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A Lighthouse for American Modern Dance: the American Dance Festival

By Amanda Wick

Since its foundational years at Bennington's School of the Dance, the American Dance Festival has represented a guiding light for the growth and development of modern dance in the United States. It is solely responsible for over 640 premieres, 340 commissions, and 50 reconstructions by modern dance legends, including Martha Graham, José Limón, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Erick Hawkins, Alwin Nikolais, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones, and Eiko and Koma, among others. Beyond performance, however, its greatest impact on the future of American modern dance is its focus on the education of young dancers during the summer school and residency program, and more recent international forays as an ambassador for modern dance. The festival is truly a source of strength for American modern dance through its long-term goals of educating the artists of the next generation and promoting the dance form among a wider audience.

The Foundation Stands Firm

The beginning of the American Dance Festival is rooted in one of the most recognizable names in American modern dance – Bennington. Founded in 1934, the Bennington School of Dance originally offered courses in modern dance technique and was one of the first schools in the nation to consider it a significant art form and one that was distinctive from other styles of dance. In 1935, the School expanded with a summer session and festival for new works by major modern dance choreographers, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm. Premieres by many younger artists, including José Limón, Erick Hawkins, Sophie Maslow, and Anna Sokolow, were also sponsored during the Bennington Festival. Bennington's summer program was unique in that the companies primarily attended for a teaching residency, with the performance series closing out the session.

Following the growth and success of the Bennington summer program through the 1940s, Martha Hill and John F. Moore, directors of the school and festival, sought to expand its influence and engineered a joint-sponsored program between Connecticut College and New York University in 1948. This outgrowth of the Bennington summer program received the unwieldy moniker “the New York University Connecticut College School of the Dance,” and the week-long performance series that concluded the session proudly proclaimed itself to be “The American Dance Festival.” In 1969, both pieces of the program became known as the American Dance Festival–signaling the full integration of education and performance.

Emergence of a National Icon

The first post-Bennington season of the American Dance Festival brought three cutting-edge dance companies to Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut for a summer residency and performance series: those of Martha Graham, José Limón, and one jointly directed by Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, and William Bales. The residencies were a direct outgrowth of the Bennington philosophy and each of these choreographers had participated in earlier Bennington festivals, maintaining the American Dance Festival's link to its foundational roots. New works by Graham, Dudley, and Erick Hawkins (a member of the Martha Graham Company at the time) were presented at the end of the program, along with several other pieces from the companies' repertoires. While unquestionably an artistic success based on attendance and critical acclaim, the project was beset by a financial deficit that might have prevented a second season. A late November fundraiser by Martha Hill managed to save the festival and ensure its continuation.

Between 1949 and 1966 the festival brought a number of seminal premieres to audiences and began to attract an even larger student body. In addition to Limón, who considered the festival to be one of his most significant engagements of the year, resident choreographers included established talents as well as new and experimental choreographers and companies. These artists included Pearl Primus, Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Donald  McKayle, as well as Alwin Nikolais, Daniel Nagrin, Merce Cunningham, Don Redlich, and Viola Farber. In addition to the artistic achievements of the resident choreographers, the festival also began to commission new works from its operating budget in 1954. This became a hallmark of the festival, which continues today.

As the festival's residence program continued to gain momentum, so did the school. Between 1948 and 1977, school enrollment increased from 119 students to over 320, including individuals from more than thirty states and six countries. As Sandra Genter, a student in 1955, noted, “The work schedule was strenuous for everyone on that New London campus. There was activity everywhere – not like the hectic bustle seen and heard in a big city like New York, rather an intense, less frantic and purposeful atmosphere. There was a clarity about what needed to be accomplished.”(1) Paul Taylor, also a student at the festival, noted that his work during the summer of 1952 set him on the path to his choreographic success, stating, “I'll never forget it. It was a very formative time for me.”(2)

Despite its tremendous growth at Connecticut College, the American Dance Festival board felt that changes would be needed for its ongoing success and appointed a new director, Charles L. Reinhart, in 1969. Reinhart knew that achieving continued institutional growth would be difficult, stating, “Everyone knew that changes were necessary. But I had to decide whether to make the changes gradually or to come in with a bang. I decided to come in with a bang.”(3) Reinhart's bold steps included an artistic shift, bringing in choreographers from Judson and a variety of new, controversial names. He also commissioned works by Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, James Cunningham, and Talley Beatty, among others, and appointed Martha Meyers as dean of the school to expand class offerings beyond the modern dance milieu.

While the artistic and educational changes were dramatic, perhaps nothing embodied the new direction of Charles Reinhart's appointment as much as the move from Connecticut College to a new home in Durham, North Carolina at Duke University. By 1976, it was becoming obvious that the festival was outgrowing its New London home. Public outreach and community engagement were at an all-time low with local businesses rejecting a request for investment in the festival from community development funds. Attendance was extremely low and even established companies were unable to sell out performances. Strained relations between Connecticut College and the festival became a problem for the administration. The festival's presence on campus meant that much of the college was unavailable for other programs during two weeks of the summer as studio and performance space, dormitories, and other areas of the school were needed for classes and rehearsals. The growth of the festival turned it into something of a campus liability as financial and legal considerations were loosely defined in the original contracts of the project. Reinhart sought a new home for the festival, eventually moving operations and administration to Durham, North Carolina in 1978, where it would reside on the Duke University campus.

Ambassadors of Modern Dance

The move to Durham signaled a further evolution in the history of the American Dance Festival. Festival management found a receptive community partner and audience that widely approved of the new cultural institution. Generally speaking, the relocation has been an artistic success for the festival and the late 1970s and early-mid-1980s emerged as a period of maturation in festival programming with a healthy balance between innovative performers and long-term relationships between dance companies. While no one company achieved the standard of José Limón's ten-plus years of residency at the American Dance Festival, numerous companies became standards in programming, including Paul Taylor and Pilobolus. eyond artistic successes and increased range of school programming, the 1980s and 1990s were a time of expansion for the American Dance Festival. This expansion occurred both nationally and internationally as the festival took on an ambassadorial role for American modern dance while also bringing a more international flavor to its residencies. In 1984, it created the International Choreographers Residency Program, and in 1987, the International Choreographers Commissioning Program (ICCP). Since its move to Durham in 1978 through today, the festival has also hosted dance companies from more than ten countries and sponsored “mini-American Dance Festivals” in Japan, Korea, and Russia. It has also engaged in collaborative international projects with dance institutions in South American, Africa, and Asia.

In addition to its more literal international ambassadorial role for modern dance, the American Dance Festival has also served as an advocate for modern dance with the American general public – seeking opportunities to demonstrate the integration of dance and national culture and history. Examples of these efforts include the 1987 project “Black Tradition in American Modern Dance” directed by Dr. Gerald E. Myers, which was created to preserve and celebrate work by important African American choreographers. Dr. Meyers's work has ensured that more than twenty works have been reconstructed by companies, while others have been Labanotated. The project has also toured the country, promoting awareness of these important cultural treasures. A recent outgrowth of the project is the Emmy Award-winning television series Free to Dance: The African American Presence in Modern Dance and a bookend piece, Dancing in the Light, aired on PBS on June 20, 2007. In addition, the American Dance Festival awards the Samuel H. Scripps award and the Doris Duke Awards for New Work to recognize and promote choreographers making distinctive contributions to modern dance.

The millennial years continue to build on the established history of the American Dance Festival, with constant artistic growth and dance education. Artistically, the festival's style remains balanced between showcasing promising young talents and established choreographers. Its many Fellowship and Scholarship opportunities allow young choreographers the funding and space necessary for producing original compositions, while additional efforts are made to preserve the heritage of past, and often forgotten, choreographers with the re-staging of original works. In 2012, the American Dance Festival opened its Samuel H. Scripps Studios, marking the first time in its history that the organization has owned a permanent facility allowing it to present year-round programming. Organizationally, another major transition occurred in festival history in 2011 as the reins passed from Charles Reinhart to Jodee Nimerichter. After over forty-three years of leadership at the American Dance Festival, Reinhart's departure has tremendous meaning for the festival. Nimerichter was mentored by Reinhart as a co-director between 2007 and 2011, but the 2012 season was her first solo season. Her work with the Festival will be instrumental in its continued development and evolution.



1. Genter, Sandra. “Reminiscences of the American Dance Festival: Summer 1955.” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 35-39.

2. Broili, Susan. “Brave New Worlds.” Dance Magazine, (June 2008), p. 40.

3. Anderson, Jack. The American Dance Festival. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

4. Labanotation is a system of analyzing and recording human movement. It is primarily used by dance and theater historians as it preserves intricate choreography for use by future artists.

Amanda Wick is a 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition Archives and Preservation Fellow. During her Fellowship, she processed collections at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina and the personal papers of Ruth Page at the Ruth Page Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. An archivist by training and dance historian by inclination, she holds degrees from Dominican University and Lawrence University and has authored several private press publications for various organizations.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Anderson, Jack.  The American Dance Festival.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1987. 

Broili, Susan.  “Brave New Worlds.”  Dance Magazine, (June 2008), pp. 40-42.

Clements, French.  “Open Doors, Open Minds.”  Dance Magazine, (May 2009), pp. 4648.

Genter, Sandra.  “Reminiscences of the American Dance Festival:  Summer 1955.”  Dance Research Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 35-39.

La Rocco, Claudia.  “Put One Foot in the Past, Point One to Tomorrow.”  The New York Times.  (June 13, 2012).

Sulcas, Roslyn.  “An Eccentric Sendoff for a Festival's Leader.”  The New York Times.  (June 13,2011).

Moving Images

Dafora, Asadata, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Bill T. Jones, Jodee Nimerichter, Madison D. Lacy, and Taye Diggs. Dancing in the Light. New York, NY: Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2007.


The Archives for the American Dance Festival contain institutional records, including film and videos of past festival performances, as well as other collections relevant to the enduring historical significance of modern dance in the United States. All finding aids are searchable online.

To use the festival's archival resources, a researcher should contact the Archivist at adfarchives@americandancefestival.org with a request for a specific collection and to schedule a time to view the physical materials in person at the Duke University Rubenstein Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Researchers should also review the Dance Heritage Coalition's Finding Aid database to identify additional collections that may complement research on the American Dance Festival. Finding Aids within this database are collected from a variety of institutions, including the American Dance Festival, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Library of Congress.