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Jean Erdman

Immediate Family:

Daughter of John Piney Erdman and Marion Dillingham
Widow of Joseph Campbell
Sister of Private; Private; Private and Private

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Immediate Family

About Jean Erdman

Jean Erdman (born 20 February 1916) is a dancer and choreographer of modern dance as well as an avant-garde theater director.

Early years

Erdman was born on February 20, 1916 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her father, John Piney Erdman, a doctor of divinity and missionary from New England, settled in Honolulu as a minister at the non-denominational Protestant Church of the Crossroads where he preached, in both English and Japanese, to a multi-ethnic congregation. Her mother, Marion Dillingham Erdman was a member of one of the founding industrialist families of Hawaii. She enjoyed singing, often songs composed by Hawaiian composers, and with her husband, performing in amateur theatrical productions.

Erdman's earliest dance experience was of the hula, the indigenous Hawaiian dance whose lyrical swaying hip movements and hand gestures combine to create a polyrhythmic style that is both narrative and abstract. She attended the Punahou School in Honolulu where she learned, as a form of physical education, Isadora Duncan interpretive dance. Reflecting on her early dance training Erdman said these two influences taught her that dancing is an "expression of something meaningful to the dancer, not a mere series of lively steps."

From Hawaii, Erdman went to Miss Hall's School for Girls in Pittsfield, Massachusetts from which she graduated in 1934. There her intellect was ignited, but she was troubled by the attitude towards dancing that caused her to be disciplined for teaching the hula to her classmates. Later, in the open intellectual atmosphere of Sarah Lawrence College that she attended from 1934 to 1937, she was able to explore more freely her multiple interests in theater, dance, and aesthetic philosophy.

At Sarah Lawrence she encountered her two greatest influences: Joseph Campbell and Martha Graham. Campbell, a professor of comparative literature who later became one of the world's foremost authorities on mythology was her tutorial advisor. This began a dialogue about the process of individual psycho-spiritual transformation and the nature of art that was to continue throughout their lives. Erdman was also captivated by the modern dance technique she learned in Martha Graham's classes at Sarah Lawrence and at the Bennington College Summer School of Dance that she attended during the summers of 1935 and '36.

In 1937 Erdman joined her parents and younger sister on a trip around the world during which she saw the traditional dance and theater of many countries including Bali, Java, India, Cambodia and Spain. Speaking of her experiences on this trip and of her later study of world dance cultures inspired by it Erdman said, "by studying and analyzing the traditional dance styles of the world, I discovered that the particular dance of each culture is the perfect expression of that culture's world view and is achieved by deliberate choices drawn from the unlimited possibilities of movement." Shortly after Erdman returned to New York she married Campbell on May 5, 1938 and following a brief honeymoon began rehearsal as a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.


Erdman distinguished herself as a principal dancer in Graham's company in solo roles such as the Ideal Spectator in Every Soul is a Circus, the Speaking Fate in Punch and the Judy and the One Who Speaks in Letter to the World, Graham's ode to the American poet, Emily Dickinson. Dance critic Margaret Lloyd of the Christian Science Monitor praised the "felicitous humor" Erdman brought to her role as the Speaking Fate and called her "irreplaceable" in the 1941 revival of Letter to the World. Working with Graham, Erdman had re-shaped the role, originally played by actress Margaret Meredith, from that of a static seated figure to a moving, integrated element in the groundbreaking dance-theater work. In The Complete Guide to Modern Dance, historian Don McDonagh writes of the "profound effect" that these speaking roles had on Erdman. He attributes her many explorations of the dynamic between word and movement to these early experiences.

As all female Graham dancers of the period Erdman was required to study choreography with Louis Horst, Graham's musical director. Horst presented lecture-demonstrations on his principles in pre-classic dance forms, and his students demonstrated his ideas through their own compositions. Her first solo, The Transformations of Medusa, which premiered at the Bennington Summer Festival of the Arts in 1942, began as an assignment for his class. The final version, with a commissioned score by Horst, remained in her repertory through the 1990s. Erdman's performance of this dance was also the subject of Maya Deren's unfinished 1949 film Medusa.

Originally an exploration of primitive style or archaic style, The Transformations of Medusa developed from a short study of the two-dimensional form into a complete dance of three sections. Erdman described the yearlong evolution of the piece as the process through which she came to understand that every posture contains "a whole state of being or attitude toward life." The dance evolved as she attuned herself to the physical sensations of the stylized positions and followed where they led her. It was Campbell, informed by his deep well of mythological imagery, who identified the psycho-spiritual transformations of the dance as the inner life of Medusa, the beautiful Greek virgin raped by Poseidon and then condemned for her own defilement to life as a snakey-headed Gorgon by Athena. Throughout her career, Erdman pointed to this experience to demonstrate her aesthetic process of exploring the dynamic rhythms inherent in a seed movement idea to create a unique, organic form.

In 1943, at the urging of Campbell and composer, John Cage, Erdman and fellow Graham Company member, Merce Cunningham, presented a joint concert sponsored by the Arts Club of Chicago. They each presented three solos and collaborated on three duets. Erdman's solos included The Transformations of Medusa, Forever and Sunsmell with a commissioned score by Cage and a spoken text from the titular poem by E. E. Cummings, and Creature on a Journey, a comic antic to a percussion score by Lou Harrison. Cunningham's solos included Totem Ancestor, In the Name of the Holocaust and Shimmera, all with scores by Cage.[6] The three collaborative duets were Seeds of Brightness, a lyrical dance with a commissioned score by Norman Lloyd, Credo in Us, a dramatic dance with a text by Cunningham and Ad Lib, both with commissioned scores by Cage. According to Erdman, Ad Lib "was considered rather shocking because it incorporated improvisations. At that time it was not considered acceptable to perform inprovs in public. That was for the privacy of your studio."

In 1943, Erdman left the Graham Company—though she continued to appear as a guest artist in her role in Letter to the World into the 1970s—in order to explore her own dance vision. In 1944 she formed the Jean Erdman Dance Group and for the next six years presented annual concerts of her solo and group works in New York City. Simultaneously she was invited to join the New Dance Group, an avant-garde dancers' collective with which she presented her work often. At the New Dance Group Erdman also taught "fundamentals of modern movement," hula, and Spanish dance and along with Pearl Primus and Hadassah, was head of the Ethnic Dance Division. Erdman resigned from the New Dance Group in 1949 over aesthetic differences. The Group was strongly committed to social change through dance whereas Erdman was equally committed to individual transformation through disciplined exploration of the art form.

Among Erdman's other important works of the 1940s were Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945) and Ophelia (1946) with commissioned scores by John Cage on prepared and standard piano respectively, Passage (1946) with a commissioned score by Otto Janowitz, Hamadryad (1948) to Debussy's Syrinx, The Perilous Chapel (1949) and Solstice (1950), both with commissioned scores by Lou Harrison. Of The Perilous Chapel which featured a moving sculptural set by Carlus Dyer and was selected as one of the Best New Works of the Season by Dance Magazine, Doris Hering wrote, "When the dance was over one realized that by means of purely physical and visual elements, Miss Erdman had succeeded in giving a moving picture of the experience of an artist through phases of isolation and realization."

Other dance critics of the time noted her unique approach to dance making. New York Times dance critic John Martin remarked, "that Erdman's movement is perhaps as near to being non-associative as movement can be, yet it is freely creative. The method of composition, though naturally without story content, avoids any connotation of being merely decorative, much as non-objective painting avoids it, and manages to be just as strongly evocative." Reporting on a group concert at the 92nd St YM/YWHA in which Erdman participated Edwin Denby wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, "Miss Erdman's (approach) is a more original and refreshing one to encounter. There was a lightness in the rhythm, a quality of generosity and spaciousness in the movement that struck me as a dance should, as a poetic presence." Walter Terry also writing for the Tribune commented, "(Her dance) attracts through rare beauty of pattern, through gently shaded dynamics and through that intangible essence we call quality. It does not appeal directly to the intellect nor to the emotions, but rather it seems to carry its message on its own short-wave system to the senses themselves."

From 1950 to 1954 Erdman toured annually with her company in the US. In 1954-55 she toured India and Japan as a solo artist, the first dancer to do so since World War II. The report she filed with U.S. State Department helped initiate cultural exchange programs with India and many countries in the Far East. From 1955 through 1960 Erdman toured extensively as a solo artist throughout the U.S. Notable works from her repertory of that period include Changingwoman (1951) with a commissioned score by Henry Cowell including vocalizations by Erdman as she moved through a multi-colored abstract projected environment, Portrait of a Lady created to jazz recordings that were layered by John Cage into his eight track commissioned score, Dawn Song, a lyrical solo with commissioned score by Alan Hovhaness, Fearful Symmetry (1956) an allegory in six visions inspired by William Blake's poem, The Tyger to Ezra Laderman's Sonata for Violincello in which Erdman emerged from and interacted with a metal sculpture by Carlus Dyer, and Four Portraits from Duke Ellington's Shakespeare Album (1958), a suite of comic portrayals of Shakespearean heroines.

In 1960, Erdman reorganized and renamed her dance company to reflect her explorations of the inter-relationship of movement, music, visual arts and spoken text. As noted above this interest began much earlier for Erdman. As early as 1946, John Martin noted, "She is keenly alert to modern experiments in the other arts music, poetry, visual design and employs them freely." Her musical collaborations with composer Ezra Laderman which had begun in 1956 with Duet for Flute and Dancer, inspired by Erdman's interpretation of Debussy's solo flute composition Syrinx in her 1948 solo Hamadryad and culminating in the 1957 group work Harlequinade, featuring dancer Donald McKayle, were the subject of a feature story in Time Magazine in April 1957. In the theater Erdman had choreographed a production of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies (1947) for the Vassar Experimental Theatre, the Broadway production of Jean Giraudoux's The Enchanted (1950) and collaborating with writer William Saroyan and composer Alan Hovhaness, she directed and choreographed Otherman or The Beginning of a New Nation (1954) at Bard College. The newly named Jean Erdman Theater of Dance toured the U.S. and gave concerts in New York City. Among the notable works of this period are Twenty Poems (1960), a cycle of E. E. Cummings's poems for eight dancers and one actor with a commissioned score by Teiji Ito, performed in the round at the Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village and The Castle[disambiguation needed], an exploration of improvised and structured movement with jazz clarinetist-saxophonist Jimmy Guiffre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (1970).

In 1962 with the aid of a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, Erdman began what was to become her best-known work, The Coach with the Six Insides, an adaptation of James Joyce's, Finnegans Wake. The title is a line from the text found in episode 11.3.359. She had become well acquainted with the novel during the four and a half year period that her husband collaborated with Henry Morton Robinson to write A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944). While Joyce's story is told from the perspective of the male barkeeper Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Erdman's work a combination of dance, mime, and Joycean stream of consciousness language focuses on the female psyche, as seen through the many incarnations of the main female character Anna Livia Plurabelle. Erdman danced all the aspects of Anna Livia from young woman, to old crone, to the rain itself that becomes the River Liffey flowing through the heart of Dublin. Actors Anita Dangler, Van Dexter, Leonard Frey and Sheila Roy created the other characters from Joyce's labyrinthine work. Teiji Ito was the musical director and composed the musical score on a vast array of instruments from around the world including among others, Japanese bass drums, Tibetan cymbals, a violin and an accordion. Robert DeMora designed the scenery and costumes.

The Coach with the Six Insides premiered at the Village South Theatre in Greenwich Village on November 26, 1962. It ran for 114 performances and received the OBIE and Vernon Rice Awards for Outstanding Achievement in theater. Following the first New York season it began a world tour including engagements at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, the Theatre des Nations in Paris, the Dublin Arts Festival in Ireland, and the Sogetsu Kaikan Theater Center in Tokyo. Three other North American tours as well as another New York season in 1967 followed. In 1964 the work was featured on the CBS Camera Three series and in 1966 WNET Channel 13 produced an interview with both Erdman and Campbell called, A Viewer's Guide to the Coach with the Six Insides. Many dance historians continue to regard The Coach with the Six Insides as "the most successful—and celebrated—attempt to unite dance and words."

Other theater productions Erdman choreographed during this period include the Helen Hayes Repertory production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1964), the Lincoln Center Repertory production of García Lorca's Yerma (1962) and the New York Shakespeare Festival production of the rock-opera Two Gentleman of Verona (1971) which ran on Broadway for two years and for which Erdman received the Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination.

Erdman was an active teacher throughout her career. In 1948 she opened her own studio where she taught a style-neutral, concept-based technique she developed by combining her study of world dance with anatomical principles. She described it as, "a basic dance training that would, in its most elementary form give the novice an essential experience of the art form, and in more complex variations create a professional dance artist with a completely articulate instrument capable of responding in movement to any choreographic impulse." From 1949 to 1951 she directed the modern dance department at Teachers College of Columbia University. In the summers from 1949 to 1955 she was the artist in residence and head of the dance department at the University of Colorado in Boulder. From 1954 – 57 she was the chairman of the dance department at Bard College. She was also the founding director of the dance program at New York University's School of the Arts and taught there from 1966 to 1971.

In 1972 Erdman and Campbell, recently retired from teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, founded the Theater of The Open Eye. As artistic director of the theater for fifteen years, Erdman presented over one hundred works of traditional and experimental dance and theater. She created many productions for the theater including Moon Mysteries: Three Plays for Dancers by William Butler Yeats, Fire and Ice (a cycle of poems by Robert Frost commissioned by the Library of Congress), Gauguin in Tahiti and The Shining House: A Dance Opera of Pagan Hawaii. The Open Eye was also the venue for Campbell's lectures on comparative mythology, later captured in the PBS series with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.

In the 1980s Erdman began reviving her early dance repertory and presenting it annually at The Open Eye. These performances culminated in the NEA funded 1985 Jean Erdman Retrospective at Hunter Playhouse in New York City, about which New York Times dance critic Anna Kisslegoff wrote, "anyone wishing to know something about where modern dance is today can find the roots in this retrospective." From 1987 through 1993 Erdman served as artistic director of an NEA funded project to create a three volume video archive of these early dance works, Dance and Myth: The World of Jean Erdman. Today her dances are presented and staged through Jean Erdman Dance, a company dedicated to promoting Erdman's repertory and aesthetic vision.

Personal life

Erdman and Campbell did not have any children. For most of their forty-nine years of marriage they shared a two-room apartment in Greenwich Village in New York City. In the 1980s they also purchased an apartment in Honolulu and divided their time between the two cities. Campbell died in 1987. In 1990, Erdman became the founding president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation and continues as its president emeritus. Since 1995 Erdman has lived exclusively in Hawaii.


Invocation: Maya Deren (1987)

The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell (1987)

Dance and Myth - The World of Jean Erdman (1990)

Awards and nominations

Awards1972: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography - The Two Gentlemen of Verona

1963: Obie Award - Special Citation - The Coach with the Six Insides

1963: Vernon Rice Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre - The Coach with the Six Insides

1993: Heritage Award from the National Dance Association for contributions to dance education Nominations1972: Tony Award for Best Choreography - The Two Gentlemen of Verona

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Jean Erdman's Timeline

February 20, 1916