You need not be a student or scholar of dance to be completely enthralled by Greg Vander Veer’s documentary Miss Hill. Described by one interview subject as “the trunk of the modern dance tree,” Martha Hill is one
of the seminal figures in the history of
her art, but her story is largely unknown
outside the fields of dance or performance studies. Vander Veer rectifies that in a
celebration of the life and life’s work of the woman who almost singlehandedly created the field of modern dance studies in American colleges — she was sort of a Johnny Appleseed of the field. The film sketches her brief time as a struggling professional dancer before her discovery that her true passion was teaching dance and being an advocate for it, a calling that took her from Bennington (where she founded the school’s dance program) to Juilliard. Vander Veer employs the two primary tricks of the documentary trade: lots of talking heads and performance footage. All of it is nimbly woven together, but it’s the old, copiously used footage of icons like José Limón, Hanya Holm, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, and George Balanchine (among many others) that is swoon-worthy. The film is both gorgeous and powerful, crackling with energy. And without pressing the point too hard, Vander Veer maps the
cultural trajectory of the art from being
all white (and largely woman-driven) to being truly multicultural, as vintage footage is threaded with sharp commentary and insights from contemporary dancers across race and gender.