At the age of 97 my fresh memories of Doris Humphrey
by Eva Desca Garnet, 2010
When I think of Doris Humphrey, I see a slender woman with strawberry blond hair beautifully arranged. She is wearing a long graceful rehearsal costume of golden yellow or rust. She is standing in the middle of our 18th Street studio, a loft in the industrial section of downtown Manhattan and she is directing a rehearsal for the New York Theatre Guild Concert.
I remember the dreary trek to the studio up two flights of rickety stairs into the large loft. We are rehearsing the finale to the Variations from New Dance to Wallingford Riegger’s exciting music commissioned for this work.
Doris is shaping the spacing of the opening. It is painstaking work, but when we get it, we achieve the beginning of an accumulative form that builds in intensity until a fanfare ushers in Jose Limón, the first of several dancers who celebrate their individuality in solo dances of their own creation. As the dance progresses each soloist emerges from the group and is reabsorbed back into the group. It is a statement of Doris Humphrey’s vision of an ideal society in which its members can express their individuality within a harmonious community.
Doris wore many hats; she was a dancer, a choreographer, a director, a teacher, a mother, a wife, a citizen and a leader in the philosophy, theory and technique of Modern American Dance.
For all of her professional functions she had only one source of support---the income from teaching. The other essential services of pianist, business manager, agent, and person in charge of packing, transportation, and unpacking the stage set-boxes for tours were bundled into one person. This amazing and devoted friend was Pauline Lawrence, called “Pumba” by Doris’ young son Charles.
Doris was fulfilled as a woman. Her personal and professional life were inextricable. Her husband, Captain Charles Woodford, spent most of his time at sea. This accounted for all the time she devoted to “La Danse” (her poetic expression referring to the art of choreography).
Doris had made a commitment to perform before she knew of her pregnancy. She was reluctant to ask for a change of date, because of her inherent sense of responsibility, her word was her bond. Consequently, she injured her hip before her body was ready to undertake the strenuous activity of a dance concert. Members of the company identified with Doris’ limitation. We gave life to her visualization that she communicated through our bodies.
Doris was a role model as an even tempered director and a mentor to members of the Humphrey-Weidman group, Doris would say things such as, “Listen to Mama,” and she dropped aphorisms such as, “A lady disagrees without being disagreeable.” When appropriate she would mention a book, a composer to listen to, or a music concert to attend to, in order to enlarge our cultural horizons. She was a mother hen. When she critiqued our new compositions her main criticism was, “your dance is too long.”
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When she could she would attend performances of our own compositions. Once when I gave a Lecture-Demonstration of Humphrey-Weidman Technique at the Brooklyn Museum, my accompanist got lost and was not going to arrive in time. Doris was present and unannounced, she played the drums.
Doris was also democratic. She believed in the power of the individual and the power of the group, and she helped organize the first Modern Dancers Association along with New York Times Dance critic, John Martin, and Helen Tamiris, another gifted modern dance pioneer. This Dancers Association was instrumental in getting Social Security for American modern dancers at that time.
In her early education Doris Humphrey developed not only dance but her musical sense, which she applied to the Humphrey Technique. Though she might state that she lacked talent, she studied piano as a child from her mother and diligently learned music theory and musical form. This is especially obvious in her choreography to the Passacaglia in C minor by Bach. In its majestic group movement performed in a circle with the contrasting light and graceful interlude of a quartet of women breaking out in a down stage diagonal formation and then being absorbed back into the majestic circle. Her early musical training also impacted the way she taught; much of the terminology of the Humphrey Technique is identical with the terminology of music. In New Dance, the company is instructed to “accent” the first “beat” of each “bar” of every “measure” on the runs in the circular pattern.
Doris went to the science of physics and Nature for her theory of movement. The Earth’s force of gravity was the basis of her theory of Fall and Recovery. And she went to biology for her theory of rhythm –Respiration for Breath Rhythm, and the heartbeat for the locomotion in Metric Rhythm.
The Humphrey Technique is a form of dance art that involves the development of every part of the body. In isolation one finger may move to create an expressive gesture to indicate, “follow me,” or the whole body is involved as can be seen in the Fall Studies. The following are the technical falls learned in a Doris Humphrey class: front fall, isolation fall, side fall, back fall, spiral fall, delayed fall.
- The front fall starts with a diagonal run and a swing hop on one leg, lunge forward into a slide on the abdomen (a “belly wop”) with one arm extending out.
- The isolation fall gives a greater variety to the movement by starting standing upright legs together with arms reaching towards the ceiling with the palms facing front, and with a continuous sequence the arms start to relax first the wrist, continue with the elbows, let go at the shoulder, relax arms down. Continue with neck, shoulders, back, knees ending on a low crouch position.
- The delayed fall is based on balancing on one leg and completing the fall on the side, using suspension, momentum and gravity for the dramatic effect.
- The spiral falls, step to one side and reach to other side, twisting arms ending in one spiral with arms over the head, and over shoulders continuing over around.
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Doris taught composition classes at the 92nd Street Y in New York, which had become famous for its Dance Department under her direction. She was constantly developing additional exercises to increase the creativity of her students; she took a personal interest in their compositions. Doris Humphrey’s most enduring contributions are her theories of movement, dance composition, and choreography and they are among the first articulated in The Art of Making Dances.
Rhythm Study codified the most complete example of her exciting variety of dynamics and qualities possible in movement. In addition to teaching the Humphrey Technique, e.g., Fall, Rebound, Suspension, and Recovery, illustrated in the Rhythm Study, she developed the idea of connecting forms to enhance her pedagogical approach and allow students to physically apply these elements of composition.
There are three conditions to the connecting forms and are explained verbally here.
1) Each dancer enters and improvises a 4/4 bar of dance movement. This movement is repeated with 1-bar intervals of running.
2) Each dancer enters in succession with his/her own movement of 4 beats in 1 bar intervals.
3) The floor pattern is the letter “Z.” The dancers enter from the wings downstage, and they change direction to travel on an upstage diagonal and straight across to the opposite side completing the Z pattern as each dancer continues moving until out of the performance space.
Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman were part of a revolution in the arts that grew out of 20th Century urbanization, industrialization and the psychological emphasis on the individual in Western culture and American culture in particular. In the earlier centuries, art reflected the homage given to nobility and the powerful through the commissions of portraits that the artists sought to do and for the entertainment and playground of the rich.
During the 1920’s and 30’s there was much heated debate among artists, and of particular issue was “Form vs. Content.” Ms. Humphrey might have stated that it was more popularly known as “Ivory Tower vs. Social Significance.”
It was followed by the Modern Movement that swept Europe. The Humphrey-Weidman Company started in 1928 and paralleled the humanistic art revolt that took place in Europe. To name a few, i.e., Dali and Isadora Duncan in France, Bauhaus, the German center of new design, and art crafts, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Wiell of “The Three Penny Opera”, Kurt Jooss, choreographer of the satire “The Green Table”, Guernica by Picasso, the Russian, Marc Chagall, the whimsical painting titled “Birthday.” All of whom were modern artists changing the expressions of art.
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Doris and Charles left the Denishawn Company for this reason, to experiment with dance movement experiences of real people to reflect reality. They wanted to express authentic feelings about their own time and place. Doris and Charles were humanists, and their choreography and technique reflected the concerns of the human condition.
Both artists rebelled against the traditions of the Ballet; the total fantasy of fairy tales, and the pre-packaged technique of the ballet steps to express these airy fairy tales, beautiful though they were. Doris Humphrey’s approach to American Modern Dance is different from other styles of dancing in vogue at that time including other modern dance forms. Martha Graham pursued the muscularity of contraction and release. Mary Wigman’s technique drew from German expressionism and often reflected great sadness. Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi danced in expressive, often lighthearted duets. Many other forms were popular as well, including “oriental dancing” as taught by Ruth St. Denis and Indian dancer Uday Shankar, ballet dancing, tap dancing, folk dancing, square dancing and other global dance forms such as Irish Clogging, Flamenco and the Tango. Doris was willing to draw from other forms in her work, and did not hesitate to compose a modern square dance; or use influences of international ethnic dance forms. I am reminded of a visit to her home with my daughter, Janis. Doris entertained us with her international collection of dolls and presented my daughter with the flamenco dancer.
My Inspiring Years with Doris Humphrey
In retrospect, dance is my religion and Doris Humphrey is my guru. Now, at the age of 97, I am still imbued with that force of elation I felt dancing the incredible expressive choreography that Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman created.
Of course I had other role models as well. When I attended the Denishawn School in New York at the age of 16, Miss Ruth (St. Denis) was 63 years old. I particularly remember Esoteric Nights, every Thursday at the Denishawn House (at the edge of a Reservoir). All the students were invited to attend.
The studio was dimly lit by giant candles. Miss Ruth would enter in a long white flowing gown, her regal appearance was awesome. She would start the evening with a reading of her poetry and then we would dance. We were exposed to classical music and we would improvise to Brahms, and the modern music of Holst’s Planets and her “the body is the temple of the soul” had a strong spiritual influence on me.
Perhaps Isadora Duncan was a more potent influence on me and my generation. Her challenge to the Victorian values of modesty carried to extremes of dress, public behavior and limited options in life for women stirred the feminist point of view. Of course, in dance and dance performance she showed us that the natural body was more than a temple or an object of entertainment, it was the instrument to express the human feelings of the dancer and in that sense she was the first modern dancer.
Modern Dance was an adventure in a new movement language that was born in the creative process. Doris and Charles were creating a Modern Dance vocabulary on our bodies to express their authentic feelings and about our times and place. This was the magic we felt when we danced with these two inspired choreographers in the early days.
The subjects and feelings we expressed in Doris’ works had a transforming effect for me, it was a peak experience.
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Following is a description of my experience starting in 1936 when I earned enough money to register at Bennington College Summer School of Dance for Doris’ Workshop of the first presentation of With My Red Fires. A dance where Doris Humphrey demonstrates as the matriarch mother, the controlling loving relationship with her daughter, shown through a window in a tower, and the lover, Charles Weidman, entering the scene, moving backwards into view, his body language shows his sneaky intentions of enticing the young innocent girl. This is when the loving mother becomes the violent matriarch calling upon the community to capture them after their escape to punish them. Doris Humphrey transfers from body language to magnificent abstract movement that she mastered. Besides the soloists, the matriarch, her daughter and daughter’s secret lover, it included 50 dancers. With My Red Fires was her statement on the cruelty inherent in a benign authoritarian figure with complete state power to destroy what she opposes with her weapon of red fires of passionate hatred. It was a thrilling experience for me!
I continued studying with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman in their New York Studio. By 1938 I was invited to join the Company. It became the pivotal period of my life as a dancer. Thereafter I became her assistant teacher of Composition and Assistant Director teaching With My Red Fires and training groups in Juilliard School of Music, and then Connecticut College Summer School of Dance every summer.
In 1938, Pauline Lawrence arranged a contract for the Humphrey-Weidman Company to perform for a National Tour of the University Physical Education Departments that also included Modern Dance Courses in their Curriculum.
Afternoons were opportunities for lecture demonstrations of the Humphrey Technique and evenings were reserved for the performance. We called it the gymnasium circuit because that is where we performed. One side of the gym was chosen to be our platform where we would assemble collapsible boxes of various sizes and shapes that became our stage sets, serving the purpose of the dance drama we performed that evening. We danced in them, on them, around them in breathtaking rhythms and movement.
Doris identified with modern architecture as an expression on the 20th Century spirit. It was reflected in her stage sets that were arrangements of black 3 foot square boxes. A good example of this is Theatre Piece a satire on the competitive grasping spirit of our culture.
The curtain opens on these giant blocks arranged in different shapes across the whole width of the stage. As the drama unfolds, the audience begins to realize that theses structures represent buildings that house financial enterprises. We see the kind of cut throat business activity behind the walls of skyscrapers, the competition of women for a man in Modern Society, and the frenzied movement trying to get ahead of each other in the race for the prize, all of this through the dance rhythms, metaphors, power and body language of the dancers of the whole company. The first episode occurs behind the walls of the Financial District, Wall Street. One hand appears extending from one end of the building with the fingers symbolically grasping money, which is immediately grasped by another hand which seizes the wrist to steal from the other hand. On the opposite end of the structure, the second episode establishes an office environment. On the top box the head and shoulders of a woman appears moving from side to side looking down to oversee in the bottom box the comical moving busy legs back and forth of employees in the own place of office activity. The third episode shows a flirtation in competition. Sitting on the stage a double line of maidens in a typical Humphrey floor position creates a path looking up at a debonair young millionaire seeking excitement, Weidman. He descends the stairs and walks through the path when one of the adventurous maiden jumps up, grabs him by the arm, walks to the end of the line, faces the audience and makes a gesture in body language understood, he is mine! The fourth episode has to do with competition for the prize. The whole company appears at the back end of the boxes, climbing over the top and then rushing down the front stairs ending in a forward fall. We recover and rush back to repeat this endless search. This is the end of Theatre Piece.
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Another work, New Dance, dealt with harmony, with all the people moving in harmonious ways, highlighting magnificent solos. New Dance is Doris’ ideal of Group Unity and opportunity for self expression performed by soloists Bea Seckler, whose legs seem to have wings as she leaps from one of the boxes. Doris capitalized on José Limón’s powerful presence and rhythmic Mexican Heritage and composed a fiery flamenco like traveling phrase that streaked across the stage.
Doris’ devotion to Democracy was literally expressed in a group composition entitled American Holiday, it honored those Americans who died in the fight for Independence. I believe we performed it only one time.
It was composed in three sections to the rhythm of 4/4 time. The curtain opens on a straight line of 10 mourners facing the audience. Their right arms in the back around the waist chaining them together; the head of each dancer is bent sideways resting on the upheld palm of the dancer to her right expressing unbearable sorrow; in this formation they are moving slowly downstage one step to each bar to the sound of a drumbeat. The drumbeat stops, the mourners stop and a second group of dancers enter on stage left chanting: Walk, Speak, Work, Act, Fight, For Freedom! With a large swinging arm gesture at the end of the phrase “For Freedom” that reverses the direction as they repeat the chant. After several repetitions both sides march upstage in a funeral tempo to a box that represents a coffin and standing at the back end of the box they intone a patriotic song of the period in two part harmony.
Our last engagement was a performance in the prestigious theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, the Philharmonic Auditorium, where we were eagerly greeted by the students of the Dance Departments of U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. They were hungry to see and learn from the celebrated New York City Humphrey-Weidman Company, the pioneers of American Modern Dance.
I remember performing at the Hippodrome and at the Gala Opening of New York City Center Theatre with several companies. Among some of the dances I recall performing with the Company are To the Dance, New Dance, Theatre Piece, With My Red Fires, Shakers, Race of Life, Water Study, Square Dance, Passacaglia, Quest, Opus 51, This Passion and Happy Hypocrite. Some choreographed by Doris and the satires choreographed by Charles.
During the Depression, when President Roosevelt initiated the WPA, Doris was invited to participate and she decided to do her dance drama With My Red Fires for the Works Project Administration (WPA). I recall with great pride being Doris’ Assistant Director of With My Red Fires for the New York City Federal Dance Project. Since I was in salary for a full day, and the teaching and directing didn’t take my full schedule, what I did with the rest of the time was to do my own dance script for With My Red Fires. I based the lines of a music bar, and in each line there was an instruction. After Doris’ death, Captain Woodford sent it to Dance Notation Journal where my script was published in the fall of 1983.
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In 1940 with great sadness I left the company to follow my husband to Montana. In 1942 I received a letter from Doris telling me that she had used my script for With My Red Fires constantly and had found it very helpful. She only wished that she had one for every dance, but she hadn’t any more Evas! The letter is a reflection of a very difficult time. She was concerned for her husband, who was in great danger anywhere on the High Seas and concluded with their unhappiness, for the war on all fronts, aesthetic and territorial that was becoming more difficult every day. (February 1942)
Doris became very disillusioned. I returned to work back with her in the 1950’s. We were working with The Merry Go Rounders at the 92 Street Y and I was having some conflict with the administration, she sadly told me that administration powers prevailed over the creative process.
At that time I was teaching dance to children and developed ideas how children could get involved in creating their own choreography themselves as audience. I will say, make a dance with me, showing them that we could put together skipping, hopping, jumping, walking. They will yell one at a time a movement, and I will put it together and showed them how it would look.
Doris remembered she had a book, The Goops Tales, that she used to read to her son Charles. She thought it will make a perfect ballet for children. So, I composed the choreography of a very happy dance about children “Nevershair,” “Krysoe,” “Teeza,” “Lemeetry” and “Verislow.” I also choreographed “Ballet Charades” that was a dance as a guessing game. The dancers will represent a letter with their bodies, danced the characters and the audience guessed the nursery rhymes performed.
Another darling memory I have of Doris was when we stopped to have lunch, after a Symposium on Choreography in Modern Dance by the New York City High Schools at Julia Richman High School. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how little she ate, I remembered thinking “she eats like a bird.”
When I moved to Los Angeles, I received a Christmas card from her, probably the last communication we had before her passing. Doris wrote she had been very ill since the end of August and was very likely that would go on for a while. She adds “But I got something done for La Danse anyway.” She was referring to her book on choreography, expected to be published that spring. Doris continues saying “Bet you thought I’d never do it. It was good to wait so long, because now I know so much more about it. Having the habit of writing I am now doing reminiscences which well be the basis for biography some time.” Her P.S. was an announcement that The Merry Go Rounders did Goops in television and even though she didn’t see it, she heard it was successful.
It is no secret that dance is an ephemeral art and exists mainly in the dancers bodies. That is why Doris Humphrey’s heritage must be passed on from one generation to the next through our dancing bodies. And at 97 years old, this is my small contribution to add to other important ones for Doris Humphrey not to be forgotten.
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