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