Humphrey, Doris 1895-1958

views updated

HUMPHREY, Doris 1895-1958

PERSONAL: Born October 17, 1895, in Oak Park, IL; died December 29, 1958, in New York, NY; buried in Oak Park, IL; daughter of Horace Buckingham Humphrey (a compositor and hotel manager) and Julia Ellen Wells (a musician); married Charles Francis Woodford, (a merchant seaman), June 7, 1932; children: Charles Humphrey Woodford. Education: Trained with Mary Wood Hinman; studied ballet with Josephine Hatlanek, Andres Pavley, and Serge Oukrainsky; attended Denishawn dance school beginning 1917.

CAREER: Dancer, choreographer, educator, and company artistic director. Founded dance school, Oak Park, IL, 1913; Denishawn Dance Company, dancer, c. 1917-27; Humphrey-Weidman School and Company, co-founder and dancer, 1928-45; José Limón Dance Company, artistic director, 1946-58; 92nd Street YMHA Dance Center, director, beginning 1947. Teaching included work at the Bennington College Summer School, Teachers College, and Perry-Mansfield Camp, 1930s; Connecticut College School of Dance, faculty member, 1948-58; Juilliard School of Music, faculty member, 1951-58; Juilliard Dance Theatre, director, 1954-58.

AWARDS, HONORS: Dance Magazine award, 1938; John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, 1949; Capezio Award, 1954.


The Art of Making Dances, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1959.

New Dance: An Unfinished Autobiography, introduced by John Martin, Dance Perspectives (New York, NY), 1966, edited and completed by Selma Jean Cohen as Doris Humphrey: An Artist First, Princeton Book Company (Pennington, NJ), 1995.

Doris Humphrey: The Collected Works, Dance Notation Bureau Press (New York, NY), 1978.

SIDELIGHTS: A key figure in the creation of modern dance, Doris Humphrey rebelled against the methods of her teachers to create a new style of dance reflecting personal experience. She left the prominent Denishawn Company in 1928 to create the Humphrey-Weidman School and Company with Charles Weidman in New York. After her own dancing career was ended by arthritis, Humphrey became, among other assignments, the artistic director of the José Limón Dance Company and a faculty member at Juilliard. One of her most important contributions to modern choreography is the development of the fall and recovery concept, which involves the loss of equilibrium and its emotional impact. Near the end of her life, Humphrey wrote what would become a standard text on choreography, The Art of Making Dances. Other writings by Humphrey appeared in New Dance: An Unfinished Autobiography, which was later completed by Selma Jean Cohen as Doris Humphrey: An Artist First. Much of Humphrey's choreography survives in printed form using Labanotation, in Doris Humphrey: The Collected Works.

At first, Humphrey doubted if she would realize her dream of becoming a performer. At age eighteen, she opened a dance school in Oak Park, Illinois when her father lost his job. After four years, however, the school's success allowed her to enter the Denishawn School in Los Angeles. She studied, taught, and performed with Denishawn for ten years, during which time she began her first attempts at choreography. Eventually, however, Humphrey found herself at odds with the company's artistic goals. She was impatient with Denishawn's reliance on non-American influences and balked at an assignment to dance in the Zeigfield Follies. With fellow Denishawn dancer Charles Weidman, she left for New York City, where they formed their own school and company.

Prior to World War II, Humphrey specialized in creating ensemble pieces with sculptural effects. Two of her favorite themes were nature and the individual in society. Some of her earliest works are among her most important. Color Harmony (1928) was received as the first abstract modern ballet. Water Study (1928), one of her most influential works, is still performed regularly by dance students at colleges and universities. It uses the concepts that were central to Humphrey's work, including the use of breath rhythm, natural movement, and fall and recovery. Water Study is performed without music and uses some sixteen dancers to embody the movement of water. Jane Sherman, a former Denishawn and Humphrey-Weidman member, described it in Dance magazine as "a work that astounded critics and audiences alike with its synchronized, moving-wave forms, from calm lapping on a beach to a crashing tempest." Other notable dances by Humphrey are The Shakers (1931), which is also still performed, and Day on Earth (1947). The second piece, which represents the more intimate dances that Humphrey made later in her career, was considered a prime example of mid-twentieth century abstract dance.

Humphrey created theoretical descriptions for the basis of her choreography, the most influential being fall and recovery. "Humphrey found that all movement that stimulated kinesthetic and theatrical excitement arose within an arc between the body lying flat and the body standing erect," explained Sherman; "She called the pull of gravity between these two 'deaths' fall and recovery. And she believed that her theory reflected the pull within all of us as human beings—between our need for security and our urge to risk the unknown."

Despite the physical and financial difficulties it often presented, Humphrey was dedicated to her work. The title of her autobiography, Doris Humphrey: An Artist First, recalls that she once told her husband she was an artist first, a woman second. When she could no longer dance, that passion included teaching approaches to choreography. Her experiences as a teacher, including many years spent at the Connecticut College School of Dance and the Juilliard School of Music, were central to her book The Art of Making Dances, which she completed just prior to her death. Based on extensive teaching notes, it is considered the first text of its kind and is still widely read.



International Dictionary of Modern Dance, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Dance, October 1995, Jane Sherman, "Fall and Recovery: A Tribute to Doris Humphrey," p. 56.


The Dance Works of Doris Humphrey (video).*