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Helen Tamiris

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Helen Tamiris, Photo by Soichi Sunami


Helen Tamiris (1903-1966), a founder of modern dance in the 1920s and 1930s, always kept a foot firmly planted in the commercial theater. She was trained in ballet at the Metropolitan Opera and by Michel Fokine, as well as in natural dancing at New York's Isadora Duncan Studio. Her early career combined a soloist position in the Bracale Opera Company with appearances in nightclub and Broadway revues. Yet her first recital in 1927 demonstrated a personal expression of abstract movement and frank social analysis. A year later she adopted the Negro spiritual as a métier for life as conflict. Politically active, Tamiris helped to lead development of the Dance Repertory Theatre and dance initiatives under the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. She founded and chaired the American Dance Association and helped to set up the Federal Dance Project. Following World War II, she turned to Broadway to attract large audiences for a modern dance aesthetic that aspired to shape consciousness of the people. Tamiris choreographed eighteen musicals between 1943-1957, artfully integrating dance into such productions as Up in Central Park, Annie Get Your Gun, and Fanny. She taught movement to dancers and actors and formed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Workshop in 1957 with Daniel Nagrin, who was her husband at the time.

Pictured left: "Descriptions of Tamiris invariably include the word 'powerful,' describing both her dancing and the force of her personality," Elizabeth MacPherson writes. (Photograph by Soichi Sunami; from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)




Helen Tamiris performing her solo, "Go Down Moses," from Negro Spirituals (1958), one of the works in which she explored African-American culture and expressed solidarity with all oppressed peoples.

Salut au Monde, 1937.  Poster for the Federal Dance Theatre production choreographed and directed by Helen Tamiris.








Pictured left: Salut au Monde, 1937. Poster for the Federal Dance Theatre production choreographed and directed by Helen Tamiris. The Federal Dance Theatre was a component of the Federal Dance Project. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection, LC-USZC4-5156 DLC.


Read an essay by Elizabeth McPherson -- Selected Resources

Related Treasures: Modern Dance Pioneers -- Women Choreographers