Dancing with Destiny: The origins of the Mills dance department

Eighty years ago, the Big Four modern dancers brought a new form to campus for a legendary summer session.

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The historic 1939 dance summer session brought stars of the form to Mills—and laid the groundwork for the College’s own place in the art’s history.

By Jane Fries, MA ’94

A throng of barefoot dancers run and leap across what was then called Toyon Meadow, their loose hair flying behind them. Dressed identically in heavy knit cotton leotards, they curve their arms gracefully as they bend from side to side. They spin in circles to the left and then to the right, punctuating each change of direction with a hop, and then drop to the ground in perfect unison. It calls to mind a scene from a movie—and it actually was.

This unique moment in Mills College history took place 80 years ago during the summer of 1939, when more than 150 dance students descended on campus to live, learn, and work together, to dance all day, and to discover what a commitment to a dance career would really mean. The students, ranging in age from 16 to 48, came from 29 states and five foreign countries to learn about and participate in the new wave of dance sweeping across America. These were the early years of modern dance when passions soared, and the attendees would remember their six weeks of studying at Mills as one of the most marvelous experiences of their lives. It also laid the foundation for the College’s dance department to evolve into the internationally renowned program it is now.

The driving force behind this memorable summer of dance was Rosalind Cassidy, chair of the Department of Physical Education at Mills before dance was a separate entity at the College. She was dedicated to making Mills a center of dance in the West, and in 1934 she had recruited two esteemed modern dancers from Germany—Hanya Holm and Tina Flade—to teach at Mills during summers and the regular academic year. Cassidy also directed the Mills summer sessions, which for more than a decade had drawn musicians, visual artists, writers, and dancers to campus for weeks of intense work in their medium of choice. Enthusiastically supported by Mills President Aurelia Reinhardt, these sessions brought students into direct contact with professional artists and fostered collaboration between creatives from wide-ranging disciplines.

In addition to teaching at Mills, Flade and Holm had been teaching alternating summers at Bennington College in Vermont. At the time, both schools were small, progressive women’s colleges that championed the arts and nurtured the development of modern dance in their respective regions. Holm encouraged Cassidy, her Mills supervisor, to visit Bennington to survey the dance scene there, and Cassidy returned to Mills determined to make a connection between the two programs. Consequently, the trustees of Mills College, with the backing of President Reinhardt, issued a formal invitation to the Bennington School of Dance to hold its summer session at Mills in 1939, which coincided with the College’s 14th summer session.

The dance session explored what was then considered an experimental form of movement. (Mills archives)

While at Bennington, Cassidy made a fateful connection with Marian Van Tuyl, a dance teacher at the University of Chicago who had also been studying and performing at Bennington. Cassidy offered Van Tuyl a job teaching dance at Mills College, which she began in the fall of 1938. Van Tuyl assisted in facilitating Bennington’s move to Mills for the summer of 1939; however, as she ruefully recalled in a 1977 interview with fellow dance faculty member Eleanor Lauer, “I had to miss it because I had previously committed myself to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle.”

The 1939 summer session was an outward-looking experience— an opportunity for professional artists and students alike to socialize and share ideas. In addition to the dance program, Benny Goodman and the Budapest String Orchestra were in residence, and photographer Barbara Morgan presented an exhibition in the Student Union. Attendees could visit the Golden Gate International Exhibition on Treasure Island or make trips into San Francisco, either by ferry boat or by driving over the newly built Bay Bridge.

A brief yet evocative record of the 1939 summer session was captured on film by a 15-member Hollywood crew. It was one of the types of short films produced by the major movie studios in the 1930s and 40s that were frequently shown as part of an evening’s program in theaters. Director/producer Ralph Jester, a former art teacher at Bennington who later worked under Cecil B. DeMille, shot four days of classes and performances at Mills. Jester distilled his footage into a 10-minute film designed to introduce modern dance to a widespread mainstream audience. The resulting documentary, Young America Dances, was originally intended for release through Paramount Pictures.

Hanya Holm (Mills archives)

The film begins with the narrator using an old-timey newsreel announcer voice to proclaim, “Look and see the four greatest names of the modern dance in America. Four creators of new ideas. A new tradition.” Tantalizing clips flash on-screen of a handful of artistic giants: Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. Often referred to as the Big Four, they transformed dance in the 1920s and ’30s from an imitative art form into a creative one. Inspired by new forces at work in the world, these trailblazing artists renounced the tradition of dance as spectacle and concerned themselves with the outward communication of inner experiences.

Young America Dances launches into a scene of 20 or so dancers lying flat on their backs, each with one leg extended straight up in the air. As Humphrey beats out the rhythm on a small drum, the dancers repeatedly bend their knees and flex their feet, and then extend and point in perfect precision. All at once their legs come down, and they spring to their feet en masse. Next, a lively Holm claps and counts out loud while her students perform leg-swings. They are in pairs, holding hands to support one another. The narrator chimes in, “No group of athletes works more earnestly or more tirelessly.” As if on cue, each dancer grabs hold of a foot and extends her leg high to the side.

The students who attended the 1939 summer session included some of the most prominent artists of the next generation of modern dancers. The film showcases two future luminaries, Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais, participating as novice pupils in a dance class. Seated on the floor, they execute a series of demanding contractions and releases that are the staple of Graham’s dance technique. (When Graham encountered Cunningham at Mills in the summer of 1939, she was so impressed that she immediately recruited him for her company.)

Another leading light of the next generation, Anna Halprin, also participated in the summer dance classes at Mills. In Sallie Ann Kriegsman’s 1981 book Modern Dance in America: The Bennington Years, Halprin recalled, “The styles were powerful statements of each individual dance leader… Eventually I had to rid myself of these preconceptions and start all over again searching for fundamentals and natural movement.” A groundbreaker from the very beginning, Halprin went on to found the San Francisco Dancers Workshop and the Tamalpa Institute in Marin.

In addition to dance technique classes, the 1939 summer session offered opportunities to experiment with music and stage design in service to the principal element of choreography. Students tried out new forms of accompaniment for their dances in workshops led by pianist/composer Norman Lloyd and poet Ben Belitt.

A dance class held inside the Art Museum. (Mills archives)

Their efforts are illustrated in Young America Dances in a scene where a group of dancers sit on the floor playing drums and other percussion instruments. Together they are searching for “unusual rhythms, produced by new and interesting sounds, from bones to bottles,” the narrator declares, as a dancer smashes a bottle hanging from a string.

In another segment, a young dancer named Hortense Lieberthal performs a comic solo titled Never Sign a Letter Mrs. to the accompaniment of words read from an Emily Post book of etiquette. Belitt, who directed the exercise, later explained to Kriegsman, “I wanted the dancer to speak and to move inside a matrix of language that mobilized the power of both.”

A demonstration of experimentation with scene design follows, as stage designer Arch Lauterer instructs students to help him set the lights for a dress rehearsal by a member of Holm’s dance group named Louise Kloepper. In a highlight of the film, Kloepper performs her solo composition, Statement of Dissent. She strides powerfully across the stage, commanding attention via her large, declamatory upper body gestures.

Lauterer was an innovative stage designer who later became a drama professor at Mills. He initiated the use of lighting as the primary element of stage design, as he said in Kriegsman’s book, “to show the movement.” The lighting for Kloepper’s solo is a good example of his ingenuity, as her shadow looms large on the wall behind her, creating an imposing character of its own.

Renowned dancer Doris Humphrey (Mills archives)

In the film’s concluding scene, Humphrey (dramatically attired in a long dark dress and a full white cape) sweeps across the Mills dance studio, a group of dancers in tow. They traverse the floor diagonally, propelled by the rebounding momentum of Humphrey’s signature fall and recovery style of dancing.

The final version of Young America Dances was previewed in New York and California yet was never distributed to theaters, possibly because Bennington College withheld the use of its name from the film. (Modern-day Bennington could not confirm nor deny the report.) Like most movies produced before the 1950s, Young America Dances was shot on volatile nitrate-based stock that was prone to disintegration. Fortunately, the film was preserved in 1978, courtesy of director/producer Ralph Jester, by the American Film Institute at the Library of Congress.

As the summer session drew to a close, the Big Four artists organized a student exhibition in the Mills Gymnasium. According to Karen Burt, who reviewed the event for Dance Observer, “An unexpectedly large, enthusiastic and informal audience sat or stood on a hard gymnasium floor for very nearly three hours without intermission to witness what was probably the longest, and… the most colossal technical demonstration of modern dance ever held.” As the energy in the Gymnasium built up, the story reports, the packed audience began stamping their heels on the floor, and the evening culminated in thunderous applause.

Another momentous event that summer was the Concert of Modern American Percussion Music directed by John Cage, which drew more than 100 listeners to Lisser Hall. The percussion group was comprised of students (including Merce Cunningham) from the Cornish School in Seattle, who attended the Mills 1939 summer session along with their dance teacher, Bonnie Bird. Cage had recently begun working as a musical accompanist for dance classes at the school. In a 1978 interview with dance archivist David Vaughan, Cage explained that he was “teaching the dancers to compose, using percussion instruments.” Cage’s group performed compositions by fellow musical mavericks Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, who were also experimenting with writing percussion music for modern dance.

Although the Bennington School of the Dance did not return to Mills after 1939, the following summers at Mills were a fertile period of collaboration and creativity. Rosalind Cassidy invited Jose Limon, Kloepper, and Van Tuyl to teach dance classes accompanied by musicians Cage, Harrison, and Esther Williamson. Cage directed two more percussion concerts, further advancing the experimentalist movement on the West Coast. Van Tuyl choreographed two rousing dances to scores by Cage: Fads and Fancies at the Academy in 1940, with a marvelous set design by Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Horror Dream in 1941.

During the 1939-1940 academic school year, Mills President Reinhardt gave Van Tuyl the assignment of teaching a new class called A Survey of Contemporary Fine Arts. Van Tuyl recruited guest lecturers from other departments in the fine arts and organized field trips to museums and concerts around the Bay Area. Impressed with Van Tuyl’s ability to integrate dance with the other arts, President Reinhardt declared in the spring of 1941 that dance would move out of the Physical Education Department and become an independent program within the Division of Fine Arts. Thus, with Van Tuyl’s enlightened leadership and President Reinhardt’s keen support, dance took its place among the leading fields of study at Mills. It was also one of the first independent collegiate dance departments in the United States.

In a recent interview, Associate Professor of Dance and Dance and Theater Studies Department Head Ann Murphy noted that subsequent to the College’s legendary summer of dance, “Mills has been a beacon to dance students everywhere. Even people who don’t know much about dance are aware that creative things happen here.” The dance department has held on to the “core principles of the pioneer generation of dance makers,” Murphy added. “We have continued to offer a set of tools to shape time and space into form—and then a wonderful array of experimental possibilities.” ◆

Sources for this piece include:

Interview with Marian Van Tuyl conducted by Eleanor Lauer (1977)

Reminiscences of Marian Van Tuyl Campbell: oral history (1979)

Interview with John Cage conducted by David Vaughan (1978)

Dance Observer (Aug–Sept 1939)

Sali Ann Kriegsman, Modern Dance in America: The Bennington Years (1981)

Elizabeth McPherson, The Bennington school of the dance: a history in
writings and interviews