A Choreographer, Once Staggered, Explores His New World

Kevin Cook for The Chronicle

Philip Grosser, who has taught dance at Temple U. for 27 years, says the dances he has made since surviving a severe stroke are "a little more emotionally out there, a little more raw."
November 11, 2012

With just three dancers and a Bartok recording, nothing more, Philip Grosser brings an extraterrestrial world to life high above Broad Street. At times its inhabitants quake and writhe and crawl, hands and fingers contorted, palsied. At other times they come together in a cluster and rise gracefully, like a polyp swaying in an undersea current. Each appears to pull something from its chest and, as the others watch, buries it so quickly you realize the soil is nothing more than sand. When one dancer topples, the others help. They are never far apart for long.

The piece, called "A World," is Mr. Grosser's newest. It's a brief but extraordinary vision conjured in a black-box theater on the fifth floor of a building here at Temple University, where he has choreographed and taught for the past 27 years. Like the other new piece in a recent performance of four of his works, "A World" creates a unique vocabulary of movements—movements so far removed from the commonplace that the only comparable figures anywhere in Philadelphia are probably the tormented souls trapped in "The Gates of Hell" over at the Rodin Museum.

So it's a little surprising to meet Mr. Grosser over lunch and find that in person he is not all tormented, but, at 61, tall and handsome and entertaining. An avid gardener, painter, and potter, he's much more eager to talk about the green-tomato salsa he put up recently than about how he makes dances, more eager to discuss his crush on the Law & Order character Elliot Stabler than his own career, particularly the past four years. And he winces when, at his request, I read him the headline on an article about him in that morning's Temple newsletter: "Stroke Couldn't Stop Boyer Dance Professor From Teaching, Choreography, Drawing."

He does not want to be that guy who had the stroke, and who can blame him? But there it is: In January 2008 Mr. Grosser suffered a stroke so severe that it left him unconscious all night on the floor beside his living-room sofa. The friend who had driven him home from the gym with a headache couldn't reach him on the phone and eventually called his parents in New York. They asked his sister-in-law, a Philadelphia police officer, to go by his house. Through a window she spotted him on the floor, broke in, and called an ambulance. Doctors kept him in a coma for five days while they removed part of his skull to release the pressure that had built up in his brain. When he came to, he couldn't talk.

His recovery was slow. After five months, the doctors put back the part of his skull they had removed (they had kept it in a freezer). He spent a year and a half in speech therapy before he could return to teaching choreography, composition, and the repertory, though he gave up teaching technique after students complained that he wasn't up to it. He reads like a 7-year-old, he says, and he sometimes hunts for words—though, oddly enough, a few words of high-school Spanish came back before English words did. He wears a rakish fedora called a trilby that covers the scars on his head. 

 A word Mr. Grosser doesn't have to hunt for is "disinhibited"—that's how he describes both his poststroke personality and his poststroke choreography. "I have what's diagnosed as aphasia," he says. "That's my drag name, too." He says the stroke "kind of freed my sense of humor," although he admits he has said some things since then that have shocked others. "Before, I was capable of shutting my mouth in a way I no longer can."

And the dances he's made since his stroke, he says, are "a little more emotionally out there, a little more raw." That's true of "A World," and also of the other new piece in the performance, "A Suite," which is in three parts.

In the first, set to a lively Antony and the Johnsons piece called "Shake That Devil," a dancer leaps, scratches, and licks his way around the stage to lyrics that flow from the line "That dog had its way with me." In the second part, accompanied by an astonishing series of recorded shrieks and growls and gargles performed by Joan La Barbara, a dancer finds herself helpless to stop her body from answering to the otherworldly voices—her hips now rotating beyond her control, her legs now itching. In the third, a pair of male lovers perform a duet rich with tenderness and longing to Rufus Wainwright's "What Would I Ever Do With a Rose?" The loveliest moment comes when they kiss, each covering the other's eyes with one hand. It's a pose Rodin ought to have thought of.

Mr. Grosser can't say—or perhaps he just won't—how it is that the stroke enriched his dance vocabulary even as it restricted his speech, but perhaps how that happened matters less than that it did happen. "So much of it is about the interaction between me and the dancer," he says. "I'm always interested in choreographing on dancers who interest me more than I interest myself." The unconscious is far more important in choreography than in speech, he says; when he's making a dance, "I don't know what's going to happen before it happens."

'A Great Run'

Born in Manhattan in 1951, Mr. Grosser started dancing at age 9 at a Jewish cultural school he attended on Sunday mornings. "I realized I learned movement very easily," he says. At about the same time, he started playing the cello, which gave him a background in music. Nonetheless he spent two years as a math major at Reed College, where he took modern dance to fulfill an athletics requirement and discovered how much he enjoyed it. Then he spent several years dancing and working in restaurant kitchens in New York, where he also studied at both Martha Graham's school and Alvin Ailey's. "I was a new and raw dancer," he says; even so, the Graham company invited him to go on European tour "as a spear carrier in Clytemnestra."

Later, as a member of the first class of undergraduate dance students at the State University of New York College at Purchase, he found he liked choreography more than performing. "It seemed as if I was good at it and had something to say," he recalls, although he's quick to joke that his movement style is "a combination of Martha Graham and the movie Alien." He eventually earned a master's from Teachers College of Columbia University and spent four years teaching in London before Temple's Boyer College of Music and Dance brought him to Philadelphia.

He's had "a great run" since, he says. He's made dances for the American Dance Festival, in Durham, N.C., and the Yard, on Martha's Vineyard, and the Joyce Theater's Soho venue, in New York (though he gripes that he missed out on international acclaim because "the Times reporter claimed she got trapped in the subway—that's the story of my life").

Nonetheless, he's retiring from Temple after this academic year, partly for insurance reasons and partly because, as he says, "Once I realized I was going to be OK, I thought I should do whatever the hell I wanted."

That means—in addition to rewatching old Law & Order seasons—tending his plot in a community garden, taking the subway up to Temple's Tyler School of Art to throw pots, and continuing to make intricate geometric and biomorphic drawings, which he has done almost obsessively since his stroke. Indeed, he's turned out so many brightly colored images that his sister—Jean R. Grosser, an art professor at Coker College, in South Carolina—talked him into self-publishing a coffee-table art book called Nerve Networks.

And he won't stop making dances altogether. "I've said to students and people who dance for me, 'If you want some repertory, let me know.'" Now that he's disinhibited, he says, he'd particularly like to make more gay-themed works. "If you want to do a gay show," he told the two dancers who performed the third piece in his new suite, "I would jump on that in a heartbeat."