Film Review: Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter

Packed with archival footage of modern-dance luminaries, this edifying documentary reveals the critical role played by the unsung Martha Hill in the evolution of one of America’s most revolutionary art forms.

Spawned around 1900, prevalent from the Great Depression through the post-World War II years, and out-of-vogue by the year 2000, modern dance is the movement-art form most reflective of the cataclysmic cultural shifts of 20th-century America.  With its stark, revolutionary aesthetic and preponderance of women innovators, it boldly defied European-rooted classicism while forging fresh methods of kinesthetic expression.  Yet, as one learns in the impressive new documentary film Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter, this important dance genre might never have evolved, and certainly would not have flourished, without Martha Hill. 

Martha who?  Though she was a key figure in the nurturing of modern dance, Hill’s name is virtually unknown to the general public and only vaguely familiar among the dance community.  That’s because her critical contributions to the evolving art form occurred largely behind the scenes.  She provided vital support for the great, groundbreaking modern dancers and choreographers via her work as an educator and founder/director of dance programs at Bennington College and The Juilliard School. 

Hill’s crucial role in modern dance history is comprehensively delineated in Janet Mansfield Soares’ exemplary 2009 biography, Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance.  Yet director Greg Vander Veer’s smartly constructed documentary bears viewing, even by those who’ve thoroughly digested Soares’ book. 

The film opens with the prominent noise of low-pitched, propulsive drumbeats – an arresting suggestion of the coming of modern dance.  Those spare percussive sounds that accompany modern dance technique classes were always one of the first elements to strike newcomers to the modern-dance studio, especially those from the ballet world, accustomed to lushly melodic piano accompaniment.  Vander Veer sets the context for Hill’s birth (in 1900) and her upbringing amid the “Bible belt” of the American Midwest, with a vintage film clip of baseball player-turned-preacher Billy Sunday orating with fervor.  Just as Sunday lifts his fist to punctuate his fiery speech, the image jumps to that of a modern dancer–the young Hill–with upraised arms opening wide, launching her into big, full-bodied movements that soar freely both through the air and along the ground.  It’s a wonderful visual reference to the film’s underlying theme: how Hill’s devotion to modern dance–a rebellious art form–paralleled the movement of American society at large from its Puritan roots to 20th-century social and cultural freedoms. 

Vander Veer’s gratifying documentary provides intriguing information, particularly concerning the fierce political battles that nearly resulted in George Balanchine and his School of American Ballet usurping Hill’s Juillliard dance program in the 1960s when the prestigious music conservatory moved into its new quarters at Lincoln Center.  Pertinent historical facts are conveyed by on-screen text and fleshed out by the voices of Hill (who died in 1995) and leading dance-world figures who knew her, including choreographers Paul Taylor, Ohad Naharin and Martha Clarke. 

But the film is also an aesthetic treat, juxtaposing abundant archival footage of such luminaries as Martha Graham, José Límon and Antony Tudor with striking video of contemporary dancers, working sometimes in the same historical spaces.  As many of the archival clips are silent, Florent Ghys’ delicious, rhythmic score figures prominently throughout.  In the absence of a narrator, the music serves as the thread tying together the events of Hill’s life, while mirroring the emotional tenor of the art form’s growing pains and joys.  Though it was produced by the Martha Hill Dance Fund, and its coordinating producer, former dancer Vernon Scott, attended Juilliard during Hill’s tenure helming the dance program, the film lovingly spotlights, but by no means exaggerates, Hill’s pivotal achievements.  

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