April 2 – April 4, 2019
New York City
In 1920, when women won the right to vote in America, Martha Graham was 24. Graham was performing in the early modern dance group Denishawn and developing her own pelvis-driven movement style that would become the core of her company.
Under the artistic direction of Janet Eilber, the Martha Graham Company (MGC) is now in its 93rd year. It is the oldest dance company still in existence in America. As Eilber notes in her pre-show talks, MGC has taken much from—and given much to—American history. This season is marketed as part of the Company’s two-year EVE Project—a celebration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Not unlike the Suffragettes, in spearheading American modern dance, Graham wrested a good measure of control from the patriarchy that had long dominated choreography and dance presentation. Strong female archetypes, plumbed from myth and history, drive the stories of Graham’s dances. Yet the choreographer engaged in feminism in ways that were distinct from the Suffragette’s social movement—what we now call first-wave feminism. As the dance historian Victoria Phillips has pointed out, Graham embodied the paradox of feminism and the “New Woman” in the interwar years by championing the independent, empowered woman in her work and persona, and by rejecting the collective social movement in the streets and in Congress.1
The EVE Project is lofty in its goal and grand in its scale. It celebrates female empowerment in all its forms, from political rights to artistic representation. Before each performance, a slideshow of iconic women—Aretha Franklin, Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—sets the stage by offering a glimpse of feminist history. While the anniversary marks the achieved goal of first-wave feminism in America, women’s suffrage, the program leaves up to interpretation what constitutes “empowerment” in the subsequent years. The program comprises classic and obscure Graham works, as well as commissions by other choreographers throughout the years. Among these were two premieres, one by Bobbi Jene Smith and Maxine Doyle, and one by Pam Tanowitz. For our era of feminism, in which inclusion and intersectionality are on the ascent, I couldn’t help but wonder if a more diverse group might have been more fitting.
I attended programs A and B, which together had both premiers and a good sampling of Graham: Secular Games (1962), Hérodiade (1944), El Penitente (1940), and Chronicle (1936). Secular Games opened both evenings, after an introduction to the project and particular works by Eilber, an eloquent speaker. The second night we saw only the opening portion of the piece, the men’s section, which, Eilber quipped, “perfectly set the tone for a program celebrating female empowerment.” This cheeky framing and isolated presentation of the section “Play with Thought—on a Socratic Island”—living up to the title’s implied image of scantily clad, sculpted men lounging and flexing—worked better than the performance of the full piece. (I’ll note here that in this writing, I employ the gender binary embedded in Graham’s casting.) In program A, after the male dancers finish tossing an orb to one another—presumably representing philosophical ideas—women enter. But their participation doesn’t seem to add much to the playful parody. Historically faithful to the ancient world, the choreography has them as second-class citizens, never getting thrown the orb of hefty ideas. The work’s origin date in the 1960s perhaps prevents the full presentation of the social-sexual reality of the ancient world: partnering is strictly heterosexual and the men only dance together when a female dancer is in the mix.
Exploring the related topics of gender and sexuality empowerment today, choreographers have more room to subvert norms and diversify representation. In Annie-B Parson’s I used to love you (2017), the dance-theater maker’s response to Graham’s comedy Punch and the Judy (1941), she changes the sexual orientation of the characters involved in the adulterous affair. Inspired by archival footage of the Graham piece last performed cca. 1948, Parson’s reworking takes Graham’s source material of the traditional British puppet shows, and adds contemporary commentary. Three dancers sit downstage in chairs and speak into microphones with detached, matter-of-fact delivery. Elevator dance music adds a silly, comedic punch. I’m reminded of Věra Chytilová’s 1966 Czech New Wave film, Daisies, in the dance’s skit-like sequences and emphasis on the artifice of its own artistic medium. Like the anarchic Dadaist film, I used to love you collages disjointed elements—projected film, music, text, and movement—to challenge established narrative structures and transpose characters to disrupt patriarchal heteronormativity.
Graham, of course, was reworking common narratives in her own right—abstracting the emotions from classic stories and expressing them from the “inner landscape” of the human psyche through modernist movement. Graham’s portrayals of some stories hold up better than others. El Penitente (1940), a story of Spanish colonialists in the American Southwest, gets lost a bit in its pictorial imagery. Masks and looming costume extensions, in the form of bonnets, sculptural masts and stakes symbolizing Christian ritual, form a flat, cliché tableau by today’s lights.
Hérodiade, by contrast, draws from multiple dimensions: the 1944 work exemplifies Graham’s ability to flesh out inner turmoil and skeletonize formal elements. Xin Ying dances a sort of duet with Isamu Noguchi’s bone-like sculpture, drawing forth from her body the dance’s themes of fate, decision, and precipice. Ying tilts forward and her leg swings like a pendulum, forming an arc back and forth between two points. Tension ripples through her torso, motored by the pelvis, with Graham’s contract and release technique. I immediately feel the visceral anxiety of indecision—vacillating between internal and external answers. Graham originally titled the work Mirror Before Me before adopting the composer’s title Hérodiade taken from Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem on the biblical story of Herodias/Salome. Some say Graham had been inspired by the poem before the title change, but either way, she found resonant themes of introspection and fluctuation in Mallarmé’s verse:
Abolished, and her frightful wing in the tears
Of the basin, abolished, that mirrors forth our fears, ...
On the iron clockface is a pendulum
Suspending Lucifer: the clepsydra pours2
With Chronicle, the last of the classic works I saw, Graham moves from the psychology of the individual woman to the collective imprint on public life. Chronicle is one of the rare works through which Graham takes an explicit political stance, as mentioned in the program note. In keeping with her distance from the feminist social movement, Graham famously proclaimed that she wasn’t political.3 Yet this 1936 work is a vehement response against fascism following her refusal to perform at the Olympic games in Germany that year. The piece begins with the soloist—in this performance, Leslie Andrea Williams—perched atop a block with her draping dress forming its own monument. Part one, Spectre – 1914, foreshadows a doom to come; indeed, Williams’s looming lurches summon Disney Villain vibes. In part two, Steps in the Street, the collective assembles. Dancers—all women—enter backward from wings with measured steps and pauses. The sequence dazzles in the form of a stop motion animation: we see one frame of movement at a time until the stage is studded with dancers like pins on a map. Then the action reverses; the dancers retrace their steps in forward fits of motion until, eventually, they disperse. Energy builds in the final section, Prelude to Action, as Williams stands tall on her sculptural base leading the group of women (Graham didn’t have any men in her company until 1938). In this performance, the dancers don’t seem to be enacting a tribute to the tragedies of war a century prior; rather, they launch their bodies off the ground with an urgency and imperative to rally today’s audiences.
Today’s audiences came to see what today’s choreographers have to say to Graham, and in turn, what Graham’s work can say back. Most eagerly anticipated from the program were the premieres by contemporary big-name choreographers: Untitled (Souvenir) by Pam Tanowitz and Deo by Bobbi Jene Smith and Maxine Doyle. In the tradition of Graham, Deo mines the myths of Demeter and Persephone for thematic and emotive fodder. Smith, trained in the Gaga style of the Batsheva dance company, has over the past few years been making her own work as a choreographer. Her choreography carries forward the Grahamian legacy of expressing female sexuality and desire by confronting today’s desensitized public with pieces such as A Study on Effort, in which she brings herself to climax atop a sandbag. In partnership with Doyle—the choreographer of the immersive theater hit Sleep No More—Smith taps into an underworldly drama with Deo. The stage is dark and hazy as we begin to make out the single figure of a woman. Slowly the light adjusts and the stage populates with others, apparitions in thin slips. The dancers breathe heavily and twitch with pelvic contractions more violent than Graham’s. They form a cluster and shake rhythmically; I’m immediately reminded of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. Lights flash on and off revealing episodic vignettes of dancers and their suspended limbs—in and out of consciousness with the strobe. As Graham shifted the upright, airy nature of ballet to the grounded, weightiness of modern dance, Smith and Doyle crank up (or down?) the gravity. The dancers crouch, thrust, and heave, baring the grand themes of fertility and life cycle.
Where Deo draws from Graham’s pelvic movement, Untitled (Souvenir) riffs on her angular choreography. These lineages of influence, from Graham to Cunningham, are traceable in Tanowitz’s work, yet her breaks from familiar aesthetics with utter inventiveness have earned the choreographer high regard. Alastair Macaulay called her Four Quartets "the most sublime dance-theater creation this century" in his farewell essay as chief dance critic of the New York Times. That superlative is hard to live up to, but (Souvenir) certainly proposes new realms and ways of seeing. One dancer lies horizontally with half his body offstage in the wings, indicating that the world continues beyond it and we just see a snapshot. Tanowitz sprinkles the choreography with little contrasts: individually they are almost imperceptible, but together they form a kaleidoscope or prism. Rigid, right-angled arms release for a moment when an odd little torso shimmy ripples through the body. These invisible currents connect the dancers in the seemingly fragmented composition. A couple has an intimate moment in which one dancer places his hand on another’s face, to which she responds with a micro hip swivel echoed simultaneously by two other dancers in the background—a pulsatile wave setting the whole ensemble in motion.
Early in Parson’s I used to love you, the dancers look at the projected archival Graham film and ask: “Can a movement be updated?” You can look at this, with its multiple-entendre, as the central question posed by the EVE programs. Can a dance movement philosophy be updated? A social movement, like feminism? Today, with more women seeking and winning political power than ever before, the force of the Suffragettes endures, moving forward in new waves. The current state of Graham’s empowerment of women in dance is women choreographing and running companies and institutions large and small, including the first woman in a leadership position at the classical dance establishment, New York City Ballet. Yes, movements can be updated; what better way to honor past achievements. We amend constitutions; we initiate new waves in feminism, and social/artistic movements in general. We update movement with every Graham work that is reconstructed, learned, and embodied by a new dancer, and with every new choreographer that is invited to expand the repertoire and add their take on what female empowerment looks like.
- Phillips, Victoria. Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019).
- Mallarmé, Stéphane. "Herodiade." Translated by Henry Weinfield. Collected Poems (The University Of California Press, 1994).
- Phillips, Martha Graham’s Cold War.