Through Dancing History Segment Six

By Eley, Susie Eisner | Dance Spirit, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

Through Dancing History Segment Six


Eley, Susie Eisner, Dance Spirit


LEGENDS LOST | 1950

The 195Os witnessed the passing of two of the greatest modern dance choreographers of the 20th century-Lester Horton and Doris Humphrey. Their outstanding

contributions to the dance world would be remembered in the work of many legendary dancers they inspired, such as Alvin Alley, Jose Limon and Bella Lewitzky. Following the chaos and confusion that resulted from two world wars and the ensuing mainstreaming of the modern art movement in Europe and the United States, anything was now possible.

LESTER NORTON 1906-1953

Lester Horton was a modern dance pioneer whose work, with its modern jazz and Native American influences, celebrated American culture. His passion for Native American artifacts, theater and dance led him to Los Angeles, CA, where he established his own company, Lester Horton Dance Theater, considered the first racially integrated dance troupe in the U.S. Born in Indianapolis, IN, Horton was a multitalented choreographer who designed many of his own sets and costumes. He was a taskmaster who believed in training every part of a dancer's body-even devising exercises for the eyebrows and tongue-to ready a dancer for all choreographic demands. The late Joyce Trisler, a former member of Horton's company, once said, "The Horton technique defies any limits on what the body can do. You will see dancers tipping off balance, falling from the air, falling and holding just a breath from the floor." Horton had a profound influence on dance in the 20th century, training a generation of greats, like Trisler,

Bella Lewitzky, Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey. Among Horton's masterworks are The Beloved, Salome, Liberian Suite, Barrel House and Prado de Pena.

DORIS HUMPHREY 1895-1958

When discussing 20th-century modern dance, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey are often mentioned in the same breath. Their work was grounded and profoundly expressive, in contrast to the sentimental and romantic styles of many of their predecessors. Like Graham, Humphrey understood that dance grew from the relationship between the tension and relaxation of the body. While Graham stressed the tension (the contraction), Humphrey built her system around the moment when the tension is suspended and the breath cycle begins anew, a theory she called "fall and recovery."

Humphrey was born in Oak Park, IL, and raised in Chicago. Mary Wood Hinman, her dance teacher at the Francis Parker School, recognized Humphrey's talent early and exposed her to many forms of dance, including ballroom, modern, classical and interpretive. After high school, Humphrey and her mother, a pianist, established a dance school in Oak Park to support the family. In 1918 Humphrey moved to California to study with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She remained with the Denishawn school and company for 10 years as a student, principal dancer, teacher and choreographer. In 1928 she and Charles Weidman, a fellow Denishawn dancer, started their own school and the Humphrey-Weidman Company. In addition to creating group works that included studies of nature like Life Of The Bee and dramatic pieces such as The Shakers, Humphrey helped establish the dance department at The Juilliard School, advised protege Jose Lim6n (a former member of her company), participated in the creation of the American Dance Festival at Bennington, (later at Connecticut College) and wrote a book called The Art Of Making Dances.

CARMEN MIRANDA 1"09-1955

Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell with the trademark tutti-frutti hat, was a singer, dancer and actress who embodied the vitality and essence of Latin culture. The Hollywood films in which she starred, such as That Night In Rio; Weekend In Havana; Springtime In The Rockies and Scared Stiff, showcased her lively Sambas, Carnaval marches and powerful voice. Born in Portugal as Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, Miranda was raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She loved to sing and entertain as a girl, but kept her performances a secret from her disapproving parents.

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