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Bennington School of Dance

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Martha Graham and Company, 1941


The first center for the study of modern dance in America drew hundreds of dance students and teachers in nine summers (1934-42) at Bennington College, Vermont. Founded by Martha Hill, Mary Josephine Shelly, and Robert Devore Leigh, the Bennington School of the Dance became a haven for most of the leading modern dancers, a laboratory for choreographers, a production center and festival attracting audiences and critics to new work, and an arena for experiments in which music, drama, design, and poetry collaborated in the service of dance. The "Big Four" of modern dance—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman—were core faculty. Forty-two dances were premiered at Bennington. Among the community were Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, José Limón, Alwin Nikolais, Anna Halprin, Erick Hawkins, and Bessie Schönberg—all named as America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures. Many of the dances were charged with the concerns of the time—the threat to liberty, the rise of fascism, the search for meaning in the American past, and the goal of harmony in human relations. Bennington was a rallying point for a vital, new American art.

Pictured left: Martha Graham and Company (Jane Dudley, Elizabeth Halpern, Jean Erdman, Ethel Butler, Sophie Maslow, Nina Fonaroff, Nelle Fisher) at Bennington, 1941. Graham was one of the "Big Four," modern dance pioneers who formed the original core faculty of Bennington School of the Dance. (Photo by Hans Knopf, copyright Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.)


Essay by Sali Ann Kriegsman -- Selected resources