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The life and dances of Doris Humphrey: power and harmony

Days on Earth, the Dance of Doris Humphrey, by Marcia B. Siegel. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 333 pp. $30. Doris Humphrey, an American dance pioneer, followed her vision with such commitment, overcoming so many problems to do so, that just reading her biography is arduous. But ``Days on Earth, the Dance of Doris Humphrey'' is also compelling because of Humphrey's original ideas and generous spirit, and because her biographer is so well matched to her. Marcia B. Siegel, a frequent dance reviewer for this paper, views Humphrey's uncluttered choreographic style with a critic's clear eye. But she also lets us see Humphrey's passion for dance, through which she expressed her optimism and love for humanity.

Dance is fleeting by its very nature. Siegel explains that Humphrey's was especially so. She didn't live as long as her contemporaries Martha Graham and George Balanchine. (Humphrey passed on in 1958.) More important, she had each dancer contribute his or her own particular sense of dance to a work. Siegel points out that this element is left out of revivals of her work. ``She left notated scores of many of her dances, but these don't describe the luminous spirit of the works or tell how to capture it,'' Siegel writes. And then, with attention to dates, dancers, and historical perspective, she goes about capturing that spirit.

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Humphrey left more than 7,000 items for posterity - notes for dances, correspondence, manuscripts for lectures. There are also many films of her dances. Quotations show her as articulate, plainspoken, and witty. Best of all, Siegel gives fascinating descriptions of the dances, supported by an understanding of what they meant to Humphrey and the dancers. What we get is scholarship laced with a fan's glee.

Humphrey was inventing her own kind of movement in a world that had seen only ballet and the decorative work of Isadora Duncan and the Denishawn Company. ``Graceful dancing still abounds for those who are romantic,'' she wrote in 1935. ``But the modern dance is for those who have progressed toward and accepted a wider interpretation of contemporary life, one which includes both dark and light. It is for those who believe that art is a revelation of the meaning of life and not an escape from it.''

Siegel shows us the dark and the light in Humphrey's life. In 1928, she and Charles Weidman left Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn's company, Denishawn, and started the Humphrey-Weidman group, which lasted until 1944. They never had a significant financial backer. Time to make dances came only after they had survived grueling cross-country tours. Humphrey spent summers teaching to raise money. At a time when fellow Denishawn graduate Martha Graham won new audiences with a more elaborately theatrical style, the Humphrey-Weidman group, looking threadbare, saw its audiences diminish. Yet at every bad turn, Humphrey responded with a dance of power and harmony.

``What she believed in was the joy of work, the strength of collaboration,'' Siegel writes. She unselfishly shared dance ideas with colleagues and students, and steered the career of her prot'eg'e Jos'e Lim'on. Her personal life was also collaborative. Her husband, Charles Woodford, a seaman, was rarely home. Her son was raised with help from the ``dance family'' she lived with - Weidman, Jos'e Lim'on, and his wife, Pauline Lawrence. Her son is mentioned only fleetingly, usually as one more small burden on his mother's time. It leaves one wondering what their relationship was like, since he preserved much of the material Siegel draws upon. This is a small oversight in a very satisfying work. It is a book that needed to be written, and more than that it is a fine duet between author and subject.

Maggie Lewis is a free-lance dance critic and reviewer.

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