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Jane Dudley (1912-2001)

By Maureen E. Maryanski

Jane Dudley was an influential dancer, choreographer, teacher, and social activist whose greatest artistic period occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. Based for much of her career in New York before moving to London in 1970 to teach at the London Contemporary Dance School, Dudley is considered one of the most important choreographers of her generation.  One of the leading members of the New Dance Group, along with Miriam Blecher and Sophie Maslow, Dudley choreographed politically charged and socially critical dances including In the Life of a Worker, Time is Money, Women of Spain, and, most notably, Harmonica Breakdown.  Beginning in the mid-1930s, she was also a member of the Martha Graham Company, originating roles in American Document, Letter to the World, and Deaths and Entrances. Following retirement from the stage, Dudley turned her attention more fully to teaching, becoming one of the most influential teachers of early Martha Graham technique and continuing to choreograph and set dances well into her 80s.

Born on April 3, 1912, in New York City, Dudley attended the Walden School and at six began dance lessons with Ruth Doing. She continued her dance studies with Hanya Holm at the Mary Wigman School in New York and also performed in Holm’s company. In 1935, Martha Graham invited Dudley to join her company after her participation in a summer performance of Panorama at Bennington College.  Dudley did not premiere with the company until late 1936 in Graham’s Chronicle, but by this time she had already begun to make a name for herself as a member of the New Dance Group.

Together with other leftist groups in New York City, the New Dance Group sought to combine left-wing politics and modern dance. As one of the group’s leaders, Dudley taught and choreographed, but her background was an anomaly in the workers’ dance movement. While most of the young women involved were from the working class, learned dance at settlement houses, and had first-hand experience of the devastation of the Depression, Dudley was from a moderately privileged middle class household and received more formalized dance and academic educations. It was through her dance training at the Mary Wigman School that Dudley met Miriam Blecher, who introduced her to the New Dance Group. Despite this difference from her fellow politically motivated dancers, Dudley was dedicated to their mission and maintained a life-long commitment to being an “actively engaged artist” (Prickett, “Dance,” 60).

In addition to her political involvement through dance, Dudley and her colleagues also contributed written articles to the workers’ theater and dance magazine New Theatre. In 1934, a young Dudley advocated for mass dance, a technique for putting dance to revolutionary use through the utilization of lay dancers participating in group movement in clear, simple patterns. Such a dance she hoped would not only mobilize a large group of people through group participation, but also lead to clarification of ideology given the necessity of condensing complex issues and situations into movement.  Dudley envisioned revolutionary dance classes structured around this sense of community and provided an example of just such a mass dance centered on a strike.  Unfortunately, this type of revolutionary class and dance was not widely adopted as a solution to the conflict between politics and art inherent in workers’ dance groups of the 1930s.

Another method Dudley adopted to reconcile political content and modernist aesthetics was using the written word as inspiration for and accompaniment to her dances.  Time is Money (1934), Dudley’s piece about the “emotional physical wreckage left in the system’s wake,” was set to a poem by leftist poet Sol Funaroff (Graf, 52). Another 1934 dance, The Dream Ends, was set to a song by Hans Eisler, a German composer and revolutionary.  Such an integration of text and movement meant, as Dudley would say years later, that “the content got made specific” (Graf, 63). She and other New Dance Group members were able to maintain the artistic integrity of modern dance while not losing political meaning through this use of text.  Importantly, Dudley did not make an effort to act out the words to which she choreographed.

Related to the mass dance that Dudley promoted was folk dance, which also had the potential to be adopted as a means to reach a broad range of people. Because folk dance was a kind of return to basics, elements of this type of dance could also be adapted to large groups and more people could relate to what they saw performed before them. The use of folk music and themes was an element of Dudley’s collaborative work with Sophie Maslow and William Bales in the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio formed in 1942. Many wonderful pieces were created and performed by the trio in their twelve-year existence, including Maslow’s Folksay.

As her choreography evolved, Dudley focused on individuals, creating in-depth character studies such as the 1937 Four Middle Class Portraits, based on characters in a 1933 Kenneth Searing poem. Her ability to focus on the plight of the individual, while also conveying a universal or communal condition was most evident in her best-known dance: 1938’s Harmonica Breakdown.  After hearing the music of a blind black harmonica player named Sonny Terry, Dudley found a record of his “Harmonica and Washboard Breakdown” in Greenwich Village.  She constructed a dance in rondo form, with the soloist continually returning to a stiff-legged, disjointed walk on the diagonal from upstage right to downstage left.  This dance was a solo of despair in the Dust Bowl era inspired by rural American traditions of folk dance and song, but also featured a marked racial element.  Even though Dudley herself was the original soloist, she was influenced by the plight of poor blacks and their mistreatment by whites and sought to truthfully embody this struggle in her movement.  Her signature dance is powerful and melancholy, yet also infused with hope, as the soloist continually returns to the walk on the diagonal, always moving forward, never giving up.

Concurrent with her work with the New Dance Group, Dudley performed as a principal with Martha Graham’s company from 1937 to 1944 and taught as Graham’s assistant at the Neighborhood Playhouse and at the Martha Graham Studio from 1938 to 1958.  In her time as a Graham dancer, Dudley created signature roles. In 1940’s Letter to the World, she portrayed the Ancestress, a symbol of death and Puritan heritage who both nurtured Graham’s Emily Dickinson and separated the heroine from her lover. Emphasizing Dudley’s expressive arms, John Martin wrote in The New York Times that “she is mother, conscience, death negation tender care, and she manages with great eloquence, to be both cruel and compassionate” (Kisselgoff).  Such physicality and expressiveness she brought to all her roles, conveying clarity, attack, and passion in each movement.

As a social protest choreographer in the early years of modern dance, Jane Dudley sought like many of her contemporaries, including Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, and Nadia Chikovsky, to unite aesthetics and social message into a more meaningful and political dance of the 20th century.  Intent on infusing her dance, whether performed, choreographed, or taught, with meaning and justification, Dudley brought a simple measure of truth to each movement she created or performed. Through her commitment to this truth, physicality, and justification of movement, Jane Dudley originated breathtaking roles for Martha Graham. Her unwavering belief in the power of dance as an art form and method of commenting on society and raising political issues contributed to the creation her powerful solo Harmonica Breakdown. She took great pride in the “infusion of politics into modern dance” (Foulkes) and the imperative “not to feel phony” (Eilber).


Maureen Maryanski is a Reference Librarian at the New-York Historical Society. She also has worked for the Dance Heritage Coalition as an Archival Fellow since June 2012, first at the Dance Notation Bureau and most recently at the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. A former modern dancer and choreographer, Maryanski continued to study and write about dance history during the course of earning an MA in History and an MLS at Indiana University.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Chapman, Sarah Alberti. “Jane Dudley.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dudley, Jane. “The Early Life of an American Modern Dancer.” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society of Dance Research 10.1 (1992): 3-20.

Eilber, Janet. “’Not to be Phoney:’ an Appreciation of Jane Dudley.”  Manuscript of a Ballet Review article, from the personal collection of Alice Helpern.

Foulkes, Julia Lawrence. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Graham to Ailey. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Graff, Ellen. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928-1942. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Jane Dudley, Modern Dancer and Teacher, Is Dead at 89.” The New York Times, September 22, 2001.

Prickett, Stacey. “Dance and the Workers’ Struggle.” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 8.1 (1990): 47-61.

Prickett, Stacey. “From Workers’ Dance to New Dance.” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 7.1 (1989): 47-64.

Sears, David. “Breaking Down Harmonica Breakdown.” Ballet Review 11 (1984): 58-67.

Tobias, Anne. “Jane Dudley Retrospective.” Ballet Review 16 (1989): 50.

Moving Image

 Harmonica Breakdown (videotape). England: Singh Productions, 1995.

Archives

New Dance Group Collection (1932-1990) Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Reminiscences of Jane Dudley (1981), Oral Histories of the American Left, Tamiment/Wagner Archives, NYU.