Modern Dance Pioneer Bonnie Bird

She was many things: an accomplished performer, revered instructor, passionate political activist and loving wife and mother. Bonnie Bird also was a Bothell, Washington, resident into the 1930s, while the rest of her family continued to live there into the ’50s.

Bonnie was born in Portland in 1914 and spent most of her childhood in Hillsboro and Seattle. When she was 12, her father, Scott-Elliott Bird, decided they should relocate 17 miles northeast to Bothell – a choice that came as quite a surprise to the rest of the family. Bonnie, her mother Josephine and her two younger brothers were visiting relatives when they came home to find Scott-Elliott planning the purchase of a small farm overlooking the North Creek Valley.

Bonnie BirdMr. Bird was inspired by his good friend and noted Bothell resident Ben Boone. Ben had already built a home in the valley just outside of Bothell and Bird decided it would be an ideal place to raise his children as well. And because he had begun to reap financial reward as one of the first-ever auto dealers in Portland and Seattle, Bird finally had the money for land and a larger home.

Making such an important decision while his wife and children were away could have easily turned into a family crisis, but their new home – referred to as “Robin Hill” – proved a welcome habitat. The large house not only provided Josephine with her dream porch, but also sat on a hill above Bothell, offering magnificent views of the valley below.

To further sweeten the deal, each child was given a horse, and even they seemed to love the new house. As Bonnie recalled, if you left the front door open, the smallest of the horses would often wander right into the living room. “I’d hear little stamp-stamps, and go find my brother’s horse, which was tiny, looking all around, coming in on the Oriental rugs, and lead him out.”

Interestingly enough, these weren’t the only horses to visit the Bird residence. Bonnie’s mother would often throw elaborate parties at Robin Hill. Once she invited a local one-ring circus, which included several small horses, to perform right in the family’s living room! Another memorable festivity was a paper chase (a horse race that follows a maze-like trail of shredded paper through the countryside) hosted on the Bird property. When the 30 or 40 guests, one of whom was a Russian prince, arrived they were greeted with a lavish breakfast on picnic tables in the family’s chestnut grove.

However, it wasn’t just the amazing parties that made Bonnie’s mother Josephine a well-known figure within the Bothell community. She was active in the school system and eventually became president of the PTA. She also helped Bothell acquire a fire engine when she realized that the town “fire truck” was merely an old car rigged with wooden ladders and garden hose.

Even though her family certainly provided a delightful, exciting home life, Bonnie ended up spending much of her time outside of Bothell. She attended Roosevelt High in Seattle, allowing her to study dance after school at the Cornish School of Fine Arts, presently called the Cornish College of the Arts. In 1929, when Bonnie was 15, modern dance legend Martha Graham began teaching at Cornish. Graham influenced her students simply by treating them like adults, asking questions such as, “What do you think a dancer’s role in society is?” Martha Graham’s impact on Bonnie’s dancing – and her worldviews – would endure throughout her life and career.

In 1931, at age 17, Bonnie moved to New York after accepting a scholarship to study at the prestigious Graham Company. Bonnie remained with the company until 1937, when she returned to Seattle to become head of the dance department at the Cornish School. Her most notable student there was Merce Cunningham, today regarded as one of the most important dancers and choreographers of our time. (Coincidentally, Merce was born and raised in Centralia, Wash., where his father and brother had a significant connection to what is today McMenamins Olympic Club.) Bonnie would continue a collaborative friendship with Merce for years to come, eventually working together along with famed composer John Cage.

Bonnie spent several years teaching at Cornish, during which time she married and became politically involved, including fundraising to send aid to the Spanish democracy during their civil war. Bonnie eventually moved back to New York, spent over two decades teaching dance in London, then moved to California where she died in 1995 at the age of 80.

From riding horses on a small farm in Bothell to helping shape American modern dance, Bonnie left an enduring legacy of imagination, social awareness and dedication to her craft.

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