Monday, March 2, 2009
Until its demise in 1931 the Denishawn School served as a magnet for a second generation of modern dancers, first attracting them with its open-minded attitudes, then repelling them with its eclecticism and what one of its most illustrious graduates called the "weakling exoticism of a transplanted orientalism." This illustrious graduate was Martha Graham, who came to Denishawn in the summer of 1916 and left in 1923, ready to begin her own career which would take her-and modern dance itself-into uncharted realms of personal symbolism. Although she based many of her works on incidents from the world's storehouse of myths, the truths she sought were not abstract or universal but personal; each of her dances, she once said, was "a graph of the heart."
Graham was born in 1894 in a Penn¬sylvania town that is now a part of Pittsburgh. Like Isadora Duncan, she experienced the conflicting pulls of Puritanism and paganism. Her upbring¬ing in Pennsylvania was sedate; but when she was fourteen her family moved to California in search of a healthier climate for a younger sister who had asthma. The brilliant sunlight and open spaces around her new home in Santa Barbara had an intoxicating effect on the adolescent Graham. She heard her father, a physician who treated mental cases, say that he based his diagnoses on the way his patients moved: "The body never lies" was his maxim. The young Martha persuaded her father to take her to see Ruth St. Denis dance. She found the performance so exhilarating that she decided then and there to become a dancer, although she could not put this resolve into practice until the death of her father, who did not approve of the theater as a career.
A year after the Denishawn School opened, Graham enrolled. She was already in her early twenties, a late bloomer by dance standards, but her intensity, intelligence, and taut, lean body caught the attention of Ted Shawn. In 1920 Shawn created a ballet called Xochitl, in which Graham played a "Toltec" maiden who ferociously defends her honor against a drink-mad¬dened emperor. Critics called it "the first native American ballet," but its exotic costumes and sets identified it as a close cousin to Denishawn's trade¬mark "Oriental" spectacles.
A more important influence on Graham was Louis Horst, the school's music director, whose interests lay in the work of contemporary European com¬posers like Erik Satie and Zoltan Kodaly. He introduced Graham to more chal¬lenging scores and encouraged her to strike out on her own as a dancer and choreographer. By the time she left Denishawn in 1923, she had acquired a thorough grounding in crowd-pleasing stagecraft. Moving to New York she got a job in a Broadway revue called Greenwich Village Follies, dancing what she later referred to as "sexy little things." Meanwhile, she was refining her own ideas about dance, rejecting not only the "rigidity" of classical ballet but also the movement styles of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. She felt the need for a new vocabulary of movement that could "make visible the interior landscape" in a rapidly changing world: "Life today is nervous, sharp, and zigzag. This is what I aim for in my dances."
Graham's first New York concert in 1926 still showed traces of Denishawn exoticism (one dance featured three of St. Denis's former students as Krishna's milkmaids). But with the aid of Horst, who had come east to be her music director, she was soon showing "sharper" stuff like Danse, a 1929 solo in which she did not move her feet at all but contorted the rest of her body to music by Arthur Honegger, and Heretic, a piece for her newly formed all-female dance company, set to a marchlike Breton folk song arranged for piano and played by Horst. The song kept repeat¬ing, and, with each repeat, Graham, as the title character dressed in white, "pleaded her case" with simple but eloquent gestures to a menacing "jury" of twelve women wearing long, dark dresses. Each time the women rejected her plea, they thumped their heels on the floor to emphasize their unwilling¬ness to listen, then threw themselves into new postures of stiff-legged con¬demnation; at the end the "heretic" sank to the floor in defeat, surrounded by the triumphant conformists.
In Lamentation, a landmark 1930 solo to a Kodaly Piano Piece, Graham was seen sitting on a wooden bench, shrouded in a tube of stretch jersey with only her face, hands, and bare feet showing. Rocking stiffly from side to side, she tugged and pulled and pushed at the confining fabric with her hands, elbows, knees, and shoulders, not so much trying to break free as to carve out a place of rest for her grief-wracked body in a comfortless world.
Over the next few years, Graham gave a series of recitals that drew appreciative notices from both inside and outside the dance community; in 1932 she became the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her manner was resolutely modern in a socially conscious, Depression-era way: no sets, no fancy costumes, nothing soft or pretty. "Like the modern painters and architects," she declared, "we have stripped our medium of decorative unessentials." Her themes came from Native American rituals, from a mythologized American history, from her own responses to newspaper headlines and machine technology, from her own struggles as a creative artist, from her relentless exploration of the "potential greatness" of the human body. In classes at her Greenwich Village studio, Graham built up a system of exercises that constituted her answer to the daily class of traditional ballet companies. Students began on the floor with stretches and leg extensions, then stood up for bends, lifts, hip swings, and turns in place, followed by jumping, walking, running, and skipping. Each class con¬cluded with what she described as "a series of falls forward, side, and back... In no fall does the body remain on the floor, but assumes an upright position as part of the exercise. My dancers fall so they may rise."
Central to her technique was pos¬tural control, which began with close observation of the act of breathing. Dancer Jane Dudley remembers Graham telling her classes: "If you breathe out through your teeth as hard as you can and then notice what's happened to your shoulders and your pelvis and your back, that's what a contraction is. Then if you breathe in and see how the back straightens and centers itself, that is a release."
"Contraction" and "release"-the muscular activity independent of the act of breathing-became the bywords of the Graham technique. Neither had anything to do with relaxation; she believed that movement should always be emphatic, expressive, disciplined. In her opinion it took at least ten years of hard work to make a dancer.
Graham treated her trained dancers as her personal choreographic instru¬ment; with few exceptions, no one else performed her dances. She created new pieces in the studio, demonstrating a movement she wanted and expecting her dancers to pick it up the first time. Rehearsals were long and exhausting. Enlivened by gestures and poses adapted from the dances of Asia, Graham's technique exerted a powerful influence on her movement vocabulary. In time, many of her best dancers left her in search of more creative freedom, as she had once left Denishawn. But Graham herself continued to grow as an artist. After 1934, instead of setting dances to previously written music, she started collaborating with composers like Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, and Samuel Barber on new works; the next year she began a long collaboration with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose enigmatic sets and props became as much a part of her dances as the dancers themselves.
In the late thirties she hired her first male dancers, the ballet-trained Erick Hawkins and the young and talented but largely untrained Merce Cunningham. With these new resources at her com¬mand, Graham fashioned a series of powerful "dance plays," often based explicitly or implicitly on the travails of women in Greek mythology. While more "theatrical" than her earlier works, these were hardly conventional narra¬tives; what happened onstage was best understood as taking place in the mind of a suffering, struggling archetypal fig¬ure, who was invariably Graham herself. To expand the possibilities of story¬telling through gesture, she borrowed the flexible staging of Asian dance dra¬ma forms like No, kabuki, and Chinese opera, where a few steps can indicate a journey, a few moments the passage of years.
Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman & Jose Limon
One way to make sense of the histo¬ry of modern dance in America is to read it as a family tree of creative parturition: after training in an estab¬lished company, a dancer or group of dancers with a fresh personal vision moves on to form a new company. A few years after Martha Graham broke with Denishawn, two other mainstays of that school, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, left to create a varied body of work that stressed movement initiated "from the inside out." Humphrey summed up her credo in the phrase "A movement without a motivation is unthinkable." Yet her repertoire ranged from rigorously formal exercises like Two Ecstatic Themes: Circular Descent, Pointed Ascent (1931) to humanistic "music visualizations" like Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1938) to socially conscious pieces like Inquest (1944). Weidman is best known for his wryly humorous pantomime in autobio¬graphical dances like And Daddy Was a Fireman (1943). Mexican-born Jose Limon, who emerged from the Humphrey-Weidman company after the Second World War, scored a success with his first major work, The Moor's Pavane (1949), which compressed the turbulent emotions of Shakespeare's Othello into the formal framework of a court dance.
Meanwhile, as modern dance's most prominent spokesperson, Martha Graham openly defied, in words and accomplishments, the primacy of ballet as the institutional center of the dance world. Her students taught the Graham technique to dancers around the world, and dancers and choreographers came from Europe, Asia, and South America to learn it .at the source. Her company was one of the first multiracial dance companies, with black, white, and Asian dancers performing together; from its ranks came an entire genera¬tion of outstanding choreographers, including Hawkins and Cunningham. Throughout her career, during which she created more than 170 dances, Graham played for the highest stakes; dancing, she wrote, "had its origin in ritual," which she defined as "the for¬malized desire to achieve union with those beings who could bestow immor¬tality." She continued to tour and make dances up until her death in 1991. The angular, austere style of her most pro¬ductive years so dominated the public perception of modern dance that it became almost a cliche: the barefoot dancer in black expressing herself on¬stage while an audience of insiders tries
bravely to figure out what it all means. But her career established once and for all that dance could be a vehicle of personal expression-not just for the dancer but for the choreographer.