An American modern

By

`Iam a dancer. My experience has been with dance as an art.'' With these few lines written more than 40 years ago, Martha Graham summed up the fact of her life and the establishment of a dance form in which the creator was also the supreme instrument of expression. With works carved from her mind, from her heart, and from her psyche, Graham made modern dance a significant presence on the 20th-century world stage. For nearly 50 years she performed the works she had choreographed. She continues to train others in her image.

On her 92nd birthday last month, Graham gave the members of her company the day off because it was Mother's Day. She and the dancers had spent the month rehearsing for the company's spring season at New York's City Center Theater (through June 15). Graham was choreographing two new pieces for her dancers and working on revivals from her early years as a performer.

This spring marks the 60th anniversary of Graham's first New York concert in which she presented her own works. She celebrated the occasion with a press conference at which she spoke about her life and her work.

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``I'd rather go on than go back and sit in a rocking chair and enjoy or cry over the past,'' she said. Yet Graham is using this season partly as a conduit back in time.

Before Graham there were two American women who invented a new style of dancing: Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Isadora pioneered the notion that a woman unschooled in ballet could come onto a stage alone, move in rhythm to the music of the great composers, and express feelings through the dance. She left America in 1899 and sailed to Europe on a cattle boat, but within five years she was dancing on the stages of the opera houses of Europe.

She even made an impression in Russia, where she showed the Czar's performers, the greatest ballet dancers of their time, what it was like to move freely, unfettered by centuries of rules and rigid body positions. She took as her model the Greeks, with their respect for the body and their democratic attitude. Theatrical dance, once fostered by the royalty of Europe, was no longer only for the elite.

Ruth St. Denis took the spirit and emotive power of the Eastern religions, or her conception of them, and made up evocative dances representing that region of the world. Like Isadora, she was untrained in formal technique, but she had faith in her vision of dance as serious art. With her husband, Ted Shawn, she created the first American dance company, Denishawn, which crisscrossed the country in the 1920s on tours that gave thousands of people their first look at dance on stage.

Although all dancers since Isadora are her descendants, it was Ruth St. Denis who gave Graham the direct inspiration to become a dancer.

Graham spoke of St. Denis at her press conference in April. She had seen Miss Ruth dance for the first time in 1911, three years after the Graham family had moved from Pittsburgh to Santa Barbara, Calif. ``My father and mother took me down to see her in Los Angeles. From that moment, the ritualistic, idealistic, absolute professionalism, discipline, and mystery caught me and I was caught forever.''

Five years later Graham entered the Denishawn school in Los Angeles. She became a member of the company and helped to teach others what she had learned, a pattern that would continue.

When Graham left Denishawn in 1923, she was still under its influence and her early choreography was in its shadow. The current New York season includes revivals of the St. Denis work ``Incense''; Shawn's ``Serenata Morisca,'' in which Graham made her performing debut with Denishawn; ``Tanagra,'' presented in Graham's 1926 season; and two of Graham's later masterpieces, ``Lamentation'' (1930) and ``Frontier'' (1935), created after Graham had begun to pare her choreography down according to her own ideas.

She reached within herself to discover movements that were often angular, percussive, and grating, unlike the decorative gestures of Denishawn. She noted the contraction and release of the body with breathing and made those movements the basis of her technique.

``I did not want to be a tree, a flower, or a wave,'' she wrote later. ``In a dancer's body, we as audience must see ourselves, not the imitated behavior of everyday actions, not the phenomenon of nature, not exotic creatures from another planet, but something of the miracle that is a human being.''

Although Graham's choreography has dealt with broad themes, Americana, for example, and mytho-logy, her viewpoint is unique. The American women she set on stage -- Emily Dickinson in ``Letter to the World'' and the young bride in ``Appalachian Spring'' -- mix a joy in living with a strong sense of purpose.

``I am not interested in huge groups of people,'' she once said. ``I am interested in the person doomed.'' In Greek tragedy, Graham found strong-willed female characters who did not submit meekly to the fates decreed for them by the gods. Her dance characterizations of Jocasta, Medea, and Clytemnestra remain as portraits of eternal figures, recreated for our time.

Graham embodies the living history of American dance. In herself and her background, in her repertory and the dancers she has trained, she goes backward and forward in time as the pivotal figure of American ascendancy of achievement in 20th-century dance.

From her early days with Ruth St. Denis and her intellectual and emotional ties to Isadora Duncan to the new directions found by Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, who were once members of her company, she continues to be part of all the dancers who have come after her.

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