“All I’ve ever wanted to do is dance,” said Cristyne Lawson, the recently retired Dean of the Dance Department at CalArts and a person who has danced with every icon of the American modern dance movement of the 20th century.
Cristyne Lawson’s great grandmother, Ary Shaw McReynolds, moved, with her daughter, Mary McReynolds Stout, and her son-in-law, Rev. Stout, to Santa Monica in 1908. Rev. Stout had been asked to join Rev. Phillips at the CME Church on Fourth Street and Mary Stout would teach English at Prairie View College.
Ary Shaw McReynolds is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery on Pico Boulevard. The family believed her to be of both African American and Native American heritage. Also buried at Woodlawn are Lawson’s mother, father, sister, and uncle.
Her mother, Bernice Stout Lawson, grew up in Santa Monica, studied piano with the well-known teacher, Miss Lilias G. Hart. She went on to study music at the University of Southern California and to be a performing artist.
Lawson’s father, Hilliard Lawson, was the first black City Council member in Santa Monica. He came to California after being thrown out of Vicksburg, Miss. His mother went to work, as a cook, for the socially prominent Pasadena Jowitt family. This was Lawson’s first introduction to Deborah Jowitt who became her friend and went on to be the Dance Critic for the Village Voice and to write glowing reviews of Lawson dancing with Alvin Ailey.
Unlike her father’s racially hateful experiences in Mississippi, Lawson felt “at home in Santa Monica.” She talked about her childhood saying, “I have been really lucky. I wasn’t ostracized, as a child in Santa Monica, for being black, as children were in so many places in America. People put more into color then what’s there.
“I felt there was no place that I would rather be. My friends and relatives all lived within easy walking distance. I had a bicycle and could go everywhere in the city. There were no parking lots and no parking meters. Can you imagine how wonderful it was to have the beach coming right up to the grass?
“In the Santa Monica black community everyone used to go to CME Church, on Fourth Street in Ocean Park, for their social life,” said Cristyne. “Originally called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, as the country changed its ideas about race, it became known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.”
“I am who I am because my grandmother listened to everything I said and was interested in everything I did. If I went to a movie, I could come home and act out every part and she would give me unending attention.”
“My grandmother took me to Lincoln (Reed) Park for the dance program. The woman who taught dance at the park was a Ruth St. Denis trained teacher. I knew then that I wanted to be a dancer.”
Cristyne went to Santa Monica High School (Samohi) and then on to Los Angeles High School where they had a dance program, headed by the Wigman dancer, Martha Krogman. In high school she performed with the school’s Orchesis Club and she performed in the movie “Carmen Jones,” starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.
Accepted to Juilliard, she was a member of the first Juilliard Dance Company. “Coming from Santa Monica, I found New York unreal. I had to adjust,” remembered Lawson. “I lived at the Dunbar Apartments in Harlem. Juilliard was still at 125th Street at that time.”
Lawson took a break from Juilliard to go on a worldwide, six-month tour with the Graham Company. She also worked on Broadway, where she and Alvin Ailey were lead dancers in “Jamaica,” starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban. When home for the summer from her studies at Juilliard, she performed in the movie “Porgy and Bess.”
After graduation from Juilliard, she toured Europe with the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was in Europe that she met her husband, Graham Smith, an Australian architect and a dancer. They were married 19 years, and had two children.
It was a telegram asking her to come and help start a new school in Buffalo, New York that brought her back to the states. “At the school, I was choreographing for my own company, ‘Company of Man.’ We were dancers and film-makers and we made multi media films. I also choreographed a dance called, ‘The Story of Christ in Vietnam.’ It was the most incredible moment. We could not have lasted. It was so completely consuming.”
She went on to become the dean of The Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at CalArts. “The school decided artists were the best people to run schools. They felt you had to have done it in order to teach it,” said Lawson.
“The problem with a school like CalArts, is you can have famous people come, but teaching can’t be about ‘you.’ One has to be able to bridge the gap between being an artist and doing one’s own work and at the same time give to the students,” said Lawson.
I’m really happy to be back in Santa Monica. I’ve been all over the world, but I love Santa Monica. It has changed, but it hasn’t changed beyond recognition. Ocean Park still has the same feel.”