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RIP Ernestine Stodelle

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I learned from the Doris Humphrey Society that Ernestine Stodelle passed away earlier today in Santa Barbara. I'm afraid I am not sure of her exact age, but she was in her 90s.

Ernestine Stodelle carried the torch for early Modern Dance through to dancers of today. She was inspiration for many dancers and scholars of Doris Humphrey's work.

Many knew her from her teaching of dance criticism at New York University.

In 1999 the Congress of Dance Scholars gave her the award for Outstanding Leadership in Dance Research.

She wrote two major books... a biography of Martha Graham: Deep Song: The Dance Story of Martha Graham (link to Anna Kisselgoff review)and The Dance Technique of Doris Humphrey and It's Creative Potential (now even available as an e-book)

As a young dancer she was there for the first wave of modern dance. I met her in her 80s as she coached Doris Humphrey masterpieces on dancers for Pew Charitible Trust's National Initiative to Preserve American Dance. [reviewed here by Robert Greskovic] Watching her inspire both novice and master, to carve meaning and depth into the movement, was a privilege I'll never forget. Her coaching was so valued, that I believe her name was written in as the required coach on some of the Dance Notation Bureau's scores of Humphrey's work.

Modern Dance has lost one of its lights.

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I remember Ernestine Stodelle. She was a positive role model and an inspiring teacher. One of the quiet greats of modern dance, specifically in continuing the legacy of Doris Humphrey and in her writing and dance criticisms, Stodelle left her own legacy.

Her family name was horribly blemished by her grandson Joshua Komisarjevsky, who, this past summer, was one of the two murderers of the Connecticut endocrinologist's wife and two daughters. That was a grisly, unfathomable killing.

For a woman so deserving of every honour and respect accorded her, I weep for her sorrow and that of her sons who had to endure such negative public scrutiny. Those murders hit so hard when they occurred, and to learn that this wonderful modern dance pioneer was directly related to one of the killers was heartbreaking. Stodelle was 95 in July when the murders occurred.

My admiration for Ernestine Stodelle is immense. She led a very full life, riding the first wave of modern dance and passing on her expertise to dancers of varying abilities, from student to professional, in prominent as well as unheralded dance locales, and with motivational fervour. Rest in peace, incomparable woman. Rest in peace.

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Now that it's been mentioned, it perhaps ought to be pointed out that he was not a blood relation as his parents had adopted him. We were all horrified, first by the crime and then that it touched Ernestine's family. Worried for her, I asked someone close to her how she was surviving the ghastly situation and was given to understand that by that late stage in her life she was no longer much aware of current events.

I would hate to see remembrence of Ernestine turned into a discussion of Joshua.

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Here is the obituary:


Ernestine Stodelle Komisarjevsky Chamberlain – celebrated modern dancer, author, teacher and one of the foremost chroniclers of modern dance in America – died on January 5, 2008, at the age of 95 in California.

Born May 6, 1912 in Oakland, California, Mrs. Chamberlain studied ballet as a child at the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet in New York. She began her professional dance career as a member of the pioneer modern dance company of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, becoming a soloist with the Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company at the age of 17. She later became a partner, dancer and choreographer of original works with Jose Limon.

During that same period – 1929 to 1935 – Mrs. Chamberlain also performed as a dancer with many symphony orchestras, operas, concert programs and in Broadway shows in Philadelphia and New York. From 1935 to 1939, she was in Europe, introducing American modern dance to enthusiastic audiences by presenting solo recitals and lecture-demonstrations in Paris, Salzburg and Geneva.

It was in Europe where she married her first husband, the internationally-known theater director and stage designer, Theodore Komisarjevsky (1882-1954). They returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War II, opening a studio of dance and acting in New York. She soon afterwards formed the Ernestine Stodelle Studios of Modern Dance and, for the next fifty years, Mrs. Chamberlain focused her energies on the training and development of the careers of many talented dancers, many of whom went on to professional careers in modern dance.

During those years, Mrs. Chamberlain also focused on reconstructing the dances of her mentor Doris Humphrey and teaching the Humphrey technique. She reconstructed the early works of Doris Humphrey, beginning with Air for the G-String and Two Ecstatic Themes for the Jose Limon Dance Company. In addition, in 1990 she premiered the reconstruction of two dances originally performed by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman in 1929. At the request of others, she staged Humphrey works in Canada, England, Switzerland and throughout the United States. Mrs. Chamberlain also gave lectures on modern dance history and technique with an emphasis on the Humphrey-Weidman and Martha Graham techniques.

Following her first husband’s death, Mrs. Chamberlain married John R. Chamberlain (1903-1995), nationally-known author, columnist and syndicated writer, and moved to Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1956. She moved her dance studio to Cheshire, continuing to teach modern dance to both children and adults, while becoming a noted author, university professor and critic of the dance.

Mrs. Chamberlain published two books: The Dance Technique of Doris Humphrey and Its Creative Potential (Princeton Book) and Deep Song, The Dance Story of Martha Graham (MacMillan). In addition, she was a free-lance writer for The New Haven Register, Dance Magazine, Art Times and Ballet Review. She co-edited two books on dance research with Patricia Rowe of New York University: Dance Research Monograph One and Dance Research Collage.

Mrs. Chamberlain was also an Adjunct Professor at New York University, conducting courses in Dance Criticism and Aesthetics in Dance, starting in 1970 through 1991.

Mrs. Chamberlain is survived by 13 great-grandchildren, 20 grandchildren and six children: Elizabeth Chamberlain Huss; Margaret Chamberlain Davis; John R. Chamberlain, Jr.; Tanya Komisarjevsky Metaksa; Benedict Komisarjevsky; and Christopher Komisarjevsky.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to:

The Doris Humphrey Society

c/o Stephanie Clemens

605 Lake Street

Oak Brook, IL 60302

(708) 848-2329

501 © 3 not-for-profit -- Tax ID #36-3709638


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From Alison Leigh Cowan in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/09/arts/09s....html?ref=dance And there are some lovely photos!

“Ernestine at age 85 could make dancers in their 20s ashamed that they couldn’t move so well,” said Stephanie Clemens, the director of the Doris Humphrey Society in Oak Park, Ill.

She said that her group enlisted Ms. Stodelle’s help when it produced several videos dedicated to Humphrey’s work. “On those, at age 85, Ernestine is down on the floor showing a young dancer how to do a one-handed push-up,” Ms. Clemens said.

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This poem has a number of allusions to poems that my mother loved.

I read this at her funeral in Cheshire, CT on January 12, 2008.

We were so honored to have many of her former students present.

I thank you for your several posts and obituaries about her life.

We will miss her. -- John Chamberlain Jr. jcsm@comcast.net

For Ernestine Stodelle (Mom),

And how to make sense

of your life with mine,

except to say

I shall find you in many places,

in a certain towering elm tree,

in the faces of your children, and grandchildren,

in Vivaldi music, in dances of greeting,

in the elastic shapes of morning,

in paintings and photographs still

but charged with action and story,

in any of the seasons,

although especially in April and early May

and in poems, and those last hiding places of snow,

poems that speak of discoveries, such as Keats’ vision

of stout Cortez first glimpsing the Pacific,

looking in wild surmise with his men,

silent upon a peak in Darien. The gasp she had

in those moments of revelation,

like that predawn moment we witnessed in Cheshire,

when so many planets

at once brightened the sky, and likewise

so many rabbits ran about the lawn.

and she saying, “You will remember this.”

Yes, I do, and much more,

for there were so many bright constellations of people in her life,

and my parents’ house was a lively place.

She lived for that predawn wonder, for the shiver

and silver lining. Tanya said that before she died

she was breathing, and then she stopped.

I imagine her last breath to be a gasp.

Dickinson said, “Love is...the exponent of breath.”

She asked for that to be on her gravestone.

What do we make of that? That love is multiplied by breath?

That a breath opens us to the kindling charge of love?

And she was one who believed in action.

Her spirit is a silver bow,

a crescent moon new bent in heaven.

It will gather there its charge and fire back to Earth.

I’m sure you can imagine her in your own way.

Perhaps you knew that gasp,

that sudden intake of breath.

I’m sure you knew her animated chatter.

She was a star to many a wandering bark.

The girls and women in her classes

experienced the consuming fullness of living in their bodies,

now heavy, now light, falling, then recovering,

straining, stretching, strengthening, and

sensing a wholeness wrapped up in movement,

a sweep of the arm,

leaping into space, and always the shuddering return,

fall and recover, Apollo and Dionysus,

stasis and abandon, light and darkness,

bright knowledge, then the river of forgetting,

muscle and memory, breath and bliss,

surrender and summation,

rehearsal and chaos, death and renewal,

now and forever. Amen.

Who could not long for such wholeness, such release?

We shall remember you there.

She was a star to many a wandering bark.

Her worth was known, her height was taken.

And yet, she was time’s fool, aren’t we all,

crying in her springs, knowing full well

that April is the cruelest month, taking

both husbands from her then, and still she endured

to be the forced forsythia for my father,

to smell the hyacinth’s dazzling beauty,

her eyes failing, looking into the heart of light, the silence.

She had a favorite tree, did you know?

On her many trips along the Merritt Parkway

in Fairfield, in the meridian, she proclaimed it hers.

You will know it when you see it,

It is an elm tree, whole, resplendent, strong,

full of symmetry, deep rooted, crowned.

You can find her there.

I imagine you best

in the fullness of your life,

such as when I’d come home from college

in those first five minutes of seeing you

I felt something special in the air,

and you would stand up on the blue bench

to greet me, your way of crowing about how I’d grown.

A joyous greeting always feels like a prize.

It wasn’t who you were, then,

but what you meant to me.

Above all, I can see her preparing

for her beloved dance performances, perhaps a dress rehearsal,

her dancers quite in command of their moves,

their bodies swaying graciously to Vivaldi’s music,

her glance brightening from the audience’s side, and then, her gasp --

unable to tell the dancer from the dance.

-- John Chamberlain

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