Tamiris, Helen, 1905-1966

Alternative names
Birth 1905-04-24
Death 1966-08-04

Biographical notes:

Dancer, choreographer. Real name, Helen Becker.

From the description of [Programs and announcements], 1928-1965. 1928-1965 (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 777009427

(written by Walter Terry)

Helen Tamiris, one of the major pioneers in the development of modern dance in America and one of Broadway's best known choreographers, was born Helen Becker in 1905 in New York City's Lower East Side. The urge to dance was there from the start, but because her immigrant parents, who had escaped the ghettoes of Europe, were very poor, little Helen had no dance lessons and no place to dance. So she danced in the streets of her neighborhood. One of her brothers saw her dancing happily in the gutter and urged their father to try to give her dancing lessons. So at eight, she was enrolled in Irene Lewisohn's dance classes at the Henry Street Settlement.

Her father hoped that she would outgrow her obsession for dancing. She never did. Although her training with Miss Lewisohn was in free dance forms and not in ballet, she tried out for the Metropolitan Opera and won an audition which provided her with twelve dollars a week and free lessons. She stayed with the Met for four seasons and toured South America as second ballerina with the Bracale Opera Company.

But she was not happy with the limitations of opera ballet and extended her studies to include lessons with the great Michel Fokine. This introduced her to a broader concept of ballet, but it was still not enough, for the young dancer felt that ballet imported from abroad could not speak for America in American terms.

In order to do what she felt she must, she played a nightclub stint in Chicago as a specialty dancer and scored in a Chinese dance in “The Music Box Revue.” With the money saved from these commercial engagements, she was able to prepare for her historic debut as a concert artist in a program of her own choreography and representing her own, personally developed, dance technique.

Dance Moods, which she called her debut program at New York's Little Theater on October 9, 1927, was a success, and a major new career was launched. Before this, Helen Becker had changed her name to Tamiris (she dropped the “Helen” until she returned to Broadway as a musical comedy choreographer in 1943). She had selected the new name from the first line of a poem concerning a Persian queen: “Thou art Tamiris, the ruthless queen who banishes all obstacles.”

In the years that followed, Tamiris encountered many obstacles (a good many of them financial), and she banished most of them. The success of her first all-American program, in which she had sought to capture the movement idioms of the American Negro, the prize fighter, and the citizen of America's jazz age, attracted interest abroad. In 1928, at the invitation of the Mozarteum Society, she danced in Salzburg-the first American dancer ever to appear there under such high auspices. Her jazz compositions, spirituals, and athletic studies (including experiments with nude dancing) were enthusiastically received in Paris and in Berlin.

But she wanted to return home to forward the cause of modern dance and to forward, in her indomitable, militant fashion, her own career. In 1930, she helped organize the Dance Repertory Theater (she became its first president), which, for two years, presented repertory seasons featuring the works of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Tamiris-the four chief founders of modern dance in America (Hanya Holm, coming from a modern dance background in Germany, became the fifth founding modern dance pioneer in this country).

Tamiris also headed the dance wing of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theater Project, and it was at this time that she turned more and more to dances of protests, to themes of social comment, to mirroring in choreography the bitter fruits of the depression. In the 1930s she created “Cycle of Unrest,” composed of Protest Camaraderie, Conflict, the Individual and the Masses; “Momentum” (also a dance of protest); “How Long Brethren,” based on the inequities suffered by the American Negro (this was one of her most famous creations), and “Adelante,” a protest against the cruelties of the Spanish Civil War. She did, of course, create dances of other cast, among them, her enormously powerful and poetic “Walt Whitman Suite” and in 1941 her jubilant “Liberty Song,” based upon songs of the American Revolution.

But whatever her theme, she went at it with gusto. She was tall for a dancer, strong of limb, and with a beautifully proportioned body topped by a mop of bright red hair. Probably no American dancer had stage impact to the same degree as did Tamiris. One critic wrote of her, “an emotional dancer, a stylist and a dynamo of energy and blunt force, fearless, direct and propulsive,” yet it was said of her Spirituals, “not translation but illumination.”

The force and fearlessness were always present. During the depression years, she made no secret of her leftist leanings, but she was equally energetic in issuing manifestoes on esthetics, debating theatrical issues, and, in recent seasons, letting the avant-garde in dance have it square between the eyes. As one avant-garde choreographer put it: “You can't beat Helen because you know that if she suddenly took your side of the debate, she'd win that too.”

After “Liberty Song” and the eventual dissolving of her concert group because of lack of funds, Tamiris returned to Broadway, this time as choreographer for “Up in Central Park” (1943). In the ensuing years, she chalked up successes as choreographer for a revival of “Showboat,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Inside U.S.A.,” “Plain and Fancy” (1955), and many others.

In 1960 she returned to her first love, the field of concert dance, and with her husband of many years and her longtime dance partner, Daniel Nagrin, the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company was brought into being. Tamiris did not dance with this troupe-she had retired from the stage in the 1940s-but she choreographed for it, as did Mr. Nagrin, who was its performing star. The company was disbanded in 1965 when Tamiris and her husband separated as husband and wife.

Even at sixty, Helen Tamiris was a striking woman with a beautiful figure, a youthful face, an infectious laugh and a presence which exuded the energy and the spirit and the undiminished fire of one “who banishes all obstacles.”

From the guide to the Helen Tamiris collection, ca. 1939-1966, (The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.)


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