julia foulkes

Barbara Morgan Captures Dance


Caption for two photographs by Barbara Morgan (photos in the collection of The New School) placed by the auditorium, 66 W. 12th St.

Martha Graham, the “high priestess” of modern dance. This photograph from her solo Imperial Gesture (1935) conveys domination cloaked as high-mindedness, a comment on the zealotry of warring nations. The collapse in defeat at the end of the dance was perhaps “left-wing wishful thinking,” a critic chided. The dance may have lacked subtlety but it channeled Graham’s surety in her role as an artist, commentator, and seer.

But who is Doris Humphrey? If Martha Graham was modern dance’s priestess, Humphrey was its engineer. Although less well known now, Humphrey was as famous as Graham in the 1930s, especially heralded for her development of choreography in modern dance. She danced the role of the Matriarch from With My Red Fires (1936), also a domineering figure, who attempted to wield control over young love. Fist clenched, face etched by determination, skirt swept aside, she is ready to pounce.

These two women forged movement with meaning, leaving behind the ethereal fantasies of ballet for the hard realities of war, domination, and strife. They kept their feet bare, faces serious, and movement fierce. The photographer Barbara Morgan captured an ephemeral art form as it emerged and gave monumentality and permanence to it. And The New School offered them a stage, a classroom, and an audience primed to appreciate that women dancing could move the world.

Graham and Humphrey first appeared at The New School in a course entitled “Dance Forms and Their Development,” taught by the New York Times dance critic, John Martin, in 1931. Both continued to appear in lecture-demonstrations on modern dance and Humphrey taught courses in choreography and dance from 1931-36. The studio in the basement of 66 W. 12th St. was formally dedicated as the Martha Graham Room in 1962.

Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham, “Imperial Gesture”, 1938, printed late 1970’s, gelatin silver print, 13 7/8 x 10 7/8 inches, paper size, signed. Source: newschool.edu

Barbara Morgan, Doris Humphrey, “The Matriarch”, 1938, estate stamped early 1990’s, gelatin silver print, 13 7/8 x 10 7/8 inches, paper size. Source: newschool.edu