Marilyn Wood

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Marilyn Wood
DiedJune 16, 2016
MovementModern dance
Spouse(s)Robert Wood

Marilyn Wood (1929-2016) was an American choreographer, intermedia artist, and dancer. She was an internationally renowned creator of contemporary, city-scale intermedia performances known as “Celebrations” that have taken place worldwide. As a dancer and choreographer who “choreographed cities,” Marilyn Wood's Celebration Events brought communities together to celebrate their vitality and diversity in a unique experience of spectacle and participation in urban environments. Her work has been recognized as reinventing the spirit and drama of the ancient festival in contemporary life.

Early years[edit]

Wood was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1929. Her father’s career took her family to Puerto Rico, where she spent her childhood years in the beauty and freedom of its tropical environment, taking drawing classes, performing in a small flamenco company, playing guitar, and singing South American folk songs. This experience proved to have a seminal influence on her future career.

Returning to Washington, D.C. for her last two years of high school, Wood studied painting at the Corcoran Gallery and then attended Oberlin College, with a career in the arts in mind, and graduated in 1950. She was soon drawn to the program of Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus Institute of Design in Chicago and their tradition-challenging approaches to the visual arts, architecture, and design. While experimenting with the dimensionality of sculpture combined with student dance classes in improvised movement, she had an epiphany: “I discovered I could BE the sculpture!” This led to two summer sessions with Hanya Holm at Colorado College and further solidified her shift from painting to dance.


Merce Cunningham and Dance Company[edit]

In New York City, her professional apprenticeship began with the Alwin Nikolais Company at the Henry Street Playhouse (1951-1957). This was followed by five years performing in the early Merce Cunningham and Dance Company (1958-1963) and touring with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and five other dancers: Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Remy Charlip, Judith Dunn and Steve Paxton.[1] Their touring repertoire in a VW bus with John Cage (music director and driver) and Robert Rauschenberg (set, lighting and costume designer) reflected the intense involvement towards all art-making aspects during the 50s and 60s in lower Manhattan. Wood danced in several notable pieces in the Merce Cunningham and Dance Company, including "Summerspace," “Rune,” “Antic Meet,” and “Crises,” now legendary works of the golden age of early modern dance.

The Celebration Group[edit]

In 1968, inspired by her exposure to the environmental theatre of Anna Halprin, she stepped off the proscenium forever and formed Marilyn Wood and the Celebration Group.[2] This group of 8-12 dancers, visual artists, filmmakers, architects, and musicians experimented with site-specific performance in many NYC venues. The genesis of her Celebration vision was a combination of her experience in the avant-garde art world as a dancer, and her personal history of living in a Latin culture where the arts energy expresses itself with extraordinary color, vigor, and participation in the streets and public places through community rituals, processionals, and festivals.

Celebrations in City Places: The Seagram Building[edit]

In 1972, the Marilyn Wood & the Celebration Group became the launch pad for Wood to conceive, choreograph, direct, and produce her “Celebrations in City Places” series. The most ambitious of these was a site-specific performance at the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, New York City. Her choreography of this event activated the entire forty-four stories of the façade, the lobby, and the plaza featuring thirty-five dancers inside and outside, original music, film projection, and participation, bringing the audience to the plaza as part of the grand finale.

The outstanding success of the Seagram project garnered her honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and launched her highly acclaimed, international career creating major commissions for numerous US cities (Charlotte, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; Little Rock, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Denver, Colorado) as well as globally in Berlin, Germany, Singapore, Tehran, Iran, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Adelaide, Australia, and many others.

Selected events[edit]

  • 1997 El Paso, Texas/Juarez, Mexico: Rio Grande/Bravo Cross-Border Celebration. Performance honoring the shared river, connecting on the International Bridge.
  • 1992 Charlotte, North Carolina: Nationsbank Corporate Center Grand Opening Celebration. Daylight fireworks, fountain dances, rapeller choreography, atrium aerial ballet, evening roofedge and scaffold dances, 6 story megaimages of “Faces of Charlotte” to a 300 voice cantata and drumming for nighttime fireworks.
  • 1974 New York City: “Rain ‘n’ Shine Events for Flowertime”; Lincoln Center Plaza.
  • 1972 New York City: “Celebrations in City Places”; Seagram Building and Plaza.

Celebrations choreography[edit]

Wood's process often began with use of environmental scores to involve the creativity of the local community of participating artists into initial ideas of the site design. This process was highlighted in “Citysenses,” a show that ran for three weeks in 1969 at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. Her resulting choreography typically encapsulated all aspects of the site with a focus on the physical access of a large audience, often from many directions.[3] The piece orchestrates local performing groups simultaneously at all entry points as an arrival experience as the audience gathers. The choreography includes dance sequences on rooftops, windows, fountains, plazas, parks, and waterfronts. This dance orientation extends to original music, soundscapes, fire and sky sculpture, inflatable forms, site generated films and video, daytime as well as nighttime fireworks. The design of the event offers visual access to all the sequences from one building to another, including deliberate choreographic gestures to move the attention of the audience to one aspect of the site to another. The transition into the finale predictably initiates the audience into dancing and the sharing of energy in the street.

Later years[edit]

In 1983, Wood married musician Robert Wood.[4] In 1987, Wood moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and founded the International Center for Celebration (ICC), an international network of artists whose innovative forms embraced the spirit, scale and energy of the environmental and cultural venues of each project. The ICC received many grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, including their first Creative Artist Fellowship to Japan and from the New York State Council on the Arts. In 2013, Wood received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Dance Guild.[5] She gave keynote speeches at international conferences and participated in residencies and workshops around the world.


Marilyn Wood died on June 16, 2016.[4]


  1. ^ Potter, Michelle. "A License to Do Anything: Robert Rauschenberg and the Merce Cunningham and Dance Company.” Dance Chronicle, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1993): 1-43. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
  2. ^ Thoresen, Robert A. “Artistic celebrations on a grand scale: Marilyn Wood lifts festivals to new heights.” Portsmouth Herald 8 Nov. 1992: Community Column.
  3. ^ Karr, Audrey J. “Celebrating the environment through dance.” Trends Magazine Fall. 1977: Trends in the Arts Issue.
  4. ^ a b "Marilyn Blackstone Wood Obituary (2016) New York Times". Retrieved 2022-01-07.
  5. ^ "2013 Festival". American Dance Guild. Retrieved 2022-01-07.
  • Steel, Anthony. "Painful in Daily Doses : An Anecdotal Memoir" 145 ISBN 978-1-86254-875-6 Wakefield Press (2009)
  • Hunter, Victoria (2015). Moving Sites: Investigating Site Specific Dance Performance. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 388–389. ISBN 978-0-41571-325-2.
  • Paxton, Steve. “Reflections While Reviewing ‘Merce Cunningham Fifty Years.’” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1999): 3-8 Edinburgh University Press.
  • Potter, Michelle. "A License to Do Anything: Robert Rauschenberg and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.” Dance Chronicle, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1993): 1-43. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
  • Butler, Chris. “Happenings to liven our Festival.” The Advertiser Adelaide, Australia 26 Feb. 1975.
  • DeAngelis, Mary Elizabeth. “Artists gear up for tower opening: Hundreds rehearse parts in NationsBank’s Saturday gala.” Charlotte Observer 22 Oct. 1992.
  • Duncan, Kathy. “Marilyn Wood & the Celebrations Group.” SOHO Weekly News 11 April. 1974.
  • Ganaden, Abishe. “Celebrations: Of a city and its people.” The Straits Times Singapore. 8 Dec. 1982.
  • Hicks, Graham. “A City in Celebration.” The Edmonton Sun 11 July 1983.
  • Thoresen, Robert A. “Artistic celebrations on a grand scale: Marilyn Wood lifts festivals to new heights.” Portsmouth Herald 8 Nov. 1992: Community Column.

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