“Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter”
A Life Defined by Dance
Martha Hill lived a life that was defined by dance. She was, by and large, an unknown person but she was also someone very special to the world of dance. While many are unaware of her, she fought to have dance recognized as one of the arts. Here, in this new documentary, we learn about her through archival film footage, interviews with friends and colleagues, we see how she went from a childhood raised in the Bible Belt of Ohio to NYU and Bennington College to Julliard where she occupied the position of founding director of dance from 1952-1985). It is through this documentary that we learn of her story that eventually took her to a campus at Lincoln Center. She had her on motto—“Modern dance is not a system, it is a point of view”.
Martha Hill was born in 1900 in Ohio and she loved to dance even with the Christian attack that it was sinful. In 1929, se went to New York City and joined Martha Graham’s company. She had the knack of being a modern dance teacher and at this time in her life when programs in the arts were part of physical education programs.
She was hired to teach at NYU and then in 1932 accepted a part-time position at Bennington College in Vermont and there she started a summer school that brought in dancers from all over the country in solidarity with one another and enchanted students.
Then in 1951, Hill was chosen to create the dance department at Julliard where she explored new grounds by putting ballet and modern dance together in the same courses.
Director Greg Vander Veer brings us an engaging documentary about Hill’s little known life (she died in 1995) and career. We see some amazing footage of dance numbers and interviews with friends and colleagues who praise her contributions to American modern dance. Among some of the famous choreographers she worked with are Hanya Holm, Jose Limon, Bessie Schonberg, Charles Weidman, and Merce Cunningham. Yet even with all that she accomplished, Hill struggled when Julliard’s dance department that was threatened with closure during the creation of Lincoln Center. She managed to survive and thrive by her indomitable will.
The film illuminates an important part of dance but dance has rarely mattered more in American history and yet this country has produced some of the greatest modern dancers and choreographers in the world. Today, television shows such shows as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance”.
The documentary makes a convincing argument that Hill helped make dance to become a legitimate art form in America. Her achievements, however, were overshadowed by others such as George Balanchine. What we see here is convincing argument that Miss Hill mattered in the world of dance.
In 1948, she formed the Connecticut College School of the Dance and in 1951 she was the first director of dance at Julliard where she remained as director until 1985. She was named Artistic Director Emeritus in 1985, but continued to teach. She died in 1995 at 94. Among her students were Paul Taylor, Muriel Topaz, Pina Bausch, Daniel Lewis, Lar Lubovitch, Dennis Nahat, Linda Kent, Bruce Marks, Mercedes Ellington, H.T. Chen, Martha Clarke, Susan Marshall, Jenny Coogan, Robert Garland, Mark Haim and Henning Rübsam.
Chen, Clarke, Mark Haim and Paul Taylor are interviewed in this film. Taylor is considered one of the foremost choreographers of the 20th Century in America and Martha Graham called him the “naughty boy” of dance because of his use of modern movement in classical music and for his subject matter.
Juilliard, located in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. but was originally founded in 1905 as the Institute of Musical Art. It was renamed after textile merchant Augustus D. Juilliard bequeathed a substantial donation for the advancement of music in the United States with the Juilliard Foundation created in 1920 to manage the funds. The foundation started the Juilliard Graduate School and in 1969 it relocated to Lincoln Center. And this, according to the documentary, put it in competition with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for rehearsal space. Hill was a top-level performer, a great administrator and teacher. She made sure that other dancers, male and female, had the opportunity to learn how to dance and helping for form Juilliard into a performing arts school.
Hill climbed the ranks during a time when social injustice dominated. She thrived during the great depression and remained a defining force through the Reagan era. She was a creator, a nurturer, and she give everlasting life to the art of dance.
Her life spanned nine decades of undeterred dedication to move the form forward, and she was the nucleus of the modern dance movement in this country. She can be compared to a whirlwind who knew no bounds and she touched the lives of those with similar desires. Today her legacy is its continuance, the students she mentored and their dance companies.
As Julliard’s first Director of Dance, modern dance and ballet would be taught equally as they must compliment one another. This set the stage for a drama that could be referred to as The Battle of Lincoln Center. Co-founder of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, a friend of the Rockefeller family who were creating Lincoln Center as a cultural center. Hill was feisty and relentless and she dared to take on Balanchine and big money with a grassroots campaign.
The documentary chronicles her life by presenting moving and still images that parallel the technical capabilities of the times during her almost century long existence. Black and white film footage, 4×5 photos, snapshots, beautiful large format portraits, and barely surviving video footage, all pay tribute to her and her lasting memory. Everyone interviewed who knew Hill speaks of her with fond memories, amusing anecdotes, and above all – reverence.
Most people do not know Martha Hill but they will know her and be awed by her as a result of this beautiful film that is a tribute to one who did so much. I believe I had a smile on my face as I watched it and that says more than anything else I could say.