David Voss (January 31, 1938- June 22, 1991)
Incredibly beloved by students, collaborators and colleagues, as well as appreciated by countless audiences, David Voss was a multi-talented, unique contributor to the development of MN contemporary dance as a composer, musician, dancer, choreographer and teacher. He also influenced a generation of dancers regardless of their style or technique. David, an orphan, was born Jan 31, 1938. He was adopted 6 weeks later by a working class couple who raised him in South Minneapolis. Though loving, they were out of sync with his artistic interests and especially his vibrant, creative and musical energies.
David graduated from Southwest High School in 1956. His father encouraged him to enroll in the engineering program at the University of MN. In less than a week, however, David walked into the music building and changed his major to Music. He also took other classes, one in particular from the poet John Berryman who made a lasting impression on David. He completed his BA in music and after a stint in the Army, David returned to the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota to begin studying for his masters in music composition. During this time he was also choir director at Holy Trinity Lutheran church, where he scandalized the congregation by scheduling contemporary choral music. To pay his way through school, at one point he was holding down three jobs simultaneously. Firstly, he worked as an orderly at University Hospital; secondly, he worked as the night switchboard operator at the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge; and thirdly, he played piano in a bar.
During his graduate studies, he began accompanying for Loyce Houlton's dance classes while she was teaching and directing the University’s dance program. Mrs. Houlton encouraged Voss to take her modern dance classes at no charge. Mrs. Houlton left her position at the University of MN to found a school in Dinkytown, near the University of MN. Soon David was not only accompanying her classes but composing, dancing, teaching and performing with her Contemporary Dance Playhouse, which would later evolve into Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT). David was an integral part of MDT’s artistic path during the 1960's and ‘70s. He also taught in the dance program at the University of MN. Though he had many opportunities to compose music for dance with MDT he did not have many outlets for his choreography.
In 1985, Zoe Sealy, a colleague from the University's dance program, invited him to set a work on her company, the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company (MJDC). Rather than compose his own score,Voss chose to use music by legendary jazz artist Jimmy Giuffre for his new work on the MJDC. His deep understanding of this timeless, emotional, articulate music allowed him to create a work that, while it included many stylistic elements from ballet and contemporary dance, was intrinsically jazz-based. According to David’s longtime partner, Roger Beck, “The underlying theme of the Jimmy Dances was an underlying theme in David's life, namely, that true artists, (Jimmy Giuffre being one of them)--in other words people for whom creativity is as essential as the need to breathe--will give up everything—lovers, families, audiences, before they will give up their art ---That’s because they have to create. And if they're lucky, they find like-minded people to work with them. So the Jimmy Dances is about artistic togetherness and artistic solitariness.”
When Barbara Barker came to chair the University of MN dance program, she encouraged David to complete his masters in music composition. With David’s masters degree, Barker demonstrated the high caliber of her teachers in the new program. David’s new masters degree helped to insure the vitality of the program for the future and also to secure tenure for David.
David was also a visiting guest artist of note for two tours to Australia and New Zealand, where he taught at these countries’ leading contemporary dance companies and was even offered the directorship of one in Camberra.
David and his longtime partner, Roger Beck, lived in a houseboat, (though beached on dry land) in Stillwater, MN where David found a sanctuary of creativity, music, love, companionship and orchids. David continued teaching and choreographing up until the last few weeks of his life when his body, wrecked by AIDS, could no longer support him. Roger and David’s family of friends cared for him until David died of AIDS in June 1991. David was 53 years old.*
*When the librarians at the New York City Public Library’s Performing Arts Archives at Lincoln Center learned of David's death, they requested all of the videotapes of his choreography and teaching. They already had arranged an interview with him to join their Oral History Project on dancers with AIDS. They copied the films and returned them to Roger. A year later they called again to say that on World AIDS day--the day without art--they were keeping a continuous loop of David's choreography running in the Performing Arts Library lobby at Lincoln Center .