Dudley, Jane (b. 3 April 1912, New York City, NY; d. 19 September 2001, London, United Kingdom)
Jane Dudley began studying dance at the Walden School, a progressive day school for children. She continued her professional studies at the Mary Wigman School in New York City. The curriculum included technique, improvisation on a kinetic theme, and dance studies. She joined the Wigman group in 1931. About 1934, Dudley joined the New Dance Group (NDG) which had been formed in 1932 under the slogan, “Dance is a Weapon of the Class Struggle.” In 1931, a delegation of American communists had returned from Moscow to declare, “Art is a Weapon” in the United States. The group included Edith Segal who represented the Red Dancers. Other artists declared, “Music is a Weapon,” and organizations used prose and poetry for agitational propaganda purposes. These organizations would join to support one another’s work in order to confront the problems of the day during the Great Depression including hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and the oppression of the worker. At NDG, the Wigman curriculum was transformed to include technique, improvisation based on a political theme, and lessons in Marxist thinking. Dudley became a key member of the group during the early phases of its development.
Because NDG believed in the power of the collective, works such as Strike (1934) were overseen by Dudley, but she did not choreograph the piece. She directed the dancers and workers who took classes at NDG to improvise movements such as the winding of a gear or a picketer. The work would then be forged into a presentation for audiences in union halls. In addition, dancers at NDG such as Dudley, Sophie Maslow, and Miriam Blecher performed on the high-art concert stage with their own solos. Dudley choreographed her masterwork, Time is Money (1934); it could be performed in union halls or on the concert stage. Dudley chose to use the communist writer Sol Funeroff’s poem, “Time is Money,” as both inspiration and accompaniment for the dance. This demonstrates the interlocking relationships between the artists of the period.
Because Dudley wanted to gain strong dance technique, in 1935 she began her studies with Martha Graham and joined the company in the same year. While working with Graham, Dudley choreographed one of her most important works, Harmonica Breakdown (1938), which protested the exploitation of African American sharecroppers. In 1942, she co-founded the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio, which performed in New York and toured throughout the United States. With the Trio, she retained her dedication to both modern dance principles and the power of cooperative work. The trio performed co-choreographed political works that protested racial discrimination in the U.S. and fascism abroad; they also created popular works that used fables, comedy, and celebrated the nation. With Graham, Dudley originated roles in Letter to the World (1940) and Deaths and Entrances (1943). She became NDG President between 1950 and 1966; she subsequently taught at Bennington College (1966-1968), served as Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Group in Israel (1968-1970) and directed the London School of Contemporary Dance (1970-2000).
Dudley remained dedicated to utilizing current dance practices while exploring both dance and politics. Dudley’s later teaching and creative exploration, inspired in part by post-modernist dance, influenced the emergence of revisionist choreographic practices in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s. She performed in works that challenged the age boundaries of the dancing body and, until the end of her career, remained committed to political theatre. She portrayed Mother Courage in a 1978 production of Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1938).
Dudley is survived by her son, Tom Hurwitz, an Emmy Award winning cinematographer.
Text by Victoria Phillips Geduld
Franko, Mark. 1995. Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Garafola, Lynn, ed. 5.1 (Spring, 1994). Of, By, and For the People: Dancing on the Left in the 1930s. Studies in Dance History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Geduld, Victoria Phillips. 7.1 (2008). “Performing Communism in the American Dance: Culture, Politics, and the New Dance Group.” In American Communist
Victoria Phillips Geduld, "Jane Dudley," Routledge Dictionary of American Modernism, forthcoming.
Graff, Ellen. 1997. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City,1928-1942. Durham: Duke University Press.
Prickett, Stacey. 7.1 (1989). "From Workers' Dance to New Dance." In Dance Research: 47-64.
Rosen, Bernice, ed. 2000. The New Dance Group: Movement for a Change. London: Routledge.
Moving Image Material
New Dance Group Gala Historic Concert 1930's-1970's (videotape). 1993. New
York: American Dance Guild.
Time is Money. Exhibition webcast, Library of Congress. New York: Historic Dance Theatre, directed by Mitch Goldman.
Politics and the Dancing Body. 2012. Washington, DC: Library of Congress
Dance is a Weapon. 2008-10). Pantin, France: Centre National de Danse. Exhibition catalogue in French.
The Jane Dudley Collection, Library of Congress, Music Division, Washington, DC.
Dudley, Jane. Oral history. Bennington Summer School of the Dance Project. Columbia University Center for Oral History, New York, NY.