Dance Commentary: Dance Giant Martha Graham — Genius at Risk

Years of bitter and expensive litigation as well as the challenging nature of her work have put the artistic legacy of dance giant Martha Graham in crisis.

By Debra Cash

Imagine, for a moment, that the only people who could experience Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings were those who had lived during his lifetime. Future generations would never directly experience the art as I did in my early 20s, when I could have sworn I heard crows cawing over empty, wind-struck fields in the galleries of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Far fetched? Not really. Right now that hypothetical scenario threatens the works of choreographer Martha Graham. Unlike paintings, dance work cannot be set aside and brought back into view decades later unaltered and unharmed. To be preserved, dances have to be maintained, taught and performed. Graham’s oevre is not the only one at risk.

Martha Graham was 97 when she died in 1991, after a long creative and physical decline. She left a large repertoire (with many of the best of her works still in active repertory) and a rigorous training technique that has been disseminated across the globe. She also left a legal disaster that sent her school and company and the companion to whom she had left her assets into years of bitter and expensive litigation.

Barred from presenting the works during the years of courtroom wrangling, company members dispersed, originators of important roles passed away, and most audiences came to know Graham only as a name. Films of jewels from the repertory, never in wide distribution, were only approximations of what transpired on stage and could be off-putting in their mannerisms. It didn’t help that Graham had held onto roles she had created for herself as a younger dancer long past the time when she could do them justice.

As Americans for the Arts, a policy advocacy organization, once explained in its ad campaign, “There’s not enough art in our schools. No wonder people think Martha Graham is a snack cracker.” One winced to see the Bank of America Celebrity Series, which last brought the Graham Company to town in 1996, resorting to publicizing the company’s return this winter with marketing that stressed Graham’s influence on Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. She was a profound influence on those artists, but if you were a devotee of Merce or Twyla, Martha’s choreography might not be your cup of tea.

The company and its current director, Janet Eilber, who started dancing with the Graham Company in 1972, are racing against time and debt. The school is up and running, there is control over the licensing of the repertory and opportunities for company alumni to get back in touch. The company has experimented with contextualizing the artist and her work with video examples and commentary from her great collaborators, composer Aaron Copland and sculptor/set designer Isamu Noguchi. There is still reason to hope that Graham’s work will be performed across the country as part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ commitment to introduce audiences to America’s dance masterworks.

The combination of Graham’s death and the legal mess she left behind have taken their toll. When the Graham Company appeared in Boston early this month during its 80th anniversary season, masterpieces were on the boards, but the results were uneven and discouraging.

Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu embodied Graham’s genius in everything she performed. “Spectre-1914,” the opening solo of “Sketches from Chronicle” (1936) is a kind of rethinking and extension of Graham’s breakthrough “Lamentation,” of 1930, where a grieving woman encased in a stretchy fabric tube “indicates the tragedy that obsesses the body, the ability to stretch inside your own skin, to witness and test the perimeters and boundaries of grief, which is honorable and universal.”

In the later work, the grief is mixed with anger and has a very explicit antiwar target. Sheu is a wrathful presence, her arms drumming as fabric trails over the bench that she stands on, making her loom larger than life. This is American expressionism at its best: the fabric of Sheu’s skirt extends the pulse into space so that she rises like a flame taking on oxygen. She was heart-stopping in the canted diagonal poses of the woman in Red in the palate-cleansing “Diversion of Angels” of 1948, too.

Last summer I caught Sheu dancing the great Graham role in the 1947 “Errand into the Maze” at Jacob’s Pillow and there she used the contraction and release technique of her torso as a language that punched out a visceral Morse Code of fear, resolve and victory. Elizabeth Auclair is not a dancer of equal caliber: her “Errand” in Boston was correct but dispassionate. When she shielded her face from Martin Lofsnes’ pawing Minotaur, she barely looked resistant to his advances, and her legs swing so loose and easily that the sense of weight and effort that gives this choreography meaning dissipated.

The same thing happened with “Appalachian Spring.” Despite lucid performances, this was Graham without gravity. Musical Miki Orihara was a childlike Bride and Katherine Crockett a soothing Pioneering Woman, but when Crockett reaches across the landscape, promising the young couple opportunity as far as the eye can see, the line should be as spatially specific as the sticks that indicate the roof of the couple’s homestead. Noguchi described it as being like Shaker furniture. “Appalachian Spring” looks a lot like Agnes de Mille’s “Oklahoma !” in its current incarnation and that’s a big mistake. Graham was no Hallmark Card illustrator. She was exploring self-doubt in the face of promise and staking radical modernist claims on America’s settler myth.

Stretched resources and tumult within the troupe, including the firing of Terese Capucilli & Christine Dakin as heads of the company itself last May, are only part of the reason this is happening. It takes a certain type of dancer to choose a career with a company specializing in a legacy repertory rather than work with a living choreographer. This predicament hit the Jose Limon company decades ago, and in the not so distant future will inevitably affect the companies of Merce Cunningham (frail if still adventurous at 86) and Paul Taylor (a spry and generative 75). George Balanchine’s school helps maintain his legacy and ballets, but close observers have wondered how long New York City Ballet can maintain its eminence and whether the balance between NYCB and outside companies that license Balanchine ballets for their repertories has shifted since his death in 1983.

Graham’s mythologized self-dramatization, gendered characterizations and stark, distilled forms do not fit easily into contemporary sensibilities more attuned to athletic virtuosity, colloquialism and quick splices of volleying movement. That doesn’t make the dances less worthwhile, but it creates a challenge for a company used to unpacking its sets and just presenting the work to be appreciated and applauded.

America has a dance history worth celebrating and sharing with anyone who can be touched by great art. What are we going to do with it?

Debra Cash, a Founding Contributing Writer to The Arts Fuse, is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance.

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