During a time when universities were just beginning to offer dance degrees, Bessie Schönberg invigorated the study of dance composition in higher education. She was a celebrated composition teacher at Sarah Lawrence College for nearly 40 years, known for championing her students’ individuality. A revered mentor, she helped shape the creative work of four generations of artists.
Schönberg was born in Hanover, Germany. In her late teens, she and her mother moved to Eugene, Oregon. She took her first modern dance class in 1927 from the renowned dance professor Martha Hill. Inspired, Schönberg followed Hill to New York City two years later.
Upon arriving in the city in 1929, Schönberg began taking classes from Martha Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She immediately caught Graham’s attention and was invited to join her company. For two years she danced with the troupe, performing in iconic works like Heretic (1929) and Primitive Mysteries (1931). But in 1931 a knee injury put an end to her career as a professional dancer.
She shifted her focus to teaching, earning a degree from Bennington College in Vermont in 1934 and joining the faculty as a dance instructor upon graduation. During her four years there, she was a teaching assistant to Martha Hill in her modern classes at the historic Bennington summer workshops and began to develop her own teaching philosophy. Unlike her contemporaries, she believed students should develop their own, unique expressive style, rather than simply mimic their predecessors.
She joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York, in 1938, teaching fundamentals of choreography. She worked there for 37 years, eventually as director of the dance program, and became a highly influential figure in the study of dance composition in higher education. Her reach went beyond the classroom, too. She often attended her students’ concerts and work-in-progress showings to offer guidance. Many of those students went on to become prominent choreographers.
In 1975, Schönberg retired from Sarah Lawrence but continued to teach at schools and festivals throughout the U.S. and the U.K., including London Contemporary Dance School, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York University and The Juilliard School. The famed Dance Theater Workshop in NYC named its theater after her. She lived to age 90. DT
Schönberg at Bennington College in 1934. Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives
Schönberg celebrated her students’ individuality and choreographic choices. She was interested in any dance form or style. In class, she focused on the fundamentals of movement like locomotion and gesture and encouraged her students to explore variations on those ideas, by prompting them with open-ended questions, like “How many ways can you fall or run or turn?” She gave dancers parameters to create short choreographic studies, which they would then show in class. Analysis and discussion were key. By avoiding the “I” pronoun and offering suggestions rather than personal statements, students learned to provide articulate critiques of each other’s work in a constructive, supportive way.
The New York Dance and Performance Awards, which were established in 1983 to honor innovative dance work, are more commonly referred to as “The Bessies” in honor of Schönberg. She received her own Bessie Award for lifetime service to dance in 1988.
The Legacy Lives On
A mentor to many, Schönberg influenced the creative work of choreographers, dancers, teachers, writers and producers, including luminaries such as Jerome Robbins, Carolyn Adams, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk, Norton Owen and Ronald K. Brown. She helped to solidify Sarah Lawrence College as one of the nation’s preeminent dance programs. Additionally, tenets of her dance composition teaching methodology, like creating short dances under explicit instructions and offering constructive feedback through group discussion, are now used in university dance departments nationwide.
“Bessie Schönberg, 90, a Mentor for Dancers,” by Jack Anderson, The New York Times, May 1997
“Bessie Schönberg,” by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, September 2010
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Sarah Lawrence College Archives: “Bessie Remembered”: archives.slc.edu