Graham's Enduring Vision
She created a sense of style and movement that changed dance forever
NEW YORK — MARTHA GRAHAM was born in another century. What passed for serious dance in America during her early life was genteel ladies wafting about in Grecian tunics, and hand-me-down dollops of European ballet in operas and the musical stage. There was something brewing, though, something strange and exotic and modern that was noticed first in Europe, where the Americans Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis established their careers. Graham and a generation of progressive young dancers absorbed the ideas of Duncan (about how dancing could express the individual), and St. Denis (about how it could tap into the world's spiritual history). Beginning in the 1920s, these ``modern dancers'' or ``new dancers'' invented personal styles of movement and choreography that were deliberately independent of European classical precedents, and that also rejected the surface attractions of romanticism, escapism, and Orientalist sensuality. Of that h ighly diverse generation of individuals, Graham's voice lasted the longest (only Hanya Holm survives of those pioneers, and she has not been active for several years).
Graham's earliest dances were shocking. People thought them ugly, distorted, even dangerous. She built them by forcibly projecting her inner feelings out through her body. The ``contraction,'' or spasmic central movement, in those days, was a propulsive act, shooting the body into space, lifting it off the ground, shoving it into a turn.
Her stance was firm, grounded, her body solid - explosive but dauntless. The women in these dances, Graham herself and a dedicated ensemble, were sturdy, earthy types who felt monumental griefs and passions, enacted communal rituals of joy, and sometimes clashed with adamantine resistance.
Later she discovered the yielding twist of the back, the opposition of shoulder to hip, the sinuous spiral of the neck and head. Her dance began to look more ``feminine,'' but no less expressive.
In the '40s and '50s, having celebrated the forthright American woman, she searched into Jungian psychology for ways to speak more universally about women's complex inner life. This was the era of her Greek myths, her harsh but sympathetic reinventions of Jocasta, Clytemnestra, Medea, and the crystallization of a whole style of dance-theater in which introspective characters moved through desiccated landscapes to consummate their violent, predetermined fate.
The movement of these dances became a vocabulary, and a technique. Graham said she was only inventing movement for her choreography, but the work in the studio became codified into a systematic method of teaching, the basis of a school. It may be the Graham school, the technique, rather than her extraordinary repertory of dances, which will have a more lasting influence on the history of dance.
Thousands of dancers have been trained in the technique and continue to use the Graham vocabulary in creating their own dances. Graham-based companies now exist in England, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, and the United States, but few companies except Graham's own have been granted the right to perform any of her dances.
Martha Graham's life was dance, and some of her most important life crises and triumphs revolved around the issue of just how long a dancer can be active as a performer, as a creative artist, and as the leader of a school and producing company. After an agonizing period of decision, she finally relinquished the stage in the 1970s. But she continued to make new dances and to preside over the organizations that carried her work throughout the world.
It's in the nature of dance to change rapidly and for its past achievements to slip away into memory.
Martha Graham's company gradually acquired the sleek, idealized look it has today, and the technique became softer, more externally focused. She wanted it that way. Everyone who has ever seen a Graham performance, on stage or on film, will remember a particular moment in a long, evolving process. The look of the dances and the dancers went through at least three or four phases, all representing Graham's view of her own aesthetic at different times.
No matter which of those images is your individual favorite, Martha Graham left something to inspire every one of us. She believed in the idea of dance as an art, and in her own ability to create that art with authority and brilliance. She demonstrated conclusively that personal expression could shape a body of work, an original style, that didn't depend on or imitate any existing way of dancing. She probed the expressive powers of the body, and made new expressive movement possibilities available even to dancers trained in ballet and other specific techniques.
At a press conference in 1986, Martha Graham spoke about the spirit in which she and the other early modern dancers worked. ``We shared a denial of graceful attitudes,'' she said. ``We wanted Grace itself - from God. We were looking for the truth.''