The Grande dame of dance
By Carol Egan
Special to The Advertiser
Jean Erdman Campbell, now 87, takes a daily swim and a stroll through Kapi'olani Park, and otherwise lives a relatively quiet life. But it wasn't always so. The charming and gracious Erdman has a life story that brings together worldwide trends in modern dance, theater and culture, and the history of modern Hawai'i.
Erdman returned to Hawai'i in the 1970s after an absence of 50 years, during which she had made an international reputation for herself in the performing arts.
Her father, John, came from a long line of missionaries, while her mother, Marian, was born into the influential Dillingham family. The couple had five children: a son (who died in a polo accident in Kapi'olani Park) and four daughters. Erdman remembers visiting her aunt and uncle at their home, La Pietra, not far from her present home on Kalakaua Avenue when she was a child.
Although all four daughters danced, only Jean went on to pursue it as a professional career. "I was born in Hawai'i, where dancing is as natural as swimming," she said in a video featuring her early dances.
She studied hula, but was also exposed to modern dance at Punahou School, where physical education included swimming and "barefoot dancing," much in the style of Isadora Duncan free, expressive and natural.
At Sarah Lawrence College, Erdman majored in dance and theatre, meeting a guest teacher who had a great impact on her life: Martha Graham.
She also studied with a professor of mythology who would have an even greater influence: Joseph Campbell.
Though 12 years apart in age, Erdman and Campbell fell deeply in love and married before she had finished college. A college degree was not to be, for the day after they wed, she joined the Martha Graham Dance Company.
"As soon as you joined Martha's company, you automatically studied dance composition with Louis Horst," Erdman said. Horst, a composer and dance accompanist, was Graham's mentor and musical director. His work with Erdman helped her develop as a choreographer in her own right.
The couple found an apartment in Greenwich Village, to which Erdman still returns for part of each year. While Erdman spent most of her time taking classes and rehearsing with Graham, whom she describes as being "clear and unforgiving," her husband was either teaching, studying or writing.
"Joe was such an enthusiastic scholar that he didn't have time for a family or much of a social life," Erdman said. "His greatest ambition was to find the answer to everything."
The decision not to raise a family was a joint one. "Fortunately, he didn't want any children, because he thought it would take too much time and focus away from his work, and I just wanted to dance. We both decided our students were our children," she said.
The couple supported each other in their ventures, including landmark achievements.
"The first full evening of my own choreography occurred in 1942," Erdman recalled. "Actually, John Cage provoked the idea of a shared concert with Merce Cunningham and Nina Fonaroff, fellow members of the Graham company.
"We were all at a New Year's Eve party when John said to my husband, 'I think Jean and Nina and Merce should do a concert together.' But Joe was really the one who gave me the courage to break away. He prophesied, 'If you don't start working on your own, you won't start developing your own dance.' "
The premiere performance of Erdman's work took place at Bennington College. One piece was considered quite shocking because it contained improvisation.
"In the beginning of my career as a choreographer, the dances started with movement, then came the idea. Later the process was often reversed," she said.
By now, Erdman and Cunningham were convinced they had to break away from Graham.
"I finally had to inform Martha of my convictions to go out on my own. The confrontation was just awful for me. She said, 'I didn't think that you would ever let me down.' But a year later, she invited me back," Erdman recalled.
As a guest artist, she performed a role she created: The One Who Speaks in "Letter to the World."
Asked if her husband's work influenced her choreography, Erdman replied: "My mind was filled with mythological imagery, because Joe read everything he wrote to me out loud, to test the rhythms of his writing. At the same time, I was off on my own, exploring my own movement ideas quite separately."
One of her early solos, "The Transformations of Medusa," shows Horst's influence. Horst taught a course in "Modern Forms" which included studies in "Archaic" shapes, by which he meant two-dimensional movements as though a Greek vase painting had started moving.
Erdman also collaborated with other important American composers, including Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. She taught, becoming head of the modern dance division of Teachers' College, Columbia University. She founded New York University's dance program. Eventually, she opened her own studio, where she taught and choreographed works.
Finding the styles of others restricted her, Erdman said, "I wanted to create a basic dance training that would give each dancer a completely articulate instrument not limited by personal style."
Harriet Glass of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's dance program remembers a summer intensive course at UH taught by Erdman in the 1960s. "She had such a flow and softness in her dancing," Glass said. "Her classes were some of the best I've ever had."
Though an excellent teacher, Erdman said she enjoyed performing most. "I was so lucky, because I inherited enough income that I could afford to do what I wanted. You couldn't really earn money dancing; you could only spend it. I am so grateful because my parents and my husband were so supportive.
"I had so much fun touring. I loved to dance to different audiences. I was lucky enough to have good people backstage."
One of those "good people" was professor Roger Long, now associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at UH-Manoa. Long met Erdman while working as a backstage student "techie" in 1960, at the University of British Columbia.
"First of all, she was a striking woman small, lithe and powerful," Long said. "I remember her in the technical rehearsals as being the kind of woman who would listen to you in a contained way and then explain very clearly what she wanted and needed."
Erdman's work as a choreographer has won her many awards and international praise.
Using a pioneering approach known as "total theater," she developed a revolutionary theater piece, "The Coach with the Six Insides" (1962), combining elements from all the performing and visual arts. Based on James Joyce's book "Finnegan's Wake," the production enjoyed two New York seasons and several tours, and received the Obie and Vernon Rice Awards.
Erdman says Campbell's book "The Skeleton Key to 'Finnegan's Wake' " and his aesthetic sense contributed to the creation of this work.
After Campbell's retirement from Sarah Lawrence in 1972 and Erdman's simultaneous retirement as head of the dance program at New York University, the couple came to Hawai'i.
He "wanted out of New York, and there was no reason for him to be there," she said.
While Campbell continued to study and write, he also undertook many speaking tours from their Hawai'i home base. Meanwhile, Erdman found herself doing more and more solo tours, one of which took her around the world. As she recalls: "Joe was on a lecture tour at the same time, and we met in India and again in Japan."
Campbell died in Honolulu in 1987. Erdman now lives in the apartment she bought with Campbell in 1972, near the Dillingham Fountain (dedicated to her aunt, Louise Dillingham).
Her influence is acknowledged.
"It was her unique vision of looking at dancers as not only technicians but as 'originating artists' that made her such an incredible mentor," said Rachel Lampert, artistic producing director of the Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, N.Y., who studied with Erdman at New York University.
"She selected a very diverse and eclectic group of students and forcefully and I use that word with admiration and gratitude introduced her ideas as to how we should start to view the world of dance. She brought in dance artists from all forms of dance and from all over the world. ...
"Jean was an inspiration to most certainly me and an annoyance to others. She never let anything slide. She looked for original voices. She believed that a truly educated dancer was also an initiator, and she was very keen on having us all explore choreography."
Lampert's company performed in Hawai'i, and worked in residence at Pearl City Elementary School. Lampert also choreographed "The Bartered Bride" for Hawaii Opera Theatre.
"Jean taught me to trust myself as an artist," Lampert said. "To never 'fall in love' with my own work, because it was all disposable and it might all need to change."