Erick Hawkins

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. 

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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