AlumnaeSep 1, 2020

updated Jul 14, 2021

Remembering Jean Erdman ’34

Innovator in dance, choreography, and theater who taught her MHS classmates the hula

(MHS Archives)

Jean Erdman Campbell ’34, a ground-breaker and innovator in dance, choreography, and theater, passed away May 4, 2020, in Hawaii. She was 104 years old.

Ms. Erdman had a long and storied career, performing with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1938 to 1943, organizing the Jean Erdman Dance Group in 1954, and directing the Theater of the Open Eye, which she founded in 1972 with her husband, the noted author and lecturer Joseph Campbell.

From right to left, Jean Erdman ’34, Marion Blodgett ’36, and Mary Thurber ’34 in this undated photo from the MHS Archives

According to her obituary in The New York Times, “Ms. Erdman was among the first choreographers to exploit the inherent theatricality of dance, melding it with drama, poetry, music and visual art to form a seamless whole, or ‘total theater,’ as it was known then. Today it might be described as performance art.”(1)

Her revolutionary theater piece, “The Coach With the Six Insides,” based on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, combined elements from all of the performing and visual arts, including dance, dialogue, and mime. The show opened in 1962 in New York and received the Obie and Vernon Rice awards for Outstanding Achievement in Off-Broadway Theater. It ran for two seasons, toured the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan, and was later revived in New York, according to The Times.

Left photo: Jean Erdman ’34 (right) with Marion Blodgett ’36, from the 1934 MHS production of the play, Paolo and Francesca. Right photo: Jean Erdman ’34 (left) with Mary Thurber ’34.(MHS Archives)

Ms. Erdman also choreographed several Broadway productions, including a 1971 rock adaptation of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” for which she received a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a Tony, The Times noted.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Ms. Erdman came to Miss Hall’s as a junior in 1932 and later recalled how she was disciplined for teaching her classmates the hula. The discipline, though memorable, apparently did little to diminish Ms. Erdman’s feelings toward the School. She visited Mira Hall in the years after she graduated, and Miss Hall, in a telegram to Ms. Erdman’s parents following graduation, noted that the School would “greatly miss Jean, who has been an exceptionally delightful member of the family.”

After Miss Hall’s, Ms. Erdman attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she trained as a professional dancer, and met Mr. Campbell. During the course of her career, she taught at Columbia University Teachers College, Bard College, and the University of Colorado, according to The Times. She also founded the dance theater program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and remained on the faculty through the early 1970s. Ms. Erdman later became the founding President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Mr. Campbell died in 1987.

Ms. Erdman, along with Pittsfield philanthropist and industrialist Stanley P. Benton, was a major contributor to the renovation of the Benton-Erdman Arts Barn, dedicated in 1979. The building was home to the MHS drama, dance, and ceramics programs from 1979 until the opening of the Elizabeth Gatchell Klein Arts Center in 2001.

In May 1994, on the occasion of her 60th Miss Hall’s reunion, Ms. Erdman was presented with the School’s highest expression of its esteem, the Distinguished Alumna Award.

(1) Fox, Margolit. “Jean Erdman, a Dancer Moved by Myth, Is Dead at 104.” The New York Times 6 May 2020. Online.