Jane Dudley (1912-2001) began her dance training at the Mary Wigman School under Hanya Holm and joined her troupe in 1931. Three years later Dudley left for the New Dance Group (NDG), a Marxist-based organization that used dance as agitational propaganda during the Depression era. Dudley oversaw collective dances with titles such as Strike (1934), and choreographed modernist solos, including Time is Money (1934), which described the oppression of the worker. In 1935, she began to study with Martha Graham, who had become a leader in what critics were calling the modern American dance. Dudley joined the Graham company in 1935, originating roles in Letter to the World (1940) and Deaths and Entrances (1943). While working with Graham, Dudley choreographed one of her most important works, Harmonica Breakdown (1938), which protested the exploitation of African American sharecroppers. In 1942, she co-founded the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio, which performed in New York and toured throughout the United States. NDG President between 1950 and 1966, she subsequently taught at Bennington College (1966-1968), served as Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Group in Israel (1968-1970) and directed the London School of Contemporary Dance (1970-2000).
Contributions to the Field and Modernism: Inspired by the devastation of the Depression and her ties to leftist artists in theater, music, writing, film, and photography, Dudley joined the New Dance Group in 1934. A “choreographic collective” which experimented with agitprop based on social realism and representational gesture, NDG produced dance works originating in classes that combined technique, improvisation on political themes, and Marxist readings. Students included both workers and aspiring professionals. Using both types of dancers, Dudley directed group works using narrative choreography with everyday movements to incite revolutionary activities.
Critics had defined ‘modern dance’ as movement derived from the ‘inner compulsion’ of the individual. To succeed, the choreographer had to create the expression of a ‘universal’ human emotion through abstraction. Dudley’s seminal works protested workers’ oppression while addressing the corrupting influence of society on the individual. Both as a dancer and a choreographer, she remained committed to technical skill, and the signature roles she created during her tenure with the Graham company attested to her technical mastery. Her most important roles included Letter to the World (1940), with poetry by Emily Dickinson, and one of the three female leads in Deaths and Entrances (1943), inspired by the lives of the Brontë sisters.
In 1942, Dudley co-founded the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio, which presented new choreography using modern dance technique. She retained her dedication to both modern dance principles and the power of cooperative work. The trio performed political works that protested racial discrimination in the U.S. and fascism abroad; they also created popular works that used fables, comedy, and celebrated the nation, such as As Poor Richard Says (1943) and Furlough: A Boardwalk Episode (1945), which celebrated soldiers and women who engaged in the war effort. Between 1950 and 1966, Dudley served as President of the New Dance Group, which remained committed to radical ideology, however muted during the Cold War, while showcasing NDG choreographers in group concerts on Broadway. One such concert in the early 1950s featured Mary Anthony’s The Devil in Massachussets (1952), which protested McCarthyism.
Legacy: Between 1938 and 1934, Dudley taught Graham technique at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. In late 1967, Dudley became Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, where she taught classes and set modern dance repertory on the company, and inspired dancers to adopt a new approach to creative movement. In 1970 she became Director of the London School of Contemporary Dance. With her mastery of the Holm and Graham movement systems, augmented by her own choreographic craftsmanship and innovation, she became a seminal force in the creation of what has come to be known as ‘contemporary dance’. While ‘modern dance’ referred to a cutting-edge art which had been codified, Dudley’s teaching and creative exploration, inspired in part by post-modernist dance, influenced the emergence of revisionist choreographic practices in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s. She took part in performances that challenged the age boundaries of the performing body and, until the end of her career, remained committed to political theatre, portraying Mother Courage in a 1978 production of Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1938).
Source: Text by Victoria Phillips Geduld