UMass Dance Program receives photographic collection by Barbara Morgan

By Michelle Williams

(Amanda Joinson/Collegian)

Recently the University of Massachusetts Dance Program received a collection of images taken by the late Barbara Morgan, a photographer known for her dance images.

The donation includes 38 images taken by Morgan in the 1930s and ’40s. Including storyboards from Bennington College Dance Festival, the images portray an event thought of as pivotal in the development of modern dance. Morgan was the first American photographer to document the changes and development of modern dance.

Of the photographs given, some are of Pearl Primus, an African-American dance icon and pioneer in modern dance. In the photographs, Primus performs her signature dances. Primus drew on the dances and cultures of Africa, the Caribbean and American slavery for inspiration in her dancing. She helped shaped what is now considered mainstream modern dance despite resistance from critics. In the 1980s, she was a member of the Five College faculty, teaching anthropology and dance at Amherst College.

Barbara Morgan was a photographer, painter and teacher, though she is best known for her work in capturing images of dance. She attended the University of California, Los Angeles as an art student, where she also worked later in life. In 1930, she moved to New York where she concentrated on photography. She captured dancers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey, Erick Hawkins and notable others. Morgan has received awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. She has also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The collection also includes images of Erick Hawkins. A leading American modern-dancer and choreographer, Hawkins was the first male dancer to dance with the company of Martha Graham. After leaving Graham’s troupe, Hawkins formed his own called The Erick Hawkins Dance Company. He changed the path performances were taking, insisting on performing only to live music, touring with the Hawkins Theatre Orchestra. In 1994, he was presented the National Medal of the Arts by former President Bill Clinton. Of the images of Hawkins included, one is titled “El Penitiente.” Taken in 1940, the photograph shows Hawkins mid-air with his arms strained and veins pulsing, portraying the physical tension of the dance. He has his chin tilted upward, facing a grey sky in the background.

The collection will be a permanent part of the University’s art collection and will be preserved at the University Gallery. To view the works, appointments must be made through the gallery’s registrar.

The donation was given by Nils Morgan, a grandson of Barbara Morgan, and his spouse, Kara Rillings Morgan. According to a release, the couple made the choice to give the collection to the University based on the integrity of the program. With the donation, Nils Morgan said in a release, “As part of the Five College Dance Department, UMass is a prominent center of dance in higher education. It also offers an outstanding fine arts program. We are confident the Barbara Morgan images will be put to thoughtful creative educational uses.”

In a release, Director of the Dance Program Peggy Schwartz said, “We are truly honored to receive this gift. These historic photos will inspire and educate our students, our audiences and generations of dancers yet to come.”

The department plans to re-stage some of the dances in performances by the University Dancers, the University’s student performing company.

Schwartz has lectured and published works on dance education and national standards in the arts, and she regularly presents at conferences of the Congress on Research in Dance. She and her husband Murray Schwartz are currently working on a biography of the late icon Pearl Primus titled “The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus” set to be published in 2010.

With the gift, Peggy Schwartz said in a release that she believes UMass will be known as a center for black dance education, “With the inclusion of significant photos of Pearl Primus and Asadata Dafora, UMass becomes a major locus of Primus scholarship and home to important images of the development of black dance in America.”

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected]