I am honored to be a part of this conversation, Stephen. Thanks to you and all members of the Joseph Campbell Foundation for celebrating the life of Jean Erdman! I greatly admire the unfolding story of Erdman’s artistry as it evolved over more than half of the twentieth century. Erdman is an early model of an enterprising modern woman who trailblazed creative approaches to dance making and theatrical performance.
I appreciated your observations about my personal path, Stephen. My career journey has followed the focused path of a labyrinth; it is unlike the structure of a maze, which offers numerous choices. No matter the challenges or dangers or the journey, I remain energized to follow its course! We may often imagine a labyrinth to be two-dimensional, however as you have implied, my path was intricately folded and twisted rather than linear.
Redirecting the conversation back to Erdman, I believe it was young Jean’s determination, courage, intellect, and phenomenal physical abilities that earned the attention of Martha Graham, both at Sarah Lawrence College and during the summers at Bennington College School of the Dance in Vermont. While at Bennington, Erdman had opportunities to study with contemporaries of Graham, many of whom were fiercely independent women and dance pioneers in their own right. Each choreographer advanced a personal theory and approach to dance-making and the training of the body. Young Erdman associated with these strong women, models of the feminist lifestyle. Graham specifically encouraged Erdman’s speaking talents and used them to the fullest in the revised masterpiece Letter to the World (1941). Erdman was confident in her vocal abilities due to skills already developed through performances of ancient hula chants learned in Hawaii. Although Martha Graham did not wish to lose Erdman from her troupe, Graham was aware of Jean’s talents and independent track. Additionally, Campbell had much influence on the trajectory of Graham’s body of work. Subsequently, Graham, Erdman, and Campbell remained lifetime friends.
Erdman’s curiosities were noticed and appreciated, especially by her academic advisor, Joseph Campbell. He introduced Erdman to deep studies in aesthetics, mythology, and philosophy. Campbell became Erdman’s most stalwart supporter at a time when Jean’s career began skyrocketing to stardom.
Erdman took risks by performing with Merce Cunningham beyond the realm of Graham. She danced duets with up-and-coming modern star Erick Hawkins and performed in work by Anna Sokolow. Jean was fully engaged in the experience of being alive! The young dancer desired to learn as much as she could from as many sources as she could access. She was respectful to her teachers and kind to her peers. Other dancers were eager to work with her. Erdman’s early choreographies were welcomed and well-received for their ground-breaking insights. I do not see evidence that resistance stood in the way of creative growth at this time. However, after a brief stint teaching and performing with the New Dance Group (1943-1949), she painfully broke away to assert a more profound artistic direction.
Ultimately, Erdman internalized and synthesized all that she learned from both the early modern dancers and various cultural traditional practices. By digging deeply into primordial and common connections, she explored a full range of human movement possibilities. Subsequently, she created her own theoretical approach intended to train all levels of dancers. Forming a company seemed to be a natural development that aligned with Erdman’s expanding explorations in choreography. Although she experimented with singular aspects of total theatre during that time, it wasn’t until 1960 that Erdman fully embraced the direction and renamed her company the Jean Erdman Theatre of the Dance.
Erdman’s perspective on a choreographic subject or theme developed as she experimented with movement sensations derived from within the body. She explored psychological and emotional states to make them visible in human form. The abstracted results often revealed a psychological stance or archetype. If a narrative seemed present in a dance, that perception was most likely constructed by the viewer but not necessarily intended by the choreographer. Erdman’s dances did not dictate a line of thinking or meaning, rather, the actions, shapes, dynamics, symbolism, and metaphorical meaning often pointed to the sublime and transcendent.