December 26, 2007

Graham—Present Indicative, Future Uncertain

Martha Graham. How do we feel about Martha Graham? And after that, how do we really feel about Martha Graham? Let’s cut away the encrustation of former glories, those heady remembrances of things past, those lip services paid to history’s icons. How about Martha past, present, and—let’s do some clairvoyance—future? Not her influence on others, but her present importance in and of herself.

When I first encountered Graham as a dancer (she was already 60) and the Graham repertoire in 1954, I was overwhelmed. And not simply by what I saw onstage, but also because this was my first encounter with one the legendary figures of 20th-century dance. Of the other such figures—perhaps Isadora Duncan, Michel Fokine, and George Balanchine—only Balanchine I knew well and adored with the messianic fervor of a critic-disciple. And then Graham, during a season in London at the now-lost Saville Theatre. I went every night, enchanted, engrossed, and sometimes bewildered. I look at my own 53-year-old reviews in the London magazine Dance and Dancers (now sadly gone the way of the Saville) and can recapture all of those three occasionally conflicting feelings.

As a dancer, how good could Graham possibly have been in 1954? There has just been issued a remarkably illuminating DVD of the Graham company that includes a couple of performances of Graham’s Appalachian Spring, one from exactly that time—with Stuart Hodes as the Husbandman, Bertram Ross as the Revivalist, and Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, and I can hardly recognize the Graham I thought I had seen. This is sometimes the way of video: There is no match for the physicality of the presence, and what we call charisma goes up in smoke. 

Over the years I followed Graham and the company assiduously, and constantly after 1965, when I moved to New York. By this time Graham had become a living legend, not beyond criticism but impervious to it. She was also fashionable—in the worst possible sense of that dubious term—in a way she never had been before. She was staging gala performances where the galas were more significant than the performances, and even the hard-core nucleus of wonderful performers (apart from the still dauntingly theatrical Graham herself, her companies in the ’50s and ’60s were star-shiners) slowly eroded, the dancers sometimes losing interest, sometimes actually fired. 

Yet from the mid-’50s until around the end of ’60s, Graham and her company were among the living treasures of the dance world. As a dancer she herself had already stayed a little too long at the fair. I was one of that generation of dance critics having the rotten task of pointing this out in public. She finally retired as a dancer in 1969. She was 74.

Unlike Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, she never retained her full powers as a choreographer when her dancing first dwindled and was then extinguished. Even before her final retirement from the stage, her works had become rather more distinguished for their titles—Cortege of Eagles, A Time of Snow, etc.—than for their actual choreography. Her last major work was the ambitious, full-evening Clytemnestra in 1958, which was the fulfillment of her fascination with Greek legend. And despite its weak score (by Halim El-Dabh)—Graham’s tin ear for great music and her wish to collaborate with living (but usually mediocre) composers, will always be a drag on her legacy—Clytemnestra was a dramatic panoply of absorbing choreographic depth with brilliance. It gave Martha one last gaudy night in a role that made her the largely static but gloriously theatrical focus of the tragedy. It was great, and it was greatness.

The decline was unmercifully gradual—through to the final years of what I called “Halstonization,” when the fashion designer Halston seemed to become virtually the artistic director of the company. I think two works deserve to survive from the final years: the stylistically cool 1981 Acts of Light and the lightweight 1990 Maple Leaf Rag.

After Graham’s death on April Fool’s Day 1991, there was chaos. Worse—chaos and litigation. The company, litigation seemingly behind it, has made two major efforts to recover. The first under Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, and the second—after those two appeared to be summarily dismissed by the board—by Janet Eilber, the second manifestation being seen in the modest circumstances of the Joyce Theater last September.  Both regimes gave reason for hope that the classic Graham repertoire eventually might well be maintained as a living force.

But—and here comes the awkward glance at the clairvoyant’s ball—nothing will amount to much in the future unless the company can acquire or encourage its own, new choreographer. Museums and dance companies don’t match up.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the
New York Post.