Maya Deren

Maya Deren (April 29, 1917, Kiev – October 13, 1961, New York City), born Eleanora Derenkowsky, was an American avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist of the 1940s and 1950s. Deren was also a choreographer, dancer, poet, writer and photographer.


Early life

Deren was born in Kiev, Ukraine to Solomon Derenkowsky and Marie Fiedler. It is said that she was named after Eleanora Duse, an Italian actress. In 1922, after a series of anti-Semitic pogroms and because of her father's sympathies for Leon Trotsky, the family fled to Syracuse, New York. Her father shortened the family name to 'Deren' shortly after they arrived in New York. He became the staff psychiatrist at the State Institute for the Feeble-Minded in Syracuse. Her mother moved to Paris to be with her daughter while she attended the League of Nations School in Geneva, Switzerland from 1930 to 1933. In 1928, she became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.


Deren began college at Syracuse University, where she became active in the Trotskyist Young People's Socialist League. Through the YPSL she met Gregory Bardacke, whom she later married at the age of eighteen. After his graduation in 1935, she moved to New York City. She and her husband became very active in various socialist causes in New York City. She graduated from New York University and separated from Bardacke. The divorce was finalized in 1939. She began her studies for a master’s degree in English literature at the New School for Social Research and completed it at Smith College.

After graduation from Smith, Deren returned to New York’s Greenwich Village where she worked as a free-lance secretary. In 1941 she became the personal secretary to choreographer Katherine Dunham. At the end of a tour, the Dunham dance company stopped in Los Angeles for several months to work in Hollywood. It was there that Deren met Alexandr Hackenschmied, a celebrated Czech-born photographer and cameraman who would become her second husband in 1942. Hackenschmied had fled Czechoslovakia after Hitler's advance. He changed his name at Deren's behest to Alexander Hammid (nickname Sasha) because Deren thought Hackenschmied sounded too Jewish (which he was not).


In the early 1940s, Deren used some of the inheritance from her father to purchase a used 16 mm Bolex camera. She used this camera to make her first and best-known film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), in collaboration with Hammid. Meshes of the Afternoon is recognized as a seminal American avant-garde film. Originally a silent film with no dialogue, music for the film was composed by Deren's third husband Teiji Ito in 1952.

In 1943, she adopted the name Maya Deren. Maya is the name of the mother of the historical as well as the dharmic concept of the illusory nature of reality. In Greek myth, Maia is the mother of Hermes and a goddess of mountains and fields. Also in 1943, Deren began making a film with Marcel Duchamp, ''The Witches' Cradle'', which was never completed.

At that time her social circle included the likes of André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Anaïs Nin.

Deren's second film was ''At Land'', which she made in 1944. She made ''A Study in Choreography for the Camera'' in 1945. ''Ritual in Transfigured Time'' was made in 1946, which explored the fear of rejection and the freedom of expression in abandoning ritual.

In 1946 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 'Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures.' In 1947 she won the Grand Prix Internationale for 16 mm experimental film at the Cannes Film Festival for ''Meshes of the Afternoon''.

Deren's ''Meditation on Violence'' was made in 1948. Chao Li Chi's performance obscures the distinction between violence and beauty. Half way through the film, the sequence is rewound, producing a film loop.

In 1958, Deren collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and Antony Tudor to create ''The Very Eye of Night''.

Deren distributed her own films and promoted them through lectures and screenings in the United States, Canada, and Cuba. She lectured on film theory and Vodoun. She wrote, directed, edited, and performed in her own films.

Criticism of Hollywood

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Deren attacked Hollywood for its artistic, political and economic monopoly over American cinema. She stated, “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick,” and observed that Hollywood “has been a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form.” She set herself in opposition to the Hollywood film industry’s standards and practices.

Haiti and Voodoo

The Guggenheim grant enabled Deren to finance travel to Haiti to pursue her interest in voodoo. Dunham wrote her master’s thesis on Haitian dances in 1936, which may have influenced Deren’s interest. In Haiti, Deren not only filmed many hours of voodoo ritual, but also participated in them, and adopted the religion. Her book, ''Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti'' (1953), is considered a definitive source on the subject. However, the accompanying [[Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (film)|documentary remained incomplete in her lifetime and was edited and produced by Teiji Ito and his wife Cherel Winett Ito (1947-1999) in 1981, twenty years after Deren's death. All of the original film, wire recordings, and notes are held in the Maya Deren Collection at Boston University.


Deren died in 1961, at the age of 44, from a brain hemorrhage brought on by extreme malnutrition. Her condition was also weakened by the amphetamines she had been taking since she began working for Dunham in 1941, prescribed by Dr. Max Jacobson. Jacobson was investigated by The New York Times in 1972 for developing drug dependencies in his patients, and lost his medical license in 1975. Deren was taking amphetamines and sleeping pills on a daily basis when she died. Her father suffered from high blood pressure, which she may have had as well.

Her ashes were scattered in Japan at Fuji.

Beyond her death, she seemingly became part of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, an epic poem of revelations from the dead obtained by use of a ouija board.



United States

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