Erick Hawkins (1909–1994), the first of several major choreographers in what is sometimes called the third generation of modern dance, created a radical body of work known for its free-flowing vocabulary and an effortlessness that belied the rigorous training underlying it. Highly literary, Hawkins left behind writings that detail a comprehensive, cohesive theory of dance and related arts. In his major work, The Body Is a Clear Place, Hawkins calls modern dance “a voyage of discovery . . . to somewhere we have never quite been before.”
The son of an inventor, Hawkins began his dance voyage at age 15 when he left Trinidad, Colorado, for Harvard University. Tall and slender with a hawk-like nose, he majored in Greek literature and art, which would become lifelong choreographic inspirations. At 17 he fell “tenderly, ardently” in love with a picture of Isadora Duncan. The photograph spurred him to attend a New York concert by the German Expressionist dancers Yvonne Georgi and Harald Kreutzberg, which changed his life.
After graduation, he enrolled in the newly established School of American Ballet, joining both the American Ballet and Ballet Caravan, predecessors of New York City Ballet. These emerging institutions exposed Hawkins to legends such as Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. In the summer of 1935, Hawkins met Martha Graham when their companies were both in residence at Bennington College’s first Summer School of Dance. Two years later, Graham asked Hawkins to join her company, the first man invited to do so. During his time with the troupe, Hawkins originated several iconic roles, such as Ringmaster in Every Soul Is a Circus and the Husbandman in Appalachian Spring. They were married in 1948 but separated in 1950.
Hawkins’ philosophy about dance can be traced as much to the great Indian dancer Shanta Rao as to ballet and his time with Graham. Watching Rao, he recognized a fierce, almost reckless essence in her movement—a quality he did not find in ballet. “[Ballet] was too much like a diagram,” he wrote in The Body Is a Clear Place, “and, for me, too much of the indescribable pure poetry of movement had to be left out.” He attributed this schematic quality to the fact that ballet was developed in a culture that emphasized theory and held “unsensuous” attitudes toward the body.
Hawkins’ own attitudes toward the body were anything but. With his insistence on simply costumed, barelegged dancers, the sensuousness of the human body was on prominent display. Hawkins’ Greek Dreams, with Flute (1973), for example, portrays topless nymphs in sheer, pale-blue pleated Grecian tunics and nearly naked satyrs and athletes. Like much of Hawkins’ work, Dreams plays on contrasts between male and female bodies in motion. Exuberant men display the beauty of their bodies in Hawkins’ wide-armed, bent-legged leaps. Sinuous women contract, then open to flow along curved paths. “Beautiful dancing,” he said, is always about the “physical and psychological delight of men and women together.”
Despite the soft, fluid, serene, almost effortless look, Hawkins’ movement required substantial strength and specialized technique. Taking a released and sustained approach to the basics of Graham technique, he created a technique known for its “directed, free flow of movement initiating from the center,” according to Renata Celichowska, author of The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique. Occurring “in measured time, its hallmarks are lightness, varied dynamics and clarity. Putting these qualities together is Hawkins’ great contribution to dance training.”
A cluster of fundamental principles underlies the technique, giving the choreography its unique look. The key concept—and the secret behind a Hawkins dancer’s unbound, soft muscled quality—is contraction and de-contraction. This does not imply movement that is not performed fully; rather it suggests using only the effort required to perform efficiently. “Tight muscles cannot feel,” Hawkins often admonished. “Only effortless, free-flowing muscles are sensuous.”
Other Hawkins principles include initiating and controlling movement from the body’s pelvic center of gravity; swinging the legs from high in the hip socket to activate lightness and freedom; finding the body’s midline through the spine’s four curves—cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral—allowing for efficient spinal alignment; pelvic pathways following under and over curves; and momentum recognized in curves, loops and spirals. These unique principles develop dancers who, even when not literally leaping, soar “indirectly, through furtive delicacy based on asymmetrical patterning; balances that look natural yet are not taken for granted; an energetic attitude of being held in suspension,” notes critic Molly McQuade. This sensation of flight, shared with the audience, is a Hawkins signature. He explored the theory of “coenesthesia,” or a commonly felt state of sensation which he discovered in the writings of French philosopher Hubert Benoit. For an audience to both see and feel a dance, Hawkins believed dancers themselves must be totally immersed, honestly inhabiting their sensation, feeling the air as they move.
Like Graham, Hawkins was interested in classic themes and “pure movement poetry.” Intense, dramatic, streamlined and often ceremonial, his works reflect the iconography of the American West, Greek Classicism and Asian cultures. Classic Kite Tails (1972) plays on the floating, darting qualities of flying kites. In the mythic Plains Daybreak (1979), masked dancers portray abstracted incarnations of the dawn denizens of America’s Great Plains. Hawkins’ exacting attention to production values—live music and original, artist-made sets and costumes—led to lifelong working relationships with many famous 20th-century artists.
In addition to his choreography, Hawkins left a powerful, varied living legacy in the dancers and choreographers whom he influenced. In 1951, he established a school that lasted until his death and a company that is still operated by former company dancer Katherine Duke. His yearly workshops, run with his longtime musical collaborator and wife Lucia Dlugoszewski, whom he met and married after his divorce from Graham, encompassed technique, repertory and composition and created a safe space for each dancer to discover his or her “inner dancing self.” Among the dancemakers who passed through Hawkins’ company was African-American choreographer Rod Rodgers. Choreographers Nancy Meehan and Gloria McLean, lead Hawkins dancers and teachers, both adapted Hawkins’ aesthetic to their own, very different work. Another company dancer, Jim Tyler, founded Mangrove, a seminal contact improvisation group in San Francisco.
Many Hawkins dancers and students, influenced by his methods and ideas, segued into careers in bodywork and healing. Injured early in his career, Hawkins concluded that something was wrong with Western dance training. If America was to usher in a “new dance,” he wrote, “it must be based in science.” From kinesiology, as well as the work of Mabel Todd and the Chinese concept of yin and yang, he recognized that a hard-working body works better, with less risk of injury, if it learns to rest. Hawkins’ ideas inspired former company dancers Andre Bernard, a founder of ideokinesis, and Bonnie Cohen, the developer of the Body-Mind Centering technique. Michael Moses, motivated by Hawkins’ statement, “how your body feels affects how you feel about life,” became a physical therapist. Trained in Laban Analysis, former company member Brenda Connor works as a movement analyst for the Department of Defense. “Erick’s ideas profoundly influenced how I understand the link between movement and the behavior of leaders all over the world,” she says.
A month before his death, while still choreographing, Hawkins received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. “Erick knew that humans need beauty,” writes McLean. “His greatest hope was that through dance, humans could understand their humanity.” Alan Kriegsman, former critic at The Washington Post, called Hawkins “a performer of extraordinary magnetism and power, a maker of a body of dance-theater works of indelible originality, beauty and poetic incandescence.” His most powerful legacy, however, resides in the bodies and minds of his dancers and students. DT
The Erick Hawkins Dance Company continues to perform under the direction of Katherine Duke, a member of Hawkins final company. www.erickhawkinsdance.org. Hawkins technique is taught at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. www.92y.org
Teaching artist Carrie Stern, PhD, writes “Dance Brooklyn” for the Brooklyn Eagle and other publications.