Martha Graham's quest for truth in movement created modern dance Appreciation

April 03, 1991|By J.L. Conklin

There isn't a dancer in America who doesn't owe something to Martha Graham. Even those who disagreed with her philosophy of movement admired her determination, courage and unswerving dedication to the art form.

Ms. Graham, who died Monday at 96, molded her eponymous company in a time before federal art grants. And she trained her dancers and presented her works despite an initial critical reaction that might best be called confused. Yet, even when the critics were unkind, her vision of a new dance form fed on the energies of her time and her country, leading not just to a new way of dancing but a new way of looking at the art. American modern dance was her invention.

Ms. Graham, who danced in Baltimore on numerous occasions from the 1930s to the 1950s, was on a quest for "truth" in movement -- a quest inspired by her father, who, in telling her at age 4 always to speak the truth, said, "People are judged by how they move, and movement never lies."

And when she transformed the lyrical motions of classical ballet into something angular, she didn't so much divorce the ballet as create a technique reflecting her belief that power was compressed in the torso, or more specifically, in the pelvis.

"Contract and release," were the code words of a technique used to create the bodies necessary to dance her visions. Her dancers, with their strong thighs and ability to hold themselves precariously off-balance and rebound with precision, were called Amazons," and they religiously followed their mentor's tenets.

The themes of her dances were always larger than life and they revealed the Pittsburgh native's insatiable appetite for depicting the inner self with all its convoluted logic and mystery. From "Primitive Mysteries" and Greek myths such as "Cave of the Heart," to the pure Americana of "Frontier" and "Appalachian Spring," to the abstract "Diversion of Angels," she taught us that what was behind the gesture was as important as the gesture itself.

Her heroines -- St. Joan, Clytemnestra, Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters -- equaled Ms. Graham's ambition, faith and vision. The women who populated her dances, aswell as the women who danced them, evoked feminism, long before that word was coined.

The world of modern dance is a small, intimate place and at its apex stood Martha Graham. From her school and company and the myriad offshoots came generations of dancers. Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Twyla Tharp, Viola Farber, Lar Lubovitch, Kathryn Posin, Kei Takei are just a few who were shaped by her influence.

Ms. Graham was to dance what Picasso was to painting. "No artist is ahead of his time," she once remarked, "He is his time: It is just that others are behind the time." And we are just now catching up to her.

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