Gus Solomons Jr., who as a dancer, choreographer, educator and critic was a leading figure in modern and postmodern dance, died on August 11 in Manhattan. He is 84.
His death, at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, was confirmed by Robert Gerber, Mr. Solomons’ friend and health proxy, who said the cause was sudden heart failure after months of declining health.
During his long career, Mr. Solomons danced with many companies and many choreographers, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. He broke out as the first Black dancer to join the Cunningham company. (There have only been four in the company’s history, all of them male.)
In an interview as part of a YouTube series “Monday with Merce,” Mr. Solomons said he loved taking Cunningham’s classes, but “never aspired to be in the company because I didn’t look like anyone in that company.”
He refers not only to his race but also to his height: A picture of lanky elegance with impossibly long legs, he is 6 feet 3 inches tall. One night, Cunningham invited him to dinner. “We had Italian food, and he said, ‘I think I want you to dance with us,’” Mr. Solomons recalled. “And it’s like a movie. I mean, I just floated home.”
While a member of the company, from 1965 to 1968, Mr. Solomons roles in several important Cunningham works, including “Variations V,” “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run,” “Scramble” “RainForest” and “Walkaround Time.”
He left after three years when a back injury hampered his ability to jump. During the break, he recovered, and after a few months he returned to dancing and also focused on choreography, especially the dual-screen video-dance “City/Motion/Space/Game,” which he created for the station Boston public television station WGBH. . In 1972, he formed his own group, Solomons Company/Dance.
Mr. Solomon never stopped experimenting. Douglas Nielsen, a member of her company from 1973 to 1975 and a longtime friend, called her “a major trunk in our dance family tree.”
Mr. Nielsen compared Mr. Solomons’ choreography to a crossword puzzle of steps. “He drew stick-figure drawings on graph paper for us to decipher, not knowing if there would be a sound score,” he said in an interview. “One time at Larry Richardson’s Dance Gallery, he played Jimi Hendrix really loud as the audience came in, and then turned it off as we continued to dance in silence for an hour.”
The dancers in that performance were as surprised as the audience. “As John Cage said, there is no silence,” Mr. Nielsen said. “And that’s deep.”
Gustave Martinez Solomons Jr. was born on August 27, 1938, in Cambridge, Mass., one of two children of Gustave Martinez Solomons, an engineer, and Olivia Mae Stead Solomons, a teacher.
She started dancing when she was 4, but didn’t start training until she was a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in architecture. All the while, as she wrote in the 2003 book “Reinventing Dance in the 1960s” (a collection of essays and interviews edited by Sally Banes with the help of Andrea Harris), she had a “burning itching to perform and make dances.”
Mr. moved. Solomons in New York in 1961 to dance in “Kicks & Co.,” a Broadway-bound show with choreography by Donald McKayle, but it closed after four previews in Chicago. Once in New York, she continued her training, studying modern dance on a scholarship at the Martha Graham School and ballet at the Joffrey Ballet School. She danced with Joyce Trisler and Pearl Lang, among others, and was part of the original group that went on to form the Judson Dance Theater collective. But eventually he went his own way.
Mr. Solomons relished technique, both in his dance and in his own dance. As he wrote in Dance Magazine last year, “I refused to give up technical dancing after working so hard to gain some measure of skill in it.”
A prolific choreographer, he created more than 150 dances for his troupe. “My dances experiment with the rules of the game to create accidental harmonies and unpredictable images,” he wrote in “Reinventing Dance.”
Choreographer Donald Byrd said dancing in Mr. Solomons’ company, which he joined in 1976, was a wonderful experience.
“There’s a joke about Gus,” he said in an interview, laughing. “Gus was really crazy then. And so one of the things we said later was, ‘When did Gus get nice?’ Because there was a point in the ’90s where he kind of changed into this really nice, lovable person that everybody loved and wanted to be around.”
Mr. Nielsen denied that Mr. Solomons was always evil; it’s simple, he says, that he “knows what he wants.” And his approach, said Mr. Byrd, is not personal: “He does it to contribute to you, to wake you up, to make you more aware, more aware of what you’re doing. And so I liked that about him.”
Mr. continued. Solomons dancing the role of the father in “The Harlem Nutcracker” (1996) by Mr. Byrd, who makes sense: For Mr. Byrd, he was a father in his life. “He is,” said Mr. Byrd, “the perfect dancer to be with.”
In 1996, Mr. Solomons joined forces with Carmen de Lavallade and Dudley Williams to create a performance ensemble Paradigm, which showcased mature dance artists. “We were quite a trio,” said Ms. de Lavallade in an interview. “Gus is very imaginative. He’s just a cool guy. We had a great time together.”
A dazzling and elegant force in the world of dance, Mr. Solomons is also an educator — he was a professor in the dance department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts from 1994 to 2013 — and a dance critic, including for The Village Voice, Ballet News and Dance Magazine.
But more than his dances and his writing, Mr. Solomons, as a Black man in downtown experimental dance, is extraordinary. “Gus’ presence in that white space of New York experimental dance was really important,” Mr. Byrd. “And it made it right for me to want to explore that way as a choreographer. And I think that’s true for other people as well.
Mr. Solomons is survived by a brother, Noel, a nutrition scientist.
to Mr. Solomons archives can be found in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Throughout his life, regardless of the state of his body, Mr. Solomons. When she was 79 years old, an article in The New York Times about aging dancers quoted her as saying, “The reason I’ve been able to dance so long is absolute will power.”
People responded to his performances in his later years, he said, because “I was playing the instrument as best I could, given the instrument.
“Yes,” he added, “my body is my friend, my body is my enemy.”