Bessie Schönberg, Pioneer Dance Educator and Choreographic Mentor

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Bessie Schönberg was one of the foremost dance educators of the 20th century and was highly influential in contemporary dance. Schönberg taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1936 to 1975, where she created and directed one of the first autonomous dance departments in American higher education. Founded on the philosophy of progressive arts education, the Sarah Lawrence program served as an important example for other emerging dance programs in the decades between the 1940s and 1970s, a time of significant growth in college dance programs in the United States. Some of her former students became well-known professional choreographers and dance educators, including Carolyn Adams, Elizabeth Keen, Meredith Monk, Lucinda Childs and Victoria Marks, and several contributed information to this study.

Schönberg’s life and career were deeply intertwined with many of the most important figures in American modern dance, including Martha Graham and Martha Hill; with historically significant events such as the emergence of the Bennington Summer School of Dance; and with premiere dance institutions such as Dance Theater Workshop, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, The Julliard School and Dance Theatre of Harlem. The book examines her early life in Germany and family background, her years of professional preparation in America as a dancer and educator, and her educational experiences at Bennington College Summer School of the Dance. It also describes curricular innovations that chairperson Schönberg instituted at Sarah Lawrence, and her original methodology for teaching choreography, as observed at Jacob’s Pillow and Dance Theater Workshop.


“Bessie Schönberg was a central figure in American modern dance for most of the twentieth century, from the time she began working with Martha Graham in 1929 until her death in 1997. She served as a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend to many generations of dancers and artists, and she was widely celebrated during her lifetime for her achievements. Three theaters bear her name, and winning a Bessie – the New York Dance & Performance Award – is considered to be one of the greatest honors in the world of dance. She was the subject of an insightful film portrait by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and her papers are collected in two extensive archives, at Sarah Lawrence College and at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Until now, however, there has been no comprehensive book to examine her life and her influence. It’s time.

Books by or about dancers and choreographers have been plentiful from the time of Isadora Duncan’s My Life to the numerous biographies and autobiographies of Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, and many others. Far less common have been studies of the people who helped shape such talents, although there were often formidable forces at work behind the scenes … Until Schönberg’s death in 1997, the only people with a window on her working methods were those privileged to study with her or those allowed to observe her in class. The Pennebaker/Hegedus documentary film opened the door to a far greater audience, and now, with this book, those wishing to learn more about an influential teacher have further means to do so.

I first had the opportunity to observe Bessie in the studio at Jacob’s Pillow in 1980 and we became close friends in the mid-80s when I was the Pillow’s Director of Educational Programs and she was teaching her annual workshops there … It always struck me as incongruous that Bessie would be interested in having her life studied, as she was exceedingly modest about her role in helping shape the artistry of so many important choreographers. She even resisted the label of teacher, preferring the concept of a gardener who guides and nurtures, encouraging growth. She would often describe her occupation with a mischievous smile and the overly simplistic statement, “I meddle.” This humble view of herself was reflected in one piece of advice she often gave to young choreographers: “Never call yourself an artist – let other people do that. You are a worker. You are a craftsman.”

Perhaps Bessie knew that by allowing her life to be chronicled, she would be able to extend her influence to future generations. While she was initially reluctant to be the subject of a documentary film, she was remarkably supportive and cooperative once she was convinced that the undertaking would be a boon to dance scholarship. She was not interested in vanity projects.

Capturing her spirit and teachings in words presents a challenge, however, as Bessie’s greatest strengths appeared in the studio rather than in formulas and curricula. Her approach varied depending on the venue and the choreographers. While she is most commonly associated with modern dance, she spent a number of years working regularly with ballet-trained students at Dance Theatre of Harlem, and there were often choreographers from other disciplines included in her workshops. One of America’s most celebrated and versatile choreographers, Jerome Robbins, showed up at a tribute in Bessie’s honor organized by the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 1995. Robbins spoke of studying composition with Bessie in the late 1930s and making his first dance under her tutelage. This event marked his first public recognition of Bessie’s early encouragement and she was very moved by his words of thanks.

Generations of dancegoers also have Bessie to thank for helping shape works that have held the stage for decades. And now, scholars and students and all those who care about dance have this thorough and exhaustively researched volume to help tell the story of a unique twentieth-century American art form and how it came to be.” – (from the Foreword) Norton Owen, Director of Preservation, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and Vice Chairman, Dance Heritage Coalition

“This work is an articulate and important addition to the literature for dance in the areas of dance biography, pedagogy for dance composition, and the history of dance in the university. In this text Noble traces Schonberg's role in mentoring choreographers in and outside the academy over a period of more than 50 years. This has been a history waiting to be told, and Noble tells it fully and well. Using previously unpublished interviews with Schonberg, and interviews with many of her students, Noble engages Schonberg's own voice to tell much of her story and augments this with first hand accounts of study with Schonberg from important dance artists including Meredith Monk and June Finch. The work covers Schonberg's history from her privileged childhood in Germany to her work as Chair of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, to post retirement work with choreographers at Jacob's Pillow and Dance Theater Workshop. Schonberg's life and work is carefully and thoughtfully discussed from personal and artistic perspectives. The discussion of Schonberg's teaching methodologies alone is worth the read. An excellent contribution to the literature for students of the history of dance in the academy, dance composition, and dance biography.” – Professor Thomas K. Hagood, Florida International University, Miami, Florida

Table of Contents

Foreword by Norton Owen
1. Biography of a Dance Educator
2. A Vision for Dance in Education: The Sarah Lawrence College Dance Program
3. An Approach to Dance and Choreographic Education
4. Epilogue

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