Martha Hill (1900–1995), the first Director of Dance at the Juilliard School, was one of the most influential dance figures of the twentieth century. Her leadership was instrumental in cementing dance’s position as an art form and as an area for serious scholarship. She carved out a place for contemporary dance in America, paving the way for artists like José Limón and Merce Cunningham. Recently, Hill has come back into the public eye with Greg Vander Veer’s movie Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter, which premiered at the 2014 Dance on Camera Festival in New York. In her review of Miss Hill for Film Journal International, Lisa Jo Sagolla writes that “Hill’s crucial role in modern dance history is comprehensively delineated in Janet Mansfield Soares’ exemplary 2009 biography, Martha Hill & the Making of American Dance. Yet director Greg Vander Veer’s smartly constructed documentary bears viewing, even by those who’ve thoroughly digested Soares’ book.”
Author Janet Mansfield Soares was a student, colleague, and teacher of dance composition with Martha Hill at the Juilliard School and is a professor emerita of dance at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Martha Hill, along with contemporaries like Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Doris Humphrey, broke away from the old-world paradigms of ballet and European dance to create the distinctly American art form of modern dance. Soares traces the social and political forces that shaped Hill’s life, following her as she challenged the expectations placed on women in terms of their physical capabilities. Hill questioned the tenets of “white-gloved” physical education for women, and battled members of the “old boys’ club” in her mission to gain acceptance and status for dance as an independent performing art. Her work was essential in proving female dancers, teachers, and choreographers to be true artists in their own right. In her introduction to Martha Hill & the Making of American Dance, Soares wrote: “Hill worked to position dance as a valued artistic practice, one that belonged in the sociocultural life of campuses and arts centers in the United States and around the world—and one that would gradually shape a cultural entity of its own… [Hill], with her colleagues, managed to transform a many-faceted group of eccentrics into a community of talents with a single goal: to assure the survival of contemporary dance into a new millennium.”