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

Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of DM archives

"It's hard not to get too hurt in this profession."

Ann Reinking got real earlier this month at New York City Dance Alliance Foundation's Bright Lights Shining Stars gala. She was being honored as a 2017 NYCDA Foundation Ambassador for the Arts, and her speech was so moving that we had to share the entire thing with you.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Photo by Grant Halverson, courtesy of ADF

As a soloist with William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt and later as his assistant, Elizabeth Corbett got to experience firsthand the groundbreaking choreographer's influence on contemporary ballet. "I find it fascinating and never-ending," she says of his work. "It was a repertory that was constantly changing over time and still is." Now on faculty with the American Dance Festival, Corbett brings Forsythe's repertory and processes to the dancers in class every summer.

Keep reading... Show less
During seated stretches, I encourage my students to sit straight on their sits bones and then fold forward at the hips—even if they don't go forward very far. One student tells me that if she sits as I instruct, she can't reach forward at all. Why?
Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models

In 2011, New York City–based choreographer Pedro Ruiz returned to Cuba after 21 years of dancing with Ballet Hispanico and more than 30 years being away. The experience was so moving that he created The Windows Project as a continuous cultural collaboration between American artists and Cuban dancers.

"I was so overwhelmed seeing all the dancers do Afro-Cuban dance with live music. It was the moment my soul reconnected to Cuba and to my roots," says Ruiz of his first trip back. "I started weeping." He saw that, while Cuban companies and schools have amazing knowledge and passion for dance, they needed access to train with teachers in a variety of techniques, and choreographers outside of Cuba. "Cuba is still struggling economically, so the dancers also don't have good ballet shoes or costumes, and The Windows Project was my way to begin to help," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Thinkstock

Midway through every semester at Indiana University Bloomington, contemporary professor Stephanie Nugent notices that her students aren't quite as awake as they were the first week of classes. They're tired from midterm exams and bring less energy to the studio. Nugent, too, feels the lull. "Teaching in academia is an arc with many peaks and valleys," she says, noting that the repetition of exercises can get monotonous. "On days when it feels like we've been doing the same thing over and over, I give students an improvisational prompt, and it reignites all of our interests. It's something to investigate, rather than something to repeat."

Most teachers experience a moment of stagnation at some point. Maybe students aren't progressing as fast as you feel they should, or you feel uninspired by the daily routine. Factors outside the studio, like administrative work, can also deplete your energy reserves. During these low and slow times, consider the following ideas to find inspiration and give yourself—and your students—a boost.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy of BalletMet

Long before switching from ballet to Broadway became de rigueur, Edwaard Liang shocked everyone by leaving New York City Ballet to join the Broadway cast of the musical Fosse. Eleven years later, he defied expectations again by taking over as BalletMet's artistic director—without putting his robust freelance choreography career on hold. Liang, it seems, doesn't pay much heed to the conventional approach to a dance career.

In his four years with BalletMet, Liang has sought to challenge his dancers with diverse repertory that goes far beyond the typical confines of classical and contemporary ballet. This month, to celebrate BalletMet's 40th anniversary, the company teamed up with Ohio State University's dance department and the Wexner Center for the Arts to offer a smorgasbord of dance styles: from William Forsythe's singular brand of leggy-brainy dance to Ohad Naharin's exuberant Minus 16, performed alongside OSU dance students. Here, he talks to DT about the effect his choices have had on his career.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored