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DEAD OR ALIVE?: MARTHA GRAHAM’S LEGACY TWENTY YEARS AFTER SHE PASSED AWAY

by Rosella Simonari

The present article is a simplified version of part of a research project I am conducting on Martha Graham. I would like to thank Francesca Falcone for the tip she gave me on the book Dance Techniques 2010 and Toba Singer for her support.

In almost seven decades of career, Martha Graham (1894-1991) developed a choreographic vision that changed the idea of dance and gave it purpose and visibility. 2011 marked the twentieth anniversary of her decease and it is important to reflect on her legacy and establish whether it is dead or alive. Some may object and say that it is obvious for her legacy to be alive as she was a fundamental figure in dance history. However, dance as an art form is still very much the victim of what dance scholars Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera call “the rhetoric of ephemereality”. In their newly published book in Italian, Ricordanze [Remembering dance], they collect and edit a series of essays by prominent international scholars on the question of memory in dance. According to them, given its corporeal nature, dance has escaped an organised approach of study and has been relegated to the realm of orality where many things get lost forever. In the present article, I would like to explore Graham’s legacy to see what has been lost, what risks oblivion and what survives. My perspective is that of an independent dance scholar and critic who has followed the Graham Company in as diverse places as New York, Saratoga Springs, London, Rome, Ferrara and Trieste, testing the changes the Company has undergone since the mid-1990s, and who has researched documents in many libraries, written reviews and essays and presented papers on Graham at international conferences. It is neither a US centred nor an omniscient perspective as I live and work in Italy and have lived in the UK, but this particular angle gives me the chance to take a different look at her.

On May 11th 2011, Google surprised many of us with a wonderful animated doodle dedicated to Graham. Had she been alive she would be 117 years old and she would probably like this present. The doodle received thousands of contacts and confirmed Graham’s iconic status not just within the dance world but within a larger circuit of people. The animation, superbly done by Ryan Woodward, was choreographed by Martha Graham Center artistic director, Janet Eilber, who took inspiration from the following choreographic pieces: Satiric Festival Song (1932), Frontier (1935) and Night Journey (1947) performed by Graham dancer Blakeley White-McGuire. On that day Graham’s name reached many people who never even thought of dance as an art form. I remember more than one friend of mine contacted me primarily because they knew I was researching on Graham, not so much because they knew her in the first place. On that day she was alive and kicking. But what about the other days? Is Graham’s legacy in good health? Or is it in a decaying state? Attempting a reply to these questions is not an easy task, but I will try basing my investigation on what I know and have analysed of Graham. In this sense, I will take an unusual perspective by focusing on the three major roles she covered for almost all her life: that of dancer, forger of technique and choreographer, and see what the situation is. The centralisation of these roles fundamentally contributed to the creation of her style.

Graham considered herself first and foremost a dancer and whatever she produced and created was the result of her need to dance. Martha Graham’s role as dancer depended on her physical appearance and on what her body could do. Physically, she was quite peculiar: small, with large dark eyes and long, straight dark hair, that made her look Oriental, as she admitted. According to Agnes De Mille, she had a long torso, “strong thighs, producing an open spread of thigh (…) a foot like a primitive, with a high instep and a long, pliant Achilles tendon” and she could “squat without lifting her heels from the floor and rise to a standing position without swinging her weight forward and without lifting her heels from the floor”. She had a mesmeric stage presence, and could always interpret her characters with remarkable intensity. This happened in spite of the fact that she only began her career as independent artist at thirty-two. For example, in 1929 she created a solo called Adolescence, where she interpreted a child. She was thirty-five and fully credible, according to Agnes De Mille. In 1944, at fifty, she created the role of the bride in her signature piece, Appalachian Spring. In 1958, at the age of sixty-four, she danced the major role in her acclaimed Clytemnestra. She believed that a dancer was a special person, a chosen one who was ready to sacrifice himself/herself in the name of his/her art. This idea emerges in early works like Heretic (1929) as well as later ones like her unique version of the Rite of Spring (1984). Graham as dancer is no longer with us and many of those generations who saw her dancing are slowly disappearing. There are striking photographs that testify to her stage presence (those by Barbara Morgan are still today remarkable) and a few available recorded videos of her performing abilities, otherwise this kind of legacy is gone forever, because it lacks a fundamental component, that is her dancing body. However, numerous Graham dancers have been able to shed new insights on her pieces thanks to their stage presence and proficiency in the technique. I am thinking of the late and much missed Pearl Lang, Christine Dakin, Terese Capucilli and, more recently, Feng Yi Sheu.

Graham was also the forger of a new dance technique that changed the face of contemporary dance. I intentionally use the term ‘forger’ because I believe she worked like an artisan who shaped and worked out her own material to give birth to something powerful. Thanks to its relationship with the floor, the Graham technique literally changed the dancer and audience’ perspective. By focusing on the torso, it opened up venues of kinaesthetic developments that still today surprise and amaze those who do them as well as those who watch them. To this aspect another one is profoundly connected, that of teaching. Graham was an incredible teacher, her dancers often recall the evocative way she spoke to convey a step or to give them the right image connected to that step. Thanks to her teaching and to the teaching of her dancers, the Graham technique is still today alive, even though I think access to it is relatively limited outside the United States. For example, the London Contemporary Dance School, one of the leading contemporary dance schools in the UK, does not have the Graham technique in its curriculum any longer. As the School website notes, “the School, and its partner company London Contemporary Dance Theatre, were the brainchild of Robin Howard, who had been inspired by seeing the Martha Graham Company in 1954 to bring contemporary dance to Britain”. In 1966 the School was founded by Graham dancer Robert Cohen who directed it for about twenty years. As time passed and new dance styles were introduced, direct connections with the Graham technique slowly faded away. Given the evolution of things at the LCDS, it is perhaps no surprise that a recently published volume dedicated to contemporary dance techniques, Dance Techniques 2010 – Tanzplan Germany, has not included the Graham technique in its analysis, but has inserted the Humphrey/Limón tradition and the Cunningham technique. From the introduction it is clear that the intention of its editors was not to publish a comprehensive volume, but the choice not to include the Graham technique is significant of its limited impact outside the U.S. and its consequent neglect. The reason for this neglect is probably connected with several aspects, like Graham’s self-centred approach to her dance, which did not allow her technique to be taught very much outside her School while she was alive and the legal troubles occurring after she passed away. In addition to this, there is also the idea that her technique is kind of passé, that is obsolete (as if a technique could be so), possibly because of its difficulty and accent on expressivity.

Fortunately enough, in London the Graham technique is being taught at Laban, which is another place of excellence for contemporary dance. Furthermore, students at Laban can benefit from the historical project which aims at reviving dance pieces from the past. In 2009, I was at Laban and saw the reconstruction of Primitive Mysteries (1931) coached by former Graham Ensemble dancer Susan Sentler. Sentler’s students were very good at interpreting the work. That was perhaps the first time that the Mysteries was being staged on a European soil. After the performance, I had the chance to speak with the students and it was fascinating to realise the intense impact the work had had on their identity as young dancers. It was as if they had lived through a ritual, a rite of passage, which is, after all, part of the significance of the work. In Italy it is rare to find somebody qualified to teach the technique. In places like the National Academy of Dance in Rome, Elsa Piperno has been a pioneer in teaching the technique and, in recent years, former principal dancers and co-directors of the Company, Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, have been invited to teach the technique at the Danzfest, the International Summer School Dance Festival in the city of Cattolica. It is a unique opportunity for all those dancers who want to get a high quality taste of the technique, even though it is only for a few weeks per year. With regards to the technique, then, Graham’s legacy is struggling to survive.

Graham was also a prolific choreographer and her work is mainly carried on by her Company, who has had to struggle to survive after she passed away. As is well known, after Graham’s death a controversial legal battle begun between her designated heir, Ronald Protas, and the Graham Center, a battle that conjured up against the survival of the Company and, with that, of Graham’s masterpieces. At the time, it was 2002, two Graham principal dancers, Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, took on their shoulders the responsibility to reorganise the Company and rebuild the repertoire. In January 2003 they presented a long and articulated programme at the Joyce Theatre in New York, which included classic pieces such as Appalachian Spring and Deep Song (1937) as well as less performed works such as Phaedra (1962). I still remember the cold and rarefied atmosphere, but, at the same time, the excitement pervading the audience. In particular, I remember an old lady at the ticket office, her light coloured scarf on her head and her blue eyes. And I thought that that lady was the fundamental sign of what Graham meant and means in the United States: she is a national treasure that has fed the hunger for culture of many generations. On that occasion the Company was not in perfect shape but it had the guts to stand up again and put its pieces together. This reminds me of what Graham used to say of her falls, possibly one of her greatest contribution to dance vocabulary, “my dancers fall so they may rise”. In this sense, the Company rose and managed to get the lustre back on the repertoire and on Graham’s name. They again toured around the States and even in Europe, with important dates in London and Italy. In Italy they also presented other rarely performed pieces such as Circe (1963) and it was a pure delight to see how Graham’s vocabulary and choreographic ability had created a powerful image of the sorceress.

In 2005 another change took place. Due to financial problems, the Board replaced Capucilli and Dakin with Janet Eilber, causing turmoil and bitterness among Graham afecionados. Eilber soon emerged as a different kind of artistic director. First of all, she did not dance but only supervised rehearsals, then she opted for a more creative approach to the promotion of the Company, embracing the use of the internet with the update of the Company website, the creation of blogs for specific projects and, recently, a lively facebook page. In addition to this, she decided to give short presentations before each performance so as to give context and background to the pieces. This can be seen as a questionable choice and it has been seen as such by old fans of Graham, because it seems to be giving the idea that Graham dance world needs a didactic approach to be fully appreciated. However, it has received excellent results. And, as dance critic Joan Acocella has remarked, the Company needed “new fans” to recover from its financial crisis. Furthermore, in an era when narrative and meaning in dance are often neglected, it proved a good move. I remember one time in 2007 in Saratoga Springs, Janet Eilber’s narration really contributed to creating the atmosphere for the fascinating project, Prelude and Revolt: Denishawn to Graham, whose aim was to show the legacy and changes between Denishawn and Graham’ vocabulary.

At the Company performance in New York, on June 2010, Eilber has pushed herself even further by comparing the Graham repertoire to that of a museum: “I have often said we’re searching for the modern-dance equivalent of the museum’s audio tour (…). It’s time for modern dance to institutionalise itself in a way, to come to grips with the fact that it has an important past”. On that occasion two important events were presented: one was SITI Company’s recreation of American Document and the other was a theme-based evening termed with a very evocative title, Dance is a Weapon. This expression belongs to the New Dance Theatre, a dance group which in the 1930s created dance pieces with a striking radical left political tinge that shed an interesting perspective on Graham’s pieces from the same period. Eilber’s choice to focus on a thematic approach helped to give the evening cohesion and force.

What is clear from these reflections is that Graham’s legacy, whether it is connected to her role as dancer, forger of technique or choreographer, is neither static nor fixed, but is constantly changing and reshaping itself. There is still work to be done, on the part of the Company, the Graham Center and all those who perpetrate it around the world. There is also the sometimes too hidden and undervalued work of dance scholars who dig into the past (even the recent past) to shed new light into the present. In this respect, quite a few dance scholars have worked and are working their way towards a more specific analysis of Graham’s work, an analysis which can unveil new and even question aspects of her work. In 2010 the dance journal Dance Chronicle has dedicated an interesting monographic number to Graham, while in 2012 it is due to be published Mark Franko’s new book, Graham in Love and War, which analyses Graham’s relationship with anti-fascism and psychoanalysis in some of her most famous pieces. In the light of all these changes, Graham’s legacy has managed to survive and affirm itself in a new vigorous manner. Let us hope it will continue to marvel us with its force and richness!

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