Partner José Limón, Peter Hamilton
31 W 10th St, New York, NY 10011
Kensico Cemetery Valhalla, Westchester County, New York, USA
Charles Weidman (July 22, 1901 – July 15, 1975) was a renowned choreographer, modern dancer and teacher. He is well known as one of the pioneers of modern dance in America. He wanted to break free from the traditional movements of dance forms popular at the time to create a uniquely American style of movement.
Born in 1901, he choreographed from the 1920s until his death in 1975. While he is most famous for his work with Doris Humphrey, Weidman did much work on his own. He created a bridge to a new range of movement that he only began to explore. His work inspired many and helped to create a whole genre of dance that is still evolving today.
Charles Weidman began choreographing in a time of great change in American culture. He began his career as a dancer for the Denishawn Company, but soon decided to break free from their exotic style of movement and create a new style that was unique to America. He started the Humphrey-Weidman Company with Doris Humphrey in 1927, right in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. During this decade, society, art and culture were blossoming and thriving. Jazz music began to flourish, dancing became a popular activity, technology flourished, and the United States enjoyed a general sense of economic development. According to Weidman, "It was a positive time, one that said yes to human values, a time full of vitality, there was that urgent need to express oneself but also to express the time in which one lived. There was a belief in the future". In a time when change was coming rapidly and innovations were popular, Weidman brought this to the dance world and changed dance forever. It was Doris Humphrey's idea that the principals of the Humphrey/Weidman Dance Company lived in a seven-room, floor-through flat on the fifth floor at Thirty-One West Tenth Street.
When José Limón arrived in New York City in 1929, the term used to discuss male gender and sexuality operated within a different set of values and meanings than those currently held. George Chaunchey argued that a hightened anxiety about homosexuality developed in the 1930s that resulted in more intense police actions and governmental regulations against men perceived as "gay". This, in turn, prompted a shift from a prewar "gay world" to a mid-century subculture of "the closet". It was within this context that Limón joined the Humphrey/Weidman Dance Company, a membership he held for ten years. During that decade, it was an open secret in the dance world that Limón and Charles Weidman were romantic partners. Their break up in 1940 was a primary reason for Limón leaving the company. Humphrey/Weidman Dance company alumna, Nona Schurman comments: Limón and Charles had been together, of course, for years at the Tenth St. ménage as we used to call it, the Tenth Street apartment, and so apparently, Charles apparently got infatuated with Peter Hamilton, José says it's either Pete or me. So, Charles made up his mind and said it's Pete. Limón left the company and moved to the San Francisco area for two years, choreographing and producing concerts with May O'Donnell, from the Graham Company, and her husband, the musical composer, Ray Green.
by Carl Van Vechten
In an interview with Marion Horosko, dancer Peter Hamilton recounts his introduction to the Humphrey/Weidman Company: They all lived on 10th Street at that point. A large household. Charles and Doris and Pauline Lawrence, and José, and Betty Joiner our costume designer, and Perkins Harnley another designer, they all lived in a very large apartment... Doris had just married Leo. And that kind of fascinated me too, as an outsider. A kind of design for living... I felt that they all lived separate lives in separate cocoons in separate rooms and they only had one meeting time, like in the evening. Where they would discuss a ballet, or dinner, and they would all go their own separate ways. It wasn't the kind of family where they were necessarily intertwined as a family in a living room or that kind of thing. I don't think they even saw each other for breakfast. But their design for living was for their art.
While Weidman began his choreography during this immense time of change, he also choreographed for four decades after he began. He worked through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. Although his work is not very political, his themes and ideas were designed to embody American culture.
Charles Weidman wanted to create a uniquely American style of movement. He wanted to develop movement that was not based on animals or bugs or fairy tale stories like the common themes in popular ballets. He also wanted to break free from the current ideas of modern dance embodied by the Denishawn Company (of which he was a member). He wanted to "dance man and woman in America today". He was most famous for his work with Doris Humphrey, with whom he started the Humphrey-Weidman Company. The two met when they were dancing in the Denishawn Company (of Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis) and they soon after decided to create a dance company that built off a "dance style that sprang from American Soil". Weidman's work was completely new to the dance world because he was trying to break away from ballet's nature of defying gravity to create a dance style that gave in to the natural "pull of gravity".
Weidman's movement vocabulary was based on gravity. In concentrating on this element, the "fall was rediscovered." The idea was to explore how giving into gravity makes one fall, while balancing one's body against gravity could create movement as well. In addition, he emphasized the movements that occurred before and after falling. From these ideas came suspension, or the "body's resistance to gravity"; and succession, or the "progressive unfolding of the body as an impulse flows from joint to joint". This created a whole new vocabulary of movements, which included much floor work, jumping, and falling. In addition to his unique new way of moving, Weidman brought a personal element to the dance world: his dramatic abilities. "Arguably, no one has dramatic skill equal to Weidman". His choreography was expressive and usually very emotional. His work's emotions ranged from comedy to seriousness—yet the expression is always important and always present in his choreography.
Weidman was also well known for the range of choreographic styles in which he worked. He worked in several different elements including religious, comedic, tributary and serious work. Arguably his most famous work, Flickers, was a comedic sketch of silent films, filled with "jerky movements and corny situations". The piece is cut into four different reels that are four different stories or scenes. The pieces are very theatrical and comedic with many exaggerated facial expressions. Racial and sex stereotypes are exaggerated to a point of hilarity. In stark contrast Weidman choreographed a series called Atavisms which consisted of three pieces: Lynch Town, a choreographic depiction of a carnal and bloodthirsty mob acting like vultures about to devour their prey, Bargain Counter, and Stock Exchange. Weidman's work This Passion, a suite of dances depicting popular murder cases, also gained renown. Another of Weidman's major works was Brahms Waltzes, which was dedicated to Doris Humphrey "because it was the kind of movement she loved and could dance so beautifully". Contrasted against that again was a series of dances made as tributes to his mother's side of the family, called On My Mother's Side; this featured a succession of dances based on different members of his mother's side of the family. His later work includes his Oratorios, centered on religious themes, and of which Daniel Clay wrote: "It is a work magnificent in its scope and power and is arguably Mr. Weidman's master opus."
Weidman changed the way dance was danced by working in different parameters. His contributions to the field were recognized when he received the Heritage Award in 1970. One of his former dancers said "all male dancers took concepts from Charles." In his company he trained famous choreographers such as José Limón, Bob Fosse and Louis Falco. Charles Weidman created a new style of dance by rejecting ballet and embracing gravity. He helped lay the foundations for modern dance and many of his ideas are still the basis for modern dance today. Unfortunately, his work is not well known and has been hard to reconstruct because very little of it is on tape and only some of it is in Labanotation. Therefore, it has been up to his former dancers to reconstruct most of his works from memory. However, his passion, influence and ideas have had an important influence on the way movement is studied and created today. Weidman was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.
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