Leaving a living legacy

Stephanie Clemens choreographs her transition to retirement

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

While dancing "Queens" at Counter Balance earlier this month at The Center on Halsted in Chicago, Stephanie Clemens joined others of various abilities on stage, including "best friend" and dancer Ginger Lane, who uses a wheelchair. 

"It's about old ladies fading away," Clemens, said, feelings welling up as she spoke. "It's about queens — there's a motif of crowns you take off. It's been kind of a catharsis because I'm dancing my reality."

Counter Balance is an annual show put on by Momenta, Oak Park, and Access Living, Chicago. It features Integrated Dance — performance with able-bodied and dancers with disabilities combined. The reality for Clemens, after hip surgery and at age 78, is that she can dance, but cannot perform the same way she did in the past.

Clemens, who is the Artistic Director and co-founder of Momenta, is stepping back from that role in January 2020. She also plans to retire from the Academy of Movement and Music, which she founded in her living room 48 years ago, by June 2021.  

Momenta, started in 1983, was founded for teachers from The Academy to have a resident performing arts company where they could create choreography and perform. Now, advanced students, teachers and guest artists collaborate through the nonprofit. Opportunities for people with disabilities to dance began in 2003, including Everybody Can Dance workshops held throughout the year.

Sarah Najera, who has been part of Momenta since 1999, became executive director in August. And Clemens' son, JP Tenuta, is currently associate artistic director and ballet master. Clemens said what is important is the continuity of what is in place now.

"The symbiosis between Momenta and the Academy is necessary for the health of both," she said. That means a balance of both classical ballet and modern dance repertoire at Momenta, Clemens explained, because most students start at the Academy with ballet, but modern dance shows "there are other ways to dance" and not all of the students will dance ballet as an advanced Momenta student. 

"I'd like Momenta to continue in the diversity of dance, continue to educate kids in dance history," Clemens said. 

At the Academy of Movement and Music, which has grown from two students in 1971 to 500 students today, Clemens will keep putting on recitals, choreographing and administering the faculty. She also teaches dance to middle-schoolers.

"Most of all, I love the children," she said. "I see in them the excitement and the love of beauty, whether it's music or beautiful costumes, or whether it's dance."  

Her own dance career began as a child when a neighbor, the Russian-born American ballet dancer and choreographer, Adolph Bolm, suggested she take dance classes at the Highland Playhouse in Los Angeles. Clemens later attended San Francisco Ballet School, then Juilliard. 

Clemens has a B.A. in Physical Anthropology and published a book with Louis Leakey, "Adam, or Ape: A sourcebook of discoveries about early man." 

Finding herself married with two very young children, seeking financial independence and something to do, prompted her to investigate using her degree. When she learned she couldn't teach anthropology at Triton College without a master's degree, she opened her Oak Park home and held dance class for neighborhood children.

As more students enrolled, she moved locations. In one space, she "pulled up five layers of floor" just to get to the bare wood beneath for a dance floor. Clemens said it was the hardest physical work she ever did in her life.

Eventually her school grew to the point that she bought the current building at 605 Lake Street, Oak Park, which was previously the Bishop Quarter Military Building, a school for boys, and the original site of OPRF High School. 

Clemens had to raise cash for the purchase because she said she could not mortgage a landlocked building. She gathered cash and mortgaged her own home to buy the building for $88,000 in 1982. 

"That building, when we got it, had trees growing in the gym and on the roof," she said. 

Again Clemens got to work, with volunteer parents, and turned it into a space for dance classes and performance. The old gym became the performance space for the newly created Momenta. The Academy also runs a morning preschool program. 

The Doris Humphrey Society, created by Humphrey's son and Clemens, resides at The Academy as well. Doris Humphrey, who was born in Oak Park, was an innovator in American contemporary dance, including choreographing pieces without music. Momenta performs Humphrey works in their shows, along with other "typical American" choreographers, such as Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, as part of their mission to keep historical dance alive.

With Momenta, Clemens has performed in New York; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Her swan song will be in January, one last chance to take the stage.

"We're doing something called the Legacy Concert," Clemens said. "To me, my legacy is the historical dance that I've embraced. … So there will be these great women (choreographers) of American modern dance who created an art form."  

In fact, the works Clemens has featured through the years at Momenta and The Academy are considered so important that the Oak Park Public Library has asked her for her archives for their Special Collections, "next to Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright," Clemens said.    

After her retirement from The Academy in 2021, it is likely that a team of directors will run the business.

  "I would like to leave a legacy here in the community," she said. "It's not architecture, but it's leaving something that is a living legacy."

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Nancy Sweeney Coaker  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 7:18 PM

Bravo, Stephanie!!!

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