‘Miss Hill’ shows why women matter

The frustrating thing about the documentary “Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter” is that while it illuminates an important part of dance history, it’s light fails to shine as brightly as it could do to lack of distribution. Dance has rarely mattered more in American history, with the rise of such shows as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The Miss Hill in question is Martha Hill. The documentary makes a convincing argument that Hill helped make dance a legitimate art form in America by helping establish the Juilliard Dance division. Her achievements were overshadowed by others such as George Balanchine. Yet using archival film and photos and contemporary interviews, director Greg Vander Veer makes a convincing argument that Miss Hill mattered in the world of dane.

Hill was born in Ohio and attended the Battle Creek Normal School of Physical Education in Michigan where she eventually became a dance instructor; she taught ballet and Swedish gymnastics for three years. In 1923 she moved on to the Kansas State Teachers College as a dance instructor. In 1926, she moved to New York City where she studied under several dance teacher, most importantly Martha Graham. A year later, she was hired as an assistant professor of dance in Oregon, but by 1929, she was back in New York, joining the Martha Graham Dance Company. With a teachers degree from Columbia University, she became a teacher at the Lincoln School of Teachers College. She then joined the New York University Physical Education Department of the School of Education in 1930 where she became the director of dance. The demands of her teaching forced her to quit the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Hill would in 1948 form the Connecticut College School of the Dance and in 1951 she was the first director of dance at Julliard where she remained as director until 1985. She was named Artistic Director Emeritus in 1985, but continued to teach. She died in 1995 at 94. Her students included included Paul Taylor, Muriel Topaz, Pina Bausch, Daniel Lewis, Lar Lubovitch, Dennis Nahat, Linda Kent, Bruce Marks, Mercedes Ellington, H.T. Chen, Martha Clarke, Susan Marshall, Jenny Coogan, Robert Garland, Mark Haim and Henning Rübsam. Bausch was also the subject of a movie, a German documentary directed by Wim Wenders that had a wider release.

Chen, Clarke, Haim and Taylor are among the people interviewed.  Taylor is considered one fo the foremost choreographers of the 20th Century in America and Martha Graham called him the “naughty boy” of dance because of his use of modern movement in classical music and for his subject matter. The Shanghai-born Chen went on to form his own company and create new works influenced by his Asian American background. Director Vander Veer interviewed many more dancers who knew Hill.

Juilliard is located in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts but was originally founded in 1905 as the Institute of Musical Art.  It was renamed after a textile merchant Augustus D. Juilliard bequeathed a substantial donation for the advancement of music in the United States with the Juilliard Foundation created in 1920 to manage the funds. The foundation started the Juilliard Graduate School in 1924 at what had been a Vanderbilt guesthouse.  Juilliard relocated to the Lincoln Center in 1969. And this, according to the documentary, put it in competition with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for rehearsal space. Former student Dennis Nahat recounts a charming tale about how resourceful Hill was.

Hill was both a top level performer, a great administrator and teacher. And she made sure that other dancers, male and female, had the opportunity to learn how to dance and helping for form Juilliard into a performing arts school.

You will be hard pressed to find a screening of “Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter.”  That’s the greatest disappointment with this film. What would Miss Hill have done? It’s hard to say, but if you can’t find a screening near you listed on the MissHill film website, you can also purchase a DVD for educational purposes ($295) from First Run Features.

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