When Susan Hess founded Susan Hess Modern Dance in Philadelphia in 1980, she was responding to local movement artists’ need for space and time in which to develop their craft and for a supportive atmosphere in which they could take the risks needed for artistic growth. She acquired a former assembly-plant storage space on the top floor at 2030 Sansom Street that her husband, architectural woodworking specialist Richard Herskovitz, redesigned as a dance studio in which Hess held her classes.
In 1984, two years after incorporating as a nonprofit, SHMD launched the Choreographers Project residency program for three to four independent local dance artists each year – and a new chapter began in Philadelphia dance history. Over its 28 years, the Choreographers Project nurtured some of Philadelphia’s best known local choreographers in their artistic and professional development, offering free rehearsal space and performance opportunities as well as regular guidance from Hess.
In 1984-85, Hess presented SHMD’s first living-history lecture/film series, Five Evenings with American Dance Pioneers, which introduced local audiences to U.S. choreographic legends Anna Sokolow (1910-2000), Martha Hill (1900-1995), Pearl Primus (1919-1994), May O’Donnell (1906- 2004), and Daniel Nagrin (1917-2008). The series’ popularity led Hess to invited renowned artists such as Lucas Hoving, Deborah Hay, and members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company to conduct workshops at the studio.
Over the next 25 years, the Hess Studio built on mid-20th-century modern dance traditions while encouraging exploration in all areas of contemporary dance, to enhance the vibrancy of the art form and expand local appreciation for it. Hess remembers local choreographer Leah Stein, during her residency in the late 1990s, making audiences leave their seats mid-performance. Similar challenges to the public’s expectations of dance continue in the works SHMD presents today.
SHMD’s 20th-anniversary lecture/film series in 2000-2001, Six American Dance Pioneers: A Look Back, a Leap Forward, brought to the Painted Bride Arts Center leading dance artists Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Carmen DeLavallade, Donald McKayle, Ernestine Stodelle, and Annabelle Gamson. Out of this series of shared experiences emerged another landmark in SHMD programming: the Masters Exchange.
The Masters Exchange brings distinguished mentors in dance and the performing arts to the city to engage with local choreographers on the creative process, view works in progress, and discuss the options for career development in dance. Eschewing hierarchical teaching for respectful dialogue, the sessions generate different ways of seeing work and have produced new avenues of exploration. Some residents have gone on to work with master teachers both during and after their time in the Choreographers Project.
SHMD presents local and national dancers, musicians, monologuists, and other performing artists through its collaborative In Performance series. The popular programs also serve, at least twice a year, as laboratories in which the resident artists can explore and evaluate their work in front of audiences.
Susan Hess has also collaborated with local organizations to showcase works of significant national and international artists. In 2005, SHMD and the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival collaborated to bring London choreographer Siobhan Davies’s company to The Rotunda near the University of Pennsylvania for the U.S. premiere of Davies’ Bird Song. This venture was followed in 2006 by a collaboration with Dance Advance of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Bryn Mawr College, Drexel University, and the Painted Bride Arts Center to present Siobhan Davies Dance in In Plain Clothes.
In all programming, Susan Hess provides direction and gentle guidance to the artists and the vision to venture into territory appropriate to the current artistic climate. The ultimate testimony to SHMD’s efforts lies in the works that have emerged from its programs and in the artistic careers they have enhanced.
Legends of Dance at SHMD
SHMD has welcomed these distinguished artists for lectures and workshops:
Gus Solomons, Jr.
Ron K. Brown