Jean Erdman, a Dancer Moved by Myth, Is Dead at 104
Jean Erdman, a Dancer Moved by Myth, Is Dead at 104
Jean Erdman, a modern dancer, choreographer and theater director whose work was suffused with the dreamlike aura of myth and legend, died on Monday in Kailua, Hawaii. She was 104.
Her death, in a nursing facility, was announced by Nola Hague, a friend.
A former principal dancer for Martha Graham, Ms. Erdman first came to wide notice as a choreographer in the 1940s, and she remained in the vanguard of the field for decades. She later created performance pieces for the Theater of the Open Eye, an avant-garde New York stage she founded in 1972 with her husband, Joseph Campbell, the scholar of literature and myth.
Ms. Erdman was among the first choreographers to exploit the inherent theatricality of dance, melding it with drama, poetry, music and visual art to form a seamless whole, or “total theater,” as it was known then. Today it might be described as performance art.
Her dances, among them “The Transformations of Medusa” and “Ophelia,” often focused on the inner lives of women — unorthodox fare at midcentury.
Ms. Erdman was known in particular for her collaborations with some of the world’s leading contemporary composers, including John Cage, Lou Harrison, Ezra Laderman and Alan Hovhaness.
While the allusive, impressionistic quality of her choreography bewildered some critics, many praised her work for its lyric mystery; its soft, fluid lines; and its ability, at its best, to conjure worlds both real and imagined.
Her most renowned piece was the dance drama “The Coach With the Six Insides.” A comic adaptation of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterwork “Finnegans Wake” (the title comes from Joyce’s text), it married dance with spoken dialogue, mime and Joycean wordplay. Its original score, by the Japanese composer Teiji Ito, featured Eastern and Western instruments.
In Ms. Erdman’s adaptation (inspired partly by “A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake,” the 1944 guide written by Professor Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson), the story shifted its focus to Finnegan’s wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle.
Anna is the incarnation of the River Liffey, which flows through Dublin. Ms. Erdman danced the role herself, along with other parts, including those of a hen and the rain. In still other roles she cast, as she put it, “actors who can move like dancers.”
The show opened in 1962 at the Off Broadway theater Village South, where it ran for 114 performances, a noteworthy achievement for a dance program.
Writing about “The Coach With the Six Insides” in The New York Times that December, Allen Hughes said: “The vocal and emotional inflections of the four actors who work with Miss Erdman are so rich and musical, one really need not try to make literal sense of what they say. Miss Erdman has choreographed virtually every movement they make, and this means that there is a visual rhythm that organizes what they do.”
“The Coach With the Six Insides” won a Vernon Rice Award (a forerunner of the Drama Desk Award) and a special citation from the Obie Awards, the Off Broadway honor given by The Village Voice. The production toured the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan and was later revived in New York.
Ms. Erdman also choreographed several Broadway productions. Among them were the poet W.S. Merwin’s translation of Federico García Lorca’s tragedy “Yerma,” staged in 1966, and the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1971 rock adaptation of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
For “Two Gentlemen,” which had music by Galt MacDermot, the composer of “Hair,” and lyrics by the playwright John Guare, Ms. Erdman received a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a Tony.
Jean Erdman was born on Feb. 20, 1916, in Honolulu. Her father, John Piney Erdman, the scion of missionary family, presided over a nondenominational congregation there; her mother, Marion (Dillingham) Erdman, was the daughter of one of Hawaii’s most prominent industrialist families.
Growing up where she did, Ms. Erdman later said, she found dancing “as natural as swimming.” As she told The Times in 1982: “I found myself involved with the dance as a child in Hawaii. We’d have picnics on the sand and get up and do hulas. I didn’t even know what I was talking about at the time, but I wanted to create my own theater.”
That early training had an unfortunate consequence when the young Ms. Erdman was a student at Miss Hall’s School, an exclusive preparatory academy in Pittsfield, Mass.
There, she taught her classmates her native dance and was disciplined soundly for it. Even on the heels of the Roaring Twenties, the hula was considered no fit fare for young ladies.
Ms. Erdman studied with Ms. Graham at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, N.Y., after enrolling there in 1934. She also studied with another faculty member, Professor Campbell. Dropping out of college to make a round-the-world trip with her family in 1937-38, she became entranced by Eastern dance traditions, including those of Bali, Java and India.
Ms. Erdman married Professor Campbell in 1938, settling in Greenwich Village, and joined the Martha Graham Dance Company that same year. Her best-known roles with the troupe included the One Who Speaks in “Letter to the World,” based on the poems of Emily Dickinson, and the Speaking Fate in “Punch and the Judy,” Ms. Graham’s comic ballet about marital dissonance.
By the mid-1940s, Ms. Erdman felt she needed to break free of Ms. Graham’s autocracy.
“I finally had to inform Martha of my convictions to go out on my own,” she told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2003. “The confrontation was just awful for me. She said, ‘I didn’t think that you would ever let me down.’”
Ms. Graham eventually forgave her, and Ms. Erdman later appeared with the troupe as a guest dancer.
Ms. Erdman founded her own company, the Jean Erdman Dance Group, later renamed the Jean Erdman Theater of Dance. In the mid-1950s, she toured East Asia as a soloist. She was believed to be the first American dancer to appear there since World War II.
Her other works as a choreographer include “Creature on a Journey,” inspired by Balinese dance; “Fearful Symmetry,” in which a dancer is encased in a sculpture by the American artist Carlus Dyer; “Hamadryad,” to the music of Debussy; and “Twenty Poems,” a setting of E.E. Cummings.
Her dance “The Transformations of Medusa” was the subject of “Medusa,” an unfinished 1949 film by the experimental documentarian Maya Deren.
Over the years Ms. Erdman taught at Columbia University Teachers College, Bard College and the University of Colorado. She founded the dance theater program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1966 and remained on the faculty through the early 1970s.
Her best-known disciples include the internationally known modern dancer and choreographer Muna Tseng and the dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Nancy Allison, the executive director of Jean Erdman Dance, an organization that notates, preserves and stages her work.
In 1990, Ms. Erdman was the founding president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Living in Greenwich Village for many years, the couple later divided their time between New York and Honolulu. Professor Campbell, whose best-known books include “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1949), died in 1987. Ms. Erdman moved back to Honolulu permanently in the 1990s.
No immediate family members survive.
A major retrospective of Ms. Erdman’s work, including many staged performances, was held at the Hunter College Playhouse in Manhattan in 1985. Interviewed by The Times shortly beforehand, Ms. Erdman, then 69, expressed mixed emotions about not performing there herself.
“I can’t stand not dancing,” she said. “I hate it. But since I’m not dancing this time I tell the dancers much more. I guess you release your perspective instead of holding it for yourself.”
Emmett Lindner contributed reporting.