Recovering a trailblazer
by Susan Isaacs Nisbett
From the October, 2018 issue
Fall and recovery were bedrock in the technique of modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey (1895-1958). The movements literally underpin her elegant, powerful dances--which I first discovered as a fledgling dance critic at the 1976 American Dance Festival Critics Conference. I was awed and affected, struck by how she moved masses of dancers in unison and counterpoint; by how she used platforms to layer the space; and by the deep emotional resonance of the dancers' spiraling descents and rises, the simplicity of melding the many into a grand unity.
Fall and recovery is also a useful metaphor for Humphrey's legacy. Though she was one of the finest modern dance trailblazers, she remains largely unknown. U-M dance faculty members Jillian Hopper and Christian Matijas-Mecca aim to change that with an October 2 concert. U-M, EMU, and area dancers will perform three of Humphrey's dances--"Air," "Passacaglia" and "Brandenburg Concerto No. 4"--at Hill Auditorium, in the unlikely setting of the final concert of the annual U-M Organ Conference.
In fact, the fit between the Humphrey project and the U-M Organ Conference seems preordained. Organ conference organizers had planned not only a concert devoted to Bach's organ and ensemble music but also a conference theme of women trailblazers. Humphrey--a woman directing her own company and creating groundbreaking choreography--worshipped Bach. She turned to Bach in her dances more to than any other composer, in part, she wrote, for the sense of movement in his music, "based on dances of forgotten men and women."
The exigencies and practices of her time meant dancing to piano reductions or transcriptions or to recordings. Hopper and Matijas-Mecca say the October concert will be the first time all three dances have been on the same program with live music, performed in Bach's original scoring.
Music lovers may know Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor through the Stokowski orchestral transcription. The rendering on the Hill Auditorium organ will produce what Humphrey likely had in her ear as inspiration
for the grandeur of the 1938 dance, set for an ensemble of just under twenty.
For the 1928 "Air," for five dancers (including Hopper), the U-M Baroque Chamber Orchestra will play the Air from Bach's Suite no. 3, giving sonic reality to Humphrey's search for "a regal air that filled the physical space."
And fourteen dancers will take the stage for Humphrey's 1958 "Brandenburg Concerto No. 4." The last work she made, it was not staged until after her death.
This unique collaboration offers just a sliver of Humphrey's genius, but it's a fine start to putting her back in the starry firmament where she belongs. Hopper says, "We want to do Doris proud."
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