The Moment



June 1969

Martha listens to the words being read. "Martha Hill Davies, you hold a rare place in American Dance. As dancer, teacher, collaborator, and administrator you have been the catalyst who has given vitality, structure, and style to modern dance here and abroad." Bennington College is awarding her with an honorary degree. It is a significant and unusual moment: Bennington very rarely gives honorary degrees. She is honored, yet as she listens, her posture impeccable, the hint of a smile forms in the corners of her blue eyes. She is slightly amused at the formality. Her irreverence is partially defensive, a deflection from being the center of attention, but it is also informed by her many years at Bennington.

Hill knows Bennington College is many things, but formal is not one of them. She arrived at the College in 1932 with the first entering class. When the class was ready to graduate four years later, neither students nor faculty nor administration could exactly articulate what should happen, although there were plenty of opinions about what should not happen: There shouldn't be an outside speaker, their attendance shouldn't be mandatory, and it certainly shouldn't take very long. Even the seemingly most elemental parts of a college graduation were eschewed—the diplomas, printed by students, would not be handed out individually but rather put in their mail slots. Turning away from the traditional graduation formalities was not an embrace of austerity but rather the College's conviction in the meaning of a Bennington education—progressive, questioning, and unfettered by convention.

The documents in the College archive reveal Martha Hill as being everywhere, with everyone, all the time. She is endlessly organizing, planning, teaching, arranging, explaining, and solving. She is at the center but the attention is always directed outward. There is a notably beautiful exception: In 1938 renowned dance photographer Thomas Bouchard captures a rare moment of her alone—away from her students in Commons, away from the groups of dancers on the lawn, away from her administrative duties in the Barn. She is dancing on the tennis courts: her face serene, torso twisting, arms reaching out with open palms, her shadow stretching long across the hard, terracotta-colored clay.

Bennington College is awarding Martha Hill with an honorary degree. She is listening to the words being read. She is at the center, as always, but now the attention is turned to her. "Martha Hill Davies, you have taught us to move and to love the sight of movement; you have taught us how to teach; by your inspiration, imagination, discipline, and verve you have turned the world of dance at Bennington and in America into a distinguished estate."

From the Archive

Biography

Martha Hill made her mark in history as one of the 20th century's most influential dance instructors. Inspired after watching Martha Graham perform in 1926, she studied with Graham and danced in her company from 1929 through 1931. When Bennington College opened its doors in 1932, Hill was hired to chair the discipline. Hill made history at Bennington, creating the first-ever bachelor of arts degree program in dance. In 1934 Hill conceived and directed the Bennington School of the Dance, with faculty members including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm. Of Hill, 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." Hill echoed those comments years later, after receiving an honorary degree from Bennington (1969): "...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." Martha Hill's additional accomplishments include founding the dance program at Juilliard and establishing dance residencies at the American Dance Festival. She also received honorary degrees from Adelphi University, Mt. Holyoke College, and the Juilliard School.

Sources:
Aldrich, Elizabeth. America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100. The Dance Heritage Coalition, 2000. Print.
Dunning, Jennifer. "Martha Hill Dance Educator is Dead at 94." New York Times 21 Nov. 1995. Print.
Godwin, Rebecca. Martha Hill on Early Dance at Bennington. Bennington Fall 2007. Print.
Topaz, Muriel. "Martha Hill, 1900-1995." Dance Magazine Feb. 1996: 116+. Print.