Ethel KirktonWinter, Dancer

Ethel Kirkton Winter, Freshman at Bennington College, Vermont.

Ethel Winter, born June 18, 1924, in Wrentham, MA, was the daughter of Murray and Mary Elizabeth "May" Kirkton. After completing high school in 1941, she attended Bennington College where she studied dance. Ethel danced with the celebrated Martha Graham Dance Company for many years and later taught dance at Julliard.


Winter to Receive Dance Award

by Elizabeth McPherson

Ethel Winter was my teacher at Juilliard, and I have strong memories of her positive energy, openness, and concern for students. She taught many other students during her tenure at the School from 1953-2003, and I recently asked several of them what they remember about her as a teacher. Each one emphasized the joy and enthusiasm that she brought to her teaching, her dancing, and her life. Winter radiates passion. So it’s only natural that, on December 1, that passion will be celebrated as Ethel Winter receives the Martha Hill Dance Fund Lifetime Achievement Award for her multifaceted dedication to the dance field.

Picture: Ethel Winter teaching at Juilliard in the 1980s. (From the Juilliard School Archives)

Born June 18, 1924, in Wrentham, Mass., Winter loved dance from an early age, taking classes at a local studio as a child and moving on as a teen to classes in ballet, tap, Spanish dance, classical Indian dance, and acrobatics in Boston. She knew that she wanted to pursue dance as a career, but opportunities were limited in the United States in the 1940s, and her parents insisted that she go to college. She chose Bennington College in Vermont, an innovative, progressive school where the arts were considered equal among other academic subjects. Martha Hill (director of the Juilliard Dance Division from 1951 to 1985) was the director of dance at Bennington College at that time, and she and Winter developed a lifelong close friendship. William “Bill” Bales was Winter’s primary modern dance teacher.

In the summer of 1943, Martha Graham was in residency at Bennington College and premiered her work Deaths and Entrances, which impressed Winter deeply. Graham technique was difficult for her at first, but she quickly grew to love the expressive and deep physical nature of it. She joined Graham's company in 1944 and continued until 1969, originating such roles as Helen of Troy in Clytemnestra and Aphrodite in Phaedre. Her lyrical quality, intensity, and diverse range defined her dancing, and those who saw her perform remember her as unforgettable. Of special distinction is the fact that Winter was the first dancer Graham chose to take over her roles.

Winter’s career led her to Broadway, television, summer stock, dancing with Sophie Maslow’s company, and directing and choreographing for her own company. In addition, she taught both nationally and internationally at numerous locations, including Juilliard and the Martha Graham School, for 50 years. She was one of the founders of the London School of Contemporary Dance in Britain and the Batsheva School in Israel.

Winter is that rare kind of gifted teacher that students remember years later for having led them to essential knowledge about themselves, dance, and life too. Perhaps it is the influence of her progressive education at Bennington College (from which she holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees) that leads her to respect her students as people above all. Some dance teachers teach with the result being their primary objective; with Winter, process is equally, if not more, important. In this way, the road to becoming a dancer is filled with discovery and inner growth, as well as the more easily quantifiable outer growth. Winter described her own teaching to me: “I like to use positive encouragement instead of negative criticism. A teacher can be firm without killing the spirit, an essential ingredient for the performer.” She continued by describing how, as she grew more experienced as a teacher, she learned to value each student for whom they were without trying to mold everyone into one image.

Her students absorbed and valued this in her. Tony Powell (B.F.A. ’95) remembers, “There was something very magical about Ethel’s classes. She cared about each of us and knew our strengths and weaknesses firsthand. If you were struggling with something, she would put you in the front row, so you couldn’t fade away into the background.” Ani Udovicki (B.F.A. ’85) remembers, “One felt that she saw you on your own terms and not against some ideal abstraction. Indeed, she could see even the tiniest attempt at moving in the right direction, and she celebrated it as if it were some great achievement. She would get closer, her voice and hands full of excitement, to congratulate one’s efforts.”

Dance is embedded in the very fabric of her life, yet Winter never loses sight of what it is to be human and to value that in herself and others. Tina Curran (B.F.A. ’90) summarized the feelings of many of Winter’s students: “I gained in Ethel’s classes an understanding that dance comes from life, and that technique is a means to focus and heighten the ability of the body to be expressive, to share life. I will never forget Ethel’s demonstration of a Graham contraction as an expression of joy. This image still resonates in my memory and in my body. The experience was an epiphany to recognize that dance is not only doing, but also an expression of being.” Winter is an inspiration for the inner light and dignity she embodies and shares..

Elizabeth McPherson (B.F.A. '90, dance) is an assistant professor of dance education at Montclair State University.




Ethel Winter graduating class. She is left end of very back, strapped dress. (Photo from "Images of America, Wrentham" series.)
Charlie, Ethel & David Hyman
Nancy, Pat, and Sandy with Charlie (1925-2009) and Ethel Winter Hyman (1924-2012) in Manhattan, 2008. We had a lovely visit. Ethel is Robert Winter’s cousin.
Ethel Winter --1939--daughter of May (Kirkton) and Murray Winter
Ethel Winter --1939
Ethel Winter, Freshman at Bennington College, Vermon, 1941 Dance Student
Evelyn White, Freshman, Bennington College, Vermont, 1941 Dance Student

Bennington College Dance Program, 1942, Evelyn White and Ethel Winter. They performed many programs together


Evelyn White, Bennington, photo belonging to Ethel Winter

She danced with the Katharine Dunham Dancers

Ethel Winter and Evelyn White, mayber Bennington Fund Raiser
Entrance Exams 1st Class of H. S. Performing Arts at Juilliard. Seated:John Martin, Critic NY Times, Martha Hill, Martha Graham, Standing.:B.J. Wahlberg, Pianist, Ethel Winter, Instructor, Mrs.Draper, Murial Stuart, Ballet--1948
Ethel Kirkton Winter Hyman danced with the Martha Graham Company and taught at Juilliard--photo--1957
Ethel KirktonWinter Hyman, daughter of Murray and May Winter--1963
Ethel Winter in Martha Graham’s “Frontier”--1964
Ethel Winter, the Juilliard School’s Dance Department’s From New York Times. "Ethel Winter, a longtime disciple of Martha Graham and a former director of The Juilliard School’s dance department, has been named the 2008 recipient of the Martha Hill Lifetime Achievement Award. Ms. Winter, who taught at Juilliard for 50 years, studied with Hill at Bennington College before joining the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1944. Ms. Winter was the first dancer Graham chose to take over her role in many productions, including “Salem Shore,” “Night Journey”, “Herodiade” and “Frontier.” Ms. Winter will receive the award at a presentation hosted by the Martha Hill Dance Fund on Dec. 1" Photo from 1965
Ethel Winter-1943

Credit...Sam Falk/The New York Times

Ethel Winter, who brought natural lyricism and startling passion to the Martha Graham Dance Company as a leading dancer there from the 1940s through the ’60s, and who mentored hundreds of students at the Juilliard School, at the Graham school and abroad, died on March 10 in Manhattan. She was 87.

Her death was confirmed by her son, David Hyman.

“Beauty” was a word often applied to Ms. Winter’s stage presence. When she first performed as a student dancer with the visiting Graham company at Bennington College in 1943, she seemed destined for roles with a gentle or innocent edge.

Critics initially saw her in this vein after she joined the company the next year. In 1948 she became the first dancer to perform one of Martha Graham’s own roles in a solo, “Salem Shore.” John Martin, dance critic of The New York Times, wrote that she “looks charming, moves beautifully and projects a wistful romanticism.”

Yet Ms. Winter proved herself a dancer of wide range over the years, creating roles in Graham works (including Helen of Troy in “Clytemnestra” and the vengeful Aphrodite in “Phaedra”) as well as the lead in other pieces — sometimes in Graham’s own roles, like the bride in “Appalachian Spring” and Jocasta in “Night Journey.”

Paul Taylor, who danced with Ms. Winter in the Graham company in the 1950s, summed up her versatility in his memoir," Private Domain" writing, “Ethel Winter is a many-pointed star — spiritual as St. Joan, lascivious as Aphrodite, flirtatious as Cleopatra.”

“Her individuality always comes through,” he added.

Ms. Winter’s transition to harder-edged roles was credited to an incident during the Graham company’s tour of Asia in 1955-56. Ms. Winter became angry in a dressing room about an entangled costume, stripped it off and then stamped on it with some good-natured swearing. Graham observed her and commented, “Good girl, Ethel.”

From then on, she excelled in roles like the Girl in Red, the embodiment of passion in “Diversion of Angels,” Graham’s exploration of aspects of love. In 1962 she was the scheming Aphrodite, imbued with erotic movement, in Graham’s “Phaedra.”

Ms. Winter was a member of the Graham company until 1969 and appeared as a guest artist until 1973. She was also hailed as a great teacher and taught at Juilliard for 50 years, until 2003.Ethel Winter was born on June 18, 1924, in Wrentham, Mass., where she took dance classes as a child before studying in Boston. As an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont, she was introduced to the modern-dance pioneers by Martha Hitt, director of the college’s dance program and the first head of Juilliard’s dance division.

In 1943, when the Graham company was resident at Bennington, Ms. Winter performed with it as a student. She interned at the Graham school in New York in her senior year and graduated from Bennington after making an official debut with the company in its 1945 Broadway season.

In 1948, according to a biographical essay by the dance scholar Victoria Phillips Geduld, Ms. Winter became ill with tuberculosis.

After a year of bed rest, she returned to Vermont to teach at Bennington and work toward a master’s degree. There she met Charles Hyman, who taught stage design and lighting in the theater arts department and who was later the Graham troupe’s stage manager. They were married in 1950. Mr. Hyman died three years ago. Ms. Winter is survived by their son, David.

Ms. Winter suffered a relapse of tuberculosis and decided not to tour for a period in the 1950s, Ms. Geduld said. Instead, she danced in the companies of the Graham dancers Sophie Maslow and Anna Sokolow in New York and performed in a Broadway show, “Ankles Aweigh,” in 1955.

Ms. Winter then returned to the Graham troupe and, from 1962 to 1969, toured with her own small group. Although she was not primarily interested in choreography, “En Dolor,” the Spanish-tinged student solo she created at 19, became a modern-dance classic. It will be performed this spring in New York and Seattle.

Correction: March 19, 2012

An earlier version misstated the names of two dancers in a photo caption. They are Helen McGehee and Akiko Kanda, not Helen McGenee and Akibo Kanda.