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An Interplay of Opposites

Jean Erdman in Medusa. Photo c/o Barbara Morgan

Jean Marion Erdman, choreographer, director, co-founder of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and wife to Joseph Campbell for 49 years, was born on February 20, 1916. This week, in honor of her birthday, Diane McGhee Valle explores how the polarities in Erdman's life were integral to her art.

We cannot know Joseph Campbell without knowing Jean Erdman, and likewise, we cannot know Erdman if we ignore the life and work of Campbell. This week we celebrate the birthday of Joseph Campbell’s spouse, Jean Erdman (Feb. 20, 1916 – May 4, 2020). The occasion presents an opportunity to note a contrasting variety of influences on her life and artistic work. Erdman was an extraordinary creator, performer, and producer of dance and theatre. The influences discussed here, can be seen as opposing tensions that pushed, pulled, and ultimately guided her to experience the fullness of life. Each challenge she faced provided insights that allowed her to achieve the epitome of artistic expression and create sublime works of art. Her challenges can be viewed through lenses of culture, geography, the art of dance, and of course, illuminated by her relationship with Campbell.

Joe Campbell frequently wrote about the psychological concepts and opposing tensions of duality and non-duality. Whereas duality refers to a split or fracture of our consciousness, non-duality represents the complete union of it. We often long for the distinctions of duality to be eliminated; true art offers a way to discover this divine form. It can sometimes be encountered when extraordinary beauty brings “aesthetic arrest”; when opposites seem to dissolve, and a viewer experiences a sense of “wholeness, harmony, and radiance”. (See Campbell’s discussion of proper art in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, 100-102.) Dance can also offer these qualities, and is “a powerful way of embodying and realizing the moving potential of the human soul”. (Jean Erdman Papers. 1939 – 2001. 18(2:2):4, New York City Public Library Collection)

Although a dance-maker could create choreography for the purpose of special effects or to induce desire, both Joe and Jean did not consider this approach to be powerful or “true”. Instead, they believed, proper art is realized through the liberation from clichéd earthly ideas. In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell observed that both the mystic and the artist show similar innovative insights. For both, “It is of their own inmost truth brought to consciousness: by the mystic, in direct confrontation, and by the artist, through reflection in the masterworks of his art.” (91) An artful choreographer may hone a somatic approach to movement invention. She may actively pursue the fluctuations between the conscious and unconscious mind and permit these to interplay in metaphorical ways, ultimately to be expressed by the moving body.

For dancers, movement can be qualitatively analyzed using a system of opposites. The choreographer finds artistic opportunities by selectively passing through and among the opposites to create a visual interest in the human form. For example, force can range from heavy to light; the speed of the dancer can vary from fast to slow; and directionalities are assigned terms, such as forward or backward, right or left, high or low. Body shapes are also defined within frameworks of opposites, illustrated by terms such as symmetrical or asymmetrical, straight or curved, large or small, wide or narrow, and so forth. Exploring these possibilities could go on ad infinitum.

In the art of concert dance, Jean Erdman drew from the entire spectrum of possibilities. She was a genius in her methods. Her selected actions were derived from both from basic skills and a priori knowledge, and also from various cultures and artistic styles that she had studied. These experiences gave Erdman a vast store of dance knowledge that provided her greater mastery of the body and opened avenues for artistic innovation.

Reared in Hawaii, Erdman learned well from her childhood dance experiences. She practiced the ancient Hawaiian sacred traditions, especially hula, and was deeply interested in the traditions of Japanese and Chinese theatrical styles. She studied American tap dance and learned the basics of modern dance from an innovative teacher while at the Punahou School. These opportunities turned her attention to the remote philosophies and values of Asia, and these teachings subsequently left a deep impression on her identity. Jean identified as Oriental and Polynesian but, she acknowledged, the modes of living and thinking were often at odds with those of her family’s old New England roots. (Jean Erdman Papers, 1939 – 2001. 7:8) One of Erdman’s challenges was to resolve the tension between these internal opposites.

Erdman noted that distinctive dance traditions developed according to location and culture but also revealed that all humans are essentially the same. This idea seemed to parallel the theories of ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826 – 1905). Following both Bastian and C. G. Jung, Erdman recognized that traditional dances frequently retained the characteristics of ancient archetypes and were steeped in mythology and thus, often timeless in their meanings. She felt, “There is value [in] the uniqueness of each dance tradition – and that each style should be approached as a complete unity.” (Jean Erdman Papers, 1939 – 2001, 10(1:2):9)

Much of Erdman’s early professional dance training took place under the tutelage of several significant 20th century icons, such as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. Each choreographer had invented a dance style that bore the name of its originator. But Erdman eventually came to the opinion that such individual methods and styles were pieces fractured from the glorious whole of movement possibilities. For art’s sake, she sought release from the subjective sentiments of her respected masters. She advanced the position that an individual cannot claim ownership of a technique or dance, and stated, “The style belongs to the dance, not to the dancers.” (The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance, 162) Erdman subsequently sought to transcend the elements of distinct styles and use the capacity of myth to give strength and structure to her dances.

In the early 1940s, Erdman briefly sought the company of the New Dance Group to gain choreographic and teaching experience. The Group was an association of Erdman’s peers from the various modern dance camps in New York. Most members were strong-willed women who held deep ideological beliefs about socialism. Erdman soon discovered that the Group did not provide the creative freedom that she sought. It seemed the Group’s call to “freedom” frequently became a story for political advocacy and propaganda. It was a difficult decision, but ultimately Erdman pulled away from the collective to become the agent of her own myth.  She went forward using, as her husband wrote, the “courage to let go of the past, with its truths, its goals, its dogmas of ‘meaning,’ and its gifts: to die to the world and to come to birth from within”. (Campbell, J., The Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology,  677 – 678).

One of the most transformational influences for both Erdman and Campbell was their love story. Through Erdman’s early days of college and professional career, Campbell was her mentor. As they matured together, she achieved the place of his intellectual equal. They were well-matched in their social abilities, as well as their mutual fascinations with myth, literature, religions, philosophy, and aesthetics.  In 1972, they collaborated to co-found the Theatre of the Open Eye. Throughout their careers, the two often operated at great distances from one another; yet, their personas melded so closely they seemed of one consciousness, an idea symbolized in Hindu mythology by the image of the androgynous deity, Ardhanarishvara. In this deity, the paradox of the opposites form the unity of the male and female principles, transcending all distinctions. Such a union is a true and proper likeness of this remarkable couple.


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