Skepticism was high around modern dance’s place in the dance field in early 20th-century America, but one establishment chose to rally for this new artform. It happened in the summer of 1934, when The Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont brought together four modern pioneers—Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Doris Humphrey with Charles Weidman. The four choreographers had been working mostly independently until then, developing their own styles and techniques. As the story of modern dance has unfolded, their coming together moved American modern dance forward, from an individual recital form to a theatrical concert dance form. It inspired hundreds of students to teach, choreograph and dance their ways into modern’s next phases, and it gave Bennington College the recognition to support its still-thriving dance department.

 

In June of 1933, Bennington College President Robert Devore Leigh mentioned to Martha Hill, the arts and music division’s director of dance since the college’s opening in 1932, that he was looking for a way to keep the campus functioning during the summers. Hill, a former Graham company member, suggested a dance school. (An official dance department was not established until 1936.) She was quickly named director with former Teachers College and New College faculty member Mary Josephine Shelly as administrative director. Hill, who passed away in 1995, recalled in a 1990 interview: “We took a big breath and put out publicity about it, not in a big way. We had to close the doors at 100 students because we could not house any more!”

 

At the workshop’s beginning, there was a strong focus on introducing the techniques of modern dance to college and K–12 physical-education teachers, who were mostly women and made up the majority of students. Many had never before seen modern, and by 1939, participants had come from 48 states and other countries to study closely with these groundbreaking choreographers and teachers. Students watched the four artists perform and develop their revolutionary techniques (Graham focused on oppositions in the body; Humphrey and Weidman on the idea of fall and recovery; and Holm on the use of space), with the first-ever opportunity to study with all four—students rarely crossed camps before then.

 

Male students also began to take interest. Choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham attended the school in 1939, when it was held at California’s Mills College to help strengthen modern dance in the West. In addition to modern, over the next eight years, Bennington offered courses in ballet, dance composition, music, dance notation, stagecraft and dance history.

 

Makeshift studios were formed out of the common areas in the colonial-style houses used as dormitories, and performances took place on campus in the 150-seat Commons Theatre and in the town of Bennington at the 500-seat Vermont State Armory. Students also danced outside on the college’s lush-green Commons Lawn, causing a stir among the townspeople who saw them. “The story was that we were thought of as a nudist colony by people in town, because here we were dancing in flesh-colored leotards, practically naked after the tutus of ballet,” Hill recalled, in a 1992 interview with Bennington College faculty member Rebecca Godwin.

 

The pastoral landscape also offered downtime opportunities for faculty. In her book, Graham shared the story of how she loved to drive around the campus and town in a Model-T Ford. She wrote that it scared Hill, who once exclaimed, “Pray! With Martha’s driving, that could be the end of the history of modern dance.”

 

Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and Holm were joined by an illustrious group of faculty members and lecturers: dancers and dance teachers José Limón, Erick Hawkins, Hortense Lieberthal (Zera) and Bessie Schönberg; composers Louis Horst (Graham’s music director) and Norman Lloyd; New York Times dance critic John Martin; and Lincoln Kirstein. The school provided the faculty with sound summer employment while the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and the four choreographers had the chance to create new dances with their resident companies.

 

These masterworks premiered at the workshop’s culminating Bennington Festival (held in the Armory), which kicked off with Graham’s Panorama (1935). By 1937, the festival had expanded to show works by the school’s emerging, invitation-only fellowship artists: Limón, Esther Junger and Anna Sokolow. And the festival’s positive response made it possible to invite performances from outside genres and groups. For example, Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan—a group of 12 American Ballet dancers—premiered in 1936 and returned in 1937. During the festival in 1938, all four artists debuted new dances, which included Humphrey’s Passacaglia in C Minor, that reflected the school’s five successful years.

 

Unfortunately, the summer experiment could not last forever. As World War II engulfed the nation, resources from the college and community were needed in other ways. And the program’s reshaped format (called the School of the Arts from 1940 to 1941), featuring only one of the original four choreographers, was not as successful as planned. The summer of 1942 would be the last for the workshop and its festival. But the school was such a hotbed of ideas and creativity, that its spirit was reignited in 1948 as a collaboration between New York University and Connecticut College with many of the same faculty, including Hill as director. The performance festival of the workshop was called American Dance Festival, which became the name used for the entire school and festival currently housed at Duke University in North Carolina.

 

In her autobiography, Graham called Bennington “a wonderful place where we were given the freedom and possibility to make our dances.” But when asked if the people involved realized how important the summer school was while in progress, Hill answered, “Sometimes. Most of the time, we were too busy to recognize what we were into.” Little did they know their contributions would forever change the face of American modern dance. DT

 

 

Additional Resources

 

ARTICLE:

“Martha Hill on Early Dance at Bennington,” by Rebecca Godwin, Quadrille, Volume 25, Number 1, Winter 1992–93
 


 

BOOKS:

Bennington College: In the Beginning
, by Thomas Brockway, Backcountry Publications, 1981

Blood Memory,
by Martha Graham, Doubleday, 1991

The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900–1995,
by Elizabeth McPherson, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008

Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance
, by Janet Mansfield Soares, Wesleyan University Press, 2009

Modern Dance in America: The Bennington Years,
by Sali Ann Kriegsman, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982
 





 

FILM:


USA: Dance—Four Pioneers
, Ohio State University, 1965

 

Elizabeth McPherson is an assistant professor at Montclair State University and is currently writing a book on The Bennington School of the Dance.

 

photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival Archives

Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona State University

Many parents discourage their teenagers from majoring in dance because of fear that their child will become a struggling artist in an unforgiving city, only to end their career in injury. But a dance degree can lead to other corners of the profession, such as marketing, physical therapy and arts administration. "Parents always say their children need something to fall back on," says Daniel Lewis, former dean of the dance division at New World School of the Arts. "They only see the stage time, applause and flowers. But there's choreographing, teaching, PR—the careers are endless."

Others are more concerned with disappointment. "Your daughter doesn't have to be a major ballerina with ABT to be successful," says Lewis. "If she wants to be a dancer, she'll find the work. There's a certain amount of training you have to achieve before you even get accepted into a good college, so if you have the talent, and the drive, you can make it."

As mentors, teachers can be monumentally influential on students' college decision processes. Read on to hear from three dance majors who feel grateful they chose this path—and share their words with your students!

Keep reading... Show less
To show her support for local studios, Kelly Berick requires all her students to be enrolled in an after-school program. Photo by Stephanie Csejtey, courtesy of Akron School of the Arts

When Kelly Berick began teaching high school students at Ohio's Firestone Community Learning Center within Akron Public Schools 21 years ago, she was newly engaged, newly licensed to teach K–12 dance and thrilled to land what she considered the perfect job. Her enthusiasm quickly soured, however, when after two weeks of teaching she called a local studio to introduce herself. "The owner told me her students didn't like me, didn't like what I was doing and were going to quit my program," she says. Her class of seven became a class of three.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Jacqulyn Buglisi has a flair for drama. To encourage the students in her intermediate and advanced Graham classes at The Ailey School to open their sternums in a high release, she tells them to stretch “like a flower came out of your heart." When attempting to convey the weight of a hand gesture, she explains that they must “pull the hem of heaven from the sky." During the extensive warm-up sequence, she reminds them that this is no time for complacency: “We don't do positions. We dance the series." Despite her penchant for the Graham dramatics, Buglisi is equally quick to curb any excess of melodrama in her students. “No Swan Lake with the arms," she admonishes one whose wrists are limply crossed.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Robert Roldan and partner Taylor Sieve (courtesy of FOX)

Robert Roldan may have stolen our hearts on Season 7 of "So You Think You Can Dance"—but it seems his heart was stolen long before that by none other than Emmy Award winning choreographer, Mandy Moore.

As his first jazz teacher at Bobby's School of Performing Arts in Thousand Oaks California, Roldan says Moore taught him everything he knows about dancing. Now, as an All-Star on this season of "So You Think You Can Dance," he's applying those invaluable lessons with partner Taylor Sieve.

"What Mandy has always taught me, is that you need to feel the emotion and intention of the pieces you perform as a human before you can apply it to your dancing. Because of this, the week that Taylor and I performed Mandy's piece, I used the entire two hours of private rehearsal time we had to talk about what the piece was about and how we could connect to it as humans. I believe that doing this was ultimately more valuable than any time we could have spent cleaning details and making the piece perfect. Mandy taught me this at a young age, and I try to apply it to Taylor as much as I possibly can when I teach her. People won't connect to how high your leg is or what crazy tricks you can do. They want to feel something. And when you feel it, they feel it."

Watch Roldan on "So You Think You Can Dance" tonight on FOX.

Teachers & Role Models
Camille Rommett, left, with her mother Zena, who founded the floor-barre method. Photo courtesy of Rommett.

In 1965, Zena Rommett was asked to teach her unique Floor-Barre method at the American Ballet Center by ballet legend Robert Joffrey. Her gentle-yet-effective technique inspired countless professional dancers over the years, who became faithful followers as a supplement to their dance training. From choreographer Lar Lubovitch to Tommy Tune, Patrick Swayze and Judith Jamison, many swear by the benefits of the technique. Rommett taught it until she was 90.

The summer after Rommett's death, her daughter Camille made her debut on the faculty of our Dance Teacher Summit. She describes teaching to a packed convention room as "a very humbling experience." Despite students often telling her she sounds similar to her mother, she's learned it's not about filling her mother's shoes, but keeping her mother's legacy—and the integrity of the technique—alive.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

I have heard you say that tight hamstrings prevent full extension of the knees and that you prefer hamstring stretches in a standing position, rather than on the floor. Can you explain why?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

In February 2016, we featured the women of Ragamala Dance, the Minneapolis-based bharatanatyam company founded by mother-and-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. (Daughter Ashwini is a dancer in the company and the troupe's publicist.) Since they appeared on our cover, they've had a busy year and a half, full of performances and exciting news. This weekend, they're featuring their mentor, Alarmél Valli, in a special performance at The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts in Minneapolis.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored