Martha Hill, 1900-1995

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Author: Muriel Topaz
Date: Feb. 1996
From: Dance Magazine(Vol. 70, Issue 2)
Publisher: Dance Magazine, Inc.
Document Type: Obituary
Length: 959 words

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The number of people in the dance world grieving the passing but, what is more important, celebrating the life and contributions of Martha Hill is nothing less than astounding. Her influence is pervasive; the names of those whose lives she touched is a Who's Who of American dance.

It was she who created early opportunities for Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm - first by providing teaching possibilities at Bennington College and later by establishing company residencies at the American Dance Festival. It was she who provided an early home for the Jose Limon Dance Company, a vital step in the growth of that company, which this year - under the artistic direction of her protegee Carla Maxwell - enters its fiftieth year. It was she who brought Merce Cunningham to the attention of Graham and she who nurtured the work of Anna Sokolow.

Dance education, however, was Miss (never Ms.!) Hill's forte. Her initial teaching year was 1920, at the Kellogg School of Physical Education in Battle Creek, Michigan, followed by stays at Kansas State Teachers College, the University of Oregon, and the Lincoln School at Columbia University Teachers College. In 1929 she took charge of dance at New York University's School of Education, later organizing a graduate major in dance. At Bennington College, in 1932, she founded the first-ever bachelor of arts degree in dance. In 1951 she created the dance division of the Juilliard School.

The curriculum she developed at Juilliard was the first to insist that every student study both classical ballet and modern dance in addition to receiving the noted school's rigorous musical training. This curriculum has become the paradigm, "the conservatory model," on which most tertiary training is based. Alumni of the school constitute a major force in the international dance community: Paul Taylor; Bruce Marks; Martha Clarke; Dennis Nahat; choreographer and filmmaker Donya Feuer; Rena Gluck, director of the Rubin Academy in Israel; Carl Wolz, founder of the dance program at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts; as well as numerous others. In 1987, at the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Juilliard dance division, Martha Hill wrote: "Coming from East Palestine, Ohio, [where she was born in December 1900] suddenly I found this beautiful thing in dance. I see this today in our students from the hinterlands. Instead of the body being a carnal thing, it was a beautiful instrument."

In her Bible Belt childhood Miss Hill studied voice and piano; there wasn't much dance to be found. Since her parents didn't like the idea of theater, she was sent to a school of physical education. Her father did stake her to a summer in New York where she studied ballet, dance with Anna Duncan, and Dalcroze eurhythmics. She earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1929 and a master of arts from New York University in 1941. She spent summers studying dance as well as pursuing philosophy (at the University of Chicago) and the art and dance of the American Indian. She also continued professional training in ballet, modern dance, folk, and country dance.

When, in 1926, Martha Hill saw Martha Graham in performance, her decision was made. She studied with Graham whenever she could save enough money to come to New York, and she performed with the Graham Company from 1929 to 1931. She returned to full-time teaching because she needed to earn a living.

Miss Hill's life was devoted to facilitating the work of the artists she most respected. Doris Humphrey wrote: "I first knew [her] in the early 1930s when the modern dancers were young, headstrong, running like wild things through the streets of tradition. With what patience and tact she persuaded us all to find common cause under the friendly wing of Bennington College, and how well she managed. . . to bridle those rebels without sacrificing their individuality."

Martha Hill herself, upon receiving an honorary degree from Bennington College, wrote ". . . if I have to name the one accomplishment I'm proudest of, I think it's probably achieving collaboration. . . . I like to say, my major is people. That's my talent - I am good about understanding and reconciling different points of view. It seems to me I'm sort of a catalyst - pushing things ahead."

Never sufficiently recognized, she did, however, receive honorary degrees from Adelphi University, Mt. Holyoke, and the Juilliard School; a presidential citation from New York University; and the City of New York Mayor's Award of Honor. The now-defunct Association of American Dance Companies; the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation; Columbia University; and the Dance Notation Bureau all presented her with awards for distinguished service. Although she received a special citation from Capezio, the coveted Capezio Award never came her way because she refused to step off its awards committee in order to be so honored.

In October 1952, Martha married her lifelong love, Thurston "Lefty" Davies, director of New York's Town Hall. He died in 1961. She is survived by a brother, Lewis Hill, of Lake Alfred, Florida, and a stepdaughter, Judith Dilts, of San Jose, California. She is also survived by her dance "children" all over the world.

All of us who developed our skills under her watchful eye carry an inner vision of the impeccably dressed Miss Hill, coiffed with her signature asymmetrical topknot, striding down the hallway in her energetic, no-nonsense manner, stentorian voice calling out. We miss you, Martha, but we will carry on.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A17878941