Donya Feuer: Discovering a Philadelphia-Born Dance and Film Artist Abroad

by Merilyn Jackson for The Dance Journal

We might as well have been in a carwash. The rain obliterated all light, all sense of direction, lashing the car from every side, shaking the two of us. The windshield wipers struggled valiantly against the onslaught and the fan helplessly blew against the fogging windows. I was dropping off Donna Faye Burchfield, chair of Uarts Dance department, after a show up at the Performance Garage. There was no way Donna Faye could have made it through the now darkened alley to her door without being assaulted by the gale and drenched.

So we sat there talking dance, with Donna Faye looking stuff up on her IPhone as is her squirrelly, bespectacled habit, as if she has stored all her acorns of knowledge in that flat little black thing in the palm of her hand. And that is how we discovered a triangle between Pina Bausch, and (eventually) Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Donya Feuer, a Philadelphia-born Grand Dame of Dance and film of whom, it seems, few in Philly know.

The windows fogged even more, forcing me to open a back window a crack getting us splashed, as we excitedly read Anna Kisselgoff’s obit of Donya Feuer. When we saw Feuer was born to Pauline Feuer and Samuel Kasakoff in South Philadelphia on Oct. 31, 1934, we knew we had made a Philadelphia connection as well. Finding that Feuer studied with Nadia Chilkovsky here, further increased our fascination.

You might have thought we found the Secret Elixir, uncovered the name of the Unknown Soldier, retrieved the Holy Grail, we whooped it up so. Such is the excitement of dance explorers when they connect the dots, however tenuously.

By 1957, Feuer and Paul Sanasardo had formed the Studio for Dance and taught and collaborated with the very young Pina Bausch from 1959 to 1960. Sometime in 1960 when Bausch’s health became alarmingly fragile, they sent her back to Germany, and at some point during that period, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, (another Philadelphia connection) took classes there but has no recollection of Pina, who hadn’t yet begun to develop her reputation.

Mark Franko Temple University professor and series curator, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance, Boyer College of Music and Dance, writes about his days there also. His 2004 book Excursion for Miracles: Paul Sanasardo, Donya Feuer and Studio for Dance (1955-1964) a book I repeatedly delve into when researching for a dance article. Rich in details on another branch of dance growing at the same period as the Judson Church scene, it presents an alternate and lesser known history of dance evolving in those times. Dr. Franko presented a series on Feuer that premiered at MoMA in Manhattan last year and will now show in Philadelphia beginning Thursday.

Feuer died in 2011 in Stockholm, leaving behind a son, Magnus Feuer, and her partner for the final seven years of her life, artist Kyra Matustik. Another connection there for me, which I soon found, is that Kyra is Martin Beck Matustik’s sister, a friend of mine who recently authored Out Of Silence: Repair across Generations, in which he recounts his discovery of his and his siblings’ Jewish heritage.

Discovery. Relationships. What are we all about? This is an important event for the Philadelphia dance community and its ever increasing audience to acquaint themselves with a great daughter of Philadelphia. The series “Rediscovering a Philadelphia Pioneer: Donya Feuer’s Dance/Film Collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, Romola Nijinsky, and Others” screens from May 11 – 13 at the Lightbox Film Center (International House,) with introductions and post-screening panel discussions by cinema and performing arts scholars. A grant from the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation supports this program.

Thurs., May 11, 7pmThe Dancer Donya Feuer followed famed ballerina Katja Björner from her intensive training at the Royal Swedish Ballet School to international prominence. The  award-winning 1994 feature about Björner’s early career is the culmination of Feuer’s decades-long experimentation with filming dance through close up and montage. Björner will be present to discuss the film.


Fri., May 12, 7pm
Donya Feuer: Experimental Dance Works, Program 1 (1969–76) Feuer’s short experimental dance films “Rediscovering a Philadelphia Pioneer: Donya Feuer’s Dance/Film Collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, Romola Nijinsky, and Others.”

Ett spel om föremål och människor (A Play for Objects and Chorus) Sweden, 1967, video, 27 min. Music by Ulf Björlin. With Karin Thulin, Juliet Fisher, Lillemor Lundberg, Mats Ek, and others.

De Fördömda kvinnornas dans (The Dance of the Condemned Women) Sweden, 1976, video, 25 min. Produced by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist. Music by Monteverdi. With Nina Harte, Helene Friberg, Lena Wennergren, Lisbeth Zachrisson.

Frukost (Breakfast) Norway, 1972, Norway, video, 17 min. Music by Jan Gabarek. With Anne Borg, Roger Lucas, David Forde.

 Et Syn (A Vision) Norway, 1972, Norway, video, 18 min.With Inger-Johanne Rutter, Leonie Leahy, James de Bolt, Willy Simensen, Roger Lucas, Dmitri Cheremeteff, Anthony Greeves.

Himlakropp (Heavenly Body) Sweden, 1969, video, 12 min. Music by Ulf Björlin. With Kari Sylwan, Karin Thulin. Dr. Franko, introduces the program. The following panel join Franko at a post-screening panel discussing her work and legacy:

Laura Katz Rizzo, Assistant Professor of Dance, Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University
Mauro Calcagno, Associate Professor of Music and Italian Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Terry Fox, Director of Philadelphia Dance Projects and Coordinator for MA Theatre Arts Administration Program, Rowan University, Global Learning & Partnerships
Iggy Cortez, PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies and Art History, University of Pennsylvania


Sat., May 13, 5pm
Donya Feuer: Experimental Dance Works, Program 2 (1967–94)
This second screening of Feuer’s short experimental dance films is also part of the series “Rediscovering a Philadelphia Pioneer: Donya Feuer’s Dance/Film Collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, Romola Nijinsky, and Others,” introduced by series curator Mark Franko.

Martha Graham at 100: A Personal Birthday Message from Donya Feuer, Sweden, 1994, video, 10 min. Donya Feuer’s tribute to Martha Graham, featuring an interview with company dancer Robert Cohan, was intended for broadcast on Graham’s 100th birthday. Courtesy Sveriges Television.

The Nijinsky Films: A Life and Requiem for a Dancer, Sweden, 1975, video, 55 min.Courtesy NRK and The National Library of Norway.

Med kroppen som insats (With the Body as Downpayment) Norway, 1972, video, 24 min. With James de Bolt, Leonie Leahy, Inger-Johanne Rütter, and other dancers from the Norwegian Opera. Courtesy NRK and The National Library of Norway.

This dance film series is part of Lightbox Film Center’s extraordinary spring season of film programs, all of which will continue to take place at the Ibrahim Theater inside International House Philadelphia in University City. Lightbox programs are funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, The Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and The Wyncote Foundation.

Click here to buy tickets, For more information, visit lightboxfilmcenter.org. Tickets are $8 for students and seniors, $10 for the general public, and free for Lightbox Film Center members and International House residents. (3701 Chestnut St.)

PHOTO: Donya Feuer, Paul Sanasardo and Pina Bausch in curtain call for Sanasardo-Feuer’s Phases of Madness (1960)

About Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn is a guest contributor to the Dance Journal. She writes regularly on dance for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European and Latin American fiction for many publications. More than 800 of her articles have appeared in publications as diverse as The New York Times, The Warsaw Voice, The Arizona Republic, The Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, and Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, Broad Street Review and www.exploredance.com.

She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in 1999 for her novel-in-progress, O Solitary Host. A chapter of that novel, “A Sow of Violence,” appeared in the Massachusetts Review in the Fall 2004 “Food Matters” issue. In 2012 she attended poetry workshops at Colgate University and Sarah Lawrence College, working with poets Peter Balakian and Tom Lux, respectively. Several of her poems appear in Exquisite Corpse, The Rusty Nail and Broad Street Review. She likes to say that dance was her first love, but when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although, she also writes poetry. Much of her writing can be read on her personal blog Prime Glib.

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1 Comment

  1. Merilyn, I have at least one archival photo of Donya Kasakoff (Feuer) as a child at the Philadelphia Dance Academy if you’d like to see it.

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