“So, what do you think? Was Martha Graham a genius?”
I couldn’t help but overhear the two men chatting behind me as I sat in Northrop Auditorium waiting for the second half of the Martha Graham Company’s program on April 10, 2015.
The answer they gave escapes me completely—I became absorbed in trying to answer the question myself. Though I have yet to come up with a completely satisfactory reply, perhaps my response to the performance will make a step in that direction.
My initial impression of the evening was that it had an educative feel. Graham Artistic Director Janet Eilber contextualized each piece in the program before the dancers took the stage. As Eilber recounted historical facts and anecdotes, a screen behind her displayed brief film clips and images that offered glimpses of Martha throughout the span of her career—from Denishawn, to the Greenwich Village Follies, to her work as a groundbreaking choreographer and dancer. These informative interludes provided insight on the political, social, and cultural aspects of the environment that Graham lived and worked within which helped illuminate the inspiration for the Graham repertory performed that night. However, the program extended well beyond the limits of a dance history lecture. It was an evening of unrelenting movement; powerful, almost brutal, choreography performed by intensely expressive, fiercely strong dancers whose power was well-matched by their precision.
First up was Prelude and Revolt, a four-part series of works choreographed by Graham at various points in her career. The retrospective began with a montage of excerpts from three Denishawn-style solos performed simultaneously: “The Incense,” “Gnoissienne (A Priest of Knossos),” and “Tanagra.” Each solo incorporated props and elaborate costume pieces that ornamented their nuanced port de bras and somewhat confined paths of movement.
Next was Graham’s landmark solo, “Lamentation.” The evening’s soloist, Peiju Chien-Pott, spiraled, leaned, reclined, and contracted through a sequence of geometric shapes—sometimes cubic, other times cyclical. I thought, “Wow, Martha had guts to present something like this for the first time!” As a student of mine once pointed out when I described the piece to him, “She was pretty much wearing a Snuggie!”
Members of the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program took the stage next for “Panorama,” Graham’s choreographic interpretation of Dedication, the Imperial, and the Popular—three themes that, as Eilber pointed out, Graham took to be basically American. A sea of swirling red fabric, the thirty-eight dancers weaved across the stage like a army making its way to battle. Interspersed within the ensemble work were periodic solos, duets, and a particularly mesmerizing quintet in which dancers moved meditatively through statuesque poses. Though the student dancers only had three-weeks of rehearsal and training with members of the Graham company, many of them seemed to have gained a sense of the physical and emotional impetus behind the choreography.
After a brief pause, the Graham company returned to the stage with a new installment of the “Lamentation Variations,” a project conceived by Eilber in 2007 to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. The work opens with a film from the early 1930s showing Martha Graham dancing movements from “Lamentation.” Following is a rhythmically unpredictable, large-ensemble piece by Michelle Dorrance, an ethereal, sweeping duet for two women by Kyle Abraham, and a poignant, pedestrian dance for the full company created by Larry Keigwin.
I love the idea behind “Lamentation Variations.” My only concern lies in the process by which participating choreographers are chosen. When Eilber introduced the piece to the audience at Northrop, she explained that the variations are created by “important choreographers” selected by Graham Company leadership. What makes someone an important choreographer? And what is the artistic benefit of having an important choreographer make a variation of “Lamentation”? That distinction seems unnecessary, elitist, and limiting. I’d be interested to see what a student, or a child, or a less important choreographer (whatever that means) could create from “Lamentation.”
Last up was Graham’s “Rite of Spring.” A long piece of fabric running along the floor between the last two wings and a stark black staircase stood upstage center. Muted color washes and sketch-like images filled a white screen that hung upstage of the other scenic elements. There have been numerous choreographers to present their own versions of this iconic piece, but Graham’s was the first that elicited a genuine emotional response in me. For the first time, I felt sadness, anger, and frustration fill me up inside as I watched the story unfold. I credit the visceral impact of Graham’s “Rite of Spring” not only to her proficiency in interpreting the music with movement, but to the dancers ability to perform those movements with not just striking, but expressive quality.
And now I find myself still faced with my original puzzle: was Martha Graham a genius? The word has many meanings, from “exceptional natural ability” and “exceptionally intelligent or creative” to “a guardian spirit associated with a person, place, or institution” or “the prevalent character or spirit of something like a nation or age.” Whether or not her creative and intellectual ability exceeds that of others seems of little consequence to me. Instead, I am struck by her strength of character, determination, and commitment to her vision. Martha Graham did something that many are capable of but few ever achieve not because she was anointed with special powers, but because of her commitment to her vision. Calling her a genius in the first or second sense mentioned almost detracts from the enormous personal strength, determination, training, skill, and focus that her efforts took.
It seems more fitting to describe Martha Graham in one of the other senses of “genius”—as a guardian, a mythical spirit, a leader of an age. Thinking back on the dances she made and the movement language she created, I like to think she’d agree with me.