Hanya Holm in "Salutation," circa 1936
In 1931, a tiny German woman disembarked from an ocean liner onto a Manhattan pier to open a modern dance school based on principles of German expressionist dance. It was a risky move during the Great Depression, especially with America’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment. But the intrepid Hanya Holm would prove triumphant, becoming one of the most influential teachers of American modern dance.
Holm’s approach sprung from her work in Germany with Mary Wigman, a student of Rudolf von Laban. To them, dance was an expression of human emotion; it started from within and was not technically based. But Holm transformed the German expressionist principles of modern dance to fit her new life in America—the intensity of Wigman’s dances became freer and more abstract.
Holm was one of the first choreographers to bring her modern dance roots to Broadway, and in addition to her own studio in New York, she taught at The Juilliard School, Bennington College and Colorado College, and she inspired a future generation of artists, including Alwin Nikolais, Glen Tetley, Mary Anthony, Don Redlich and Valerie Bettis. Holm’s broad curriculum, offering more than just technical training, set the groundwork for what would later become the standard for college dance departments.
Born Johanna Eckert in Worms, Germany, in 1893, Holm studied dance at the music-oriented Dalcroze Institute. While watching a 1920 performance by Wigman, Holm found her calling. She spent the next decade performing with her.
In 1931, Holm was invited to establish the Mary Wigman School in New York City. Holm led classes in composition, pedagogy, anatomy, improvisation and notation. But with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the school’s stature suffered because of its association with Wigman, who lived in Nazi Germany. So in 1936, Holm and Wigman decided that it was best for Wigman to remove her name, and it became the Hanya Holm School of Dance.
Holm’s school in Manhattan garnered much attention, and in 1934 she was invited by Martha Hill to serve on the faculty of Bennington School of the Dance during its inaugural year, along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. Holm, however, taught differently than her peers. Instead of a codified warm-up to train dancers in her own movement style, Holm concentrated on the use of space, while emphasizing individual artistry. “You are your master and student,” Holm advised dancers. “You must search within your own body.”
It was at Bennington that Holm choreographed her landmark 1937 piece Trend, which won The New York Times award for best choreography. It was made for 33 dancers, and unlike Wigman’s emotional subjective works, Trend was a symbolic piece about social conformity and oppression. Students represented a Greek-style chorus, while six soloists, including Holm, symbolized individualism.
When World War II affected resources for Bennington’s summer program, Holm started her own summer school out west. From 1941 to 1983, she directed the Colorado College Dance Festival, a six-week summer program that had a curriculum similar to her NYC school that emphasized training the body and mind.
Technique classes began with floor exercises that Holm designed with physical therapist Joseph Pilates to help develop strength and flexibility, says Holm scholar Claudia Gitelman, who studied with her in Colorado. Yet Holm remained steadfast in her expressionistic principles. “If I see one more leg extension, I’ve had it,” Holm said in 1984. “There is security in a major leg extension. But it means nothing. The simplest thing is to shun the emotions and emphasize technique. But you become like a nice stove that doesn’t give any heat.”
Holm was one of the first modern dance choreographers to embrace Broadway. Though her own troupe of dancers folded for budgetary reasons in 1944, Holm continued creating work. She choreographed a section of Ballet Ballads in 1948, and this musical’s acclaim brought her to the attention of more prominent Broadway producers. She worked on many theatrical productions, including Kiss Me, Kate (1948), My Fair Lady (1956) (which was nominated for a Tony Award for outstanding choreography) and Camelot (1960).
Holm drew upon her roots and used unconventional methods for musical theater, such as improvisation and collaboration with her performers. She also brought the use of Labanotation to her Broadway projects. In 1952 she made history by having her choreography in Kiss Me, Kate legally protected. Holm copyrighted her notated score with the Library of Congress, making it possible for future shows to be staged—with her permission—without her presence.
Holm died in New York City in 1992, one year shy of her 100th birthday. Though her work is not often performed today, her legacy exists in college dance departments across the country, where she not only laid the foundation for their curricula, but also championed the lecture demonstration. She received the 1978 Capezio Award, the 1984 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award and a 1990 Dance Magazine Award to commemorate her lifetime achievement. DT
Hanya Holm Dance Company
Hanya Holm opened the Mary Wigman School in New York with financial backing from the impresario Sol Hurok. After training her dancers for five years, she created the Hanya Holm Dance Company in 1936, and they toured the Midwest as well as performing in New York. Her satiric Metropolitan Daily (1938) became the first modern dance work to be televised in America. In 1939, she was honored by Dance Magazine for her work Tragic Exodus, inspired by the plight of the Jews under Hitler. Though Holm folded her troupe in 1944, Don Redlich commissioned, from 1975 to 1985, five new works by his mentor for his company. Among them was Holm’s Jocose (1983), which entered Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project repertory in 1994.
- Aschengreen, Erik. “Hanya Holm.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. 2004.
- Gitelman, Claudia. Dancing with Principle: Hanya Holm in Colorado, 1941-1983. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2001.
- “Hanya Holm: The Life and Legacy.” The Journal for Stage Directors and Choreographers. Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1993)
- “Hanya Holm: A pioneer in American dance.” Choreography and Dance, an International Journal. V. 2 Part 2 (1992).
- Hanya Holm: Portrait of a Pioneer (1988). Dance Horizons.
- The Vagabond King (1956). Paramount Pictures.
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo: Hanya Holm in Salutation, circa 1936; by Harry Rhodes, courtesy of American Dance Festival
When approached to choreograph the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Michael Kidd read the screenplay about woodsmen looking for wives and thought, "Surely, those guys would never dance." His solution was to use a barn-raising competition as a jumping-off point for a number in which the brothers fought for the townswomen's attention by scaling planks and doing flips over sawhorses. This acrobatic tour de force married seamless movement and slapstick humor, and the dancers (including Jacques d'Amboise, Marc Platt and Matt Mattox) excelled in conveying the woodsmen's masculinity.
This combination of athleticism and comedy epitomizes Kidd's overall choreographic style. For his work, including film and stage productions of Finian's Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and The Band Wagon, Kidd drew from the vocabularies of ballet, modern, social dance and acrobatics. But above all, his choreography stemmed from realistic movements and gestures. Following in the tradition of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, who developed the integrated musical, Kidd created dances that helped to carry the plot and flesh out the characters. He put the story first, communicating it through dance.
Born Milton Gruenwald, Kidd grew up in immigrant neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York. While in high school, he saw a modern dance performance that inspired him to take lessons. As it turned out, Kidd was naturally gifted, and he received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where he caught the eye of director Lincoln Kirstein. From 1937 to 1940, Kidd performed with Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, which was dedicated to presenting American-themed ballets.
A year later, Kidd performed with Eugene Loring (who had been one of Ballet Caravan's choreographers), and after dancing to great acclaim in his Billy the Kid, Kidd became choreographic assistant to Loring's company, Dance Players.
Kidd also performed with Ballet Theatre from 1942 to 1947. But he wasn't the ideal premier danseur. "I was never cut out for being the Swan Prince," he once said. Instead, he triumphed in athletic character roles, such as in Robbins' Fancy Free and Leonide Massine's Three-Cornered Hat.
It was at Ballet Theatre that Kidd's talent for choreography first came to attention. His first (and only) work for a ballet company, On Stage! (1945), revealed his comic flair, and two years later, he was offered his first Broadway production, Finian's Rainbow. Though he had never been in a Broadway show before accepting the assignment, his choreography in Finian's won a Tony. Kidd never returned to the ballet world. "I wanted a more rounded, more outgoing career than I could have with ballet," he reflected in a 1954 interview with The New York Times. He was drawn to musical theater's collaborative approach, in which each production element synthesizes with the others.
Yet Kidd's reputation as a former ballet dancer held him in good stead. Fred Astaire requested that he choreograph the 1953 film The Band Wagon, which starred Cyd Charisse as a ballerina. (Astaire also wanted a ballet-trained choreographer to help expand his talents beyond tap and ballroom.)
After The Band Wagon's success, Kidd consistently worked with great dancers and a score of celebrities, including Gene Kelly (whom he danced alongside in It's Always Fair Weather), Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith and Barbra Streisand. He created numbers in Can-Can (1953) for Gwen Verdon, which made her a Broadway sensation. For the film Guys and Dolls (1955), Kidd worked with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.
In the musicals Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), L'il Abner (1956) and Destry Rides Again (1959), Kidd choreographed scenes of an upbeat America. His subjects were con artists, frontiersmen and their girls, and they all moved in ways that seemed plausible for their characters. "My dancing is based on naturalistic movement that is abstracted and enlarged," he said. "All my movements relate to some kind of real activity." He wanted dance to serve the story. When beginning any new work, he would write a scenario, explaining how the circumstances of the plot drove the characters to dance.
As the popularity of Hollywood movie musicals began to give way to television, an aging Kidd adapted. He directed and choreographed TV specials for Julie Andrews, co-choreographed "Baryshnikov in Hollywood" (1982), and directed several episodes of "Laverne & Shirley."
By the time of his death in 2007, Kidd had been working as a choreographer on Broadway and for films and television for half a century. But no matter the medium, he was a storyteller: He used dance to catalyze the plot, describe a relationship and reveal a time period. "Every move, every turn should mean something," he said. "Dancing should be completely understandable." DT
Did You Know?
- Michael Kidd worked with Janet Jackson to create scenes for her music videos "When I Think of You" and "Alright."
- Kidd often gave dancers nicknames—Jacques d'Amboise became Jacques Dem Bones.
- Kidd was the first choreographer to win five Tony Awards. He also received an honorary Oscar for choreography at the 1997 Academy Awards.
- Robin Williams spoofed Kidd's energetic choreographic style in the 1996 film The Birdcage (along with the styles of Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp and Madonna).
- Coleman, Emily. “The Dance Man Leaps to the Top.” New York Times (19 April 1959)
- Delamater, Jerome. “Michael Kidd.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Delamater, Jerome. Dance in the Hollywood Musical. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.
- Eichenbaum, Rose. “Michael Kidd: Man with the Midas Touch.” Masters of Movement: Portraits of America’s Great Choreographers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
- Jamison, Barbara. “Kidd from Brooklyn.” New York Times Magazine (June 13, 1954)
- Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dance View; for Michael Kidd, Real Life is Where the Dance Begins.” New York Times. (March 13, 1994)
- Segal, Lewis. “An Appreciation; Choreographer of the common; Comfortable in any genre; the graceful Michael Kidd turns everyday tasks into physical art.” Los Angeles Times. (Dec. 27, 2007)
- Guys and Dolls (choreography)
- Band Wagon (choreography)
- Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (choreography)
- It’s Always Fair Weather (dancer-actor and choreography)
- L’il Abner (choreography)
- Smile! (actor)
- Baryshnikov in Hollywood (director of TV special)
- Hello Dolly! (choreography)
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives
At the height of her popularity from the late 1960s to the 1990s, Maggie Black could be found teaching a sea of professional dancers, six days a week in her New York City studio. The petite and always charismatic Black was known to demonstrate in pink fuzzy slippers with her hair in pigtails. Yet that eccentric presentation belied an authoritative presence—her high-pitched New England accent and curt corrections galvanized students.
Dancers flocked to Black and her anatomically focused approach. On any given day, performers with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Joffrey Ballet were in attendance. She emphasized natural ability and simplicity in movement, and she threw out the old-school notion that every dancer—regardless of facility—must have the same physicality and look. She possessed an uncanny gift for improving dancers' abilities. It was so remarkable that Balanchine referred to her influence as "Black magic."
B.K.S. Iyengar outside his home in Pune, India
On a crisp winter morning, only the sound of pranayama (slow, extended breathing) from 20 practitioners can be heard in a class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York. Structured around a gradual intensification of backbends, this particular session, taught by James Murphy, director of Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York, resembles the escalation of a ballet barre. Like the progression of tendus, dégagés and grands battements that focuses on the legs, the backbend series, done with a chair, blankets and mats, attends to the spine. Iyengar Yoga can be a boon to dancers, says Murphy, who is a former dancer with Nikolais Dance Theatre. "I had a lot of tension from the stress of touring. Iyengar Yoga gave me insight into how to have a more balanced body-mind approach to living."
From The Juilliard School to California Institute of the Arts, dance departments across the country are offering yoga classes. After all, it develops strength, increases awareness of breath and creates muscular balance.
Ask a professional dancer if she has practiced yoga and a resounding "yes" will most likely follow. But what many dancers don't know is that the current popularity of yoga stems in great part from the work of B.K.S. Iyengar, who helped to bring the 3,000-year-old oral tradition and physical practice of yoga westward. He wrote the best-selling Light on Yoga in 1966, and a few years later, the establishment of his institute in Pune, India, helped proliferate his system, notable for its use of props and its systematic breakdown of asanas (yoga poses) into digestible steps.
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born in 1918 during the global influenza epidemic in Karnataka, India. Because of his subsequent bouts with malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis, doctors predicted Iyengar wouldn't see his 21st birthday. At age 16, Iyengar began studying yoga under the guidance of his sister's husband, and his intensive practice of asanas dramatically improved his health and outlook. Soon after, he began teaching and leading yoga demonstrations across India, and by 1943, he was practicing up to 10 hours a day.
In 1952, the renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin became his student. Crediting Iyengar's method with improving his playing, Menuhin introduced Iyengar to royalty and artists, and four years later, Iyengar visited the United States for the first time. No one was interested in yoga, Iyengar recalled in his 2005 book Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. But a seed had been planted, and when he visited the U.S. again, 10 years later, he was surprised to find hundreds of yoga practitioners greeting him, ready to learn.
One early yoga practitioner was Merce Cunningham. After injuring his back while performing for the Martha Graham Dance Company, Cunningham embarked on intensive yoga study. Today, Cunningham's codified warm-up can be seen as influenced by asanas, which articulate every part of the body. His choreography includes complex, asymmetrical balances, which bear relationship to yoga's standing poses.
Similar to a dance class, an instructor teaches an Iyengar Yoga class through demonstrations, verbal instructions and hands-on applications. And through repetition of the asanas, students learn about their bodies. "To the yogi," Iyengar writes, "the body is a laboratory for life, a field of experimentation and perpetual research." Iyengar's experimentation in yoga is most evident in his use of props, such as blankets, belts, ropes, chairs and blocks. Giving people support, freedom and safeguarding them from injury, the props Iyengar introduced helped make his method accessible to all.
While the practice of Iyengar Yoga is egalitarian, becoming an expert requires a major time commitment. There are 14 levels of certification, and even the most introductory level (in which the instructor is still referred to as a teacher-in-training) requires at least three years of intense training and an apprenticeship with a mentor before even applying. Then comes two years of teaching Iyengar Yoga, then testing. Although there are satellite Iyengar Yoga institutes in the U.S. and Europe, instructors and practitioners can only train with the master at his studio in Pune, India, after 10 years of study. Patricia Walden and Manouso Manos are the only instructors to hold senior advanced certificates in North America; their titles reflect their decades-long work with the guru.
During the 1990s, the yoga field became flooded with teachers who knew little about injury prevention and who promised tighter buns and abs. To maintain the integrity of Iyengar Yoga, the certification process is very rigorous. "Don't practice for cosmetic beauty," advised Iyengar, "practice for cosmic beauty."
Murphy finds that some students come to Iyengar Yoga for beautification, but in time, he says, they recognize that working their muscles is just the tip of the iceberg. "There is a balance between action and inaction," he says. "Iyengar Yoga is also about letting go, about how to work (and live) with less tension."
With this philosophy, Iyengar's teachings have hit a nerve among stressed urban professionals. Seeking a balanced body requires patience and unwavering practice. At 94, Iyengar is still practicing, and he continues to pass on his tradition at his home and institute in Pune. "The asanas," says Murphy, "are the beginning. A way to start to look at and understand your self, a way to develop and discover who you are." DT
- - In June 2011, Iyengar traveled to China and instructed 1,400 people for more than three hours.
- - In 2004, TIME magazine named Iyengar one of the top 100 icons of the year.
- - He has written 14 books, the most influential being Light on Yoga (1966), which has been translated into 17 languages.
- - The Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States has 12 regional chapters across the country. Visit www.iynaus.org for more information and to find a teacher near you.
Books by B.K.S. Iyengar
- Light on Yoga, 1966, 1995
- Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, 2005
- The Art of Yoga, 2001
- Tree of Yoga, 1988, 2002
- Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, 2008
- Yoga Journal Presents: Iyengar Intensive at Estes Park DVD Set, 2005
- Iyengar Yoga With Gabriella, 2003
- B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga '93 - Six Standing Poses, 1993
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo: B.K.S. Iyengar, by Raya UD, courtesy of Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York
Michio Ito dressed for his 1927 piece "Tango"
In 1927, Japanese artist Michio Ito presented his solo work Tango to a New York City audience. Though he dressed the part of a tango dancer, it was not a strict representation of the form. An abstract piece, it was crafted with powerful, sweeping gestures with rhythmic footing. This was not Ito’s debut performance—he had been creating work and teaching class in New York for over 10 years and would remain a major dance figure in the U.S. until 1943.
In fact, Ito may be the most important modern dance pioneer you’ve never heard of. A prolific performer of the 1920s, he was also one of the first choreographers to develop a formal modern dance pedagogy. He set up a codified way to teach his aesthetic a decade before Martha Graham had systemized an approach to her style. Young dancers flocked to study with Ito on both American coasts, and his technique influenced dance legends, including Lester Horton and Luigi. But because of anti-Japanese sentiment after World War II, his accomplishments were buried and his contributions are often overlooked.
Born in Tokyo, Ito (1893–1961) came from an artistic family. At 19, he traveled to Paris to study opera. He was inspired to dance after seeing Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky perform, ignited by the idea that movement could forge a symbiotic relationship with music. So in 1912, Ito studied at the Dalcroze Institute in Dresden, Germany. (Initially a training ground for musicians, Dalcroze Eurhythmics teaches students to learn rhythms through movement.)
At the outbreak of World War I, Ito moved from Germany to London. He started performing informally in private salons, and those occasions quickly landed him more professional engagements in larger theaters.
A pivotal event was when he created the role of the Hawk in William Butler Yeats’ play At the Hawk’s Well. Inspired by Japanese Noh drama, Ito developed his abstract, elegant style, and following this performance, he received a contract to work in a large musical in New York. For the next 13 years, Ito taught in New York, gave recitals and worked on revues and musicals, such as The Mikado and Madame Butterfly.
Unlike later modern dance pioneers, like Graham, who stressed that their work was absolutely unique, Ito acknowledged the influence of the Dalcroze method. He also acknowledged that his style was a mix of ballet, acrobatic dancing and “Oriental dancing,” which he said trains the arms. In his method, Ito formulated two sets of 10 arm movements. He characterized them as masculine and feminine and students learned both versions while walking at a controlled pace depending on musical phrasing. One can see the influence of this arm series in Horton technique and the work of jazz teacher Luigi.
Ito advocated versatile training with a holistic approach nearly a century before his time. His method incorporated both somatic practices (emphasizing breath-initiated movement), as well as the more typical replication approach, where students mirror the actions of the instructor (like in a ballet class).
“Students trained in the Ito gestures learn specific movements that embody his personal aesthetic,” writes Mary-Jean Cowell, an Ito scholar and associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. She notes that his pedagogy had evolved from the Denishawn eclectic and Duncan freeform style of training, though it wasn’t as comprehensive as Graham’s. "It didn’t deal with the legs and feet as much as the upper body,” says Cowell. “But I see it as a transition to the pedagogy techniques later developed by Graham and Horton."
In 1929, Ito’s company embarked on a cross-country tour, ending in Los Angeles, where he continued to teach leagues of dancers. While there, he worked on six films, including No, No, Nanette and Madame Butterfly. Though he was often cast as the primitive or the untrustworthy Asian, he withstood the disparaging cultural stereotype because the commercial work provided him with the means to develop his own choreography.
Despite rising anti-Japanese sentiment, his work was respected in California. Even so, when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Ito, along with thousands of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans, was interned in New Mexico. In 1943, he chose to repatriate to Japan as part of a prisoner exchange. There, he was hired as the director of the Ernie Pyle Theater, producing revues for U.S. occupation troops. He established a dance school in Tokyo and began organizing the 1964 Olympic ceremonies. But his plans for the ceremonies were never carried out. He died suddenly in 1961. Ito’s Tokyo studio remained open for 15 years after his death, but closed when his family lost the lease. The Michio Ito Foundation (www.michioito.org) grew in its place.
Though Ito’s achievements are often unexplored in dance history overviews, his artistry is slowly gaining national attention. His work was first restaged in the late 1970s in New York by Japanese dancer Satoru Shimazaki, and students at the University of Washington and Washington University in St. Louis study his technique. In 2010, Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre devoted an entire program, called Mystique, to Ito. (RDT first acquired some of his pieces in the 1990s, has since expanded its Ito repertory and often leads workshops in his style.)
"RDT makes a commitment to dance preservation, and Ito is a truly necessary component to early modern dance," says artistic director Linda Smith. “It’s tricky to place a historic work alongside a contemporary piece, but because it’s so different than what’s current, it almost looks new—there’s a freshness to it. His work is beautifully complemented by classical music, it’s lyrical—sometimes with a bite—and it’s short. Ito has real audience appeal.” DT
Caldwell, Helen. “Michio Ito.” International Encyclopedia of Dance.
Caldwell, Helen. Michio Ito: The Dancer and His Dances. University of California Press, 1977
Cowell, Mary-Jean and Satoru Shimazaki. “East and West in the Work of Michio Ito.” Dance Research Journal. Autumn 1994: 11-23
Cowell, Mary-Jean. “Michio Ito in Hollywood: Modes and Ironies of Ethnicity.” Dance Chronicle, 2001.
Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers, 1915-1937. 1987
Wong, Yutian. “Artistic Utopias: Michio Ito and the Trope of the International.” Worlding Dance. Ed. Susan Leigh Foster, 2009.
Booloo (1938). Directed by Clyde E. Elliott. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (Ito dances as the Sakai chief)
Michio Ito Repertory Dance Theater on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/14008278
Facing West: Dance and Film (2005). A Kennedy Center presentation
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo courtesy of the Michio Ito Foundation.
Mother of modern dance
Duncan, circa 1903
The moment when Isadora Duncan throws her head back in ecstasy as she dances at the Theatre of Dionysus in Greece (preserved in the 1903 photograph above) captures Duncan’s archetypal performance qualities: supple, improvisatory, transcendent. Arguably the most important American-born dance artist of the early 20th century, Duncan forged her style against ballet’s codified technique and its aristocratic lineage. Renouncing typical female dancing roles—such as the coquette, femme fatale and tragic victim of love—the trailblazer expanded women’s possibilities, onstage and off, and helped lay the foundation for American modern dance.
Growing up in San Francisco, Duncan (1877–1929) studied ballet, ballroom and Delsarte gymnastics, which combines a systemized set of gestures and movements with calisthenics. She told audiences, however, she learned to dance by watching the ocean—she felt the tide’s movement corresponded to the lung’s expansion and contraction, which created heaviness and lightness in the body.
At 18, Duncan made her professional debut with a theatrical touring company in Chicago, and a year later she moved to New York to continue her work on the stage. Chagrined by the lot of American dancers, who were treated as showgirls, not artists, she crossed the Atlantic in 1899 and launched a solo dance career in European salons. Inspired by avatars of individualism—like poet Walt Whitman and philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche—she became the author of her own movement, the creator of her own style.
When Duncan was 21, the Olympics were revived and the growing fascination with Greek culture ignited her imagination. Greece was the birthplace of Aristotle, Plato and Western civilization’s ideas about beauty, and she surmised the archipelago must have had a dancing culture that expressed its philosophical and aesthetic ideals. But Greek dance had not survived history. Undeterred, Duncan capitalized on the loss. She cast off the Victorian corset and wore toga-like costumes.
Unconstrained by her dress, her entire body gestured. She shirked ballet’s five positions of the feet for continuous motion, based on walking, skipping, running and leaping. She spurned the idea of physical control, replacing it with corporeal release. The solar plexus—the region between the waist and the sternum—she said, was the wellspring for all movement.
Through Romantic music—Schubert, Chopin, Gluck and Brahms—Duncan’s body resembled a cresting wave, emotion welling up from what she called “the luminous manifestation of the soul.” She didn’t envision her body as being in music’s service; instead, music served as her inspiration.
Ballet choreographer Michel Fokine was especially influenced by Duncan’s work. When he saw her perform to Chopin, he used the composer’s études to create Les Sylphides, the first abstract ballet. Also inspired by Duncan, Fokine choreographed Dying Swan, which uncharacteristically cast Anna Pavlova’s upper body off its central axis, making emotion the ballet’s focus, rather than virtuosity.
But not all artists of the time were accepting of Duncan’s seemingly carefree style. When Vaslav Nijinsky saw her dance, he remarked that the work was not art because it was not based in technique. But she was formulating a codified technique—one very different from classical ballet’s systematic approach.
In the space of two decades, Duncan founded three schools across Europe. The first (established in 1904), in Grunewald, Germany, produced her most celebrated troupe of pupils: the Isadorables, who have helped preserve and disseminate her style of dance. The second (established in 1914) was based in a château outside Paris. Duncan’s last school was founded in 1921 in Moscow, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. It was her most politically ambitious venture: She connected the Bolsheviks’ idea of a classless society and opened her doors to all.
Though all three schools folded within her lifetime, a generation of Duncan dancers was born and her disciples passed down her principles.
“From London to Paris to New York to Santa Barbara, I found that Duncan dancers taught the same plié, swing of the leg, musicality, arm and foot work and placement of the body,” says Lori Belilove, a master teacher and performer who founded the Isadora Dance Foundation. Belilove also notes that all of the dancers’ warm-ups incorporate the rippling of the spine and a specific use of the breath.
Duncan’s personal life was as exceptional as her stage career. She bore two children out of wedlock, saying in her defense, “Any intelligent woman who reads the marriage contract, and then goes into it, deserves all the consequences.” But in 1913, while living in Paris, tragedy struck. A car carrying her two children rolled into the River Seine. Both children drowned. The tragedy drove her to indulge in drink.
In 1922 she married a Soviet poet and rallied to communism. On her second American tour, she spoke to U.S. reporters about the ills of capitalism, and soon she was booed off stages and was forced to cancel the remainder of her tour. Six years later, at 50, Duncan’s life was cut short in Nice, when her long scarf was caught in the spokes of a moving car wheel and strangled her.
Though Duncan never allowed herself to be filmed while dancing, her legacy continues today through the work of Belilove, Jeanne Bresciani (artistic director of the Isadora Duncan International Institute in New York) and Andrea Mantell-Seidel (artistic director of the Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble in Miami). Duncan’s movement principles can be recognized in the works of Doris Humphrey, José Limón and Mark Morris.
“The most important thing about dancing Isadora,” says Belilove, “is to explore an interior depth and send it outward. All the movement starts from an inner motor of feeling.” DT
Daly, Ann. Done Into Dance: Isadora in America. 1995.
Duncan, Isadora. My Life. 1927.
Duncan, Irma. Duncan Dancer: An Autobiography. 1966.
Jowitt, Deborah. "The Search for Motion." Time and the Dancing Image. 1988.
Kurth, Peter. Isadora Duncan, A Sensational Life. 2001.
Manning, Susan. "Isadora Duncan." International Encyclopedia of Dance. 1988.
Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul. (Geller and Goldfine, directors) 1990.
Isadora Duncan Dance. 1995. (A demonstration of the technique of Duncan staged by Levien followed by performances or original Duncan repertory between 1905 and 1923.)
Reincarnation. Natasha Guruleva (dir.) 2007. (Documentary about Isadora Duncan with Lori Belilove)
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo from the Isadora Duncan Collection, Jerome Robins Dance Division, The NYPL for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
1. How did Bennett model himself after Jerome Robbins?
2. What was the first Broadway show Bennett saw at age 11?
3. _______ was Bennett’s longtime collaborator.
4. Name a few Broadway shows Bennett directed and/or choreographed?
5. Who organized the 1974 tape sessions that later developed into A Chorus Line?
6. The musical’s story, lyrics, design and choreography were created through revisions and collaborations through what is now called the ___________.
7. What shows did Bennett direct after A Chorus Line?
8. What awards did Bennett receive for A Chorus Line?
9. Who created the music for A Chorus Line?
10. Bennett died of ______ at age_____.
1. He crafted historically and psychologically realistic characters, using existing dance styles to reflect an individual’s world. ; 2. Fosse’s The Pajama Game; 3.
Bob Avian; 4. Promises, Promises, Company, Follies, Seesaw, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls; 5. Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens; 6. workshop production; 7.
Ballroom and Dreamgirls; 8. Two Tony Awards two Drama Desk Awards, the 1976 Pulitzer Prize and the 1976 Dance Magazine Award; 9. Marvin Hamlisch; 10. AIDS, 44.
Photo by Friedman-Abeles, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives
Broadway Knight Michael Bennett
Michael Bennett rehearses with Bob Avian (left) and Margo Sappington (right).
A dancer’s ornamentally unfurling arms and catlike spine develop under a spotlight. Alone in a dark, empty space, she watches her haloed dancing figure in a mirrored triptych, whose three panels resemble a church altar painting. In this iconic “Music and the Mirror” number of A Chorus Line, director Michael Bennett revealed a dancer’s private sanctuary: the dance studio.
In the longest-running Broadway show of its time, Bennett exposed the courageous plight of dancers through pathos-infused monologues and plaintive song—without sexing up or satirizing their lives. The musical’s intimate subject—what it feels like to put oneself on the line—was revolutionary. Though Bennett directed and choreographed 10 musicals (and earned seven Tony Awards for best choreography or direction), it was through A Chorus Line that he changed musical theater history.
Bennett believed Broadway audiences deserved more than fairy tales and high production values, and with A Chorus Line, he created the first musical vérité, a documentary-style production based on 24 hours of recorded conversations of dancers frankly discussing their lives. He modeled himself after Jerome Robbins, crafting historically and psychologically realistic characters, using existing dance styles to reflect an individual’s world. He gave a new generation of dancers valuable work that resonated with their own experiences.
Michael “Bennett” DiFiglia was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. His mother enrolled him, at age 2, in dance classes, and at age 11, he saw his first Broadway show, Bob Fosse’s The Pajama Game. He went pro five years later, playing Baby John in the touring production of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story. Dropping out of Bennett High that year, the newly christened Bennett told reporters his name change was recompense for never finishing school.
Bennett landed his first Broadway gig as a dancer in Subways Are for Sleeping, but his real knack was for creation. At 20, he served as choreographic assistant to Ron Field in Nowhere to Go But Up, and it was in that period that he met Robert Avian, who would become his longtime collaborator. The duo first teamed up to choreograph Henry Sweet Henry in 1967, which, although it was a flop, earned a Tony nomination for best choreography.
“Our styles ended up playing off each other,” said Avian, “my training in classical and ballet, his in jazz and tap.” Their sentiments were also complementary: Bennett could be cutting with dancers; Avian knew how to salvage relationships. The pair worked together on nine subsequent Broadway productions, including Tony winners Promises, Promises, Company, Follies, Seesaw, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls.
Despite Bennett’s successes, the Broadway scene of the early 1970s was floundering. In January 1974, Broadway dancer Michon Peacock invited Bennett to a rap session that she organized along with dance veteran Tony Stevens. They felt dancers were being taken advantage of by directors and producers. “We decided we had to do something to change the status of dancers,” says Peacock. She and Stevens wanted to form a Broadway dancer-based repertory company, and they used Bennett’s star power to attract participants.
“Michael Bennett is going to be there and we’re going to dance,” Stevens told the dancers. “It’s going to be a marathon. We’re going to stay up all night, talk about life and what it’s like to be a dancer.” After Stevens led a dance jam, Bennett initiated the conversation. He also brought a tape recorder.
These workshops were originally called “The Dancer Project,” and with New York Shakespeare Festival director Joe Papp’s backing of $100 a week for each dancer and the use of a black box theater, Bennett continued rehearsals. He brought Marvin Hamlisch, an Oscar Award–winning composer, on board.
As the workshop evolved, the 19 dancers (10 from the original session) were stretched to their psychological limits. “Can you imagine people auditioning for their own life stories?” says A Chorus Line original Cassie (and briefly Bennett’s wife) Donna McKechnie. Bennett didn’t just create a musical about an audition; he made rehearsals into nearly constant auditions for dancers whose parts were based on their lives. The musical’s story, lyrics, design and choreography were created through exhaustive revisions and collaborations through what is now called the workshop production.
When A Chorus Line premiered in the 299-seat black box theater, it became an immediate sensation and moved to Broadway. Its message of determination and triumph resonated not only with dancers in the audience, but also with the general population, says dancer Leslie Woodies, who played Cassie in the New York Shakespeare Festival production. “I remember people would wait 30 or more minutes by the stage door to tell us their stories,” she says. “Even years later, when I was in On Your Toes, a woman who read Cassie in my bio waited to tell me that after watching A Chorus Line, she found the courage to leave an abusive husband. The production presented such a broad range of human experience.”
After A Chorus Line, reviews of Bennett’s next musical, Ballroom, were mixed, but Dreamgirls (1981) was a hit. It brought the subject of race to Broadway through a tale about three black backup singers. And in 1985 Bennett pushed Broadway’s culturally conservative envelope further with the musical Scandal. But when Bennett was diagnosed with AIDS, he stopped production, telling the writer Treva Silverman, “What will the critics say about a show about sex whose director is dying of AIDS?”
When Bennett died two years later at the age of 44, “he left a Grand Canyon–sized gap in the musical theater community,” says Woodies. The night of Bennett’s death, the cast of A Chorus Line changed the pronoun of the final song from “She” to “He’s the…One!” Broadway was forever changed. Choreographers today, including Jerry Mitchell, credit Bennett as their greatest influence, and one can only imagine what he could have accomplished. “He was incredibly smart,” says Peacock. “You never knew what Michael was going to do next; he was endlessly creative.” DT
Did you know?
* When A Chorus Line premiered at The Public Theater in New York, Henry Fonda, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Diana Ross attended.
* With the success of A Chorus Line, Bennett purchased the NYC building at 890 Broadway in 1978. Today, it’s home to production and dance companies, including American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Tech.
* Bennett received the 1976 Dance Magazine Award; for A Chorus Line, he won two Tonys, two Drama Desk Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize.
* A Chorus Line has been produced and staged in six languages.
* Bennett bequeathed 15 percent of his estate to AIDS research.
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo by Friedman-Abeles, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives.