“Jim McMullan has always been a favorite of mine,” says art director Ethel Kessler. “I’ve admired his work for over 30 years. I kept promising myself that one day, when we had the right subject, I would work with him. And this was it.”
McMullan agrees that the 2012 Innovative Choreographers issuance was a perfect fit. The internationally acclaimed artist, widely known for the posters he creates for New York City’s Lincoln Center Theater, is revered by many for his ability to capture expressions and movement.
McMullan admits that the idea of his art on stamps had occurred to him before. “The Lincoln Center Theater made stamps out of my posters” — decorative, non-postage stamps — “so I saw that my work could be stamps,” he laughs.
The style of McMullan’s posters can vary widely, but for this project, he needed both to communicate the uniqueness of each choreographer and to present them as a cohesive group. “The basic idea was to make the stamps about movement,” he notes. “I wanted to represent the personality of the kind of dance that these choreographers made.”
McMullan began by painting the woman many consider to be the creator of modern dance — Isadora Duncan. “This pose struck me as being so primal in her body of work," he says. "It represents the ethereal quality of her dancing.” The haziness of the image is intentional, meant to evoke “that ethereal quality, the spirit from the past, the glory that was Greece.”
Whereas Duncan’s movements seemed childlike, José Limón’s works delved into darker moods. “I had actually seen him dance, so I still had a memory of what it was like to watch him,” recalls McMullan. “His choreography was always about large themes such as death and transfiguration — very serious, mystical themes. His body was almost vibrating with it all.”
Katherine Dunham’s choreography wove together elements of European ballet and African dance, informed by her work as an anthropologist. “I thought about Dunham’s Caribbean influences both in her movement and costuming and tried to capture that folkloric attitude,” McMullan says. “I also used colors in the art which seemed tropical to me.”
McMullan was familiar with Bob Fosse’s wide gestures, which are central to the genre of musicals. “Hunching the shoulders and kind of crouching — it seemed to me that I already knew the nature of his movements.” This was fortunate, because although his work is ubiquitous, photographs and films of Fosse dancing are relatively scarce.
With the art completed, Kessler experimented with the styling and placement of the names of the choreographers and the denomination. “We worked hard on the type,” she recounts, “because we didn’t want to put text where a gesture would be stopped.” Kessler had McMullan try hand-lettering, and briefly considered trimming the edges of the art, but knew that McMullan wanted to be able to define the shape inside the stamp — just as he does with his theater posters.
“I like making that rectangle as my starting moment, because it locks it into my mind that I have made a space,” he emphasizes, noting that he almost always draws the whole person in that space. “In my mind, when you think about a person or a gesture, you are thinking about the expression in the face or the whole body.
“I’m interested in the idea of what the feet say about the whole pose and the question of groundedness,” he continues. “In fact, I’ve probably included more feet in theater posters than any other artist!”
To be sure, Kessler’s instinct to commission McMullan for this project was spot on. His beautiful illustrations — which reflect his understanding of full-body presence and gesture — renew our appreciation for these innovative choreographers and their contributions to the world of dance.