A Letter from Doris Humphrey

A Letter from Doris to a Prospective Member of the Group

October 31, 1929

I want you to know what we are trying to do in the Concert Group, of which I have spoken to you before, and how much we have accomplished of the great undertaking so far.

The group was formed two years ago, when I was a member of the Denishawn School, and was composed of the students there. By the spring of the first year, I had composed for them the ballet “Color Harmony,” for which Mr. Vaughn wrote the music, and the first movement of Grieg’s Concerto for piano and orchestra, and in addition other small works for the girls and myself. At the same time Mr. Weidman had composed ensemble numbers for two boys and himself.

With this program preparied, we gave a preliminary concert at the Little Theatre in Brooklyn which I felt was successful enough to warrant presenting the program in New York. This we did at the Golden Theatre in the spring of 1928.

It was very encouraging to find on our debut that the house was sold out and that the criticisms in the press the next morning bore out the enthusiasm of the night before.

The following summer, after a ten year association with Denishawn we came to the mutual conclusion that we had grown to differ so much in our approach that we could no longer work together toward the same end, and Mr. Weidman, Miss Lawrence and myself established a studio of our own in the fall of 1928. The members of the group chose of their own accord to cast their lot with me and go on workin in the way we had begun.

That fall we gave another concert at the Civic Repertory Theatre, having by this time added some new compositions to the program. This concert again was sold out, and the press added more encouragement and praise. In the spring of last year we gave two more concerts on two successive Sunday nights which were unfortunate as far as attendance was concerned (you see, I want you to know exactly what has happened up to now) but we consider that that was due to the misfortune of choosing Easter Sunday for the first one and the first warm night of the season for the second, but again there was enthusiasm both in the audience and in the papers. So you see that in four concerts we have accomplished quite a deal.

I think we may justly call our Group the leading ensemble in New York and possibly America. I exclude, of course, all groups dancing in musical comedy or opera, or moving picture houses as belonging to a different class. I am talking about the concert stage only. I merely mention the standing of the group as an interesting fact of the present – but I even have in mind that this is an ephemeral state, and that the only true standard an artist can have for his work is his own valuation of it. This ideal is perhaps impossible to maintain in a material and commercial world. So I mention our present place for what it is worth.

As for myself, I want to tell you frankly what my aim is as an artist in relationship to the group. Very simply, it is this: I want to visualize with it the visions and dreams that make up the entire impetus and desire of my life. The group is my medium just as marble is the sculptor’s material, only, of course, that simile is not complete, because the group is made up of human beings who are able to add their own power of mind and body to the physical material that the sculptor uses. This sometimes makes composing more difficult, by the way, because the varying powers of sixteen people must be harmonized and smoothed into a cohesive whole, and this is not always so easy. However the individual character of each member is most important to the whole because the group depends upon the strength and comprehension of each one. You must know as a dancer that every move you make reveals you even though your natural tendencies may be thwarted or changed by training. What you really are remains an easily read story even to the layman. Now you might think that in an ensemble of sixteen the individual characteristics of each one would not be apparent, but on the contrary, the character of the dance is such that everyone is revealed. You can easily understand why when you think of it: at some time during an ensemble dance, through the varying changes of the patterns, everyone is brought to the eye of the onlooker not as a seperate entity but as individual in relationship to the whole, so that if there is one who has not grasped the conception of the movement the group is doing the eye readily detects that one and even the untrained knows that a discord has been struck. Now for this reason, in the course of composing with the group I call upon each one to use their utmost in perception, in physical skill, in imagination, and emotion, and whatever they are able to command of these diverse ingredients makes or breaks the composition, providing, of course that my work of composing and training has been well done.

I do not believe, to put it negatively, that this group should be formed of automatons and moving exactly like me, or exactly like each other. This means that each one must develop her own powers to the greatest possible degree in order to advance the power of the group.

So my aims may be summed up like this: I am first a creative artist thirsting to see my conceptions made visible; after that, I am also interested in developing individual talent in others, educating audiences, performing for audiences, promoting the cause of the Dance, making money, and establishing a Dance Theatre in America. But I explain all this so you will know where the emphasis lies.

Please think carefully whether you would really like to work with us or not, because this is something very serious indeed in our minds. The girls feel they are living a part of a vital art, which they are trying with all their might to make as significant and sincere as possible. They feel a spiritual release in the dance from the pressure of materialism in a machine-made age. And to me, it is everything that goes to make up life. If you come in, please think of it as a serious occupation which will demand a great deal of work and energy, and a span of at least three years in time. The rewards that I am sure of are lots of training and the satisfaction of doing dances that have been composed and conceived as works of art. There may also be other rewards such as fame, and mony, and travel, but these are only the size of a man’s hand at present.

Rehearsals are twice a week at night usually, but that increases to three or more before concerts, and in addition, there are costume fittings during the day. I expect everyone to come to rehearsals faithfuly and to arrange vacations and family events so that it is possible to do so.

This year there will be four performances during the month of January, and possibley some others out of town. On these latter I am able to pay all expenses and ten dollars to each one. The only restiriction I make is that no member of my group shall belong to any other group, as this has already proved to be impractical.

There is much more but I think that the most important aspects are covered here. I hope that you will understand from this brief explanation what my ideas are, and will consider seriously and whether you would like to cast your lot with us.

~ Doris Humphrey