Martha Graham was ‘Where the Action Was’

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From 1967 through 2011, Deborah Jowitt wrote a weekly dance column for the Village Voice. Her substantial experience as a dancer, choreographer, critic, mother, teacher, and writer of a clutch of valuable books; her long marriage to a composer; and her deep familiarity with both the Southern California environment that nurtured Martha Graham and the New York City dance world in which both of them came to maturity may make her the perfect person to produce a critical biography of the woman many consider the First Lady of American modern dance: Errand into the Maze: The Life and Works of Martha Graham

Jowitt takes all the space she needs to fully explicate an image or an idea — to interpret, theorize, and describe in great detail the universe, both on and off the stage, that surrounded Graham and all that she created. Jowitt has also taken her time: 10 years of research, on top of half a century of tracking the international modern dance scene, to produce this history of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which turns 100 in 2026 and is already celebrating. Jowitt watched dozens of films and videos, read the other books already out there about the dance diva, and interviewed many artists who participated in the creation and performance of what have become classic examples of American modernism, begging comparison to the greatest works of contemporary music and art. Errand into the Maze is cultural history entwined with critical biography, accounting for New York’s social, creative, and political climate in the interwar era. Jowitt’s method includes close reading, textual analysis, all the stratagems of literary criticism of the period: translation, observation, and thick description, work for which journalistic critics rarely have space or time. She explicates music with as much clarity and confidence as she does movement. 

Jowitt also uncovers a sensuous side of Graham, often submerged in the popular view of early modern dance as grim posturing in long underwear. Born in 1894, the eldest of three daughters of a doctor and a woman who traced her ancestry back to the Mayflower, the future choreographer grew up in a strict Presbyterian family, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. Then, when she was in her early teens, the family moved to sunny Santa Barbara, in California. “Many of the dances that later made her famous,” says Jowitt, “drew on the dualities of restraint and freedom, decorum and wildness that molded her bisected early years.” Those dances, such as Appalachian Spring, are still in the company’s repertory, with timeless set design by Isamu Noguchi and immortal music commissioned from the likes of Aaron Copland; the book quotes Graham’s correspondence with her collaborators. She added Alexander Calder’s mobiles to her stage designs just as Calder was hitting the big time. “Affiliating herself with him,” observes Jowitt, “could attract audience members more drawn to the visual arts than dance.”

 

The dancers sewed their own costumes, and Graham sometimes borrowed money from them. “We were all pink in those days,” said Horst, implying their left-wing sensibilities.

 

After high school, in Santa Barbara, Graham skipped college, instead attending the Cumnock School of Expression, in Los Angeles, an all-female institution that trained her to teach oral and dramatic expression in high schools. Her father died during her years there, and in 1916 she enrolled at the Denishawn school nearby, positioning herself to learn from one of the founding mothers of American modern dance, Ruth St. Denis. This affiliation also introduced her to the work of François Delsarte, which “analyzed gestures and positions of the body in terms of the balance among the spiritual, the mental, and the physical,” helping dancers understand how movement reveals character. 

Her time at Denishawn ultimately led Graham into national touring in Ted Shawn and St. Denis’s faux-Oriental tableaux, and, in 1923, into vaudeville in New York City. There she performed in the fifth edition of the Greenwich Village Follies, by then ensconced in Broadway’s 1,500-seat Winter Garden Theatre, with an opening curtain painted by Reginald Marsh. Between shows Graham could catch matinees with Eleonora Duse, and visit museums and gallery exhibitions. She was already 30, and learning a lot about performance and the business of show business. Jowitt is direct and wry about the sexual intrigue among the players in this chapter of Graham’s life. As an early proto-feminist, Graham asked for, and very often got, just what she wanted, unafraid to be the aggressor in sexual liaisons.

 

During the first years of Graham’s career there were 10 daily newspapers in New York City, as well as a clutch of culture-oriented magazines; together these provide a wealth of critical response that Jowitt has plumbed to provide a kaleidoscopic look at the early dances and their reception. Filming was prohibitively expensive, so there are few moving-image recordings available from those days, but all that early critical writing created a wealth of material subsequently drawn upon by scholars and artists alike. It also appears that journalists sometimes socialized with their subjects; the New Yorker’s music critic married Graham’s younger sister Geordie, also a dancer, and Graham herself carried on a long affair with Louis Horst, her musical director and a respected teacher, composer, and editor of the essential magazine Dance Observer. She later married the first male dancer to enter her company, the 15-years-younger Erick Hawkins. Some of the major choreographers of the 20th century passed through Graham’s troupe: Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Gus Solomons Jr., Dan Wagoner, and Donald McKayle, as well as dancers including Robert Cohan and Stuart Hodes, who went on to long careers in the U.S. and abroad. 

Women, however, were at the center of most of Graham’s “story dances,” and most of these women were versions of herself. Jowitt describes one relatively unsuccessful piece from 1953, Voyage, in which “civilized behavior went the way of the costumes,” with three male dancers taking down Graham’s hair and removing her clothes — and theirs — to music by William Schuman. She often manages to make Graham’s artistic process read like a thriller, juxtaposing world-historical struggles of the era with Graham’s passionate projects. Jowitt describes one sequence as “individual expressions of strain counterbalancing the group … [reflecting] the slaves of the Old South or other people oppressed by colonial land grabs.” 

There wasn’t any money, Jowitt points out — Graham began her aesthetic experiments some 40 years before government arts funding was a gleam in anyone’s eye. The dancers sewed their own costumes, and Graham sometimes borrowed money from them. “We were all pink in those days,” said Horst, implying their left-wing sensibilities. Graham herself refused an offer to appear at the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin. She spent many a summer at the Bennington School of the Dance, where her genius was shared with thousands of college dance teachers who went on to spread her reputation and technique across the country. The U.S. State Department sent Graham’s troupe around the world as cultural ambassadors in the 1950s, and these trips yielded a harvest of brilliant Japanese dancers eager to work with her. 

 

Graham came to prominence in the early years of network television, when her appearance in 1947 as the “mysterious celebrity” on the game show Truth or Consequences exposed her to millions of people, not to mention raising the ratings of the show. Says Jowitt of the Graham episode, during which the public could make donations to fight polio, “On December 6, the contest set a one-day record for mail: 119 pieces.” It also raised more than $800,000 for the March of Dimes.  

It was only in the later 1950s that international touring and a rising economic tide began to steadily support Graham’s work in the manner it deserved. Funding from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1932, to study Mexican dance culture in the Yucatan, was the first award given to someone in the field of dance. In 1943, Graham asked for more, to support a major collaboration with Aaron Copland to be performed in Washington, D.C., the work that became Appalachian Spring. The Foundation awarded her $200 a month for six months to cover her living expenses. 

In 1970, at the age of 75, Graham retired as a performer but continued to choreograph until just before her death, in 1991. Drowning her sadness in alcohol for years, she had deteriorated somewhat, but she still “wanted to be where the action was,” in the studio or backstage, according to the nurse who looked after her in her last decade. Between 1926 and 1990 she made close to 200 works, and danced in most of them. After years of turmoil, the company, which survived her death, is now succeeding under the firm direction of former leading dancer Janet Eilber. 

Jowitt’s book, titled after Graham’s 1947 duet to music by Gian Carlo Menotti, is an “errand” into the mind of an artist, exploring its workings by tracing Graham’s thoughts through her correspondence, her behavior over half a century of growth and change, and her wrangles with alcoholism and aging. It’s also an errand into the craft of criticism, which Jowitt has practiced for well over half a century. It’s a brilliant capstone to Jowitt’s long career, and a tribute to the indomitable artist who inspired such sustained attention.   ❖

American Legacies
The Martha Graham Dance Company
New York City Center
April 17-20
www.marthagraham.org

Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.

 

 

 

 





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