by Rachel Wallach
Peabody Dance celebrates a century of being at the leading edge of an American art form.
Her last year at Peabody Dance—2008—Tyler Brown fell in love with a piece called Meander. Drawing on Grecian themes, it was slow and enchanting and had been choreographed by longtime artistic director Carol Bartlett, who died in December 2012.
Captivated, Brown didn’t want to stop dancing the piece, and her mother suggested she consider dance as a career. Today, a dancer in Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in New Jersey, Brown says Meander’s adagio style has become one of her fortes and that her entire Peabody Dance experience gave her a head start in her profession.
“If it wasn’t for Peabody, I don’t think I’d be dancing professionally,” Brown says. Thanks to Peabody, “I understood professionalism at a very young age. It helped my artistry. Technique alone can make you get caught up in insecurity. Movement comes from a deeper place.”
It is that sort of insight—the sense that dance does rely on steps and technique and discipline but is also so very much more—that the program has tried to instill in its students throughout its first 100 years.
For Peabody Dance, it’s been a century at the leading edge of an American art form. Some of the most important figures in dance have frequented the program’s studios, whether as students, teachers, guests, or mentors. Its faculty have always offered students—even in their early years—top-notch training, exposure to dance forms both established and avant-garde, and an environment of motivation and innovation.
This spring, Peabody Dance is celebrating its centennial with performances and a conference in conjunction with the Society for Dance History Scholars to share its stories and accomplishments through dance, talks, and archival exhibits.
Setting the Stage
Peabody Dance was born in December 1914 when the Peabody Institute decided to offer classes in Dalcroze Eurhythmics to teach musicians about music through movement of the body, says Melissa Stafford, the program’s director and department chair.
The first ongoing eurhythmics classes to be offered in the United States, they were taught by Portia Wager and then Ruth Lemmert, both of whom had studied under Emile Jaques-Dalcroze himself. Within a few years, Peabody Dance became a distinct entity offering a range of classes. But that early connection with music and musicians foreshadowed the kind of collaboration that would become one of the program’s hallmarks and which continues today.
When Peabody Dance was founded, American concert dance was in its infancy. Most Americans associated dance with vaudeville and Broadway, and just one serious ballet company was operating on American soil. But a wave of female solo dancers emerged in the 1890s who steadily fostered respect and interest in dance. The most influential of these, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, forged a new conception of dance as art. From the beginning, Peabody’s program stood at the forefront as the burgeoning identity of dance in the United States took shape.
In 1916, Gertrude Colburn arrived to teach “barefoot” or aesthetic dance—for which Duncan is best known—along with eurhythmics. Two years later, she began teaching ballet, making Peabody one of the first places outside New York City to offer rigorous ballet training based on methods used at the Russian Imperial Ballet School—in contrast to the vaudevillian style more common at that time, says Lisa Green-Cudek, a Peabody faculty member who specializes in teaching creative dance to young children. (Together with a dedicated corps of parents, Green-Cudek has been mining the program’s archives and will present her research into the program’s early years at the spring conference.) Several of Colburn’s students went on to become significant dancers and teachers, Green-Cudek says, and one—Lillian Moore—danced in George Balanchine’s first company, American Ballet, in 1934, and became the nation’s first dance historian.
Peabody Dance’s signal collaboration leaped into the public eye with a 1922 production of Orpheus and Eurydice featuring 200 Peabody dancers, musicians, and singers. The production was reprised in 1928 and countless interdisciplinary efforts have followed. “Being embedded in the Conservatory has given us wonderful resources; it has been a strong thread for us throughout our history,” Green-Cudek says.
In another example of the trailblazing tradition, modern dance director Bessie Evans and her sister, Peabody Preparatory founder May Evans, published American Indian Dance Steps, detailing their research into Native American dance. This syllabus of steps and dances was published in 1932, a time when many dancers were exploring new and non-Western ways of moving, ranging from Egyptian to immigrant folk. The book was the first to examine Native American styles.
In 1932, Colburn fell down Peabody’s stairs and was paralyzed. Depressed, she followed the advice of a student who suggested that she’d spent her life molding bodies and simply needed to switch art forms, Green-Cudek says. Colburn began creating art nouveau sculptures of dancing figures, at least six of which will be on display during the centennial celebration.
The same year, Portia Mansfield arrived with a strong background in both ballet and modern dance—a blend that describes the program’s dual focus today. Following a performance career with the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet, America’s first major touring company, Mansfield went to central Europe to study with Harold Kreutzberg, a former student of European modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban and a leading exponent of expressionist dance. Kreutzberg and other expressionist dancers focused on improvisation as a way of tapping into feelings, inner experiences, and imagery from the dancer’s subconscious.
Growing by Leaps and Bounds
When dance visionary Carol Lynn formally launched Peabody Dance’s ballet program in 1942, she had already made important contributions as the administrative director at Jacob’s Pillow, founded by noted modern dancer Ted Shawn in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Before joining the Pillow, Lynn had studied ballet in New York with Mikhail Fokine and Elisabetta Menzeli, and modern dance with Shawn and St. Denis at their influential Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, and remained in touch with prominent dancers from her time there. During her many summers at the Pillow, Lynn also crossed paths with renowned artists including José Limón, Merce Cunningham, Pearl Primus, La Meri, and choreographers and principal dancers from the company now known as American Ballet Theatre. Lynn pioneered the filming of dance performances, some of which will be on display during the centennial.
Drawing on those lively connections, Lynn introduced an element that quickly became another of Peabody Dance’s hallmarks: frequent visits by guest artists who further raised the bar on the program’s level of training and provided inspiration and professional networking for young dancers. Notable guests included Shawn and St. Denis, along with England’s renowned choreographer of new “psychological” ballets, Antony Tudor. Later, Peabody alumna and Lynn student Jane Ward Murray returned as a guest after dancing with Balanchine’s New York Ballet Society, later known as the New York City Ballet.
“Bringing people from New York to work with students in Baltimore helped launch some people’s careers and provided them with the kind of connections to the dance world that enabled them to go out and forge their own way,” Stafford says.
One of those people was Helene Breazeale, who went on to found Towson University’s Dance Department and still speaks reverently of those heady days as a Lynn protégée. She studied pointe and partnering with Tudor, who appreciated Lynn’s mother’s home cooking during his weekend visits from New York, she says. And she remembers that Lynn brought guests from American Ballet Theatre who would dazzle the program’s students by setting for them acts from ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake, and Les Sylphides.
“You were in the presence of greatness and you knew it,” Breazeale says of the guests. “[Lynn] was way ahead of her time. Nobody was doing master classes then.”
In 1955, Lynn brought Martha Graham dancer Dale Sehnert to the program to complement her ballet focus. Among other accomplishments, Sehnert launched Peabody Dance’s most famous alumna, MacArthur “genius grant” winner Martha Clarke, a theater director and choreographer known for her multidisciplinary approach to dance, theater, and opera. Sehnert also developed Peabody Dance’s first program for boys.
Just before her retirement in 1970, Lynn lured Spanish dancer Maria Morales to the program to teach Spanish classical and flamenco dance. Anna Menendez, who would later become a key figure in the flamenco renaissance, was one of Morales’ students.
Carol Bartlett arrived in 1988 from the University of Southern California’s Community School of Performing Arts. Having studied with Sigurd Leeder, part of the expressionist European modern tradition to which Kreutzberg belonged and also a student of Laban, Bartlett brought the program full circle by cultivating her students’ creative process and expression and using Laban work to systematically guide her students through exploration and analysis of movement, Green-Cudek says.
Laban is a sophisticated approach that takes dancers far beyond the simple learning of steps. “You really work with your weight, breath, space, energy, and focus in a very conscious way to develop patterns of movement and expression,” Green-Cudek says. “Carol Bartlett fostered that awareness in young dancers.”
She did so by doing something now rare prior to the undergraduate level: She taught improvisation during technique classes and offered classes in improv and composition to advanced students. Bartlett would develop choreography during class and invite students into her creative process, Green-Cudek says, giving them opportunities to improvise and often incorporating the material that emerged.
The program today continues to offer students an unusually sophisticated relationship to the world of dance, Stafford says. For example, while everyone starts with ballet, contemporary is taught beginning at age 8, and many advanced pre-professional students have the opportunity to study improv.
“So when students go to college dance programs or summer programs, they tend to be ahead of their peers in terms of their skills in contemporary dance, and in particular in their ability to react to material and shape it,” Stafford says. And because the program is part of the Peabody Institute, musicians add another dimension with frequent appearances in dance studios and performances; Conservatory students and faculty often adjust a piece’s music as dancers develop the choreography, and most performances include live accompaniment. “Many people don’t have the experience of dancing with live music until they’re in a professional company,” Stafford says.
In 2001, Balanchine pupil and Pennsylvania Ballet founder Barbara Weisberger came to the program as artistic advisor, a position she holds to this day. Believing that excellent ballet training is a powerful technical base for all forms of dance, Weisberger’s main purpose was to bring the level of ballet training up to the 21st century with the influence of Balanchine’s “American classicism.”
Weisberger says Bartlett’s talents and the richness of her teaching lent the dance program an aesthetic quality that students carry into their lives regardless of whether they pursue dance professionally. That quality has a lot to do with the depth that Tyler Brown discovered back in 2008; under Bartlett, says Weisberger, the traditional wall between ballet and modern dance fell away to reveal a common link whose purpose is to divulge meaning through human movement—in other words, she says, choreography.
“The teacher of dance has a special responsibility to train beyond technique,” she says. “When you’re an artist using an inanimate instrument, the artistry comes through you. With a human instrument, you have almost a double creative team, and it’s all about the interpretation through the human body and the human soul. That is probably the secret and also the wonder of dance.”