The Moment

July 1938

Roll. Martha Graham emerges from Commons carrying a rose-colored jacket. Occasional ripples of wind lift up the green ivy, creating shimmery dances against the brick backdrop. She descends the two marble steps languidly, yielding to gravity's downward tug. She is looking out over the lawn when she sees the camera. A subtle shift turns her direction away from the inquisitive lens. She exits stage left. Cut.

There is a home movie-paparazzi quality to the moment-waiting at the door for the star to emerge. Doris Ewing, a physical education teacher who has traveled from Michigan to participate in the 1938 Bennington School of the Dance, is filming the scene. The expense of the 8mm Kodachrome film and camera on her teacher's salary and the bravado of pointing the camera at the famous dancers shows how much she wants to capture it all. But she didn't get the shot of Martha that she so desperately wants. There is an off-scene exchange. Martha acquiesces to another take.

Roll. Martha steps out from the shade into the white Vermont summer light. She provides the requested smile and briskly walks past, draping the jacket over her arm. Heads turn to watch. Louis Horst emerges in his habitual suit with bulging waist and too-short tie at the last moment and stands surrounded by young dancers. Cut.

Martha and Louis look exactly as they should, as they had, as they would. His accessories of choice are typically a stubby cigar clenched in his teeth or his dachshund Max carried in one arm-he was a caricature artist's dream. It seems impossible that they were lovers but equally impossible that they were not. Their love affair, however, isn't the relationship that defines them. They are artistic collaborators. Louis knew Martha from Denishawn, where he was the musical director and she was a dancer. He recognized her greatness before she was a star, before she was Martha. Martha knows Louis emphatically believes in her; she trusts his opinions and critiques above all others. Their temperaments are a perfect balance: both artistically obsessive, but Martha's obsession is fueled by her passion ("To practice means to perform, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.") and Louis's obsession is fueled by his precision ("Complete control!...Don't do willow stuff...Don't dangle!...Never lose the planal concept.")

There will be trials and triumphs in the coming years. But here there is only this moment. There is only this day. They are shining brightly, not under the spotlight, but in the Vermont summer sun. They are at Bennington. "A wonderful place," Martha explained, "where we were given the freedom and possibility to make our dances."

From the Archive


In 1934, Martha Graham's connection to Bennington College began when she accepted a teaching position with the Bennington School of the Dance. One of the foremost American choreographers of the 20th century, Graham's influence on modern dance is revolutionary-compared to that of Picasso's paintings and Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture. Bennington's progressive atmosphere fostered an artistic haven for Graham to explore her new language of movement and theatre. While at Bennington, many of Martha Graham's early works premiered in the College theater. She was influenced by Bennington faculty members Ben Belitt and William Carlos Williams, among others; American Document, one of her major works, debuted on August 6, 1938 and was based on Williams' poetry. She collaborated with sculptor Alexander Calder on her ballet Panorama, which debuted in 1935. Letter to the World, based on the love life of Emily Dickinson, debuted in 1940. Martha Graham was the recipient of three Presidential Honors. In 1937, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Graham to the White House; she was the first dancer to perform there. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Graham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making her the first dancer and choreographer to receive the award. President Ronald Reagan presented her with with one of the first National Medal of Arts in 1985.

A pianist, composer, teacher, and writer, Louis Horst was a formative influence on American modern dance. He met Martha Graham while he was musical director for Denishawn and the two developed a deep and abiding friendship-eventually becoming lovers. Horst's influence on Graham was impactful, accompanying Martha on her first dance lesson in 1916 at Denishawn, as well as her solo debut in New York City years later. When the Bennington School of the Dance was initiated in the summer of 1934, Horst and Graham became instructors, living in Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House and in Cricket Hill. Of Horst's influence on Graham, Dance Critic John Martin said to Dorothy Bird, a longtime Graham student: "Don't you realize that without Louis standing there beside [Graham], day in, day out, adamantly refusing to let her improvise...she would have changed the choreography...until it finally became diluted...No one else could possibly have done this for her, and no one else ever did!" Martha Graham herself knew how important Horst was in her life-both personally and professionally. "His sympathy and understanding but primarily his faith, gave me a landscape to move in. Without it, I should certainly have been lost." Saying further, "I feel so deeply that without him, I could not have achieved anything I have done." Horst's influence was not confined to Graham. He also accompanied modern dance luminaries Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Agnes de Mille, as well as hundreds of young dancers at Bennington. Louis Horst founded Dance Observer magazine in 1934 which created a resource for dancers and choreographers. Horst received the Capezio Dance award in 1955, and was referred to as the "illustrious dean of modern dance" when he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities from Wayne State University.

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