'Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter': Film Review

Miss Hill Still - H 2015
Courtesy of First Run Features

Miss Hill Still - H 2015

Obligatory viewing for dance aficionados

Greg Vander Veer's documentary tells the little-known story of Martha Hill, a pioneering figure in the teaching of modern dance

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.

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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.

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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 Buntine
Editor: Elisa Da Prato
Composer: Florent Ghys

No rating, 80 min.