The Heroine’s Journey

by twinink on February 11, 2013

(This article appeared in the Feb-March 2013, Hana Hou Magazine)

The video—grainy black-and-white and recorded in 1942—is showing its age, but the movements of the dancer it depicts retain a grace undiminished by time. Lithe and strikingly beautiful, 26-year-old Jean Erdman raises a perfectly extended leg, toes pointed like a sharpened dagger. Her arms extend at precise geometric angles, evoking the two-dimensional paintings on a Grecian urn. Her fingers writhe: ten coiled, hissing snakes. As she dances through The Transformations of Medusa, her entire body contorts until, with a perfect, snarling pirouette, she transforms into something at once dynamic and explosive: the untamed Queen of the Gorgons, ready to devour any mortal man.

Seventy years later, sitting in her modest apartment nestled at the base of Diamond Head on O‘ahu’s Gold Coast, Jean Erdman looks far less fearsome. Her nails are painted coral red, and she wears a faint touch of lipstick—a detail one notices because of the frequency of her smile. Now 96 years old, Jean remains astonishingly spry. Despite the occasional memory lapses that have descended in recent years, her brown eyes glisten with a youthful joie de vivre that reflects a casual, almost childlike spirit. “The good thing is I don’t remember any of the bad things,” she laughs. “But the bad thing is I don’t always remember some of the good things, either.” What’s never left her, though, is her love of dance. “From the moment I could stand, I was dancing,” says Jean. “Growing up in Hawai‘i, it came to me as naturally as swimming. I don’t know why I do it; it’s just something that’s always been inside me.”

In a career that spanned five decades, Erdman earned herself a prominent place in the pantheon of American dance, performing in close collaboration with an impressive cross section of America’s most celebrated artists, including Merce Cunningham, Donald McKayle and Martha Graham. Scattered throughout her apartment hang framed accolades that reveal both the depth and effect of her legacy: Obie and Vernon Rice awards, a lifetime achievement award from the National Dance Association, even a Tony nomination. “She’s inarguably one of the pioneers of early modern dance,” says Bob Walter, president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which Jean created to honor her late husband, the world-famous mythologist. “Most of the lions of contemporary dance today cut their teeth with Jean.”

Jean Erdman Campbell was born on O‘ahu on February 20, 1916, from the union of two influential kama‘aina families. Her father, John Erdman, was a local pastor, descendant of a long line of missionaries. Her mother, Marian, was a daughter of the Dillinghams, wealthy titans of Hawai‘i industry. Marian was an avid patron of Hawaiian music and art, and Jean, along with her three sisters, started learning hula at the age of four. While her sisters eventually stopped dancing, Jean never did. She continued on to study Isadora Duncan’s style of interpretative dance as a student at O‘ahu College (which later became Punahou School). In a class photo dated 1933, a teenage Jean in bobbed hair and cheerleader sweater poses on the football field. In another shot, Jean dances barefoot in the sand outside her family’s ranch on Mokulë‘ia beach, her arms outstretched as though ready to fly.

And fly she did, all the way to New York and Sarah Lawrence College, where she met the two greatest teachers of her life: Martha Graham, the “godmother of modern dance” whose influence on the art form has been likened to Picasso’s on painting; and Joseph Campbell, a handsome English professor whose work in mythology to this day inspires storytellers worldwide, from George Lucas to Bill Moyers. Jean learned technique and structure from Martha; from Joe, intuition and passion. In his teachings and writings, Joe stressed that “an individual has to find what electrifies and enlivens their own heart.” He called this “following your bliss,” which in Joe’s case meant Jean. Within a year of meeting the two were married, and they would remain so for nearly fifty years, until Joe’s passing in 1987.

When Jean talks about Joe, she touches the simple gold wedding band that he gave her seventy-five years ago. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she laughs as she tugs at the ring. “I can’t get it off.” Though much of her memory has faded, Joe’s imprint remains clearly visible throughout Jean’s apartment and life. One entire wall of their home is still dominated by his private library: a wall-length bookshelf filled with tomes on world mythology, arranged not by alphabet but by the geographic locations of the diverse cultures he studied. Photos of Joe hang everywhere: laughing at someone just out of frame; reclining on a beach with his arm around Jean. In every image of the two of them together, they are smiling. “We were fortunate to have found each other and followed what we loved,” Jean says as she pulls out their yellowed wedding photo from the long-gone Hawai‘i of 1938.

But the truth is, great love stories are never that simple. The day after her marriage to Campbell, Jean joined Martha Graham’s company as a principal dancer. Tensions flared almost immediately. “Ever since they taught together, Martha was interested in Joe,” recalls Walter. “All the girls were,” Jean remembers. “When my classmates found out I was marrying him, they put the flag at half mast!” Joe encouraged Jean’s individual expression, which only led to clashes with Martha. “Joe is the one who gave me the courage to really break away,” says Jean. And after six years under Graham’s strict tutelage, Jean did exactly that, becoming one of the first dancers in the troupe to do so. “You didn’t say no to Martha. Nobody dared cross her,” says Jean. The recrimination was nothing less than Shakespearian. “I didn’t think YOU would ever betray me,” Jean intones dramatically, eyes flashing as she impersonates her famous mentor. “It was an awful experience … but it also set me free.”

As a solo artist, Jean’s fame accelerated. In 1944 she launched her own dance company, collaborating with prominent American composers John Cage, Louis Horst and Henry Cowell. “Jean was one of the first dancers who learned to both speak and dance at the same time,” says Walter, whose wife worked with Jean at her Theater of the Open Eye. This blending of lyrical poetry with movement became a seminal feature of Erdman’s choreography, one that set her apart from the more traditional approach of her contemporaries. She was also one of the first dancers to actively incorporate improvisations into her performances, which, according to Jean, “was considered rather shocking … because at that time it was not considered acceptable to perform improvs in public. That was for the privacy of your studio.”

In 1945 the New York Herald Tribune reviewed Jean’s solo choreography, stating, “Her dance attracts through rare beauty of pattern … it does not appeal directly to the intellect nor to the emotions, but rather it seems to carry its message on its own short-wave system to the senses themselves.” Jean defined her maverick style in similar terms: “I was always interested in exploring ways in which the symbolic language of dance could explore the seemingly inexpressible. Joe and I talked about this a lot.”

It’s impossible to look at Jean’s dancing and not see the threads of Campbell’s ideology woven throughout. In Ophelia Jean poises in a white dress with red blood-lines painted down the side. Her neck elongates, back arched like a willow. Through each leg-lift and every twist, a complex web of emotions radiates outward: tragedy, pain, joy, madness. “My mind was filled with mythological imagery,” Jean recalls, “because Joe read everything he wrote to me out loud, to test the rhythms of his writing.” At the same time, “Jean would choreograph a dance,” remembers Walter, “and Joe would watch it and tease out the mythic themes.” Between them there was a symbiosis, a shared passion for the universal symbols inherent in all cultures. Many of Erdman’s most famous dances—captured in the three-volume retrospective Dance and Myth: The World of Jean Erdman—tackle Campbell’s famed “hero’s journey,” which conveys a cycle of adventure, triumph, destruction and return.

Jean’s own journeys took her far across the country and around the world. In the early 1950s she spent nearly five years on the road touring every state with both her dance company and, more frequently, on her own. “Oh, I drove all over the country by myself, dancing in one little town after the next,” she remembers. “I was very independent.” In 1954 she traveled to India, Indonesia and Japan as a solo artist, the first dancer to do so since World War II. Even though she couldn’t speak the languages, “she has a genuineness that instantly connects with people,” says Roger Epstein, a founding member of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. “There’s a fierce passion to go unafraid into new situations, but also a gentleness and a peace in her approach to life reflective of that aloha warmth of spirit.” While Jean was away, Joe also crisscrossed the globe as a speaker, slowly gaining international acclaim. Despite their jet-set schedules, the two made time to travel together, with Joe often accompanying Jean as her stage manager.

With so much constant movement, their decision not to raise a family was mutual. “Fortunately, Joe didn’t want any children because he thought it would take too much time and focus away from his work,” Jean recalls. “And I just wanted to dance.” That said, “She has a deep maternal instinct,” reflects Walter, who like many considers Jean a surrogate mother. “Although they didn’t have biological children, they adopted a lot of us informally over the years. They treated their students as family.” Erdman’s greatest legacy lives on through the thousands of dancers she influenced in her illustrious career as a teacher. Through the 1960s and ’70s she directed the modern dance departments at Columbia University, the University of Colorado and Bard College in upstate New York. She also founded New York University’s prestigious dance program, where she taught from 1966 to 1971 before launching her own private studio, which she shared with Joe.

As a teacher, Jean’s playful lightness shone through the more serious dancer. In a video clip from the time, she corrects a young student, instructing her to “Expand! There isn’t anyone like you—not even the mayor of Kaunakakai!” As a choreographer Erdman was unique, even revolutionary: Her body of work reveals an incredible diversity of influences, from the poetry of E.E. Cummings to the impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin. She literally danced to the beat of her own drum, creating a style entirely her own and dance pieces that look as fresh and original today as they must have seemed when first performed more than sixty years ago.

Today, sitting in her vibrant green-and-cobalt mu‘umu‘u—which perfectly complements the aged palm tree growing straight up through the lanai behind her and the expansive sea beyond—Jean closes her eyes. Below, the steady song of ocean swells surges against a sea wall, and Erdman, ever the dancer, sways to its soothing rhythm. “I’m extremely grateful to the god of fortune that I’ve had the privilege of pursuing a creative life,” she reflects. “That’s the greatest gift given to me. And I hope that in the work I’ve done, I’ve been able to not only give people pleasure, but also to help them see deeper into their own experience. And I would like to go on doing it forever.”