Beginning with her childhood discoveries of the worlds of dance and music continuing through her ballet and historical dance studies in England and culminating in her distinguished work as a dancer choreographer scholar and teacher in the United States this memoir traces the fascinating circuitous path of Hilton’s remarkable career. Her early aspirations to become a ballerina led her to the ballet studios of Marie Rambert Cleo Nordi Audrey de Vos and Maria Fay and then to dancing in live broadcasts on early British television in movies and with the companies of Felicity Grey Walter Gore and Letty Littlewood. In 1952 a chance introduction to the historical dance specialist Belinda Quirey began Hilton’s lifelong study of and commitment to the fields of early dance and music. A few years later another chance introduction to the eminent Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck brought Hilton to America with their collaborations winning rave reviews from distinguished critics. Hilton went on to collaborate with such other renowned musicians as Michael Tilson Thomas Albert Fuller and Frederick Renz and such early music groups as the New York Pro Musica Antiqua and the Ensemble for Early Music. Two significant academic appointments both of which would continue for over twenty years played prominent roles in her career: at the Juilliard School where as nowhere else she mounted gloriously costumed and musically sophisticated performances in the baroque dance style and at Stanford University where she directed an annual workshop on baroque dance and music. Hilton’s pathbreaking book Dance of Court and Theater: The French Noble Style 1690–1725 remains the standard text for the field of baroque dance. Her memoir is richly illustrated with 75 photographs by notable dance and theater photographers including Jack Blake Frederica Davis Rebecca Lesher of the Martha Swope Studios Peter Schaaf G. B. L. Wilson and Reg Wilson.
December 1, 2011
Wendy Hilton (1931-2002), a British historical dancer, teacher, choreographer, and scholar, was a pivotal figure in the development of baroque dance performance and scholarship. This book, described on the back cover as a memoir, is the first account of her life and work, and as such is a very welcome addition to the slim historiography of the historical dance revival. Anyone who has been involved in the field would inevitably be drawn to a book that offers insight into Hilton's role in its genesis: i.e., her dance education, the sources of her skills and knowledge, the extent of her work, the development of her teaching style, her creative process in dance reconstruction and choreography, and her intellectual growth during the course of her career. (Disclosure: I took classes with Hilton at the International Early Dance Institute, Montclair State University, and Universite Laval).
Started "on the recommendation of colleagues" (p. 270), only the three first chapters of Hilton's book were near completion at the time of her death. Susan Bindig, her former student, colleague, and friend, edited and completed Hilton's work, linking what had been written for later chapters with memoirs and correspondence of colleagues and friends, as well as information from Hilton's personal papers and other sources.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part (chaps. 1-6) contains Hilton's reminiscences of formative events that marked her early years in England from 1931 until 1959. She writes about her family, experience growing up during World War II, initial interests in dance and music, dance training, early career as a dancer working for dance companies and movies and television productions (and supplementing her income by modeling for artists), and her first meeting with the dance specialist Belinda Quirey. This section presents fascinating anecdotes not only of well-known twentieth-century dance figures such as Marie Rambert and Audrey de Vos, but also of bunous movie personalities such as Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, and Peter Sellers.
In the second part (chaps. 7-11), Hilton discusses her work in historical dance in England from 1956 until 1971. She talks (at times quite waspishly) about learning from and collaborating with Ottirey, meeting other dance historians such as Melusine Wood, Cyril Beaumont, and Karl Heinz Taubert, and forming the Domenico Dance Ensemble, an early-dance company. A research grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain allowed her to travel to France, Germany, and Sweden. Meeting with pianist and Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck led her to visit the United States in 1968 and emigrate there in 1971.
The third part (chaps. 12-18) focuses on Hilton's career in America from 1971 until her death in 2002. This part begins chronologically but deliberately backtracks at two points: chapters 13 to 15 cover the years 1971 to 1994 and mostly explore Hilton's work on the East Coast, at the Juilliard School, Rutgers University, and SUNY Purchase, along with her problems with torticollis that eventually ended her performing career; chapters 16-17 concentrate on her work on the West Coast from 1968 to 2001, in particular on the summer workshop she directed at Stanford University froth 1974 to 2001; and chapter 18 returns to 1994 to give an account of Hilton's last years: her work as editor of the Pendragon Press Dance and Music Series (later renamed after her), her memoirs, her cancer, death in 2002, and commemoration.
In the third part, the narrative changes from first person to third, incorporating fragments written by Hilton as quotations. The problem of doing so is that the emotional connection established between the reader and the original writer (Hilton) is unfortunately lost. Furthermore, the perspective of the narrative keeps changing. Bindig writes sometimes as a biographer and at other times as her own memoirist, for example when she recalls: "Dancing in Masque of a Midsummer Night was a revelation for me, and it literally changed my life" (p. 176).
In Hilton's memoir, the reader will find a passionate artist-scholar with high standards who strives for perfection and demands no less from her students, but also whose discoveries sometimes lead to troubling and inconsistent conclusions. In one instance, for historical accuracy's sake, Hilton disapproved of casting an African American student in her baroque dance productions at Juilliard (pp. 181-82). In principle, she opposed choreographing works that were not originally intended to be danced (p. 163), but had no compunction about performing to the stylized dances from Bach suites and movements from other instrumental genres (p. 229). She also refused to set ballet and modern dance choreographies to Bach's music, but did not mind hearing it played on modern instruments (p. 229).
Since this book was edited and co-written by Hilton's longtime friend, it presents a highly respectful view of Hilton's work, interspersed with rave published reviews and praise from colleagues, friends, and students who admired her outstanding and groundbreaking work. For example, Bindig provides enthusiastic reviews of Hilton's Dance of Court and Theater: The French Noble Style, 1690-1725 (Princeton: Princeton Book Company, 1981), which she describes as the "only publication that lays out in a systematic way a full theory of performance practice based on the thorough analysis of original sources" (p. 200). This is somewhat misleading since Hilton's book, remarkable as it was for its time, is based on only a few (yet nonetheless significant) sources, even though she indicates her awareness of numerous other sources of potentially equal significance. Also, Bindig mentions only in a footnote (p. 200) the criticism received by Hilton's work, such as the 1997 re-edition of her book (Dance and Music of Court and Theater: Selected Writings of Wendy Hilton (Dance and music series, no. 5 [Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1997]), remarking that she "cannot address these criticisms specifically" (p. 200). This is unfortunate because a historiographer would appreciate some balanced assessment.
This book will appeal primarily to Hilton's former students, colleagues, friends, and anyone involved in historical dance. Many admirers who took her classes will look for themselves and their friends in the text and in the carefully chosen photographic illustrations that enrich the text and help visualize Hilton's life and work.
However, an overly lenient editorial hand necessitates a few quibbles. Repetitions found here and there make the narrative tiresome at times. Within a paragraph, for instance, one reads, "The island was left to grow wild, except for some slow- growing trees whose wood was to be harvested to make cricket bats. No one seemed to go to the island, which except for the trees, grew wild" (p. 7). Other repetitions are more distant but give the reader a sense of deja vu, such as when Hilton discusses the last performance of the Domenico Ensemble on page 109 and then again on page 118.
Acronyms are not used uniformly. The name of the Dance Notation Bureau, for example, is spelled out on pages 133, 209, and 221, and written as an acronym on pages 141-42; the Royal Academy of Dance method is named only by the acronym RAD method (p. 35). A list of acronyms at the beginning of the book would have beenhelpful. Bindig occasionally fails to distinguish her footnotes from Hilton's (p. 43 n. 4), or to indicate the sources of her citations (pp. 199-200); she also sometimes positions her footnote numbers confusingly (p. 175 n. 18).
Strangely, Bindig chooses to list Hilton's articles, books, and videorecordings within her "selected bibliography." A separate bibliography of Hilton's work would have allowed one to better judge the output of this artist and scholar. Bindig should have compiled a comprehensive videography, which would include the numerous video recordings that preserve Hilton's dance productions and the few that show her dancing, even if some of these are discussed within the text. These are particularly important to further study Hilton's baroque dance style and her reconstructions and choreographies.
Hilton admits that she "arrived on the scene at the right moment" (p. 102) and that she believes her excellent reviews "put early dance on the map" (p. 102). This book documents the fortuitous confluence of timing and artistry that allowed Hilton's career to flourish. It sets the stage, and points up the necessity, for further studies of her achievement in a broader and more objective historical and scholarly context.
Dominique Bourassa, Yale University