Diamonds on your collarbone

Anne Hollander

  • Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes DeMille
    Hutchinson, 509 pp, £20.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 09 175219 1
  • Blood Memory: An Autobiography by Martha Graham
    Macmillan, 279 pp, £20.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 333 57441 9

The death of Martha Graham on 1 April 1991, a little more than a month before her 97th birthday, finally permitted Agnes DeMille to publish her biography of the dancer, after nearly twenty-five years of work and four years of waiting. It is a measure of DeMille’s reverence for Graham that she should have withheld until after Graham’s death what is by any standards an affectionate and appreciative account of her life and art, rather than risk of fending Graham’s own sense of herself in the slightest degree. DeMille seems to feel that she is approaching something truly sacred in discussing Graham, rather than simply writing the life of a rare artist and an old friend who had become a touchy old woman. She tells us in her preface that Martha had wished to leave a legend, not a biography; and she knows she is transgressing.

DeMille even seems to share Graham’s early illusion of herself as a deathless creature for ever able to expound her work through her own body: eternally ‘an athlete of God’, as she herself says; a David before the Ark. Graham’s own book, finished just before she died and burdened with a reluctant acceptance of mortality in its last pages, nevertheless begins briskly: ‘I am a dancer.’ She knew she still was, although she gave her last performance in 1968 when she was 74. At that age her creative fire was unquenehed and her need to dance her own work unappeased, but her body was in irreversible rebellion after decades of gruelling punishment lately exacerbated by unhappiness, arthritis and drink. Both Graham’s memoir and DeMille’s biography recount the dreadful arrival of what Graham calls the dancer’s ‘first death’, the end of the physical ability to keep dancing. When she collapsed and was taken to hospital, her public thought she would die, and some doubtless thought she should. Her performances were becoming limited and her behaviour embarrassing, and perhaps it was time; her debut as a creative solo performer had been in 1926, when Isadora Duncan and even Loïe Fuller were still alive.

But she didn’t die. She recovered, gave up drink, re-dyed her hair and had her face lifted; but without the ability to channel her work through her own flesh, she swiftly became an icon and an institution and remained so for more than twenty years, making appearances, raising money, receiving honours and inventing new ballets for a perpetually rejuvenated company, in a changed world of new audiences who had never seen her dance, but had seen a great many of her unconscious legatees perform in all the extant genres of theatrical dancing. DeMille says she became a superstar; and publicly she was clearly a monstre sacré almost indistinguishable from any other (Bette Davis, for example), a person entirely different from the unworldly, dedicated creator and pure fount of originality she had been during the first half of this century. In those days she had exemplified the difficulty of telling the dancer from the dance as nobody else had ever done; and she had made something truly new in the world.

She has been compared to Joyce and Picasso, and some have added Wagner for the theatrical dimension: but you would have found it hard to believe in such comparisons if you had simply attended one of the company’s presentations during the last two decades. There is a vast difference between what now happens on the Graham stage and what happened during her concerts of the Forties, when her flame burned at its brightest; and the transmutation seems to have been achieved with her own connivance during the last period of her life. Until the end, she claimed her due, taking bows with the company after every performance. Those who had seen her forty years earlier were happy to see her still, but their real applause was for what had been, not for what she was letting others transmit in her name.

For all the breathtaking originality of her ideas, her medium had been the body in its immediate time and space, the tools of any performer. Despite the power of her invention, she left behind works essentially without texts, along with a few members of her original group whose minds and bodies bear her distinctive imprint, and a generation of ageing folk who lamely say: ‘You should have seen her.’ When these have all vanished, it will be time to see what she did that can survive the current rather distorted state of her direct legacy. Dance-notation was well developed in her time, but she never dreamed of using it, and nobody thinks it’s a perfect tool. There were some films made, but she distrusted the movie camera, and the films of her ballets are, in any case, essays in a different art. There have already been some efforts at reconstruction of her great theatre pieces, with the help of her surviving original dancers; and these may provide the core of work on which a lasting artistic reputation can rest – one that will continue to demand comparisons with great modern painters, composers and poets.

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