Martha's Graham: 'Goddess,' priestess?

March 30, 1997|By ANITA FINKEL | ANITA FINKEL,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Goddess: Martha Graham's Dancers Remember," by Robert Tracy. Limelight Editions. 323 pages.

Calling a book about Martha Graham "Goddess" rather than the more obvious "Priestess" is attention-getting. Graham, the leader of the modern dance movement from the 1930s through the 1960s, never dubbed herself a goddess as Robert Tracy does here. But there is a rationale in his title. His book is a compilation of interviews and reflections about Graham by dancers who worked with her throughout the decades. To these people, Graham was a goddess.

Anyone looking for the comprehensive overview of Graham's life and achievement similar to that of Agnes de Mille's magisterial "Martha" will not, of course, find it here. There are pieces of memory and impression - sure themselves to be dear to those who cherish memories of Graham and her world.

The level of perceptiveness of individual observers is, of course, uneven. Connoisseurs should turn immediatly to the chapters on Matt Turney and Robert Cohan, both of whom saw what was going on around them with great perspicacity. Writing her first solo "The Ancestree," in "Letter to the World," Turney comments: "My Ancestress' role never worked. ... Martha was very dissatisfied from the first rehearsal. Mostly she used the old directors' tactic: Destroy [the performer] emotionally in order to break through to another level."

For Cohen, a New Yorker who transplanted the Graham legacy to London, it was love at first exposure, with a sharp perspective on Graham herself: "Martha was able to be everything for you: man, woman, director. She could initiate any movement she gave you as a man. For instance, the men's movements in 'Letter to the World.' She used to do them and she looked more male than any of us - stronger, more masculine."

The nebulous technically undefined role of the male dancer in the Graham company was a struggle for virtually every $l distinguished dancer who entered the company, from Merce Cunningham to Paul Taylor. Cunningham observes: "I was more prone to use my legs primarily than Graham ...what I kept seeing were those women able to do all those shapes on the floor with the legs."

For Paul Taylor: "With Martha he-men were the equivalent of a male Barbie Doll. We were sticklike figures who were basically sex objects."

The most controversial male in the Graham repertory was her lover and husband Erick Hawkins, with whom she eventually feuded. Among the women of Graham's early group Hawkins - the first male dancer to be engaged - was hated and resented. "It was very difficult for me," Hawkins sums up. "Martha blacklisted me for I don't know how many years when I couldn't perform at the American Dance Festival. I was shut out of Juilliard. It is really a tribute to one's talent that one could transcend all that and come out strong. I almost didn't survive Martha Graham."

In Graham's later years, her relinquishing of roles to other women proves a theme, as does the promotion to power of Ron Protas, a dance neophyte who devoted himself to saving Graham from alcoholism. "Martha sold her soul to Protas," observes Jane Dudley, who calls him "His Royal Nibs."

In the end "Goddess" never struggles with the critical issue of the Graham oeuvre - what finally, will its ultimate value turn out to be? However, as a final summation the words of Yuriko present a cardinal view: "No one could duplicate what Martha Graham did even when she couldn't dance."

Anita Finkel is associate editor at Oxford University Press and former editor and publisher of the New Dance Review, She has worked for Ballet News, Barron's and Charles Scribner's Sons.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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