HUMPHREY, DORIS (1895–1958) Dancer, Choreographer
Passionate and uncompromising, Doris Humphrey was one of the greatest innovators of American modern dance. Born on October 17, 1895, she was raised in Oak Park, Illinois, in a financially struggling family. Nevertheless, her parents found funds to provide her with an excellent progressive education. At the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, Doris was first exposed to folk and interpretive dance. At home, she received musical training from her mother, who gave piano lessons to supplement the Humphreys’ income. Soon after Doris graduated from high school, her father lost his job at a run-down theatrical hotel. She was then called upon to become the family’s primary breadwinner. With her mother, Humphrey established a school with classes in ballroom dancing. The work was profoundly unsatisfying to Humphrey. After four years, the school had become profitable enough for her to leave for Los Angeles to pursue a professional dancing career.
In 1917 she enrolled at the Denishawn school, which was operated by dance legend RUTH ST. DENIS and her husband, Ted Shawn. Immediately impressed by Humphrey’s talents, St. Denis delighted her new student by declaring she was born to be a dancer, not a teacher. Soon Humphrey was a lead dancer with the Denishawn company. She also worked as a teaching assistant and, with St. Denis’s enthusiastic encouragement, made her first forays into choreography. After seven years with Denishawn, Humphrey grew disenchanted with its emphasis on theatricality as she imagined a new style of dance expressive of more modest human emotions and xperiences. In 1928 she left the company to establish a school in New York City with friends and fellow former Denishawn dancers Charles Weidman and Pauline Lawrence. The three partners lived together and, after Humphrey’s marriage in 1932, were joined by her husband, Charles Francis Woodford, and their son. As other disgruntled Denishawn alumni joined their ranks, the three partners established the Humphrey-Weidman dance company. Working with this company, Humphrey began developing her own theory of dance in early works such as Water Study (1928) and Life of the Bee (1929). She sought to create dance “from the inside outside,” allowing the emotions she wanted to communicate to dictate the movements she chose. Often she choreographed a dance in silence and commissioned music later, so as not to let music, rather than emotion, guide her. Humphrey’s primary theory of movement came to be known as “fall and recovery.” She held that all human movement fell within the “arc between two deaths”—the “deaths” being the body in a prone position and the body standing erect. Her work often required dancers to make motions that put themselves off-balance and then to use the resulting momentum to
restore control over their bodies.
In this pattern, Humphrey saw a broader meaning. Influence by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, she saw life as a constant tension between the desire for security and the lure of adventure, an idea represented in her dance through the “fall and recovery” movements. Another prominent theme of Humphrey’s work was the quest for social harmony. Resisting a trend toward abstraction in modern dance, throughout her career she held fast to the notion that dance could inspire tolerance and peace between peoples. In the early 1930s, Humphrey joined other noted modern dancers—including MARTHA GRAHAM, AGNES DE MILLE, and HELEN TAMIRIS—in popular showcases organized by the Dance Repertory Theater. She also taught at Bennington College’s pioneering dance program. At Bennington, she premiered two pieces from her highly ambitious New Dance Trilogy (1935–36). Each dance in the trilogy lasted for more than 40 minutes, far longer than most dance pieces of the time. Because the extraordinary demands the trilogy placed on dancers, all three parts were never staged in the same performance. After some 15 years in operation, the Humphrey Weidman company disbanded following its final performance of Humphrey’s Inquest (1944) at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
With her company’s demise, Humphrey began working with her former student José Limón. As the artistic director of Limón’s company, she choreographed a number of dances, including Day on Earth (1947), which explored an everyman figure’s relationship with his first love, wife, and daughter. With Limón, she also spent summers as an artist in residence at Connecticut College. In 1951, Humphrey became a teacher and choreographer at the Juilliard Dance Theater, a newly founded arm of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. She could no longer dance due to severe arthritis in her hip, yet through her work at Juilliard she continued to have a profound infiuence over the next generation of modern dancers and choreographers. Humphrey also documented her theories of dance in The Art of Making Dances (1959), a volume that was 30 years in the making. She was only able to find the time to finish it after cancer left her bedridden and unable to teach. The illness took her life on December 29, 1958. An obituary in the New York Times summed up her life’s work by declaring, “Doris Humphrey is an enduring part of the dance in America, as the granite under the soil is enduring.”
Humphrey, Doris. The Art of Making Dances. Edited by Barbara Pollack. New York: Rinehart, 1959.
———. Doris Humphrey, an Artist First: An Autobiography. Edited and completed by Selma Jeanne Cohen. 1977. Reprint, Pennington, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 1995.
Siegel, Marcia B. Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Doris Humphrey Legacy. Dance Horizons Video, VHS set, 1997.
Doris Humphrey Technique: The Creative Potential. Dance Horizons Video, VHS, 1992.