THE MAKING OF AMERICAN DANCE

9 Oct

hill cover

By NEIL ELLIS ORTS 

There is a hierarchy to the arts and while it would be impossible to agree on a definitive ranking, from name recognition of its major practitioners to seats filled in concert halls to funding, it’s hard to ignore modern or contemporary dance does not rank very high. Janet Mansfield Soares’ new book Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance (Wesleyan University Press, $35) tells us that the fact that concert dance is around at all is largely due to one Midwestern woman with a vision and the will to bring it into reality. 

Born in 1900—about the time that Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis were creating a stir with dancing that was neither storytelling ballet nor vaudeville high kicks—Martha Hill came of age at the same time as the “mothers of modern dance,” Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. Despite being a gifted dancer herself (she danced briefly for Graham), Hill saw that her life’s work was to gain legitimacy for this new dance form. The path to legitimacy, as Hill saw it, was through education. 

Hill’s life was inescapably intertwined with most of the major modern dance figures of the period (besides Graham and Humphrey, also Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Jose Limón, etc), all of whom Hill enlisted in her crusade. Soares shows us how Hill established modern dance’s academic standing, from the first summer sessions at Bennington College (which eventually evolved into today’s annual American Dance Festival at Duke University) to the establishment of a dance curriculum at Juilliard. 

Especially eye-opening is the number of battles she fought at Juilliard, not only with an antagonistic school administration but also with such arts power brokers as Lincoln Kirstein, who wanted the School of the American Ballet—and only SAB—at Juilliard. Hill’s battle tactics in such situations shows not her endless energy, inventiveness, and tenacity. It’s also a lesson in the power of the press. Training a new generation of dancers and producing concerts with no official budget, Hill managed to garner positive reviews and other commentary for Juilliard, something hard for the administration to ignore.             

The book is published by an academic publisher and it sometimes reads like it. There are pages when the prose gets a little dry, so it will miss appealing to the casual reader. Also, there is a lack of consistency in how people are referenced. Within a page, a person may be referred to by the first name and then by the last name, making the reader turn back a page or two to make sure it’s the same person. This gets especially confusing when a nickname is sometimes added to the mix, as with Thurston “Lefty” Davies, Hill’s husband. These are, however, minor quibbles.           

Soares’ work is a huge favor to for the dance community. Hill died in 1995, so this book doubles somewhat as a history of 20th Century dance and should at least be considered by anyone teaching a course in dance history.           

Towards the end of the book, a dancer asks Hill if dancers will ever escape “the burden of pioneering,” lamenting that even academics often failed to grasp the work of a dancer. Hill responded, “You’re never going to get away from it, dear! ‘It’s always all over again,’ is what John Martin and I would say to each other.”           

If contemporary dance is condemned to “always all over again,” always teaching what dance is, always convincing audiences that it is a serious art form, always defending its place as a form worthy of the same attention given to music and theater, Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance is a testament to why the pioneering remains important, not only to the dancers and choreographers, but also to other art forms and the larger culture.

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