One of the first modern dance choreographers, American Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) played a large role in determining the course of modern dance in the United States. While Martha Graham was a contemporary whose career lasted longer and had a broader influence, Humphrey, an early abstractionist, like George Balanchine, had an equally important role in developing twentieth-century modern dance through her choreography for the ensemble.
Doris Batcheller Humphrey was born October 17, 1895, in Oak Park, Illinois. She was the only child of Horace Buckingham Humphrey, a hotel manager, compositor, newspaperman, and photographer, and his wife, Julia, a musician and housekeeper at the theatrical hotel her husband managed. Humphrey's ancestors included author Ralph Waldo Emerson.
From an early age Humphrey studied dance and showed she had talent in it. Her parents encouraged her interest, and she was trained in several disciplines, including ballet. Humphrey graduated from the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, where she studied a number of dance genres. She was taught by Mary Wood Hinman, who educated her students in a version of eurhythmics and Swedish folk dancing. Humphrey also studied ballet in master classes with the European ballet dance teachers who passed through the area, among them Ottokar Bartik and Serge Oukrainsky.
To help support her family, Humphrey taught dance in the Chicago area for four years after she graduated from high school. She opened her own school in Oak Park in 1913, where she taught ballroom dance, among other social and fancy dances, while her mother performed the piano accompaniment. While Humphrey was unsatisfied artistically, she had to help her parents financially, something she would do for the rest of her life. During this time, Humphrey also toured with a dance group that performed at train stations along the Santa Fe Railroad to entertain employees.
While Humphrey's ultimate goal was to train as a professional dancer, she was not able to do so until 1917 when her parents' finances became secure. That year, she joined the Denishawn dance school and company in Los Angeles. Denishawn, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, was known for its Asian and exotic influence. Humphrey began as a student, but after a short time was appointed dancer in the company and rehearsal mistress. Soon rising to the company's leading soloist, her style caught the eye of St. Denis, who influenced her as a dancer and choreographer. St. Denis and Shawn moved towards the abstract in their dances, and Humphrey performed in several "music visualization" pieces choreographed by St. Denis.
By 1920 Humphrey had begun doing choreography, composing many of her early works with St. Denis. Among her first works was 1920's Soaring (with St. Denis), set to the music of Robert Schumann. Denishawn did not like Humphrey's approach to choreography, which became more experimental and self-expressive than exotic over time. She also emphasized ensemble pieces over individual works, which was also against the school's grain. In 1925 Humphrey choreographed her first major work, which was performed to Alexander MacDowell's Sonata Tragica, though it was later performed without musical accompaniment.
In 1925-1926, Humphrey toured Asia with Denishawn. When she returned she and Charles Weidman, another Denishawn dancer, were put in charge of the New York City-based Denishawn House, a franchise school of the Los Angeles-based company. Humphrey and Weidman lasted a year in this position before either artistic or political policies dissolved their partnership with Denishawn. Some sources say it was because of the way Humphrey viewed movement and her need to experiment with new movement forms, while others maintain she left when Shawn wanted her to do a production of the Ziegfield Follies.
No matter what the reason, Humphrey and Weidman left Denishawn to form their own school and company in 1928. With another Denishawn dancer, Pauline Lawrence, the pair formed Humphrey-Weidman and held classes in dance technique to pay for their productions of Humphrey's new choreography, which continued to be innovative. During the Depression of the 1930s the group also received funding from the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration.
Humphrey had spent much time studying the theory of movement and had developed her own concepts. She based much of her choreography on the principle of fall and recovery, the place between standing and the prone, motionless and unbalance. This moment in time symbolized the tension between security and adventure in the unknown.
As Jennifer Dunning wrote in the New York Times, Humphrey "abstracted the soul … in the central concept of her choreography. Falling, the recovery from a fall and the body's arc between were for her an expression of the fundamental tension and precarious balance between failure and triumph that we struggle to maintain throughout our lives."
Unlike Denishawn, which focused on spectacle, Humphrey based her choreography on feelings and physical states to create art. Movements reflected these emotions and physicalities. Many of her dances were conceptual and complex and could work with and against musical scores. There was no limit to her choreographical vocabulary as in ballet.
As Jack Anderson of the New York Times wrote, "When both the spirit and the shape of the steps are preserved, Humphrey's dances are genuinely impressive. And however well they may be performed in any given revival, they can be fascinating to watch simply because of their thematic or formal conception."
Many of Humphrey's early works were seen as original and distinctive. A number were inspired by nature and not done to music, including A Water Study (1928) and Life of the Bee (1929). Such works were simple and considered intelligent. The abstract Drama of Motion (1930) had no plot, sound, or costumes in the theatrical sense. In 1931, Humphrey choreographed The Shakers, one of many works that had a dramatic element to it, as well as an historical element. The Shakers was performed to traditional Shaker music and used boxes to define the mood because Humphrey could not afford a set.
Humphrey's company toured the United States in the 1930s, during which time her life changed in a number of ways. She was married to merchant seaman Charles Francis Woodford in June of 1932 and had one son, Charles Humphrey Woodward. Her work as a choreographer expanded to Broadway. She did dances for such Broadway productions as Moliere's School for Husbands (1933) and Life Begins at 8:40 (1934).
In 1934 Humphrey added another teaching position to her resume when she was put on the staff of the Bennington College of Dance. She taught at the Bennington College Summer School of Dance for eight years as well as for the High School of the Performing Arts. She also taught at Connecticut College's American Dance Festival beginning in 1948. She later taught at the 92nd St. Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association and eventually served as its director.
In 1936 Humphrey choreographed her masterpiece, a trilogy titled New Dance which featured the three dances—"Theatre Piece," "With My Red Fires," and "New Dance"—about a social utopia where individuals were satisfied while the group worked in harmony. She continued to choreograph and perform in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Her pieces included Passacaglia and Fuge in C Minor (done to the music of J. S. Bach; 1938) as well as Song of the West (1940). In 1940 the Humphrey-Weidman dance company was dissolved, but Humphrey continued to work. A later piece which was regularly performed was Partita in G Major (1943).
In 1944 Humphrey choreographed the last piece she would publically perform, Inquest. While her arthritis forced her to stop dancing, she continued to choreograph. Humphrey developed increasingly severe arthritis in her hip and suffered from arthritic seizures until her death in 1958.
In the mid-1940s José Limón, a Mexican dancer who had been connected to Humphrey-Weidman as a student, formed his own José Limón dance company and hired Humphrey to be the artistic director. She guided Limón's choreographing career and created some major works for him and his company: Story of Mankind (1947), Deep Rhythm (1953), and Ruins and Visions (1953). Many of her pieces focus on gesture. Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (1946) was based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca and created specially for Limón. Humphrey showed her flexibility and range as choreographer, meeting the varied demands of Limón's company. She even did some mixed media work, such as Theatre Piece No. 2 (1956).
Though Humphrey claimed she did not like to teach, she played a big role in getting the Juilliard School of Dance open in 1952. When it opened, she was named to the faculty and given funds and space to choreograph. There, she taught creative composition and in 1955 founded the Juilliard Dance Theatre.
Humphrey died of cancer on December 29, 1958, in New York City. Though she never made much money at what she did, she never compromised her values as a dancer and artist. Over the course of her career, she choreographed 97 dances, some of which are still performed. At her death, she working on a piece choreographed to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, which was produced.
After Humphrey's death her book The Art of Making Dances (1959) appeared, explaining how she taught dance in a way that was easy to understand. Humphrey was also working on her autobiography at the time of her death, and that book was not published until 1972.
Humphrey's contribution to modern dance in the United States has been somewhat overshadowed by that of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who was in many ways her contemporary and often considered the main influence of modern dance development. Like Graham, Humphrey's dances are still performed. The companies she worked with, Humphrey-Weidman and José Limón, produced many influential dancers of their own, including Sybil Shearer and Jennifer Muller. Her approach to choreography also was important.
As a contributor wrote in The Complete Guide to Modern Dance, "Combining an intellectual sense of craft with an emotional commitment to humane values made Humphrey design dances that were heroic in the best sense. At times her interest in the sheer mechanics of making a dance consumed her attention, but the works of her mature genius show a sympathy for human suffering or sacrifice and an artistic attempt at consolation and betterment of that condition."
Cohen-Stratyner, Barbara Naomi, Biographical Dictionary of Dance, Schirmer, 1982.
Crane, Debra, and Judith Mackrell, The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, American National Biography, Volume 11, Oxford University Press, 1999.
McDonagh, Don, The Complete Guide to Modern Dance, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976.
Boston Globe, July 9, 1995.
Dance Magazine, October 1995.
New York Times, February 28, 1988; April 30, 1991; October 1, 1995. □