Doris Humphrey (1895 – 1958) was born in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, on October 17, 1895. Humphrey enjoyed an eclectic childhood exposure to dance and music that ranged from the traditions of classical ballet, Bach, and piano lessons through clog dancing and vaudeville, to expressive movement with the inspiring educator Mary Wood Hinman. It was Hinman who encouraged Doris to go to Los Angeles at age 18 to work with Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn. She quickly became a valued member of the Denishawn company, taking leading roles and teaching in the Denishawn school. As her choreographic experience grew, so did the desire to find a creative voice rooted in her own culture rather than in Denishawn’s derivative/exotica repertoire. This deep-seated need to pursue her own choreographic ideals led her and fellow dancer Charles Weidman to leave Denishawn in 1928 to set up their own studio and company in New York. Humphrey wanted to experiment with natural movement and to make dances that were indigenous to being American. The Humphrey-Weidman Company gave regular performances in New York and toured the country extensively for many years. In 1946 she became artistic director of the José Limón Dance Company until her early death in 1958 at the age of 63. The drive to create dance that was indigenous to her American roots remained at the heart of her choreographic explorations throughout her life. On a more personal note, Humphrey met her husband, Charles ‘Leo’ Francis Woodford (born in Hull, Yorkshire), in 1931 on a cruise to the West Indies. She had been sent on vacation by her dancers to rest and he was an officer of the cruise ship. They had one son, Charles Humphrey Woodford, who today runs Dance Horizons, the prominent dance publishing house.
Humphrey’s movement philosophy embodies the principle of ‘Fall and Recovery’ which she defined as two conflicting yet intertwining impulses, the desire to achieve perfection and stability, and the equally compelling urge to experience the danger of the ‘wilder emotions’, the ecstasy of abandon. Humphrey examined and re-examined the process of life in nature and in man and was regarded as philosophic in her powers of deduction, scientific in her powers of analysis, and poetic in her powers of expression. Her choreographic repertoire includes many works considered masterpieces, from early pieces that mirror the movement of winds and waves to mature compositions that reflect the complexities of human relationships. Air for the G String (1928), Water Study (1928), The Call/Breath of Fire (1929/30), The Shakers (1931), Two Ecstatic Themes (1931), New Dance (1935), With My Red Fires (1936), Passacaglia (1938), Day on Earth (1947), Ritmo Jondo (1953 ), Dawn in New York (1956). These are just some of her extraordinary dances still performed today – testimony to their enduring and universal qualities. Humphey’s book, The Art of Making Dances, published shortly after her death in 1958, continues to be regarded as a seminal text on choreography. Despite her early and untimely death, the legacy she left us is rich indeed. (LM)
Further writings on and by Doris Humphrey are located in the Archive.