Chapter 2: The Solo Dancers

Doris Humphrey (1895-1958)

Doris Humphrey was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1895 and grew up in Chicago. Her father operated a residence home for vaudeville performers called the Palace Hotel, and her mother offered piano lessons. As a girl, Humphrey studied piano, ballet, ballroom dance, Americanized Delsarte and Dalcroze's system of Eurythmics. A talented dancer, she began teaching ballet and interpretive dance to children when she was 15. During the next few years, Humphrey traveled the Santa Fe railroad line with a variety troupe, giving performances to railroad employees of her home-made aesthetic dances and Spanish numbers. When she returned home to Oak Park she began her own studio with her mother as accompaniest and business manager.

Humphrey Ties to Denishawn

Dissatisfied with teaching in a small mid-Western town, Humprey moved to California and joined Denishawn in 1917. As a favorite of Miss Ruth's, she was soon teaching classes and performing with the company in featured roles. Though Martha Graham was a fellow teacher and performer, Humphrey and Graham were not close. Humphrey made life-long artistic and personal relationships with other Denishawn colleagues, most notably Pauline Lawrence and Charles Weidman.

Lawrence was a key advisor and company costume designer who remained close to Humphrey until her death in 1958. Charles Weidman was Humphrey's choreographic and dance partner in the 1920s and 1930s, and was himself a key figure in the development of the American modern dance. Humphrey began her choreographic career while at Denishawn, where she created, with St. Denis, famous pieces like "Soaring," set to the Schumman score of the same title, and "Sonata Pathetique," to the Beethoven score.

The Humphrey/Weidman School

In 1928, Humphrey and Charles Weidman left the Denishawn company to found their own school and company. Like Martha Graham, Humphrey was interested in moving away from the sentimentalism and romanticism of the Denishawn company toward a new dance vocabulary and style that was truly "modern." In a newspaper article from this period, she told a reporter that she and her students were "stimualted by our enthusiasm for some discoveries about movement, which had to do with ourselves as Americans--not Europeans or American Indians or East Indians, which most of the Denishawn work consisted of--but as young people of the twentieth century living in the United States."

The Fall and Recovery Concept

Like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey was interest ed in the fundamental importance of tension and relaxation in the body, and used it as the foundation of her own system of movement principles. She called her version of the contraction and release of muscles and of the breath cycle "fall and recovery." Unlike Graham, who stressed the tension in the cycle, Humphrey located the height or apex of the continuum in the suspension of tension. As a result, her vocabulary was based on the notion that all movement patterns fall into three divisions : opposition; succession; and unison and that all movement characteristics fall into three divisions: sharp accent; sustained flow; and rest. She codified this system in her book The Art of Making Dances (1958).

Humphrey's Theory of Dance

By 1931, the Humphrey and Weidman companies and their joint studio/school were firmly established in New York City. With Graham, Humphrey was considered by most critics to be a primary innovator of the new modern dance. Her theory of "fall and recovery"-- and the technique that sprang from it--was the foundation of her teaching method and her choreography. Underlying it, according to Humphrey, was the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche's idea about the split in the human psyche between each person's Apollonian side (rational, intellectual) and our Dionysian side (chaotic, emotional). The true essence of the modern dance was the movement that happened in between these extremes, which Humphrey labeled "the arc between two deaths."

Humphrey's Use of Music

Humphrey's early training as a musician probably effected the way that she envisioned dance. From the beginning, her choreography called attention to the relationship between movement and music, emphazising their formal qualities, like structure, design, and dynamic. In dances like "Air for the G String" (1928) and "Variations on a Theme of Handel" (1931), the choreographer gave physical life to the music of Bach and Brahms. She did not attempt to tell a story, or to evoke a specific emotion. Instead, Humphrey was interested in purely aesthetic considerations. In her use of these abstract principles of composition, Humphrey was perhaps the most "modern" of the early modern dance innovators.

"The Shakers"

Doris Humphrey died in 1958. After her original company disbanded in the early 1940s, Humphrey was appointed the Artistic Director of the Jose Limon's dance troupe. Limon, himself an important figure in the American modern dance tradition, was a student and company dancer with Humphrey/Weidman in the 1930s and early 1940s. Today, Doris Humphrey's movement system and her theory of fall and recovery live on in the work of a long line of dance artists. To discover more about Doric Humphrey's contributions, we encourage you to turn to the reference and bibliography sections of the tutorial for guidance about further reading.

Doris Humphrey's Innovations:

  1. Humphrey's codification of "Fall and Recovery" and the development of a movement vocabulary based on its rhythms stands today as an important tradition in the modern dance family tree.
  2. Humphrey was responsible for the creation of the first concrete, fully articulated choreographic method for modern dance-makers. Humphrey's 1958 book, The Art of Making Dances, was the first book of its kind, and remains an important document for choreographers and dancers.
  3. Humphrey pioneered the first full use of the ensemble as opposed to the solo figure in concert dancing. She was the first modern dancer to analyze and write about the choreographic process, thus separating the dancer from the dance.

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