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Why Has the Doris Humphrey Repertory Gone Into Decline?


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#1 miliosr

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Posted 24 May 2009 - 04:32 PM

I've been reading the new Doris Humphrey collection New Dance: Writings on Modern Dance (collected and edited by her son, Charles Humphrey Woodford) and I got to thinking: Why has the Doris Humphrey repertory gone into decline? It's not hard to see works by Humphrey's Denishawn contemporary Martha Graham or her star pupil Jose Limon. But Humphrey's own repertory appears to have gone into deep eclipse. Even the Limon company, for which she was artistic director and co-choreographer from 1946-1958, rarely programs more than one Humphrey work in a given season. (I've seen the Limon company every year since 2004 and have yet to encounter a Humphrey dance.)

Is there something about her dances that makes them uninteresting to modern audiences? Humphrey made any number of abstract pieces (i.e. Water Study) that would appear -- at first glance -- to have continuing resonance with contemporary audiences. And yet her repertory is rarely seen. Why???

#2 Simon G

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Posted 24 May 2009 - 04:49 PM

Or why doesn't one see more dances by Fuller, Holm, Weidman, Falco, Horton, Hawkins, Dennis, Shawn, Sokalow, Tamiris, Bird, De Mille, Dunn. J, Halprin, Erdman, Wigman, Joos, Leeder, Fonoroff, Nijinska, Nijinsky, Massine, Lifar (I include ballet because let's not be pedantic and some of these late greats don't even get one piece a season, anywhere), Wagoner, Lang, Duncan...?

Being a legend doesn't protect a legacy, having a name is no guarantee that it will be remembered in any defining way.

Humphrey was an architect of dance, her technique fluid, her approach famously clinical or perhaps restrained is a better term. But you see Day on Earth, Water Study, Pachelbel canon and for whatever reason history doesn't really want to remember it, the work is thorough and well made or course, none of it has the visceral thrill of her Shakers.

It's not true either that it's only recent, she was being frozen out even during her lifetime, lagging behind Graham in the public and artistic view; Limon broke away from her, shut her out and even before her time was up she was something of an anachronism.

I'm not saying those legacies aren't worth preserving. I 100% believe they areb, ut in the Millennium it's Cunningham, Morris, Jones & Taylor which have won the long race, which receive the lions share of funding, attention, touring and money.

Even Graham has become more and more of a curiosity, her legend watered down and neutered - if the company wasn't attached to her legend I doubt that performances of such lacklustre quality would gather attention from the major press as they continue to do.

But again in regards to Limon company 23 performances in 6/7 months, the majority of which are in universities is not a sign of a healthy company which can afford to operate at anything like a full capacity or roster full time.

Humphrey is lucky to get one performace a season at all. As the list above shows, just off the top of my head, so many legends and great innovators have been forgotten altogether.

#3 Simon G

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Posted 25 May 2009 - 04:33 PM

I think another two vital factors for ensuring longevity for contemporary dance companies are money and ballet.

Graham was absolutely unique in that for the majority of her creative life she had the patronage of two hugely wealthy individuals - Bethsabee De Rothschild & Robin Howard. They ensured that her endeavours were related to an equally industrious school, that huge foreign tours could be taken and the whole amount underwritten despite the losses. At her height post retirement millions were passing through her hands every week - it was an industry. Much the same way that Cunningham is now an industry.

Cunningham was lucky that his career was run alongside or rather in symbiosis with the great modernist artists of the latter half of the 20th century Rauschenberg, Johns, Mumma, Cage - he hadn't access to a fraction of the financial resources of Graham but was lucky in that his work was becoming synonymous with several vitally important comparative art forms in the American post modern movement; because let's not forget that even by the 60s for some Cunningham the anti-establishmentarian was sometimes seen as establishment especially by the Judson Church group - of course who knows or rather remembers any work by Paxton, Rainer, Judith Dunn, Debbie & Alex Hay; again Cunningham outlasted them all the only member of that group who still has a significant presence is Trisha Brown - was her work more worthy than Paxton et al? It's a question of personal taste, though of course since the majority of work from the "post post modernist's" is forgotten or stored only on dusty 8mm film - what that time stood for and the experiments in movement those artists made are lost.

It's not just a question of why is Humphrey forgotten in terms of the big 3 Humphrey, Graham and Holm. There are many strands on the American modern dance movement tree where one questions how one survived over the others. Take African American contemporary dance - Katherine Dunham, Lester Horton, Talley Beatty, Rod Rogers, Alvin Ailey, Donald Mackayle, Ulysses Dove - of those only Ailey still persists in a major way - again he's an industry, and to the company's credit they perform a few works by Beatty, Dove (and on a note of total personal bias, for me Beatty and Dove are the superior choreographers) - though it came to be that Ailey was the one whose vision is seen as the apogee of the African American dance experience.
Katherine Dunham who's pretty much all but forgotten was in the early 50s more venerated as a dance maker in the UK than Graham.

The other major factor I truly believe is instrumental in cementing a modern choreographer's work in the wider field of dance for posterity is ballet. Bill T Jones is unique amongst the big moderns of today: Cunningham, Morris, Taylor, Ailey, Jones, in that his work hasn't entered ballet companies. He's also different from the African American choreographers as his work does not directly deal with, in the main, the experience of being black in and of itself within historical context. However, the other's work has all been performed by ballet companies from ABT to the Paris Opera (including Graham & Limon).

And if anything perhaps this is a factor in why Limon persists, Humphrey doesn't within the context of the company of which she was once AD - there will always be a ballet company who wants to perform the Moor's Pavanne.

#4 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 May 2009 - 05:01 PM

Miliosr asked the question, but the posts are great, Simon G. I learned a lot that I would never have known how to put together and research elsewhere, even over years. Really informative, thanks. You've given a comprehenvive, but substantial survey, even if brief, of modern dance that is somewhat like cubanmiamiboy's review of ballet in Cuba.

#5 miliosr

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 11:26 AM

If you're interested in seeing what the actual financial health of various "name" American modern dance organizations is, a good resource is www.guidestar.org. There you can find the IRS Form 990s for your favorite arts organizations.

I did some fiscal research on the Top Five companies Simon G. mentions: Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris and Paul Taylor. I also looked at the companies of Martha Graham and Jose Limon. I added to my research (for point of comparison) choreographers who appeared with Cunningham, Graham, Limon and Taylor in Jack Mitchell's famous photo of modern/postmodern dance choreographers: Erick Hawkins, Yvonne Rainier, Don Redlich, Anna Sokolow (who actually refused to appear, as the photo was to be taken in the garden at Graham HQ) and Twyla Tharp. Then to round out my comparison I took a look at the most prominent of the post-moderns -- Trisha Brown -- and the oddballs -- Pilobolus. (I tried to find Cedar Lake, too, but they didn't show up. With all that Wal-Mart money backing them, I wonder if they're even a non-profit.)

The 'terms of use' agreement at GuideStar prevents me from publishing what I found but the results were interesting. Most companies came in about where I thought they would be but some companies surprised me for better (Brown) and for worse (Graham, Jones).

And if you really want to gag, look up the New York City Ballet's tax return!

#6 Simon G

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 01:13 PM

If you're interested in seeing what the actual financial health of various "name" American modern dance organizations is, a good resource is www.guidestar.org. There you can find the IRS Form 990s for your favorite arts organizations.

I did some fiscal research on the five "winners" Simon G. mentions: Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris and Paul Taylor. I also looked at the "also-rans": Martha Graham and Jose Limon. I added to my research (for point of comparison) choreographers who appeared with Cunningham, Graham, Limon and Taylor in Jack Mitchell's famous photo of modern/postmodern dance choreographers: Erick Hawkins, Yvonne Rainier, Don Redlich, Anna Sokolow (who actually refused to appear, as the photo was to be taken in the garden at Graham HQ) and Twyla Tharp. Then to round out my comparison I took a look at the most prominent of the post-moderns -- Trisha Brown -- and the oddballs -- Pilobolus. (I tried to find Cedar Lake, too, but they didn't show up. With all that Wal-Mart money backing them, I wonder if they're even a non-profit.)

The 'terms of use' agreement at GuideStar prevents me from publishing what I found but the results were interesting. Most companies came in about where I thought they would be but some companies surprised me for better (Brown) and for worse (Graham, Jones).

And if you really want to gag, look up the New York City Ballet's tax return!



Miliosr

I don't quite understand what the point is? I looked up the guidestar tax returns which in fairness quote 2007 as the last tax year available and what did it do? Confirm that the five companies I named and Trisha Brown are considerably healthier financially than Limon or other minor dance foundations. All you have to do is go on the various companies websites look at the schedules of performances, touring venues, number of performances and foreign touring and the question would have been answered, only less specifcally.

Why would NYCB make one "gag"? NYCB is an organisation which employs hundreds of dancers, administrators, dance professionals it's an organisation which actively promotes and trains and creates jobs and that takes a hell of a lot of money but also gives out money in terms of employment. And yes the disparity between ballet funding and modern dance funding is galling. But then you could equally argue that the disparity between commercial dance theatre such as Hairspray the Musical, Mamma Mia etc is equally as unjust. However, you start to go down that route and you're on dangerous ground, deciding on personal bias what has the right to survive on artistic merit and worth which is wholly personal. I agree with you there's more enriching content in the Limon and Humphrey legacies than in Mamma Mia, BUT Mamma Mia can pay for itself, Limon, Humphrey even Cunningham can't - there's a majority that would argue then surely Mamma Mia has more right to exist as it has something people want and actively seek out and pay for.

I also think it's unfair to paraphrase my point by a glib "winners" and "also rans". Go back fifty years and Graham and Limon were the winners indeed less than 30 years and Graham would have been viewed as the unquestioned top dog of contemporary dance and Cunningham the "also ran" or poor cousin. And looking over the 990s confirmed what I suspected - the salaries for dancers in the Cunningham company alone is the same amount as Limon's total tax return sum. BTW I was involved with the production administration of one of the "big five"'s four performance tour to London a few years ago - the amount that had to be raised from the London end was in excess of a half million dollars, that was for a four performance, one venue booking.

Please correct me if I'm wrong but the gist of your contention over the Humphrey legacy is that life is not fair. I agree with you that the Humphrey legacy has been poorly upheld or remembered and yes it's a tragedy. But there are Humphrey foundations in the US in Illinois and in London.

Those forms however don't explain why artistically some legends fade, others flourish and still others are forgotten altogether - (but to reiterate my earlier point Trisha Brown is a choreographer whose work has been taken into several ballet companies).

#7 miliosr

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 03:03 PM

Simon G. -- You read way more into my post than I intended. I was just pointing out that there is an actual Web site where you can find financial data about modern dance companies. People can find it useful or not as to the financial health of modern dance companies. Or they can count the number of performances on company Web sites to make that judgement. I just found that Web site interesting (and more "scientific") -- that's all.

Wasn't trying to be glib about the Top Five and Graham/Limon. I thought those were your designations based on your prior posts. Sorry if I misrepresented you -- I'll change those designations after I submit this post.

I "gagged" at the City Ballet number because of its sheer size -- not because of any specific implication it may have regarding ballet vs. modern (or anything else.) I figured the City Ballet number would be big but not THAT big.

I made no claim about Doris Humphrey in either of the two posts I posted on this thread. I have no opinion whether her diminished legacy is fair or not. It is what it is. I was just curious as to why it had declined so much.

I feel like this whole discussion is becoming "board on boards" so, even though this section of Ballet Talk is not moderated, we should probably call it a day on this one! :D

#8 Simon G

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 04:39 PM

I'm sorry Miliosr, I have a tendency to come over as a bit "arsey" sometimes, I think I realised after posting that perhaps I was over-reacting to some things.

The ballet vs modern disparity in funding is equally contentious in the UK, where the Royal gets 70m in Government subsidy before any private donations and fund raising or corporate donations and incredibly creative modern concerns get peanuts - you're right it is galling.

Also in terms of the long race yes, at the moment Cunningham is the leader of the pack, whether he still will be ten years after his death, or rather whether the company will be is another matter. I'm sure Protas never imagined there would be a time he'd be scrabbling after Graham died.

#9 bart

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 11:00 PM

This has been a fascinating discussion. The interest, for me, goes beyond the matter of the Humphrey legacy, per se. In a larger sense, you are talking about the process by which a a culture -- through its institutions as much as through public taste -- decides that some work is worth preserving (sacrificing for) and other work is not. This is also relevant to the work of certain choreographers in ballet, something we discuss frequently on Ballet Talk. So -- please! -- keep the discussion growing.

I'm beginning to wonder whether choreographers like Humphrey have not suffered by being stuck with the label "modern." I also have the sense that the divisions within the modern dance community -- loyalty to one technique, depreciation of another '-- isn't something of a handicap affecting the entire body of early 20th century dance. (Analogy: the proliferation of religious sects within 19th century Protestantism.)

Despite differences in technique, the major moderns of the early 20th century strikes me as having produced a single body of work which has certainly become classic in a real sense -- part of American cultural history and worth preserving as such. At least this seems to be the case in retrospect.

Would a museum company devoted to performing this repertoire be possible? Could a single group of dancers meet the challenges of the different techniques? Is there an audience for such work, assuming it were marketed astutely?

By the way, thank you miliosr for posting the website to guidestar. For those who would like to pursue the matter of company finances and funding, here's the direct link.
http://www2.guidestar.org/

#10 miliosr

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Posted 01 June 2009 - 04:52 PM

Not a problem, Simon G.! :yucky:

If I seem prickly when it comes to Limon's company, then it's because I feel they don't get the credit they deserve for being the first modern dance company in the United States to preserve itself after the death of the founder. (Something that Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman all failed to accomplish.)

When Limon died, there was nothing -- no successor artistic director in place, no board, no fundraising ability, no clue as to who owned the rights to his works. Heck, there may not even have been someone to answer a phone and say, "Good morning! Jose Limon Dance Company!!" In 1973, the followers had a body of dances. But they also had some severe handicaps -- zero organizational structure, a big legal mess on their hands and a real sense that Limon's works had gone badly out-of-fashion with New York critics drunk on the abstractions of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.

And yet, lo these many years later, they're still here. Through much trial and error, they've kept going and they've never gone on hiatus (like the Graham company.) Is it all it could be or I would like it to be? Absolutely not. I wish they were richer than they are. I wish they had more performance opportunities than they do. I wish they didn't try to move in so many creative directions at once. I wish they made better use of new media the way they need to to thrive in the 21st century.

As you rightly note, Simon G., the real test for Trisha Brown (72), Merce Cunningham (90), Bill T. Jones (57), Mark Morris (52), Paul Taylor (78) and everyone on the Pilobolus commune will be after they're gone. Without the charismatic leader in place to attract funds, will the successor organizations continue to be as "rich" as they are now??? And what of Twyla Tharp (67)??? Most likely there will be a successor foundation but no namesake company. Not a problem at the moment as she has several patrons -- ABT, Miami City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet -- to subsidize her. But will that always be the case? The Royal's treatment of Ashton and ABT's treatment of Tudor doesn't inspire confidence in that regard.

OK, I'm rambling at this point. Peace in the valley of the modern dance! :)

#11 dirac

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Posted 04 June 2009 - 07:34 PM

The other major factor I truly believe is instrumental in cementing a modern choreographer's work in the wider field of dance for posterity is ballet. Bill T Jones is unique amongst the big moderns of today: Cunningham, Morris, Taylor, Ailey, Jones, in that his work hasn't entered ballet companies. He's also different from the African American choreographers as his work does not directly deal with, in the main, the experience of being black in and of itself within historical context. However, the other's work has all been performed by ballet companies from ABT to the Paris Opera (including Graham & Limon).


Good point, Simon G. Hadn't thought of that. I'm learning a lot from this thread.

#12 miliosr

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 04:06 AM

Regarding the interaction between ballet and modern and its effect on a modern choreographer's standing in the dance world as a whole, Carla Maxwell at Limon has spoken about how, when Lucia Chase took Limon's The Moor's Pavane and The Traitor into ABT's repertory in 1970, it was like Limon had gotten the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval!

#13 miliosr

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 08:12 AM

I did some research (yes, I know -- I need a hobby) comparing Humphrey's presence in the Limon company's New York City repertory during two different post-Limon periods -- 1973-1979 (the Ruth Currier era) and 2003-2009 (the Carla Maxwell era.)

If you went to a Limon company performance in New York City during the 1970s, you were likely to see a fairly wide-ranging selection of Humphrey's work: Air for the G String (1928), The Shakers (1931), Two Ecstatic Themes (1931), Passacaglia in C Minor (1938), Night Spell (1951), Ritmo Jondo (1953) and Brandenburg Concerto # 4 (1958-59). In the current decade, you can still see Humphrey at Limon but the emphasis appears to be on her late-40s work: New Dance (1935), Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias (1946), Day On Earth (1947) and Invention (1949). Make of it what you will . . .


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