Wednesday, May 11, 2011

About Martha

The first thing you noticed was the face, a dead-white mask of anguish with black holes for eyes, a curt slash of red for a mouth and cheekbones as high as the sky. Even if Martha Graham had done nothing else worth mentioning in her 96 years, she might be remembered for that face. But she also made dances to go with it — harsh, angular fantasies spun out of the strange proportions of her short-legged body and the pain and loneliness of her secret heart.

Graham was far from the first dancer to rip off her toe shoes and break with the rigid conventions of 19th century ballet. America in the 1910s and '20s was full of young women (modern dance in the beginning was very much a women's movement) with similar notions. But it was her homegrown technique — the fierce pelvic contractions, the rugged "floor work" that startled those who took for granted that real dancers soared through the air — that caught on, becoming the cornerstone of postwar modern dance. Her methods are routinely taught today in studios the world over, but you need not have studied them or even have seen any of her dances to be influenced by them. They are part of the air every contemporary dancer breathes.

Born in 1894 in Allegheny, Pa., Graham moved with her family to California when she was 14. Three years later, she attended a Los Angeles recital by the dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis. It was the first dance performance of any kind that Graham had ever seen, and it overwhelmed her; in 1916 she joined Denishawn, the school and performing troupe that St. Denis co-led with her husband Ted Shawn. At 22, dangerously late for an aspiring dancer, Graham had found her destiny. After seven years with Denishawn, Graham moved to New York City and struck out on her own, giving solo recitals and eventually launching her own company, in 1929. To raise funds, she danced at the opening of Radio City Music Hall, modeled furs and later gave classes in which she taught such actors as Bette Davis and Gregory Peck how to move. (Richard Boone claimed that to die onscreen, he simply did a one-count Graham fall.)

Graham came decisively into her own in the '40s, turning out in rapid succession the decade-long series of angst-ridden dance dramas — enacted on symbol-strewn sets designed by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and accompanied by scores commissioned from such noted composers as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber — on which her reputation now chiefly rests. Cave of the Heart (1946), one of her many modern recastings of ancient Greek myth, contains a horrific solo in which the hate-crazed Medea gobbles her own entrails — perhaps Graham's most sensational coup de theatre and one recalled with nightmarish clarity by all who saw her bring it off.

"How do you want to be remembered, as a dancer or a choreographer?" Graham was asked by choreographer Antony Tudor. "As a dancer, of course," she replied. "I pity you," Tudor said. His words proved prophetic. In her prime a performer of eye-scorching power, Graham insisted on dancing until 1968, long after her onstage appearances had degenerated into grisly self-caricature.

Her wishes notwithstanding, it is not likely that Graham will be remembered as a dancer, at least not very clearly: films of her performances are scarce and mostly primitive. No more than half a dozen of her dances, most notably Cave of the Heart and Appalachian Spring (1944), her radiant re-creation of a pioneer wedding, seem likely to stand the test of time. The rest are overwrought period pieces whose humorless, lapel-clutching intensity is less palatable now that their maker is no longer around to bring them to life.

Did she invent modern dance? No, but she came to embody it, arrogantly and spectacularly — and, it appears, permanently."When the legend becomes fact," said the newspaper editor in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "print the legend." The legend of Martha Graham long ago became fact, just as her utterly personal technique has become part of the common vocabulary of dancers everywhere. "The center of the stage is where I am," she once said. It still is.

Terry Teachout in the New York Daily News

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