a theater of love and war.
A few examples: look at the young Trudl Dubsky photographed in a studio around 1930. In another photo of her almost one hundred years ago: a Viennese dancer not yet 20 years old, after touring in a new modern dance group around Europe, decides to found a school, teach and perform, in London.
And here she is with her British friend Jeannette Rutherston, photographed by Kay Vaughn in London. With Jeannette (also a Bodenweiser dancer, daughter of the Bradford-based Rothenstein family, and later, as Jeanette Powell, a well-known critic at The Dancing Times), Trudl choreographs, chooses the music, creates some of the costumes, and performs a series of concerts for good causes. They have a clear mission as independent young artists in Europe. For their performance at Rudolf Steiner Hall on September 24, 1930, Trudl’s boyfriend, Herbert Zipper, travels to London to accompany them at the piano. At the Queen’s Hall in Bradford, January 9, 1932, he also plays for their recital “In Aid of the Bradford District Nursing Association.”
In feminist history, we assume women were oppressed in the past; but in newspapers I find in the archive, Trudl often spoke about the confidence and solidity, the well-being that dance training gave to women—especially women newly entering the work force. Dance was not only professional artistic practice, it could fuel social and personal development.
Here is Trudl again in the early 1930s. Look at the sweep of the backbend and the drop of the foot in this pose inspired by Bodenweiser—this is not Isadora Duncan, but equally new, dramatic, and different. It might not look like socialism to us now, but in the geometric forms she would learn from Bodenweiser and develop in later choreographies, such as Iron Foundry set to Mosolov, the lineage is clear. With an all-male corps, with bare torsos and gestures of synchronized labor, staged on a Filipino cast, the transnational scale and politics of Iron Foundry are clear in another photo.
Trudl had sailed to the Philippines on the eve of WWII to teach students new European modern dance, ballet, and rhythmic gymnastics, and to connect the European folk dancing she knew to local and indigenous dance forms, bringing both to the stage. The archive conserves her through-passenger ticket on board the SS Conte Rosso via Bombay, where she arrived on September 13, 1937. This began a chapter of her life that would last a decade.
In one of Trudl’s scrapbooks, a series of photographs show the Philippines from a biplane hovering over one of the outer islands and then documenting the deep culture of people living on their ancestral lands. I don’t remember seeing these photographs before, even when I was invited to stay over at her home as a child. Trudl drew and painted the people she lived among in the Philippines, before and after the war, representing visible differences and living-together in community. There are programs and press in this archive in English, Spanish, and Tagalog.
There are many details of Trudl’s life with Herbert Zipper that I am learning about in the archive at Colburn, and it confirms what I know about their 50 years of love together: their passionate commitment and collaboration. Their engagement with cultural development, with children and with equity, with access to creativity for all could not be more timely. And in this way, the archive is also a theater: unfolding the history of their love and survival, across wars and across continents, giving us an alternate history of music and dance. There are pictures of me in this archive, but working here, I see that the world they created for me, that better world in music and dance that has stayed with me for half a century, was something they made possible for many.
Good things have been growing out of this archive. This semester, Silas tells me students choreographed Two Dances for Trudl, music composed by Herbert Zipper which was brought out by the Recovered Voices project at Colburn and recently recorded. In the archive, I find a few pages of typescript dated July 1976, in which Herbert describes his grief after Trudl has died in his arms. With the help of this archive, I want to tell her story—the dancer’s story.
Dreams of Glory
At the Colburn gala, Silas Farley and I are talking about choreography. About historical ballets, many of them unknown, with similar plots. He describes them: “there’s a pearl…there’s a river…there’s a search….” We laugh because we know about these ballets, surviving in archives as texts, librettos, paintings, cartoons, costume sketches, and newspaper reviews. An entire branch of dance history.
Why is this history important? Silas agrees with me on this, but I am trying to explain my view to him. I have written that dance is a way of knowing, and that choreography makes people think. It helps us understand our world, our embodiment, and our dreams; historically it provoked new ways of thinking about bodies. I’ve been studying ballets like this in the archive at the Paris Opera for my book One Dead at the Paris Opera Ballet. But talking to Silas makes me understand something I haven’t seen before. Until now, I hadn’t seen that this narrative of quest, of desire, is also key to the ballet Trudl Dubsky Zipper choreographed in the 1970s, her American masterpiece, Snoopy’s Dreams of Glory.
I liked to think that Trudl created this ballet for me, as I danced the role of Snoopy. What an idea, to take Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters and develop them in choreography. To tease out a new story from an old story—of a baseball knocked out of the field that will become, in Snoopy’s aspirational dreams—first a pearl deep in the ocean, then a diamond deep in the earth, and the moon shining in outer space. In the ballet, Snoopy travels under the ocean, inside the earth, out into the atmosphere: diving for the pearl, hunting down the diamond, pawing toward the moon… This choreography was an homage to Peanuts, but it was also a send-up of American popular culture and consumerism, the conquest of space and stewardship of the planet. What an idea, to trust her choreography to a dancer barely seven years old? How could she know that all these years later, I would become, in a different medium, her storyteller?
Dance is important in world history, but it has been omitted from most mainstream accounts—those famously written by the victors. Trudl’s choreographies gain significance here in the archive, even if made for smaller stages, or smaller people—all over the world. They should enter into the kind of dance histories that my fellow researchers in the Cultural History of Dance Seminar at the EHESS graduate school in social sciences in Paris are writing.
I am trying to explain this to Silas Farley, but of course, he already knows. He laughingly calls me Dr. McCarren, and I see that I am in full teaching mode here at the gala. He says, “Sometimes talking with someone, you can feel as if you have known them your whole life.” Yes, I think, because we are dancers. Yes, because we agree that choreography makes us think. And yes, because this is the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute.
Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chair, EHESS Paris, 2023
Leverhulme Visiting Professor, University of Oxford, 2022, 2023
Professor of French, Tulane University
Images from the Herbert and Trudl Zipper Archive at the Colburn School; reproduced with permission from Celia Pool and Gavin Perry.
About the collection:
The Herbert and Trudl Zipper Archive consists of materials dating from approximately 1900–1997 from the lives of Herbert Zipper (1904–1997), his wife Trudl Dubsky Zipper (1913–1977), and members of the immediate and extended Zipper family, including sister Hedwig “Hedy” Zipper Horwitz/Holt (1907–1989), and maternal uncle (by marriage) artist Arthur Paunzen (1890–1940).
The archive includes personal and professional photographs, decades of personal and professional correspondence, unpublished and published sheet music and scores, books, audio, music, and video recordings on various media, concert programs and related publicity materials, award plaques and certificates, framed and unframed artworks, a set of 1939 encyclopedias, a wood/stone sculpture and a portrait carved by Herbert Zipper, a bronze and a stone sculpture of a dancer, and more.
The collection was originally bequeathed to Crossroads School by Herbert Zipper and retrieved from Zipper’s home, garage, and office spaces by Paul Cummins after Zipper’s death in April 1997. Since then, the collection has been housed at Crossroads School and in 2019, Crossroads School donated the collection to the Colburn School.
The collection is in a state of sorting and processing and requires cataloging, digitization, conservation, and re-housing of materials. With over 400 boxes of materials, the School is currently raising funds to support the processing and conservation of this important collection.
With the support of a generous gift from Ann Mulally, we will begin this summer the multi-year project of processing the archive—cataloguing, digitizing, and making available to the world of researchers, historians, dancers, artists, and arts lovers—people like Felicia McCarren. If you would like to join Ms. Mulally in this effort by making a gift, please contact the Philanthropy Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For research and access inquiries, please contact email@example.com.