Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter tells the inspiring story and largely unknown story of a woman whose life was defined by her love for dance. Martha Hill emerges as a dance's secret weapon, someone who fought against great odds to establish dance as a legitimate art form in America. Through archival footage, lively interviews with dance notables, and rare footage of the spirited subject, the film explores Hill's arduous path from a Bible Belt childhood in Ohio to the halls of academe at NYU and Bennington College to a position of power and influence as Juilliard's founding director of dance. (1952-1985).This revelatory story depicts her role as the leader of the Modern Dance revolution and controversial struggle that accompanied Juilliard's move to Lincoln Center.
‘Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter’:
Greg Vander Veer's documentary tells the little-known story of Martha Hill, a pioneering figure in the teaching of modern dance.
By The Hollywood Reporter Staff
January 21, 2015
A little-known pioneering figure of modern dance is given well-deserved biographical treatment in Greg Vander Veer‘s documentary about Martha Hill, a visionary who was a principal figure in bringing the art form to academia. Bound to enthrall dance aficionados with its copious amounts of wonderful archival footage, Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter more than lives up to its title. The film is receiving its premiere theatrical engagement exclusively at NYC’s Quad Cinema.
Born in 1900 in a churchgoing Ohio town in which dance was considered sinful, Hill nonetheless pursued her passion by moving to New York City in 1929, where she joined Martha Graham‘s company. But her true calling was less in performing dance than teaching it; she began teaching at NYU the following year, and in 1932 accepted a part-time position at Vermont’s Bennington College where she founded a summer dance school.
Among those legendary dance figures with whom she collaborated were Hanya Holm, Jose Limon, Bessie Schonberg, Charles Weidman and Merce Cunningham, all of whom are spotlighted in grainy archival footage in which they’re often seen dancing in an open field. Hill herself is shown in a similar fashion in a film clip shot in 1934.
As the film makes clear via commentary by numerous academics, dancers, and such choreographers as Paul Taylor and Martha Clarke—the subject also weighs in via vintage clips, including one in which she declares, “Modern dance is not a system, it is a point of view”—Hill pioneered the teaching of dance in arts programs rather than the physical education departments to which it had previously been consigned.
In 1951 she was invited to create a dance department at the famed Juilliard School, where she had the radical idea of teaching ballet and modern dance in the same program. Among the instructors was the great choreographer Anthony Tudor, seen applying his officious teaching style in several clips.
Juilliard’s dance department was threatened with closure by the creation of Lincoln Center, with Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine‘s New York City Ballet receiving highly preferential treatment. The ensuing internecine battle, chronicled at length in the film, eventually ended with Hill maintaining the dance division, although under greatly reduced circumstances.
Running a fleet 80 minutes, the film serves as a marvelous primer on the rise of modern dance as an important art form in America. Miss Hill would no doubt have been pleased.
Director: Greg Vander Veer
Executive producer: Martha Hill Dance Fund
Director of photography: Peter Buntaine
Editor: Elisa Da Prato
Composer: Florent Ghys
No rating, 80 min.
MISS HILL: MAKING DANCE MATTER
Film Review – Salute to Dance Pioneer
By Sabrina Lee
June 30, 2020
An ensemble of nine dancers stands together with their hands joined. Their bodies seamlessly flow in a circle. They move in all directions—still joined at the hands. Then, after the dancers settle in a moment of stillness, their bodies collapse towards the center and they repeat it again—a steady rhythm where the body rises and falls. And as we watch the Limón Dance Company rehearse, the film plays a voiceover of renowned choreographer and dancer, José Limón, as he says, “To show a student, to show him that his orchestra, his ballad, his body is a most infinitely capable instrument that there is.”
José Limón is just one of many talented choreographers and dancers that Martha Hill provided with a space to cultivate, nourish, and ultimately, execute their visions for the future of dance. Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter documents the life of Martha Hill, her legacy, and the strides she made in order to make modern dance the respected art form it is today. The film tells the story of modern dance entwined with the visuals of past and present dancers as a tribute to Martha Hill’s lasting legacy in the dance community.
From the very beginning, the film reminds us that, at its core, modern dance is a form of rebellion. In 1900, when Martha Hill is born, modern dance is seen as a sinful display against the Puritan tradition. Through the old videos throughout the documentary, we understand why: modern dance unleashes freedom in the body and by doing so, creates a form of dance that is seemingly boundless.
We learn from the film that in 1932, Robert Devore Leigh, the president of Bennington College, asks Martha Hill to organize the dance department. She then joins Bennington College and also creates Bennington School of the Dance, a summer program to study modern dance. Hill has modern dance visionaries like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and others teach at Bennington. By creating this environment, Hill becomes the trunk of the modern dance tree, uniting modern dance in one place.
We listen as countless giants in the dance industry detail how incredibly remarkable Hill was to create such an opportunity for these dancers. Meanwhile we watch still photos from the Bennington School of the Dance flash on the screen. We see large groups of dancers outside on the grass creating abstract forms, rising and falling from the ground, and exploring the different ways they can shape their bodies. This montage of old footage not only summarizes but celebrates modern dance as an art form.
A Marriage Of Ballet And Modern -- Radical and Revolutionary
Martha Hill’s career then takes her to the dance department at Juilliard. She, again, creates a space for dancers to study from the best. Leading choreographers from both the ballet and modern dance world, with already established companies, come to teach at Juilliard. The various individuals featured in the film explain how Martha was adamant that both ballet and modern dance were taught—a revolutionary and radical idea at the time. To many, ballet and modern were opposites, but Hill understood how training in both styles strengthened a dancer’s repertoire.
Those interviewed in the film clearly have the greatest appreciation and respect for Martha Hill. They explain their utmost appreciation for her impact in stimulating the modern dance movement. Yet, they also share some of her faults—her strictness and harsh exterior at times—not shying away from the failings during Hill’s life.
Viewers should not expect this film to be a mere biography, but instead, a film that celebrates and honors the roots of modern dance, just as Miss Hill did. Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter is a film not only for lovers of dance but anyone who loves the arts and the teachers who lead the way.
Director - Greg Vander Veer
Editor - Elisa Da Prato
Cinematographer - Peter Eliot Buntaine