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Erick Hawkins (1908-1994)

By Renata Celichowska

Born in 1908 in Trinidad, Colorado, modern dancer Erick Hawkins grew up influenced by the rugged individualism of the early-20th-century American frontier. Shaped by a tradition of thinking and doing for oneself, Hawkins and other dance artists of his generation believed in the power of human creativity and the role dance could play in contributing to a vibrant contemporary society. The result for Hawkins was a life-long “voyage of discovery” (Hawkins 12-37), culminating in a unique dance aesthetic that highlighted the effortlessness of free-flowing movement and the poetry of non-linear movement. 

The son of an inventor, Hawkins went from a boyhood in Colorado and Missouri to Harvard, where he completed his studies in 1932. In 1930, he saw dance on the concert stage for the first time at a performance by the German dancers, Yvonne Georgi and Harald Kreutzberg. Hawkins was deeply impressed by Kreutzberg’s dancing and, after finishing college, traveled to Austria to study in his summer workshop. Excited by this new calling, Hawkins then moved to New York City for further training.

During these early years, however, Hawkins found himself questioning dance’s future role in his life as a young man. As he recalled, he sought to resolve these questions during a summer in New Mexico and Arizona, where he attended numerous Native American dance ceremonies:

That was a wonderful summer for me, for it set my soul at rest … That summer told me that I had seen men use dance as part of their worship, part of their way of coming into harmony with their own life and the lives of all the other centers of the world around them. I saw how the men singers and the Mudheads, the clowns, watched with great care and hovered over the sacred dancers in their Kachina masks, that through the dancing the people were protected, and that the young men were initiated into manhood. I saw knowledge of divine and inner power and harmony among people.

That summer made me know that I would never be happy until I found a way to make dance for all Americans part of a concept of totality. I knew that dance would never be for me only entertainment. I knew I could never again make the distinction between sacred and profane (Hawkins 55-56).

After this transformative summer, Hawkins returned to New York.  From 1934-1938 he studied at the fledgling School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, and eventually became the first student to teach there.  From 1936-1938, he danced and choreographed as a company member of Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan.  In recalling this period, Hawkins frequently spoke of his admiration for Balanchine’s creative genius in weaving dance and music together, and for the unwavering integrity of his aesthetic vision. Hawkins’s training with Balanchine provided an excellent introduction to the rigors of dance technique and the challenges of the choreographic process.           

In 1936, Ballet Caravan made its debut at Bennington College, sharing concert space with modern dancer Martha Graham and her company. Graham’s work immediately spoke to Hawkins as the expression of a kindred American spirit and he subsequently became interested in developing his dance in a similar direction. During their ensuing twelve-year affiliation (1938-1950, including a brief marriage), Hawkins and Graham shared an intense artistic and personal relationship. In 1938, Hawkins became the first male dancer to join the Graham troupe, appearing in American Document.  He went on to embody the lead male roles in Every Soul is a Circus (1939); El Penitente (1940); Letter to the World (1940); Punch and the Judy (1941); Deaths and Entrances (1943); Appalachian Spring (1944); Dark Meadows (1946); Cave of the Heart (1946); Night Journey (1947); and Eye of Anguish (1950).

Despite their common interests, by the late 1940s artistic and personal differences began to pull the two apart. As Hawkins described it, he became increasingly sensitive to the “willfulness” and physical tension upon which Graham’s aesthetic world was built. This tension in the body began to register for Hawkins as an equal tension in the mind and soul.  Desiring to find an alternative movement language, Hawkins founded his own school and company in 1951. In a 1965 essay entitled The Body is a Clear Place, Hawkins explained his search in the following way:

What originally motivated me to discover a new body discipline was the desire to train the body to a responsiveness that would express that essential delight of man and woman together and all the wonderful psychological implications that the success of such a union implies. I could not find an existing body vocabulary that could satisfy my vision. Existing dance vocabulary struck me as cold, insipid, unresponsive, or aggressive and unyielding (Hawkins 82).

From 1951 onward, Hawkins’ movement investigations emphasized a radical sensuousness and fluidity supported by a refined and holistic life philosophy. Hawkins fundamentally believed that only those practices which are in harmony with the laws of nature are life-affirming and, therefore, useful to the development of a healthy spirit. This basic premise resonated through all aspects of his art and life.  In the foreward to a collection of essays by Hawkins, Washington Post critic Alan Kriegsman succinctly summarizes this unifying trait in Hawkins’ work as “almost always” emanating from the “confluence of nature and spirit.” (Hawkins, p.viii).  His world of ideas drew upon the ideological clarity and depth of classical antiquity; the organic harmony of Southwest Native American traditions; the non-linear poetry of Zen Buddhism; and the scientific truth of kinesiology.  But, as Hawkins’s longtime musical collaborator and life partner, Lucia Dlugoszewski observed, “His so-called influences, whether Zen, Greek or Southwest Indian, were much more of a sharing with kindred spirits… than the driving force of an outer inspiration” (Celichowska xix). In this sense, Hawkins was often considered a “maverick”1 and an avid individualist, working outside of the mainstream of contemporary western dance.

Hawkins shared in a life-long dialogue with contemporary thinkers and artists such as Joseph Campbell and Robert Motherwell. He was adamant about using new music and live music for dance, making the important distinction that he never performed to recorded music. He forged extensive collaborations with composers such as Dlugoszewski, Virgil Thompson, Alan Hovhanness, Lou Harrison, Dorrance Stalvey, David Diamond, Toru Takemitsu, and Ge Gan-ru, and with visual artists including Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Ralph Dorazio, Helen Frankenthaler and Ralph Lee. By the mid-1960s, Hawkins’s effortless “free-flow” aesthetic was recognized as a unique contribution to American modern dance. Some of his most celebrated dance works include: openings of the (eye) (1952); here and now, with watchers (1957); 8 clear places (1960); Early Floating (1961); Black Lake (1969); Angels of the Inmost Heaven (1972); Classic Kitetails (1972); Plains Daybreak (1979); Agathlon (1979); God the Reveller (1987); New Moon (1989); and Killer of Enemies (1991). The body-mind theories he applied and developed in dance training were an important precursor to the implementation of somatic disciplines that have come to inform dance and movement training. His many awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978), the Dance Magazine Award (1983), the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance (1988), and the Presidential Medal for the Arts (1994).

His recommended reading list for students and company members included the writings of Hubert Benoit, R.H. Blyth, Joseph Campbell, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Hubert Marcuse, Jacques Maritain, F.S.C. Northrop, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, among others. He was a strong, yet sensuous dancer; a bold and poetic choreographer; a revolutionary teacher; and a genuine philosophe, whose love of knowledge and truth challenged him to seek only that which was authentic and universal. In a 1979 interview, Hawkins summed up his aesthetic vision in the following way:

Nothing is ever separated from any other relationship in the world… how we dance stems from our total philosophic view of our human life and, insofar as our philosophic idea is partial or has gaps in it, our dance can be stiffened or set, become limited or only partially functioning. The body is not divided from the mind, the soul.

            In this sense, it seems to me that what you might call the mental world or the spiritual world has an exact analogy in training the body. The way of tight muscles, tension, strain, violence, force and aggressiveness in the body registers the analogous state of the soul.

            If the dance is to be of excellence and vitality, and if it is to be a metaphor of our existence, then we have to consider what good existence is, or even what existence is, period. So my conclusion is, if you want to arrive at quality, at real excitement and real intensity in the art of dance, you have to look at real quality in existence…(Myers)


NOTES

1 New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff named Hawkins a “maverick” of the modern dance in a 1980 article for Harvard magazine, May-June 1980. 


Renata Celichowska is currently the director of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, and commencing Fall, 2012 she will become the Director of the Dance Program at Tufts University in Boston. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher, Ms. Celichowska performed with and taught for the Erick Hawkins Dance Company and her choreographic work has been presented in the United States, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Greece. She is the author of a book and two-part DVD series entitled The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique, Princeton Book Company, Publishers, Inc., 2000, and a second book entitled Seven Statements of Survival, Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2007. Ms. Celichowska holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Art from Yale University and a Master of Arts degree in Dance Education, History and Aesthetics from New York University.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Brown, Beverly. “Training to Dance with Erick Hawkins,” Five Essays on the Dance of Erick Hawkins. New York: Foundation of Modern Dance, 1977.

Celichowska, Renata. The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company Publishers, 2000.

Cohen, Selma Jeanne. The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1966.

Hawkins, Erick. The Body Is a Clear Place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1992.

Norton, M.L., Gordon. Five Essays on the Dance of Erick Hawkins. New York: Sheldon Soffer Management, 1980.

Moving Image

Erick Hawkins, America, distributed by Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1992.

The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique, Part I, distributed by Princeton Book Company Publishers, 2000.

The Erick Hawkins Modern Dance Technique, Part II, distributed by Princeton Book Company Publishers, 2000.

Myers, Gail, Erick Hawkins Interview. Texas, unpublished videotape, 1979.

Archives

The Erick Hawkins Collection at the Library of Congress includes correspondence, papers, musical scores, audio and video tapes, posters, notebooks, photographs, and costumes. http://lccn.loc.gov/2006560688