Steel and Velvet: A Centennial Reminiscence

Steel and Velvet: A Centennial Reminiscence


"Passacaglia"[seen at left: Doris Humphrey in “Passacaglia” (1938)]

HERS WAS A beauty of motion such as a girl of sixteen had never dreamed of. Not more than 5’3″ in height, slender, perfectly proportioned, Titian-haired Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) was a shaft of light as she sped across the stage in the solo, “Papillon.” That was in 1928, at her first independent concert with Charles Weidman after they had both left the folds of the dance company known as Denishawn.

Later, that same evening, a transformation took place in a duet with Weidman. No longer a shimmering, leaping vision, Doris was clearly a woman of her times: her ankle-length dress was a rust-colored crepe, form fitting and unadorned. Her partner was costumed in dark trousers and a pale jersey top. Their dance together was no conventional pas de deux, wherein the man played the forlorn lover and the woman a dreamy-eyed creature in distress, but rather a penetration of one of the most fundamental elements in male-female relationships, the need of the man to answer the call of adventure and the compulsion of the woman to preserve their intimacy. Set to Scriabin’s tempestuous Etude #8, Opus 12 (Patetico), the duet still remains vivid in my memory after sixty years.

“Papillon” and the “Scriabin Etude (Patetico),” the first, pure lyricism, the second, stark drama, can be seen retrospectively as the first evidence of Humphrey’s astonishing choreographic range. In his review of a later Humphrey-Weidman concert, in which Doris presented additional proof of her performing gifts, New York Times critic John Martin perceptively compared her dancing style to “steel and velvet: strong, resilient and accurate, with an exterior of the utmost delicacy.”

[seen at right: Doris Humphrey in “Square Dance Waltz” (1938)]"Square Dance Waltz"

Martin’s reference to the resiliency of steel and to the sensuous touch of velvet apply equally to Doris’s personal resourcefulness in combating the vicissitudes of the depression days when she had to salvage her ideals from the rubble of constant disappointment. For those of us who had the privilege of sharing the strain of those early days with the artist, there was no end to our admiration for her courage in the face of multiple obstacles over which she had to climb to achieve her ends. The main purpose of her life was clearly the accomplishment of her choreographic aimsÑand they would always be fulfilled with grace and “the utmost delicacy.” An innate sense of logic provided her with the ability to have clear-sighted opinions when it came to critical judgments of her colleagues’ works, and, most important, of her own choreography. She could shift easily from subjective impulses to objective analysisÉand she never hesitated to dispose of a dance that didn’t fulfill its promise. Certainly a rarity among practicing artists.

A critic supreme in human relations as well, Doris’s objectivity was legion. Being one of the fortunate beneficiaries of her personal and professional judgments during my six-year association with her, first as a student, then as a member of her company, and later as her teaching assistant, I remember well the day when my director sized me up candidly: “Ernestine,” she remarked, “I am worried about you. You are guided by your heart, not by your head.” (Since then, I have been trying desperately to repair the imbalance!)

The steel of Doris Humphrey’s mind with its insights into reality never interfered with the velvet of her creative spirit. My first encounter as a student with my future teacher’s undying faith in the dance was in the form of a credo posted in the studio:

To be master of one’s body:
to find a perfect union between the inner thought and outer form ~ to draw from this a radiance and power that makes of life a more glorious and vital experience ~ this is to dance

[seen at right: Doris Humphrey (1913)]Doris Humphrey (1913)

To gain this mastery, to achieve that perfect union, and to present one’s art in the forum of a theater for the benefit of all to seeÉthese were the goals of the newly formed American Modern Dance. The price was high: nothing less than everything. And Doris Humphrey paid it time and time again.

In spite of repeated disappointments, her message was ever positive. Dances appeared, one after the other. Ranging from lyrical abstraction of reality to drama of all dimensions, there was the pictorially conceived and music-less “Water Study,” the pure and perfect Processional from the “Drama of Motion” (also without accompaniment) and the spiritually evocative “Air for the G String” set to Bach’s noble “Air” from his Orchestral Suite in D Minor; the chillingly expressive distillation of a Cretan ritual, “Dionysiaques” and Doris’s brilliant solo, “The Call/Breath of Fire,” an adventure into a purposely limited structure suggesting an emotional stasis, a mini-dance, decades in advance of the sixties!

Then, her two visualizations of the role of women: the first, an ensemble work daringly conceived in biological terms, “Dances of Women” and “Two Ecstatic Themes,” a two-part solo delving into the dual nature of a modern woman who obeys her instinctual need for love and countermands it with her equally urgent demands for self-identity, doubtlessly, the first statement of its kind in dance long in advance of the emergence of women’s “rights.”

All these, plus other works of stature, were premiered during the six years I was with the company. And during the next twenty years until her death in 1958, Doris created both large and small scale dances, the most renowned being her Bach-inspired “Passacaglia” and her indictment of possessive motherhood, “With My Red Fires.” Both of these works resounded with the same positive point of view as that she once expressed in the 1941 edition of Frederick Rand Rogers’ Dance: A Basic Educational Technique: “My dance is an art concerned with human values. It upholds only those values which make for harmony and opposes all forces inimical to those values.”

Herein lies the steel and velvet of Doris Humphrey’s genius, which lives on in the many reincarnations of her magnificent contributions to twentieth-century dance. I sincerely hope that this year’s Centennial Celebrations of her birth on October 17, 1895, will alert a destructive world to the life-saving potential of a great artist’s humanitarian philosophy.

[Photo credit: Photos by Barbara Morgan courtesy of the Willard and Barbara Morgan Archives, Dobbs Ferry, NY]