Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Miss Hill, Making Dance Matter @ Art Screen

Martha Hill
Having grown up in a ballet school, I am very familiar with the energy, enthusiasm and (perhaps) mania that drives good dance teachers  - somewhere in Wessex, my mother is still urging young people to appreciate the glories of ballet. Martha Hill, admittedly working in a more contemporary choreographic context shared with Gypsy Booth a dedication to training, a determination not to be beaten by larger forces and a life-long passion for expression through the body.

Sentimental memories of my mum aside. Martha Hill comes across in the film Making Dance Matter as a champion of the avant-garde. Although she began her career as a dancer in Martha Graham's company, she soon discovered an aptitude for administration and pedagogy, which would lead to her long term role as Juiliard's director of dance (1952-1985).

Using old footage of her schools - including some spectacular sequences of many of the great American Modern Dance pioneers - and interviews with Hill and her friends - Making Dance Matter serves as  a fine testimony to someone who could be ferocious but also dedicated to her students' excellence. That her latter years were tangled by a conflict with New York Ballet over who got the best studios during the relocation of Juilliard only emphasises that here was a woman unwilling to bow to even the brightest names in the ballet firmament.

American Modern Dance - and its offshoots, such as the dance theatre developed by Pina Bausch - is one
My mum and my sister
of the most crucial theatrical movements of the twentieth century. Hill's personality - creative, dogged and lyrical - can be read in the work of the finest choreographers: indeed, Bausch herself was Hill's pupil. By pulling together talented creators into her school, Hill allowed collaboration and even found space for this pioneers to rehearse within Juilliard.

The film has the charm of a lovingly crafted obituary. It never baulks at showing Hill's ferocity, but dwells on her compassion and enthusiasm. Her pupils do remember her power, but also a more nurturing side, and the film operates both as an essay on her influence and as a marvellous archive of  contemporary dance vocabularies.

Of course, without Miss Hill, there would never have been the Sunday lunch arguments between Vile Jnr and his mother regarding the relative aesthetic worth of ballet against AMD. So, I can thank Hill for the long silences and my mother's continued campaign, a bit like Freddie Mercury, to bring ballet to the masses.

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