Erick Hawkins made modern dance history as the first male dancer accepted into Martha Graham’s company, but he also earned success as a choreographer and creator of the Hawkins technique. His movement was characterized by a free-flow aesthetic—one that required hidden strength—and informs many of the somatic disciplines we know today, like Body-Mind Centering technique.
A late-bloomer, Hawkins discovered dance in his early 20s after seeing a performance by German dancers Yvonne Georgi and Harald Kreutzberg. The summer after he graduated from Harvard University, he studied with Kreutzberg in Austria. Hawkins’ next stop was New York City, where he trained for four years at the newly founded School of American Ballet. While there, he danced with and choreographed for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, the predecessor to New York City Ballet.
In 1936, Ballet Caravan performed at Bennington College, where the Martha Graham company was also in residence. Hawkins was immediately drawn to Graham’s intensity and uniquely American dance; two years later, she invited him into her company. Over the course of 12 years with Graham, Hawkins starred in many roles, often as her partner (Letter to the World, 1940; Appalachian Spring, 1944; Cave of the Heart, 1946; Night Journey, 1947), and the two married in 1948. They separated two years later.
Feeling stifled and yearning to explore his own work, Hawkins founded a school and company in 1951. His influences were as varied as Southwest Native American traditions, the poetry of Zen Buddhism and kinesiology. His commitment to new and live music for performances and collaborations with well-known composers and designers were noteworthy, though his works were initially dismissed by critics and never found success anywhere near that of Graham’s.
Hawkins continued to operate his school until his death in 1994. DT
In 1950, immediately following their separation, Hawkins sent Graham a typed, 27-page letter, attempting to explain his reasons for their split.
Hawkins sought to convey a sensation of freedom in his movement. Hallmarks include:
- Initiating movement from the pelvis, or center of gravity.
- Use of over and under curves.
- Swinging legs high in the hip sockets to activate lightness.
- Employing the spine’s four curves—cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral. The Hawkins spine contracts and decontracts (versus Graham’s contraction and release).
- Classic Kite Tails (1972) Capturing the floating, darting qualities of flying kites, this work emphasized flowy, carving movement with Hawkins’ tassel arms.
- Greek Dreams, with Flute (1973) With nearly naked men and women wearing only sheer Grecian tunics, Hawkins contrasted male and female bodies in motion.
- Agathlon (1979) Inspired by the rock formation of the same name in an Arizona Navajo reservation, Hawkins based Agathlon on asymmetry and imbalance versus balance.
- Tassels Hawkins loved to use the image of the limbs as tassels, as at the end of a curtain. It requires loosening, or “decontracting,” the muscles in the arms or legs, so that one’s limbs can respond naturally to any movement initiated from the pelvis.
- Cobra hands Fingertips lead the rest of the arm and spine into a movement, like the head of a cobra.
- Chalkline This term refers to an imaginary center line that separates the body into two sagittal, or right and left, planes. For example, when executing a développé devant, students are told to let their toes fall along their chalkline.
The Legacy Lives On
The company Erick Hawkins Dance, based in New York, is now directed by former Hawkins dancer Katherine Duke. The technique—considered by many to be the precursor to release technique and other somatics-informed techniques—is taught in colleges throughout the U.S.
“Erick Hawkins,” by Carrie Stern, Dance Teacher, September 2007
The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique, by Renata Celichowska, Princeton Book Company, 2000
Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work, by Mark Franko, Oxford University Press, 2012
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photo (top) courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Michael Avedon, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives