There are close ties between Martha Graham (1884-1991) and Jacob’s Pillow. Graham’s professional career began in 1916 at Denishawn, the schools and Dance Company founded in Los Angeles by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She was entranced by the religious mysticism of St. Denis but became a protégée of Shawn. He featured the teenager in the Aztec ballet, Xochitl.
She left Denishawn in 1923 to become a featured dancer in the Greenwich Village Follies revue, where she remained for two years. In 1924 she went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, to teach and experiment. She gave her New York debut, in 1926, the year she established her school and company, with Denishawn inspired solos. That changed in the recital the following year with Revolt, a social justice dance, set to the avant-garde music of Arthur Honegger. While striking a new direction it was largely ridiculed.
In 1931 Shawn bought the farm in Becket, Mass. which became Jacob’s Pillow home of the renowned dance festival. While Graham never performed at Pillow her dance company, now just shy of a century, has made numerous appearances.
Recently it performed two of her twelve dances based on Greek tragedies Errand Into the Maze (1947) and Cave of the Heart (1946). The first reconfigures the female, Ariadne facing the Minotaur, rather than Theseus. Cave of the Heart features the vengeance of the sorceress Medea on Jason who abandoned her.
These and other works of the post war era locate her at the epicenter of American Modernism. Serge Guilbault wrote the influential and controversial book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War. While the book has been debunked it made its point about the transfer of the avant-garde from Paris to New York. The Triumph of American Art by Irving Sandler is less polemical and focuses on what he learned through studio visits with the New York School and Abstract Expressionism. The word Triumph implies winners and losers. When I laid that on Sandler he blamed the title on a publisher eager to sell books.
There has never been an attempt to consider the fecund cornucopia of all the American arts as it emerged vibrantly and relatively intact from the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War and McCarthyism. The world embraced Hollywood, Coca Cola (the first product introduced to China by Nixon), Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll, bop and cool jazz, the Beat Generation, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, Tennessee Williams, Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism.
Add to that the iconoclast of dance, Martha Graham, who tossed the toe shoes and to the initial shock and scorn of audiences and critics reshaped dance in America, and the world. It situated her in the Greatest Generation of the arts in America.
As Graham explained to choreographer and biographer, Agnes de Mille over sodas at Schrafft’s. Agnes stated that “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: ‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
That meant being of the moment in the work with a focus on what was being created, rehearsed and performed. She had little interest in documenting, filming and copyrighting the 181 works she created. Because she also destroyed letters and documents most of her work is lost and just 50 pieces are still performed by the company that bears her name.
Unfortunately it’s not that unique. Artists are involved in creation with documentation left to others. The seminal dance work of the 20th century, Stravinsky/ Diaghilev’s Rites of Spring was lost for generations. Its painstaking reconstruction, a fascinating PBS documentary, was an enthralling detective story.
We attended Pillow when the Merce Cunningham company last appeared. He died that weekend. The company toured for two years with a final performance in New York and, according to his wishes, then disbanded.
Unlike other forms of art the master works of modernism in dance must be performed in order to be appreciated. We are in debt to Janet Eilber who has overseen the Graham company since 2005.
Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan
Xin Ying and Alessio Crognale-Roberts in "Errand into the Maze,"Photo by Jamie Kraus
Xin Ying in "Errand into the Maze," Photo by Christopher Duggan
Xin Ying in "Errand into the Maze," Photo by Duggan
Alessio Crognale-Roberts and Xin Ying in "Errand into the Maze," Photo by Duggan
"Cave of the Heart" Photo by Duggan.
Lorenzo Pagano and Laurel Dalley Smith in "Cave of the Heart," Photo by Duggan
Leslie Andrea Williams "Cave of the Heart," Photo by Jamie Kraus
Ane Arrieta in "Cave of the Heart," Photo by Jamie Kraus
Leslie Andrea Williams Photo by Jamie Kraus
Cave by Schechter. Photo by Jamie Kraus
Leslie Andrea Williams in "Cave ,"Photo by Jamie Kraus
Graham resisted requests for her dances to be recorded because she believed that live performances should only exist on stage as they are experienced. There were a few notable exceptions. For example, in addition to her collaboration with Soichi Sunami in the 1920s, she also worked on a limited basis with still photographers Imogen Cunningham in the 1930s, and Barbara Morgan in the 1940s. Graham considered Philippe Halsman’s photographs of Dark Meadow the most complete photographic record of any of her dances. Halsman also photographed in the 1940s Letter to the World, Cave of the Heart, Night Journey and Every Soul is a Circus. In later years her thinking on the matter evolved and others convinced her to let them recreate some of what was lost
Due to the work of her assistants, Linda Hodes, Pearl Lang, Diane Gray, Yuriko, and others, much of Graham’s work and technique have been preserved. They taped interviews of Graham describing her technique and videos of performances. As Glen Tetley told Agnes de Mille, “The wonderful thing about Martha in her good days was her generosity. So many people stole Martha’s unique personal vocabulary, consciously or unconsciously, and performed it in concerts. I have never once heard Martha say, ‘So-and-so has used my choreography.'”
Georgia O’Keeffe speaking of modernism in America said “Everyone was talking about writing the great American novel. I wanted to paint the great American painting.” The same may be said of Graham in dance.
The problem was how to be great and American. When the artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) sailed to Europe to paint ruins and the sublime landscape, his friend Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) told him to seek “that wilder image” the American sublime.
The regionalists Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and Grant Wood (1891-1942) created hokey, cornball, straight, conservative Americana. It’s a nationalist vision that celebrates white supremacy.
Graham’s version of Americana was the masterpiece Appalachian Spring (1942) with music by Aaron Copland. It won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945 and continues to be performed as an orchestral work. Consider the link to Oklahoma the 1943 musical that included an 18-minute first-act dream ballet finale choreographed by Agnes de Mille.
The two vintage works we experienced at Pillow, in a palpable manner, demonstrated to what extent her work changed everything. Most profoundly was reconfiguring tragic Greek myths to make strong and vengeful women the focus of the dances. Despite her radical shift to feature dominant women Graham denied that she was a feminist.
It may be said, however, that she liberated and defemenized the constraints on women in the tradition of classical ballet. Rejecting performing en pointe she danced with bare feet. Based on breathing, she developed the Graham technique of tension and release. To which were added sweeping circular movements emphasized by long, flowing skirts.
The famous set and designs by Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) for Errand Into the Maze were destroyed by hurricane flooding. The dance has been minimalized and redesigned by Maria Garcia (costumes) with lighting by Lauren Libretti.
Poseidon sent a white bull to Minos, the King of Crete, to be sacrificed, an order which he ignored. As revenge Poseidon caused Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, to fall in love with the bull. The resultant child was confined to a labyrinth designed by Daedalus. When mature the Minotaur demanded human sacrifices. The hero Theseus slays the monster but Graham substituted Ariadne. The gender switch ratchets up the primal sexual tension.
The ominous music by Gian Carlo Menotti is grave, gut punching, dissonant and enthralling. What’s left of the original concept is the threaded ribbon by which Xin Ying as Ariadne, with enraged focus makes her way into and out of the maze. With astonishing power she sucks in and then forcefully releases her torso cautiously making her way back and forth guided by the ribbon.
Through the exquisitely trained Ying we can channel Graham in her prime and signature style. About which Graham stated in 1991, “Pull, pull on the contraction. Do not cave in. And the contraction is not a position. It is a movement into something. It is like a pebble thrown into the water, which makes rippling circles when it hits the water. The contraction moves.” Joan Acocella wrote about Graham’s ‘classic style’: “Wheeling turns, off-center jumps, terrific falls, bodies spiraling to the floor and then surging upward again …”
Nothing adequately prepares us for the entrance of Alessio Crognale-Robert’s monstrous Minotaur. On his shoulders is a club-like yoke with bulbous ends. Keeping this in place, simulating horns, his arms are raised at right angles with splayed fingers. There is a mesh mask that further dehumanizes him. The reference to a bull’s horns makes him more bestial than half human. The prop restricts his movement as Ariadne initially seduces then slays him.
When Graham empowers women as warriors it gelds their male protagonists. The constrained Minotaur is no match for the womanly wiles of the devious and murderous Ariadne. With seemingly seductive moves, like the picador, she weakens the bull/man who drops his head for her symbolic deadly thrust.
Graham commissioned Samuel Barber to compose for the legend of Medea. The famous Noguchi set and sculptural prop have survived for Cave of the Heart. Graham reduced and reshaped the tragedy of the sorceress Medea who, when abandoned by Jason, seeks bloody revenge.
In the play by Euripides, motivated by ambition, he abandons his wife to marry a princess in hope of becoming king of Corinth. On a London stage we saw a gory version of the play starring the magnificent Fiona Shaw. Graham’s Medea is more a head fuck than a bloodbath.
This production featured the astonishing and powerful Leslie Andrea Williams as the vengeful Medea. With suitably pumped up machismo Jason is performed by Lorenzo Pagano. The princess bride of Jason, attired in innocent white, is danced by Laurel Dalley Smith with the robed Ane Arrieta as the Chorus. Graham has spared us the grim murder of Medea’s children.
One winces at the actions of a woman scorned. Jason for his part preens, flexes his muscles, and strikes powerful poses. The Princess is a paradigm of innocence and delicate beauty. The Chorus in a sweeping frenzy warns of what is to come all to no avail.
In seeming acquiescence and homage Medea places a crown on the head of her rival. Initial pleasure turns to anguish as the crown becomes an instrument of torture and death. We are fascinated when Medea finally fits into the sculptural construction of Noguchi with its quivering, thin rod projections. Familiar as a work of art it was fascinating to experience its function as a prop.
Night Journey (1948), a work about Jocasta occurs in the instant when the queen learns that she has mated with Oedipus, her own son, and has borne him children. The work treats Jocasta rather than Oedipus as the tragic victim, and shows her reliving the events of her life and seeking justification for her actions. The masterpiece of the Greek genre is Clytemnestra (1958) her only full length work which enjoyed audience and critical success.
Initially, Graham had an all female company. That changed when her work embraced Greek legends and more complex plots. She engaged Erick Hawkins, a ballet dancer, to join her company. He appeared with her in a major work, American Document (1938). When he came to think of her as an equal it had a negative impact on Graham and the company particularly when he got bad reviews. They were married in 1948 but divorced in 1954.
At the age of 76 she retired from the stage in 1970. She continued to create and teach but this period marked one of alcoholism and decline. It’s a not uncommon phenomenon for artists of her stature. What survives is the work itself.
As a living, organic entity, in her spirit, the company continues to grown and evolve with new work. There is an Israeli connection.
One of Graham’s students was heiress Bethsabée de Rothschild with whom she became close friends. When Rothschild moved to Israel and established the Batsheva Dance Company in 1965, Graham became the company’s first director. The company is noted for its gaga style and technique developed by Ohad Naharin.
Given the emotional intensity of the tragic works of the first part of the program, Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter’s Cave was a release and fun raveup. The percussion by Ame and Schechter that began the piece sounded like rolling thunder. That later morphed into synth and drum ostinatos. It was a pulsing, hip hop, club sound.
There was a sharp contrast from Graham’s stark, stylized movements. In Cave the twelve dancers propelled themselves with emphasis on upper bodies, arms, hands and fingers. They clustered simulating a crowded club with contagious, hypnotic, zonked expressions. That evoked disco-like, hedonistic consumption of poppers and ecstasy. They marched and stomped to the hypnotic, repetitive beat.
The choreography of Schechter demonstrated how The Martha Graham Dance Company aptly straddles past and present.