Picture Stories: Dance Carnival at Madison Square Garden, 1941
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    Auction Finds

    Picture Stories: Martha Graham & Doris Humphrey, Bennington School of Dance, 1940s

    The wonderful photos kept coming. For several weeks, black and white photos with a mix of people, events and celebrations turned up on the auction table. An auction-house staffer told me that a dealer brought them in each week. Most were historical photos, a few were portraits, and all were embedded with stories that I couldn’t wait to release.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of those old photos and the stories behind them in a series called “Picture Stories.”

    Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, Bennington School of Dance, 1940 & 1941

    Martha Graham strikes a pose on a balcony at Bennington while a group of students on the lawn mimic her movement and others observe, 1941??

    Martha Graham strikes a pose on a balcony at Bennington College while a group of students on the lawn mimic her movement and others observe, 1940.

    Choreographers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey were two members of what was known as the “Big Four” of modern dance whom Bennington College hired to teach at its summer dance program in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Along with Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm as core faculty, they taught classes and created important works in a program than ran from 1934 to 1942. Graham is perhaps the most well-known of the group.

    They all ended up at Bennington after the school’s president began wondering how to use the college’s facilities during the summer. The person he asked, Martha Hill, the arts and music division’s director of dance, was a former member of Graham’s company. She suggested a dance school, and hired the choreographers.

    Doris Humphrey strikes a pose on a balcony at Bennington while students mimic her on the lawn, 1940??

    Doris Humphrey strikes a pose on a balcony at Bennington College while students on the lawn mimic her movement, 1941.

    So in 1934, Graham and the other three – all of whom had been creating on their own – arrived on the Vermont campus and went to work.

    More than 1,000 students from all over the United States and several foreign countries attended classes in ballet, folk dance and tap, along with choreography. The place was said to have been a “haven for most of the leading modern dancers, a laboratory for choreographers, a production center and festival … and an arena for experiments in which music, drama, design, and poetry collaborated in the service of dance.”

    The  program premiered 42 dances over six summers – 16 by the Big Four and 26 by other choreographers. The works included Graham’s “American Document,” based on the poetry of William Carlos Williams; “Panorama,” created in partnership with sculptor Alexander Calder, and “Letter to the World,” based on the love life of Emily Dickinson. Humphrey’s works included the New Dance trilogy “New Dance,” “Theater Piece” and “With My Red Fires,” along with “Decade.”

    Martha Graham with Erick Hawkins at Bennington, 1941??

    Martha Graham with Erick Hawkins at Bennington College, 1941.

    Bennington was “a wonderful place where we were given the freedom and possibility to make our dances,” Graham was said to have commented in her 1991 autobiography.

    The students also danced on the Common Lawn, as shown in the photos. Hill said this display was the talk of the town. “The story was that we were thought of as a nudist colony by people in town, because here we were dancing in flesh-colored leotards, practically naked after the tutus of ballet,” she said in a 1992 interview.

    Future First Lady Betty Ford, then 20 years old, attended two summers there in the early 1940s and was tapped by Graham to join her school. Ford also later became a member of Graham’s auxiliary dance group.

    Martha Graham strikes a pose on a balcony at Bennington while students mimic her on the lawn, 1941??

    Martha Graham strikes a pose on a balcony at Bennington College while students mimic her movement on the lawn, 1940.

    Humphrey was just as important a founder of modern dance as Graham, but very few people know her name. She attended classes at Denishawn, a Los Angeles school and dance company owned by Ruth St. Denis, who brought exoticism to modern dance, and Ted Shawn. While there, Humphrey also taught dance and created her own choreographed works. Graham attended classes at Denishawn early on.

    Erick Hawkins was a choreographer who danced with George Balachine’s American Ballet, precusor to the New York City Ballet. He met Graham at Bennington, and later became the first male dancer in her company, officially joining it in 1939 and becoming its principal male dancer.

    Hawkins and Graham married in 1948 and divorced in 1954. He started his own company in 1951.

    Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins at Bennington, 1941??

    Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins at Bennington College, 1941.

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