The history of modern dance in America is replete with passion, upheaval and innovation. From when Isadora Duncan first made the brave leap from classical dance, modern dance has helped propel America to cultural heights unmatched in contemporary times. New York was the center of this revolution, and its large Jewish immigrant community of the early 1900s made an indelible mark through its social, political and creative contributions.
Among the many ethnic groups in this massive influx of new immigrants, the Eastern European Jews in particular brought with them a rich culture, language and tradition that would play a role in the development of modern dance in North America. Facing assimilation, adapting to a new land and the difference in European and American ways, Eastern European Jews turned to the familiar comfort of their language and traditional forms of entertainment as a means of maintaining a sense of identity and community in their new home.
Yiddish theater was particularly popular. Performed in Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of northern and eastern Europe, its themes reflected the folkways of Europe and Jewish life in particular. It evoked memories of their homeland, religion and customs, along with their history of poverty, devastation and powerlessness. Abundant in music, song and dance, the roots of Yiddish theater, as in the language itself, draws from multi-ethnic influences.
It has elements of Jewish literature and secular songs, dramatic improvisation, as well as various European theater traditions. It is through this art form and the Yiddish language that the Eastern European Jewish community was able to find some sort of stability and solace in their transition to a new life and environment. It is also these very influences in their social and cultural backgrounds that the pioneer Jewish modern dancers would lay the groundwork in the establishment of contemporary dance in America. Dance and the Jewish Encounter with America
Israil Bercovici wrote: “It is through Yiddish theater that [Jewish culture entered in a dialogue with the outside world], both by putting itself on display and by importing theatrical pieces from other cultures. ” This encounter would prove to be a precursor to the development of modern dance as well, as a result of the evolution of Jewish culture in its assimilation to the American way. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association (popularly known as the 92nd Street Y, or simply the Y) played a significant role in developing talent and pioneers through their cultural and youth programs.
The philosophy that drives this institution is the desire of the Jewish community, specifically the new generation of American Jews, to engage and participate in general American life and culture, while maintaining a link to their Jewish culture and identity. The struggle to re-define Jewishness goes back to the period of the Haskalah when Jews began to re-direct their intellectual and creative energy from religion based tenets to a more secular form. The complex process of re-inventing their identity within American culture has prompted many Jewish youth to activism during a period of revolution in contemporary art.
At the heart of this Jewish encounter with America is the 92nd Street Y, which as an institution nurtured and encouraged the expression of Jewish identity and humanitarian outlook in their collective quest for acceptance in America through its cultural and social activities. Its Dance program established the foundation from which many Jewish dancers would find support, respectability and the means to make their mark in American Modern Dance. Under the guidance of its educational director, William Kolodney, the Y provided the programs, funding and creative environment that would foster the meeting of the dance with the Jewish community.
Throughout this period, many other institutions were established to encourage Jewish participation in dance and other contemporary art forms. The School for Social Research and The Neighborhood Playhouse were among the most influential, and Yiddish theater, such as Maurice Schwartz’ Yiddish Art Theater production provided many opportunities for Jewish dancers. But it is the convergence of Jews from differing backgrounds at the Y that sets it apart from other cultural centers.
The mix of Jews from working class backgrounds and the membership and patronage of middle class and affluent Jews made for a tremendous partnership in their shared commitment to make modern dance as inclusive as possible. This political and social philosophy opened the Y to not only Jewish culture but also African American and other ethnic art. Along with dance classes, educational programs and lectures, Jewish patronage at the Y also helped to develop a well-informed audience, familiar with techniques, creative styles and interpretive methods.
From an appreciative and educated audience come support and further participation and engagement in the Y’s goal of diversity and innovation. The legacy of the Y in its pursuit of a vibrant contemporary Jewish-American culture would have a lasting impact on the history of modern and post-modern dance. The 1930s: Jewish Women in Modern Dance As an art form, modern dance was attractive to Jewish women, because unlike vaudeville and Broadway chorus dancing, it is an effective vehicle for expression of their ideals and principles, as well as advancing their political and social ideologies.
Although the prominent figures of modern dance its infancy was non-Jewish (Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm) Jewish women dominated their classes, dance companies and audiences. As an art form, modern dance is attractive to Jewish women because it is an effective medium for self expression and creative exploration. Unlike the idealized feminism and rigid format and technique of ballet, or the comic song and dance of vaudeville, modern dance is much more flexible for artistic experimentation and emotional seriousness that simply cannot be achieved with the other dance forms, including folk or ritual dance.
Their experiences with antisemitism and poverty as children of immigrants have a significant impact on their work by incorporating political and social justice issues relevant to everyday life. Modern dance provided an outlet for their physical, political and intellectual activities and for advancing their socialist ideologies. For many of these women, their introduction to dance began on the immigrant settlement houses on the Lower East Side of New York City.
These poor neighborhoods were a bastion for social and creative activities for its youth in the belief of Jewish organizers that art could serve a positive purpose by encouraging communal interaction and creative channels to offset their destitute surroundings. The Henry Street Settlement House, founded by the Jewish social reformer Lillian Wald in 1893, was a major provider of such services to the immigrant community. Prior to the rise of the 92nd Street Y in the 1930s, Henry Street and places like Kinderland in the Catskills were proponents of cultural activities as a means to reach out to American and other cultures.
These activities usually drew from stories and traditions of various ethnic communities and staging them on street pageants. This soon expanded to the “Neighborhood Playhouse” where initial productions drew mixed responses to the use of Jewish traditions and the unorthodox dance movements and bare foot dancers. Similar to the programs offered at the Y, Henry Street believed dance has aesthetic and social value and provided classes from folk to concert dance. Interpretive Dancing, which was derived from Isadora Duncan’s style of natural, unstructured movements and dancing in bare feet was a popular class taught by Blanche Talmud.
Many of her students would become influential figures of the Jewish modern dance movement: Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, Edith Segal, Helen Tamiris, Lillian Shapero, Lily Mehlman , Nadia Chilkovsky, most of whom were of Eastern European Jewish background, got their first opportunities in performing at the Neighborhood Playhouse. They went on to dance for Martha Graham, or Doris Humphrey and other dance companies after the closure of the playhouse. The women from Henry Street broke new ground in politicizing modern dance as an art form for the masses.
Their socialist leanings were a product of their environment as second generation American Jews and working class background. This activism is reflected in much of their work such as Segal’s The Belt Goes Red, created for the 1930 Lenin Memorial at Madison Square Garden. Following the course of Yiddish Art Theater, modern dancers re-directed their energies from their Jewish roots to wider political and social concerns. This trend would continue amidst the hardship of the Great Depression and the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Jewish dancers were actively involved in the fight against fascism and poverty, and used their art to raise awareness by depicting relevant social, economic and political issues of the time. The Postmodern Period The post war period created a shift from collective, political and patriotic sentiments in modern art, to individualistic expression. For Jewish dancers, the devastation of the Holocaust turned their psyche to their identity heritage and began to draw more on themes and stories from Jewish tradition.
Works such as Sokolow’s Kaddish (1945), a prayer of mourning at the end of the World War II; Sophie Maslow’s The Village I Knew (1949) and Pearl Lang’s Song of Deborah (1949) are examples of this. At the same time, there was renewed interest in Jewish folk dance. The establishment of an Israeli state in the wake of the war also raised the status of the folk dance in community activities, with political messages aligned with Zionism . Modern dancers followed this trend to create works inspired by Jewish history and tradition.
This rejuvenation of Jewish consciousness was brought about by the desire to portray positive images of Jewish identity following the war. While conveying the spiritual, affirming aspects of this identity, it deliberately dismisses negative association with Jewish immigrant life or orthodoxy. Fighting antisemitism throughout their history, Jews are now finding pride in their heritage. Following this sentiment, modern dancers also idealized depictions of Jewish life, such as Maslow’s The Village I Knew, which combines mime with folk dance and modern dance technique.
The question of “What it is to be Jewish” is complex and on-going, but the desire to assert their place in mainstream America while maintaining their distinctiveness was not lost in the modern dance movement. If anything, Jewish modern dancers have remained close to their roots, re-inventing themselves with the political, economic and social atmosphere of the times. From the Great Depression to the Holocaust, from the post war to postmodernism, the achievements of these pioneers reverberates throughout the evolution of their art.
In their struggle to gain acceptance in the American model of pluralism, Jewish dancers have also paved the way for multiculturalism and other art movements by fostering a more inclusive creative environment and opportunities for other cultures and experimental artists. Postmodern dance, like modern dance, is a 20th century concert dance form, developed as a reaction to the constraints of modern dance. Radicalism and the shift to individual expressionism led to the rejection of modern dance and its establishments.
The period between the 1950s and 1960s was fraught with political and philosophical anxiety. The anti-establishment sentiment prevalent at the time is reflected in postmodern dance in its radicalism and individual expressionism. Although postmodern dancers sought to distinguish themselves from modern dance, postmodern Jewish dancers such as Margaret Jenkins, David Gordon and Dan Froot continue the struggle of their predecessors in the pursuit of Jewish identity in American life by using the concert stage as a vehicle to express this duality.
With emphasis on more unstructured format, use of mixed elements and spontaneous improvisation, post modern dancers are facing the same challenges as their predecessors with fervor, in a more personal and political level than before. Margaret Jenkins Dance Company
Highbeam Research. Foulkes, Julia L. “Angels [Rewolt]: American Jewish Women in Modern Dance in the 1930s”. American Jewish History. 22 November 2006 http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-70696367.html