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Grassroots Modern

New York dancers take to the country

By Janet Mansfield Soares | HUMANITIES, September/October 2010 | Volume 31, Number 5

The dance revolution was fought on many fronts, but the key battle took place at Vermont’s Bennington College. It was here in the 1930s, amid the cow farms in the bucolic Green Mountains, that the giants of modern dance—Graham, Humphrey, Holm, Weidman—fine-tuned their techniques and trained their dancer armies to spread the revolution across the country.

“There could not have been a more felicitous falling out of circumstances––the time, the place, the people––for the creation of a new center for the burgeoning American dance,” wrote dancer and educator Martha Hill. It was Hill’s determination and finesse that took the study of dance from places like the Kellogg School of Physical Education (of which Hill was a graduate) to the fine arts departments of America’s top universities. And it was her vision that transformed summer vacation into an intense crucible of dance, the kind now replicated at hundreds of colleges every summer, but quite radical at the time.

Hill had been lured to Bennington in 1932 by Robert Devore Leigh, Bennington’s first president, who had seen the maverick educator at a dance workshop in New York City. Hill was dancing with Martha Graham’s company and teaching at New York University. She kept her New York teaching gig and commuted back and forth on the “Up-Flier” to her faculty job at Bennington when the college opened that year, in the midst of the Depression.

Leigh shared Hill’s idea that dance should be “in the commonwealth of the arts,” not relegated to PE departments. He secured permission from Bennington’s trustees to seek an appropriate summer enterprise for dance, putting Hill in charge of making it a success. And the whirlwind began.

The launching of the Bennington Summer School of Dance in 1934 resembled more an act of faith than a predestined success. Hill’s motto became, “Go do whatever comes next, and do it fast.”

Leigh told Hill, “If you get sixty students, you'll be able to pay your bills.” When the forty-third registration came, she relaxed. When the sixty-fifth came, she celebrated, and with the arrival of the hundred and third, she closed enrollment. They had run out of beds. Hill recalled, “We knew we had an original, and world-shaking, and timely idea.”

For a faculty, Leigh instructed Hill to “get the best there is” and she did, creating her own temple for dance with a bevy of handpicked talents serving as both artists and teachers.

Martha Graham, of course, was the first choice––an appointment no one questioned. Graham had been Hill’s mentor and was emerging as a leader in modern dance with a cultish following. Hanya Holm had danced with Mary Wigman’s company in Germany before setting up a New York City branch of the influential Wigman School. Doris Humphrey’s considerable choreographic talent had been evident throughout her years with the Denishawn dance company: After breaking away and establishing a company in 1928 with her partner, Charles Weidman, she was producing some of the most respected dance work on the recital scene. All of these artists happily agreed to join the Bennington staff—the prospect of a steady salary for these perpetually broke dancers was too much to resist.

Hill wisely invited a spokesman for the new movement, New York Times dance critic John Martin, to develop a dance history and critical writing course for the curriculum. Louis Horst would be the school’s authoritative figure for anything pertaining to music for dance. The “pessimistically hopeful” Horst had just begun to publish Dance Observer as an advocacy sheet for modern dance that year. The presence of working critics on campus immediately raised the bar for the choreographers and their dancers.

Enrolled in that first season was a small but valiant platoon ready to serve in the name of a rapidly growing American art form. They were all women. Less than one-third were undergraduate students coming from other colleges; the rest were teachers. Hill predicted that this impressive array of “professional” women would take their experiences back to their own universities and schools. And Bennington’s first program—a six-week session with the study of dance techniques, dance composition, music for dance, teaching methods, and production, as well as a survey of dance history and critical theory—became the model for programs around the nation. The opportunity was “the best dance news to be had,” one first-timer remarked. Another concurred, “There was nothing like it in the country. The timing was right.”

In that first, cool New England summer in Vermont, the beauty of the location and the accommodations surpassed expectations. As the train pulled into the quaint North Bennington station, transport was waiting for dancers and their trunks. Hill greeted each new arrival with an eight-page memo covering everything from the cleaning of rooms to film-developing services. A five-dollar fee covered six weeks of golfing, swimming, and tennis at the Mount Anthony Country Club. “There are no house rules,” the memo stated. After the 1:00 a.m. doors-locked curfew, the night watchman provided a key. A “hairdressing” shop was open six days a week. But most important, students would be dancing under the direction of “the up-and-coming modernists for a new dance.”

Hill intentionally chose artists with very different choreographic styles. Graham had moved out of her dark “long-woolens” solo period and now solidified her pelvic “contraction and release” technique that emphasized the torso with movement infused with jumps and traveling patterns. Humphrey’s choreography was a mix of formality and invention, favoring J. S. Bach scores rather than specially composed ones as championed by Horst. Germany’s Bauhaus ideas influenced Holm’s experiments on the use of space. Weidman’s satirical, theatrical approach was a welcome contrast.

Graham, Holm, Humphrey, and Weidman were soon labeled “The Big Four” and each felt the weight of their mission. Holm said, “Bennington was a beginning. . . . It was also a job in attitude, point of view, behaviorism, spiritual values, [about] the whole human being . . . re-educated to think in a different way.”

Weidman, the humorist of the group, agreed. “We became possible because of two revolts. One was the revolt against the ‘eeses,’” referring to the Japanese and Chinese dances he had performed with Denishawn, formed by the exotic Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. “Why don’t we have a dance which would be indigenous of this country and say ‘this is America dancing’? We were very strong. We were revolutionists.”

That first summer, the school was definitely a grassroots venture in teaching dance. Sessions divided students into groups with “little or no previous experience in the modern dance” or a “foundation in the modern dance.” “You can't imagine the lively primitive quality in the early populations of Bennington,” one musician quipped. “Sometimes you just took them by the hand and tried to get them to walk in a steady pulse.” But everything was new for the faculty, too. John Martin was the first to admit that his early attempts at teaching were problematic: “There was nothing to go on and while I knew something about it, I didn’t know enough to give a six-weeks’ course off the top of my head. So I spent all my time in the library reference room and found things I had never heard of before. . . . I was one step ahead of them, but it was one step.”

It became Hill’s job to figure out what every choreographer was doing, then teach basic principles of time, force, and space in her own techniques course. She explained to the students, “Martha [Graham] is using contraction in its dramatic sense as steel contracts in cold; you pull yourself together in a contraction. Sure, muscles are being used, but she doesn't mean the contraction of muscles. She is using words metaphorically, not literally in their physiological sense.” Calling herself the “common denominator,” Hill added, “I taught from principle, more analytically . . . to allay some of the fears and the confusion of people studying in several methods of work.”

Hill also developed an uncommon ability to organize people, places, and concerts while keeping calm under often trying circumstances. It was her duty to keep the faculty in line “and not be gypsies.” If she was pressed to maintain a sense of propriety within the college environment, nearly all of her closest colleagues subscribed to a bohemian lifestyle with little concern for their appearance once off stage. Even the ever-elegant Martha Graham could be caught wearing bobby socks and solid walking shoes. On occasion there were some strained relationships with Bennington’s Yankee stock. One student remembered, “In the first year, being very free spirits, we had suntan leotards that looked very nude on the campus, and it was noised all about the village that we had a nudist colony.” Another commented cryptically, “The school was good for business, but not for encouraging aesthetics among the locals.”

There was also tension among the choreographers, who were all well known to each other. Most lived on the poverty line within a two-block radius in Greenwich Village. “We used to say,” Hill joked, “if a bomb ever went off at West Eleventh Street, that would be the end of modern dance in America.” Bennington had the potential to fall apart like a dysfunctional family forced together for the holidays. Before that summer, Humphrey had been reluctant to join forces with other moderns, writing to her mother, “organization has come to be such a hateful thing. . . . And besides I haven’t much faith in Martha Graham. She is a snake if there ever was one. In spite of all misgivings, it is the best thing to do––the thing is to be ready for double crossing.” When Holm first arrived at Bennington, she was snubbed in the dining room by Louis Horst, who considered her an imposter to the American dance scene.

But once settled in at Bennington—neutral ground—these city-weary dancers realized that instead of competing for attention and performance opportunities back in New York City, here, the college foot the bill, so they could rehearse with their dancers for uninterrupted stretches and show their new work to enthusiastic audiences. For Hill, the summer school was the realization of a dream to draw together rivals in an all-out effort to propagate the idea of modern dance as an innovative art form. Hill made sure that everything was “even-steven” for each group, and as a result, the atmosphere at Bennington became congenial and relaxed. There was never a complaint registered for more salary in those early years: To work under Hill’s leadership was considered a privilege marked by fairness. For her own part, she was determined to make Bennington as utopian an environment as possible. Still, there would always be “a Graham tree and a Humphrey tree,” where students congregated between classes.

That year, and the ones that followed, brought dance from the gymnasium to the concert stage. At the end of Bennington’s first session, the artists gave lecture-discussions and performed repertory work in recitals that took place in the school’s 150-seat College Theatre, giving a sense of how different it was from anything that came before. “It was a kind of benchmark against which to measure subsequent things,” one viewer remarked.

Over the span of the next seven summers, the modern dance movement grew from adolescence to maturity. Hill pressed the artists to build distinct technical styles that are still recognized and taught today. Choreography produced at Bennington, such as Graham’s American Document, Holm’s Trend, and Humphrey’s New Dance, are classic repertory works that became the backbone for concert dance as we know it. In the years that followed, Graham became a household name, the first lady of modern dance, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ford, whose wife, First Lady Betty Bloomer Ford, had danced with Graham at Bennington.

After an initial “five-year plan,” Hill transplanted this dance intensive to the Mills College campus in California for a summer session in 1939, before returning it to Bennington. Following the war years, she moved the whole operation to Connecticut College in New London, where the school thrived from 1948 to 1977. With a third move to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, under Charles Reinhart’s direction, the American Dance Festival is celebrating its 76th year, with the summer school now boasting a faculty of fifty, a student body of more than four hundred, and the premieres of 622 choreographed works to date.

About the Author

Janet Mansfield Soares is professor emerita of dance at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her most recent book, Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance published in 2009, was supported by an NEH fellowship.