The Festival Series: Bennington School of Dance (1934-1942)

November 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the upcoming weeks we’ll be exploring dance festivals all throughout the United States. These are places that have historically, and for some, continue to cultivate the field of modern dance. If it wasn’t for the influence of some of these festivals, the North Carolina Dance Festival wouldn’t be what it was today. Therefore, we wanted to take the time out and recognize these important cornerstones for modern dance artists everywhere!

Bennington School of Dance (1934-1942) began in 1934 at Bennington College, a small liberal arts college for women in Vermont. Bennington’s influence on the fledgling art of modern dance in America was huge—by having it under the umbrella of an academic institution, it provided legitimacy to modern dance and became a training ground, laboratory, and production center for dance artists. The school was founded by Martha Hill, a dance professor, and Mary Josephine Shelly, a physical education teacher at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Martha Hill taught her students (mainly dance teachers at the beginning) how to teach dance technique and composition by encouraging them to dance and compose. She believed in “direct contact with the professional artist” (Kriegsman).



The program ran for 6 weeks and focused on honing technique and teaching composition. Classes included ballet, tap, folk dance, choreography, stage design, music for dance, dance history, criticism, and notation. While the students were encouraged to be creative, they were discouraged from vague forms of self expression disguised as art. Rigor, discipline, and form were all important prerequisites for dance composition at Bennington.

from University of Denver Libraries

from University of Denver Libraries

The Big Four, or the core faculty members of Bennington, were Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm. They came to Bennington each summer with their companies, used the members as teaching aids, and created new works on them. Hill also brought in outside performers—Bennington sponsored the world debut of Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan in 1936 as well as premiering ballets by Eugene Loring, Lew Christensen, and William Dollar.

Bennington trained over 1,000 students over the eight summers it was open. These students became future leaders in modern dance technique and choreographer. Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin, Erick Hawkins, José Limón, and Alwin Nikolais were just a few of the greats that got their beginnings at Bennington.

Jose Limon on Bennington College Commons lawn with Doris Humphrey group. From Bennington College Libraries

Jose Limon on Bennington College Commons lawn with Doris Humphrey group. From Bennington College Libraries

Bennington was important in the history of Modern dance. It helped to win legitimacy to the art form as an American Art and made it seem appropriate for study in higher education. Critics began writing about the dance form more seriously, and artists were nurtured and provided with a place to work and experiment. Bennington made it possible for future training grounds for dance artists in America, and made colleges more likely to partner with dancers and choreographers. Even after the project officially ended in 1942, its legacy still lived on. The school became the American Dance Festival and it moved to Connecticut College in 1948 due to the diligence of Martha Hill and the work of other founding members.



 UP NEXT: American Dance Festival. Keep following us here on the blog to learn more!


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