Deborah Zall, a dancer and choreographer who studied with Martha Graham and went on to make her own mark with solo works depicting extraordinary women, died on Dec. 11 in Manhattan. She was 84.
The cause was pneumonia, her sister, Rona Nadine Affoumado, said.
Ms. Zall was known for vivid portrayals of women drawn from history, including Mary Queen of Scots and the French author who wrote under the pseudonym George Sand, as well as fictional characters, such as Amanda Wingfield from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Lean, small of stature and angular of build, she gave performances that were praised for their commitment and focus. British critic Judith Mackrell described her as bearing “an almost unnerving resemblance to Graham herself.”
In a telephone interview, Penny Frank, a former colleague on the faculty of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, recalled Ms. Zall’s intensity. “She was small,” she said, “but she made this up with the force of her dancing. And her choreography was the same.”
Ms. Zall also appeared in dances taught to her by choreographers from Ms. Graham’s circle, including Ms. Graham’s teacher, Ruth St. Denis, and Anna Sokolow, a founding member of the Actors Studio. Ms. Zall was even given permission to perform the famous 1930 Ms. Graham solo Lamentation, in which the dancer expresses her grief through anguished movements magnified by a cloak-like costume – a rare occurrence for a dancer not in the company.
Over the past two decades, she had begun staging works for younger dancers. These included her own and those of her mentors, as well as pieces by the long-time Graham dancer Bertram Ross, a close friend. (When he died in 2003, Mr. Ross left the rights to all his dances to Ms. Zall.) In 2014, she formed her own ensemble, the Deborah Zall Project: In the Company of Women, consisting mostly of former members of the Graham company.
She was a committed teacher of Ms. Graham’s dance technique. “I teach the orthodox technique,” she told the magazine Dance Teacher in 2015, “exactly what Martha Graham taught me.” At various points, she was an instructor at the Martha Graham School in New York, the Laban Dance Centre and the Place in London and, most lastingly, LaGuardia High School, where she was on the faculty from 1994 to 2011.
During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Ms. Zall spent considerable time in Los Angeles, where she created a work, Pastorale, for the Los Angeles Ballet, then under the direction of John Clifford, a former New York City Ballet dancer. (She also taught at the company school.)
“She was extremely musical,” Mr. Clifford said in an e-mail, “and emotionally connected to the students. And she did a spot-on Martha Graham imitation.”
Deborah Miriam Zall was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 2, 1934, the eldest daughter of Edward Isaac Zall, a salesman, and Esther (Perelstein) Zall, a bookkeeper. She leaves two younger sisters, Rona Nadine Affoumado and Greta Louise Kenney. Her marriage to Robert Sacks ended in divorce.
After high school, Ms. Zall left for New York, where she trained at the Juilliard School, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater and the Martha Graham School. Then, instead of joining a company, she struck out on her own, creating evenings of dance and sometimes appearing as a guest with other troupes.
“She was very independent-minded,” her sister Rona said in a phone interview, “and she was stubborn as hell. She had this very clear vision of the kind of performances she wanted to do, centered around women. She needed that kind of independence.”