Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

WEIDMAN, CHARLES (1901-1975)

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on July 22, 1901, Charles Weidman was a leading figure in the development of American modern dance. Weidman's father was a civil engineer who also served as Lincoln's fire chief, and his mother was a former roller-skating champion. Influenced, perhaps, by his father's engineering background, the young Weidman showed a strong interest in architecture. But his passion turned to dance in 1916 after seeing a performance by the Denishawn Company, the pioneering American modern dance troupe founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Dance was a field in which Weidman felt he could use his love of architecture, his sense of humor, and his newly discovered dance talents together in the design and creation of dances.

In 1920, after studying dance locally with Eleanor Frampton, Weidman left Lincoln for Los Angeles to study at the Denishawn School. Recognizing Weidman's extraordinary talent as a mimic, Ted Shawn choreographed solos for him, putting to use his expressive face and gestures and his sense of humor. In the Denishawn Company, Weidman worked with other young American dance artists who were beginning to explore their own kinds of movement and choreography, including Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. In 1927 Weidman and Humphrey left the Denishawn Company to form their own school in New York. A year later they presented their first concert. The Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company reflected the differences in the two directors' choreographic styles, with Weidman's comic and mimetic talent complementing Humphrey's serious dramatic works. The dual directorship of a company was unique in dance and continued for two decades.

Audiences enjoyed Weidman's wit and humor in works such as The Happy Hypocrite (1931), in which he used pantomime gestures to convey the story, then exaggerated the gestures into dance movements. His work also had a serious side, shown throughout his career in dances commenting on human behavior and social morality. In 1936 he presented a trio of dances titled Atavisms. Two of the works were humorous: Bargain Counter, in which rapacious shoppers stampeded a beleaguered salesclerk, and Stock Exchange, a satire of the cutthroat business and personalities of high finance. The third work, however, Lynchtown, inspired by an actual incident in Nebraska, depicted the infectious hatred that turns individuals into a violent mob. Many of Weidman's other works also show the influences of his Nebraska childhood and his attachment to his family. Autobiographical dances such as On My Mother's Side (1940) and And Daddy Was a Fireman (1943) combined poignant and tender reminiscences in dance with touching moments of humor. His past also was the inspiration for one of his most popular works, Flickers (1941), a piece poking fun at the Hollywood silent films of his childhood.

The Charles Weidman Dance Company was formed in 1945 as Weidman continued to work on his own after a serious illness forced Doris Humphrey to stop performing. His humor, wit, and satire in dance were widely recognized in the theatrical arena, bringing jobs choreographing for opera, Broadway musicals, and dance revues. Weidman's openness to experimentation and his movement inventiveness made his choreography and teaching important influences on the next generation of dancers and dance teachers. He taught at Bennington College, the summer gathering place for the early creators of American modern dance in the mid-1930s, as well as at other universities and colleges.

One of Weidman's innovations was the development of a movement form he called "kinetic pantomime." He began by discarding the convention of using pantomime gestures solely to tell a story or for dramatic effect. Instead, he based the technique on gestures that evolved out of movement itself and relied on movement to connect one gesture to another, a concept that helped pave the way for later developments in the field of performance art. Weidman also pioneered mixed-media theater when he joined with Mikhail Santaro in the late 1950s. They later formed the Expression of Two Arts Theater, experimenting with performance works that attempted to make connections between graphic art and dance.

Throughout his career, Weidman returned periodically to his native Lincoln, teaching and giving workshops in performance and choreography. Continuing to work as a choreographer, performer, and teacher, he maintained an active interest in new explorations in dance until his death in New York City on July 15, 1975. The Charles Weidman Dance Foundation in New York is dedicated to the preservation of his work and his contributions to dance.

Lisa A. Fusillo University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Cohen, Selma Jean. Doris Humphrey, an Artist First. Princeton NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1995.

Lloyd, Margaret. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1949; reprint, New York: Dance Horizons, 1970.

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