The celebrated composition teacher who redefined the study of dance in higher education

Schönberg at Bennington College, 1930s

Throughout her expansive 65-year career, Bessie Schönberg (1906–1997) became one of America’s most revered composition teachers. She possessed the unique ability to help her students find their own creative voices, and she nurtured the groundbreaking styles of artists as diverse in their approaches as Annie-B Parson, Jerome Robbins, Carolyn Brown, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk and Ronald K. Brown. “Bessie honed in on the exact characteristic that set a person apart from everyone else,” says Norton Owen, director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow. Ironically, Schönberg developed this gift without becoming a choreographer herself. Her mentoring mission was simple—“my heart is with the new, the unexplored”—and she favored all styles equally, on the basis that dance was difficult to make.

Nearly every American dance organization (and several across the Atlantic) has bestowed its award upon Schönberg, and two Manhattan theaters bear her name. Since 1983 her first name has been synonymous with Dance Theater Workshop’s New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards. This annual honor celebrates the creation of innovative work in tough times and reflects the life that Bessie lived. In an era when college dance classes were considered little more than a way for young women to become graceful wives, Schönberg proposed a radical shift in focus—the study and performance of student choreography. And despite criticism, Schönberg directed the nation’s first college dance department, at Sarah Lawrence College, for nearly four decades, establishing a model that future university dance programs would adopt.

Born in Hanover, Germany, Schönberg’s interest in the “new” developed early. As a child, she loved to watch performances by Mary Wigman, who was creating an expressive European dance-theater form called Ausdruckstanz. Schönberg’s parents considered dance to be an inappropriate pursuit for a middle-class girl; however, when Bessie turned 10, her father let her study rhythmic gymnastics as a tool to learn music. Enthusiastic about her new activity, Schönberg began teaching moves to classmates. But her extracurricular lessons abruptly stopped after a concerned schoolteacher informed Schönberg’s parents about these playground ministrations.

At 19, Schönberg moved from Germany to Eugene, Oregon, where her American-born mother, Rose, was on faculty at the University of Oregon as a voice teacher. (Her parents separated during World War I; her mother returned to the United States to pursue an opera career, and her father served as a colonel in the military.) Schönberg studied painting at the University of Oregon, until a newly hired professor named Martha Hill introduced her to contemporary dance in 1927. The former Martha Graham dancer forever changed Schönberg’s life.

Two years later, 23-year-old Schönberg followed Hill to New York City and took her first Graham class at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Schönberg immediately caught Graham’s attention; she was invited into the modern pioneer’s company and danced in breakout works, including Heretic (1929) and Primitive Mysteries (1931). Unfortunately, a knee injury in 1931 prematurely ended Schönberg’s performance career.

With encouragement from her husband, Russian economist Dimitry Varley, Schönberg turned to teaching. In 1934 she earned a BA from Bennington College and served as Hill’s teaching assistant during the college’s first summer program, where Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman famously taught. Observing these masters, Schönberg began to rethink the traditional role of a teacher. “I became an enemy of the regularized warm-up,” she said. She believed that students trained to imitate movement were missing the exploration of their own expressive style.

She expanded these groundbreaking ideas during her next post, first as dance professor then as dance department director, at Sarah Lawrence College. From 1938 to 1975, Schönberg provided students with the tools to choreograph. Her unique approach included focusing on fundamental movement principles (like locomotion, gesture or partnering), and then exploring all possible variations, before defining a set of boundaries and developing a short study to perform in class. Her teachings expanded dancers’ analytical reasoning, their communication skills and interest in each other, and they gave students the freedom to constructively critique their peers’ work.

When 70-year-old Bessie took mandatory retirement from Sarah Lawrence, she embarked on the most expansive lap of her career, teaching everywhere from Dance Theater Workshop, London School of Contemporary Dance, Laban Centre and Dance Theatre of Harlem to The Juilliard School, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and New York University. In 1997, Bessie died of a heart attack in her Bronxville, NY, home. She was getting ready to attend a student dance showcase at Juilliard. DT

 

Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds graduate degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives

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