Born to Dance: Mary Hinkson and the Martha Graham Dance Company by Dr Victoria Phillips

“Race… It is an area of enormous sensitivity in this country. You know. Oh God, the things I listen to on public radio, I can’t believe it. But, you know, the part that’s unpleasant about that is: why do you have to transcend? What’s so bad about it, what’s so bad about your race that you would have to transcend it, right?”Mary Hinkson, interview with the author

In 1951, the pioneering choreographer and “Picasso of Modern Dance” Martha Graham became the first Broadway and mainstream touring dance company leader in the United States to racially integrate her company when she hired Mary Hinkson and her college roommate, Matt Tierney. They began in the corps of dancers and then, shortly thereafter, they became soloists and principal cast members. Graham created leading roles for Hinkson, including Canticle for Innocent Comedians (1952), Ardent Song (1955), and the title role in Circe (1963), which Graham had once coveted for herself. Tierney portrayed the Pioneering Woman in Appalachian Spring (1944), with the Pulitzer Prize winning score by Aaron Copland. Both women took the role of Joan of Arc in Seraphic Dialogue [36:23] (1955).

Although the end of the Civil War would have freed Hinkson’s enslaved relatives including her great-grandmother, “Jim Crow” laws followed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Segregation laws barred African Americans from equal access to public and private facilities, housing, schools, and voting rights. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson declared segregation legal as “separate but equal.” Although President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1941 to desegregate national defense jobs, the Tuskegee Airmen broke the racial barrier in WWII (named for the Alabama training base where Mary’s father would later run the Army hospital), with Truman desegregating the military in 1948. Yet the path to racial equality continued to be a rocky one. While Brown v Board of Education overturned Plessy v Ferguson in 1954, one year later when Graham created Seraphic Dialogue with Hinkson and Tierney, Emmitt Till was brutally murdered for speaking to a White woman. In 1957 – as President Eisenhower was sending National Guard troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to chaperone African American children into their school –  Graham returned to the global stage, and was touring Asia and the Far and Middle East for the State Department with Tierney portraying Appalachian Spring’s Pioneer Woman, the spirit of the American frontier. By this point Hinkson had been a leading cast member of Graham’s for the past decade, first coming to prominence in 1948 in Diversion of Angels. An abstract work that depicts love, it was in this production that Hinkson was partnered with Bertram Ross, with the two of them becoming an iconic couple. As the Woman in White, Mary, an African American, partnered Ross, a Jewish White homosexual man; they depicted the purity of love in their duet because, as Graham said, “They were born knowing.” With this, Graham placed an integrated couple on the dance stage in New York well before others. “And she doesn’t get credit for it,” Hinkson said a decade after Graham’s death.

Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy, tells the story of how Martha Graham took her modernist dance to the global Cold War stage to represent the United States with messages about freedom, democracy, race, gender, and religion, and promote the nation as a culturally sophisticated world leader in soft-power terms. In this, domestic events surrounding race acted as an international Achilles Heel which Graham could address through the composition of her company and its stars.

Mary’s background set the stage for her personal tenacity. Of her family history, Mary recalled in an interview, “My great-grandmother, Cordelia, was born to a slave and her master in South Carolina.” She continued, “Oh boy, this is heavy duty,” and punctuated the story with pauses. “I don’t know whether his name is Sanders or not … A man who had a wife, of course, but he also had a long time relationship with a woman who was then his slave. As we hear it, he felt for her very strongly – and, again, I’m unclear  – did his wife die, or what. I’m not sure about that … He fathered many children with this woman, who was still a slave. He wanted that family to move to Philadelphia. He arranged the move, established the family there. And the mother of all these children [his slave]… – I’m not sure why – I’m not sure why she refused to join them, because I think he could’ve arranged that. But she didn’t ever, as I understand it. So he arranged a household for his children on Fitzwater Street in Philadelphia. And they were all educated in Philadelphia.” Mary’s mother was named for her great-grandmother. Cordelia Chew, a teacher, married Dr. DeHaven Hinkson, who became the first African American to head a U.S. Army hospital. Mary was born in Philadelphia, and visited her family on Fitzwater Street. Cordelia recalled of Mary, “There are times when I believe ‘Bunny’ was born to dance.” Hinkson received her first dance training in a eurhythmics class in high school, and then studied dance with Margaret H’Doubler at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she roomed with Matt Tierney. After graduating with a BS and MS in physical education, Hinkson and Tierney moved to New York City, where they joined the Martha Graham Dance Company.

A full-time performer and beloved teacher of Graham dance technique, Hinkson also performed with Glen Tetley and on television, and Hinkson partnered with Alvin Ailey in Harry Belafonte’s tour of Sing Man Sing. In addition, Donald McKayle created the female role in Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (1959) for Hinkson, and George Balanchine used Hinkson as his muse alongside Arthur Mitchell when Mr. B choreographed a duet for them in Figure in the Carpet (1960). After Graham retired from the stage in 1969, Hinkson took on some of Graham’s leading roles, including Clytemnestra in the heralded three-act work based on the Greek myth. Other women who took the starring role were Protestant-White, Jewish, African American, and Asian. When Graham became ill, Hinkson and Ross took over the school and company and kept the institution alive while Graham recovered. Hinkson was a principal dancer with the Graham company until 1973. After her departure, Hinkson remained a beloved teacher of the Graham technique, and imbued numerous dancers, choreographers and scholars with her wisdom and clarity. Hinkson’s papers are held at the New York Public Library and include photographs, oral histories, and her writings.

Image credit: Mary Hinkson and Bertram Ross with Lady Bird Johnson and Martha Graham at the White House, Oct. 9, 1968, Robert Knudsen, photographer, Courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.

Dr Victoria Phillips is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and director of the Cold War Archival Research project (CWAR). Her articles have appeared in such varied publications as the New York Times, American Communist History, Dance Chronicle, Ballet News, and Dance Research Journal. She has curated several public exhibitions in the United States and Europe.