Martha Graham Dance Company
The legacy endures
by Stephanie Rieke
Martha Graham is synonymous with American modern dance, her shadow on the field as strong and deep as the signature contractions her dancers execute. Known for her expressive and angular technique, female protagonists, and literary sources, Graham remains a force to be reckoned with even today, fifteen years after her death, with her company still suffering the effects of a series of expensive lawsuits over the rights to her repertoire. As the company marks its eightieth anniversary, the University Musical Society presents two opportunities to experience Graham's enduring legacy firsthand.
To dramatize Graham's revolutionary break with the first generation of modern choreographers, the company begins the first evening (Friday, October 13, at Hill Auditorium) with a suite of dances leading up to and including Graham. For example, Ruth St. Denis, one of the founders of Denishawn, the pioneering Los Angeles dance school that Graham attended, traded on a decorative and filmy "exoticism" based on the era's fascination with the East. Compare that with Graham's Lamentation (1930), a visceral examination of grief performed entirely in an elastic shroud of fabric. It's a profoundly different vision. And a radically personal one.
For Appalachian Spring (1944), a Graham classic to be performed on Saturday, October 14 (also at Hill), Aaron Copland provided the commissioned score, and sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the spare and geometric "indication of a set." Graham herself came up with the title of the piece, taking it from a poem by Hart Crane. She originally danced it with Erick Hawkins, her great love at the time. Like a distilled Georgia O'Keeffe landscape, Appalachian Spring brims with light, space, and energy. It is a joyous sketch of a young homesteading couple and their encounters with an itinerant preacher, his followers, and a frontier woman. The uncomplicated steps vertical leaps and charming jigs mirror Copland's familiar yet majestic folk themes.
According to Graham, Diversion of Angels (1948), also on the second program, embodies a "love of
life and love of love." In it, three couples meet and part in an exploration both vibrant and poignant. High leg lifts and fluid deep back bends signal avidity for life and shared experiences. As Graham's father prophetically told her early on, "Movement doesn't lie."
Once, when asked to choose, Graham said that she preferred to be remembered as a dancer, not a choreographer. But with the exception of a cache of glamorous photographs and some film of Graham, it's the choreography that lives on. Graham's technique preached "freedom through discipline." One hopes that her beleaguered company will soon return to financial health, allowing it the creative autonomy to nurture and expand upon her inheritance.
[Review published October 2006]