Jean Erdman

Courtesy Nancy Allison

Jean Erdman, Choreographer and Theater Director, Dies at 104

Jean Erdman, a unique figure in the post-pioneering period of American modern dance and avant-garde theater died of natural causes on May 4, 2020 in an assisted living home in Honolulu, HI. She was 104.

Erdman was born and raised in Hawaii. She embraced hula and other forms of world dance, along with a lifelong dialogue with her husband, the writer/mythologist Joseph Campbell, as important sources of inspiration for her innovative dance and theater creations.


Erdman began her career as soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1938–43, originating many roles in the repertory of that period, including The Ideal Spectator in Every Soul is a Circus, the Speaking Fate in Punch and the Judy and One Who Speaks in Letter to the World, Graham's ode to the American poet Emily Dickinson.

Together with fellow Graham company member, Merce Cunningham, with whom she shared a choreographic debut in 1943 at the Arts Club of Chicago, she was instrumental in seeking out the more abstract direction that marks modern dance to this day. She collaborated with some of the most innovative artists of her time, including composers John Cage, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovanhess and Teiji Ito, poet e.e. cummings, visual artists Peter Max and Paul Jenkins and filmmaker Maya Deren. In 1949, her dance The Perilous Chapel with a commissioned score by Lou Harrison and sculptural set by Carlus Dyer was noted as "one of the best new works of the season" by Dance Magazine. Other notable dances of this period include the solos The Transformations of Medusa (1942), Forever and Sunsmell (1942), Creature on a Journey (1943), Ophelia (1946), Passage (1946) Hamadryad (1948) and the group works Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945) and Solstice (1950).

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. 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 archetype, 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 composed the musical score. 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

Other theater credits include a production of Jean Paul Sartre's The Flies (1947) for the Vassar Experimental Theatre, the Broadway production of Jean Giradoux's The Enchanted (1950), the Bard College production of William Saroyan's Otherman or The Beginning of a New Nation (1954), the Helen Hayes Repertory production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1964), the Lincoln Center Repertory production of Garcia 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 for her choreography.

In 1972 she and Campbell founded the Theater of The Open Eye where she created other total theater works including Moon Mysteries: Three Visionary Plays for Dancers by W.B. Yeats (1972), Gauguin in Tahiti (1977) and The Shining House: A dance opera of pagan Hawaii (1978).

She was an active teacher throughout her career. From 1943–49 together with Pearl Primus and Hadassah, she co-directed what was then called the Ethnic Division of the New Dance Group, a collective of choreographers/social activists for whom she taught hula, Flamenco and Fundamentals of Movement, an early somatic approach to dance technique. She was a tireless ambassador for dance, crisscrossing the US with her company or as a solo artist, teaching/performing residencies from the 1940s through the 1970s. In 1954 she toured India and Japan, the first solo dancer to do so since WWII. The report she filed with the US State Department upon her return helped initiate cultural exchange programs with many countries in the Far East. She was director of the dance program at Bard College from 1954-57 and founding director of the dance program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts from 1966-71.

Among other awards, Erdman received the American Dance Guild Award for Artistic Achievement (1986) and the National Dance Association Heritage Honoree Award (1993). In 2006, Erdman along and the members of the New Dance Group were inducted into the National Museum of Dance Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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