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.
In speaking of her fundamental contribution, it’s important to insist that she was an American artist in the undomesticated tradition that includes Emily Dickinson and Frank Lloyd Wright, someone who made things in the risky artistic spirit that seeks personal sources and methods, programmatically refusing to begin by using what lies to hand. Her stage uses of the body, for example, eliminated the whole pictorial memory of represented emotion in any tradition of dance or pictures. She omitted the familiar postures of Grief or Triumph or Abandon that Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had relied on, and which the traditional ballet and the silent film relied on, too, for their associative value. Graham paid no attention to long-standing conventions that made use of debased references to Greek pottery or Medieval carvings of Chinese screens as they were transmitted and recognised through popular illustration. What she says she found most congenial in art was a particular Kandinsky painting she happened to see, well after she had begun working out her way of dancing. She says that he and other modern painters, only discovered after she had developed her method, gave her the sense of having real ‘ancestors’. She felt compelled to invent a new stage language in which to convey feeling, using ordinary bodily tools but finding her own uses for them, and then training the whole body to keep expanding that language.
The language grew out of what she discovered the hinge of the knee to be capable of, for example, or out of her discovery of ways to fall and rise that used the floor as a friend, not an enemy. She learned to roll familiarly on it, in a variety of styles. She learned to fall backwards in a spiral, and instantly spiral back up; she learned to walk on one foot, inching along with toe, arch and heel; to run on her knees, to stand straight and sweep one leg up in a great semi-circle ending above her head, her shin by her ear. She mastered the emotive value of shudders and jerks that interrupted smoothly traced parabolas. Most basically, she linked all action of the head, thighs and upper arms to the muscular shifts produced in the torso by the intake or expulsion of breath; and then she allowed feet and hands to follow out that central impulse in various ways, instead of using the trunk as a pliant background for expressive gestures of the extremities.
She insisted moreover on communicating in a primordial mode without any recourse to recognisably ‘ethnic’ or ‘primitive’ signals that might comfort her audiences. She had learned about Near and Far Eastern dance from Ruth St Denis, and she eventually studied the Hopi, Zuni and Navaho dances of the American South-West. She studied animals for the way they shift their weight, she studied the ideas of Jung and Freud, and she learned about comparative mythology from Joseph Campbell, who was married to one of her dancers; but none of this material was directly referred to in her work itself. She made it all up – but it was nevertheless recognisable. It was entirely ‘abstract’, she said, but only if you consider orange juice the abstraction of the orange.
Her dances, especially the earliest short solos and the ones created with her first company, had a frightening raw originality, repellent and alluring, sometimes unbearable but never ineffective, sometimes deeply beautiful but never pretty or soothing. Their flavour was also very easy to ridicule, since, as she says in her own book, ‘I showed what most people come to the theatre to avoid.’ It seemed altogether too much for some, who quickly took refuge in laughter. Stark Young, later an admirer, wrote of her in the late Twenties: ‘She always looks as if she were about to give birth to a cube.’ It’s fairly easy to see a link between her impulses and those of modern painters and designers aiming to convey the sense of a stark truth at the core of multiform phenomena; but none of the others were doing it directly with their bodies.
It was all some sort of exploration on her part; she attributes her motivation to a ‘curiosity’ about life. But the results, the discoveries, required a theatre and an audience. She was a true prophet or priest, the direct channel of revelation to a community, neither a private meditator on the mysteries, nor a plain exhibitionist. She wanted to arouse deep feelings in audiences, neither cheap thrills nor intellectual understanding, but something akin to spiritual recognition. She was one of the first few in the 20th century who proposed dancing as the most profound of all the arts, the most basic spiritual conduit available to human beings. When she started, ideas of this kind had become something of a joke, considered appropriate to defunct civilisations employing temple-dancers, or to marginal ‘primitive societies’ performing rituals to make it rain. Western social dancing, with its august sources in folk and court custom, always had acknowledged importance, but theatrical dancing certainly had no serious artistic status in America in Martha Graham’s youth. Most of it was considered wicked.
Even in England and Europe at the turn of the century, great stage art was created in operas or plays, for which ballet interludes were only an ornament. Pretty girls danced in music halls wearing much adornment and few clothes, but their physical training did not have to be very rigorous or their dancing very imaginative. Degas’s dancers, for example, often look tired, but they never seem to be undertaking any very strict efforts to train the spine, arms or legs. In the entertainment world, female acrobats underwent much harder preparation than dancers, and sometimes had more enthusiastic responses. All such performers were believed to be prostitutes in their spare time: great singers and actresses, although socially suspect, were at least granted the status of artist. Except for the great Russian Ballet, and a few Spanish, Indian or other ethnic imports, stage dancing for its own sake was an altogether frivolous affair, with no spiritual overtones whatever. America did not even see the Russian Ballet until the Thirties, although the entirely exceptional Anna Pavlova first toured the United States in 1910.
Isadora Duncan tried to be a creative dancer, and failed in America until Europe acclaimed her, and Ruth St Denis, Graham’s teacher, had the same experience. But both these American ladies acquired public fame chiefly as Great Eccentrics, especially Isadora. They also made deep spiritual claims for the importance of dancing itself, claims that reinforced their fame as loonies. Their actual dancing lacked much physical discipline or real originality, although they were both truly great stage presences, just as Loïe Fuller had been. Graham certainly continued their theatrical tradition, which essentially consisted of strong feminine impact – presented as freedom of movement enhanced by interesting music, dramatic lighting and ample yard-goods.
But Graham had a basically corporeal genius. She had a talent quite independent of feminine magnetism, lighting, music and drapery, despite the full use she made of all those powerful elements. Her exercise of her gift required a heroic, self-imposed practice unheard of in any other kind of dancing, and never undertaken by Duncan or St Denis, who schooled themselves only for greater degrees of lyricism and atmosphere. Even in the most taxing ballet training, composition is a separate matter not required of dancers; but Graham invented the expressive and technical material of her art at the same time, forcing herself into it and through it with amazing concentration, and her troupe along with her.
DeMille writes wonderfully about what it was like in Graham’s studio during the Twenties and Thirties. She herself had ballet training, and went on to do solo concerts in a comic-balletic style, besides being a member of various ballet companies, and eventually achieving international success in revolutionising the way musical comedy was choreographed. DeMille is well equipped to describe exactly how the Graham technique developed, exactly what made her choreography new and influential, and also to bear witness to Graham’s effect on the world throughout her long career. The two became friends in 1929, when Graham was 35 and DeMille 21, although DeMille had already seen Graham’s first dances and admired her from a distance.
She was in awe of Graham’s dedication and faith from the beginning, and of the devotion of her dancers. Graham’s girls all had jobs teaching dancing, and sometimes also worked as salesgirls or whatever to help make ends meet; but they would come in the evening for hours of study and rehearsal, sometimes having to wait patiently while Graham figured out what she wanted all of them to try next. They ate little and slept less, and their personal lives suffered. Leader and followers alike believed in the ultimate value of the actual work, which involved creating dependable, iron-hard muscles all over the body – back, abdomen, neck and limbs – and a wholly flexible skeleton, rather like what present-day gymnasts must achieve, but with the aim of making comprehensive dramatic expression possible in a range of emotional modes to suit Graham’s peculiarly intense vision. It was constant, hard and painful work, taxing to the mind and spirit as well as the sinews and joints. Grahams teaching included a kind of inspirational, gnomic utterance: ‘When you do the demipliés, think there are diamonds on your collarbone, catching the light.’.
In all this there was no certainty of public success. They were all very poor, and likely to continue so indefinitely. Concerts could be given occasionally in auditoriums not being used for their customary purposes, concerts for which costumes were designed and made by Graham herself, with the girls’ help; and the whole enterprise was kept alive only by the famous Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York, which nourished much youthful urban talent. Graham taught there for very little money, and the rest of the time did nothing but struggle with her own work. DeMille is still impressed by Graham’s absolute lack of any impulse to sell out, to go on the musical or cabaret stage in order to bring in a better income. Graham had done a bit of that just after leaving the Denishawn school; but once begun on her creative path, she had no time or energy for anything else at all, and neither, apparently, did her dancers. Money was of no importance.
Graham had the ability to think this way because although she had nothing then, she had been raised in an atmosphere of rather broadminded affluence. Already wealthy, her father had become a doctor specialising in nervous diseases, what was once called an alienist. Her mother was attractive and diminutive, obviously elegant and a Presbyterian; her nurse and her father were both lapsed Catholics. Deep respect for religion rather than religion itself prevailed in the household; there was no repressive Victorian spirit quelling the young soul of plain strong-minded Martha and her two pretty younger sisters during her adolescencc in Santa Barbara, California. When she wished to study dancing with Ruth St Denis after she’d been taken to see her, nobody objected. Her father clearly instilled a certain aesthetic morality in his eldest daughter, a reverence – for the fundamental artistic rigour that lies behind anything beautifully made.
At the same time, he also allegedly made her aware of body language, explaining the emotional sources for the unconscious hunching of shoulders or the stiffening of arms. ‘Bodies never lie,’ she tells us he told her. She was eventually to feel much more affinity with all highly controlled styles of expressive movements than with any modes based on licence, abandon or catharsis. Her looks were always dramatically neat and austere, even when she dressed in the same threadbare clothes for years. A scrupulous clarity of outline and integrity of shape also characterised Graham’s work throughout her career: her Modernism was of the neoclassical stamp, not unlike that of Balanchine, despite her preoccupation with visceral teeling. It must be said that she knew how to create in a fine comic vein, like other neoclassical moderns: ‘Punch and the Judy’ and ‘Every soul is a circus’ are bitingly funny.
Elaborate cosmetics and wonderful clothes were also perfectly congenial to her. These feminine privileges in the theatre of life had certainly never been frowned upon at home, for all its proprieties. And with all the ferocity of her temperament, of which she repeatedly boasts in her book, she was a deeply feminine creature, manipulative and entrancing, a real Daddy’s Girl. About the women’s movement, she says in her book that she was baffled when it began, because ‘I always got whatever I wanted from men without asking.’ She got it from women, too – students and performers who would stay up all night to sew new costumes after she had changed the designs at the last minute, unquestioning supporters like Bethsabée de Rothschild, who financed her school and tours, or indeed perpetual votaries like Agnes DeMille, who felt something divine in her, just as she did in herself. Late in life, after forty years of physical and moral dedication, Graham felt free to indulge her love of fashion, high living and personal praise; DeMille seems to find this just a touch disappointing.
The solipsistic character of Graham’s early presentations, based as they always were on a single female character affronting or engaging with other female characters whether massed or separate, was importantly modified by the effect of Erick Hawkins on Graham’s life and work. Her work began to take note of men and women, and consequently of real human life, not just of internal conflict. Men were added to the company, and for the first time, says DeMille, mirrors were added to the studio. Graham’s long affair and unsuccessful marriage with Hawkins eventually disheartened her personally, but his presence made possible her most successful works, the American essays ‘El Penitente’, ‘Appalachian Spring’ and ‘Letter to the World’, and all the explorations of Greek tragedy. She avoided European themes, allowing herself only one or two disquisitions on Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart and the Brontes, staying usually with the strictly native or acknowledgedly universal brands of female identity. Notably, she also avoided explicit heroines from other cultural sources – no Navaho martyrs, no Hindu goddesses, no ancient Chinese empresses.
Graham’s artistic development was strikingly assisted during her first years of indepeudence by another man who was her lover, quasi-father and taskmaster, a mentor of exceptional talent, the musical scholar Louis Horst. He essentially taught Form – how to convey your idea in a firm and seaworthy vessel, so that the world, pleased or not, could feel its strength. Without such an influence, applied with harsh insistence, Graham’s work might well have foundered in unintelligibility right at the start. But she always did well under any imposed difficulty, and her discoveries, instinctively groped for, became inventions with coherent shape. Horst also provided piano accompaniment for class and performance, not just for Graham but throughout the dance world, and gave many young dancers both moral and financial support, often along with physical love. He was a musician, but his passion was for dancers, and he gave freely of his large musical understanding to the expanding medium of modern dance composition. Martha Graham was the most compellingly original of its exponents, but others were at work in the same decades, forming their own dance vocabularies and training their devoted students. There was intense rivalry among them, but all of them agreed in heartily despising the limitations of ballet and musical-comedy dancing.
Modern Dance arose in America and Europe in vigorous opposition to ballet’s elegance and to the pleasant vulgarity of show-biz hoofing, both of which were thought to be artistically inadequate in the demanding modern world. But Modern Dance then stayed on to penetrate and revitalise all stage dancing during the second half of this century, the ballet included, and was finally to make dancing fully as serious as singing or acting. Such a range now requires strong comprehensive technique of all its practitioners. In England this revolution was not considered necessary at the beginning, since in England both music-hall dancing and the traditional ballet had stayed in excellent shape.
Graham was only one of several modern dancers who failed to take hold in London: Jacques-Dalcroze with his Eurythmics and later Harald Kreuzberg and Kurt Jooss were all European phenomena, accepted in America but apparently not interesting to Britons. Anything too emotional in the form of bodily expression was apparently unacceptable unless it was broadly funny (clowns were all right, of course), even though raw feeling had a strong appeal in painting and sculpture. Isadora had done well at the turn of the century, perhaps because she made English people think of Lady Hamilton’s ‘postures’, offering the same sort of naughtily Grecian, allegedly high-minded self-exposure that it was fine to watch from a certain emotional distance. Graham’s convulsed torso and odd gestures doubtless aroused unwelcome personal associations in her audiences, just as she intended, and the English public weren’t having any of it.
Martha Graham made expressive dancing into a modern artistic discipline, instead of leaving it to continue as an obvious folk-art, a purely sensational show, or an outlet for free improvisation on the dance floor. She raised the stakes, opening up its resources to both responsible creative effort and strict practical training. The same thing had been achieved in earlier centuries by the great innovators in the history of the ballet, the men who had turned elaborate court dancing into a serious art instead of a mere divertissement with symbolic associations, so that ballet eventually became something wrought only by the gifted and devoted, rather than something occasionally engaged in by the well-born and cultivated.
That was a long time ago, and the ballet has continued to renew itself, certainly of late with cordial help from Modern Dance. In this cen tury, it was not just Modern Dance, nor the renovated modern ballet, but the Great American Musical Comedy, justly famous for its creative departures from operetta, music-hall and cabaret entertainment, which owed a huge debt to Graham, and which in turn brought her contribution into the mainstream of modern performing art. Traditional ballet could not provide an adequate dance vocabulary for really inventive musicals, nor could tap-dancing and soft-shoe dancing; the Graham method of breaking down movement into units of fundamental expression was troped into the Modern Ballet idiom for the purpose. Agnes DeMille’s ballet ‘Rodeo’, for example, composed under Graham’s influence, was excellent: but it was even better when she translated it onto the musical comedy stage for Oklahoma. From the Forties, the American musical enjoyed an artistic freedom which allowed ample use of Graham-like methods for dramatic dancing, and this soon required much broader training for aspiring performers. To be on Broadway, Tap and Ballet were not enough – you had to have Modern too, and know how to do all those demanding things. The Graham students themselves went into all other kinds of dance business, and into acting, where they could apply her corporeal lessons to the telling creation of characters. From stage musicals to movie musicals and on into television advertising and music video, Martha Graham’s physical language has made a path into the general consciousness. Her ideal of rigour has given structure to wild expression in other modes; her sense of the body’s theatrical impact has permitted dance itself to recover its primary role in performance – to take centre-stage, or centre-screen, and carry the theme instead of justembellishing it, in productions that are not pure dancing. The ballet stays on the ballet stage, fulfilling its destiny: but her discoveries have now spread well beyond the Graham stage into all media where dancing can stir the public’s feelings on its own. A profound Anient an creator, a teacher and an undoubted enchantress, she has also dearly been another of the mothers of us all.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.