Exactly What Kind of Holy Terror Was Martha Graham?

August 10, 2008

As we filed out of the tiny theater, Stuart Hodes said, “All of us who danced with Martha would have dramatic stories, but Jean wrote them down.” Jean Colonomos has written a wonderful play about the exciting, tearing, brutal, inspiring, and transcendent experience of dancing for Graham. It’s called
The Third from the Left: A dancer’s journey into the world of Martha Graham,
and it was part of the Fringe NYC Festival.

I remember Colonomos (then Nutchtern) as my favorite demonstrator when I was studying at the Graham school from 1963 to 65. Little did I know that at this time, Nutchtern, along with a bunch of other dancers, was learning
Primitive Mysteries (1931)
by day and performing in Jerome Robbins’ The King and I at night. This provides some sense of time, of place, and an occasional note of comedy. Similar to A Chorus Line, but on a smaller scale, we learn about each of the five dancers and their real lives: One has a suicidal mother, another has a husband who wants her to stop dancing, another just had sex for the first time.

What binds them together is the fierceness of Graham’s choreography, and the fierceness of their dedication. And yet each seems lost, wondering if she is good enough. (If they only knew how teenagers like myself thought of them each as some kind of goddess!) We hear the girls’ emotional confusion and need: “Martha, look at me! Mommy, look at me!” But we also hear real images from the Graham technique: “Let the contraction scoop out your body.” The constant refrain is about the first walk in
Primitive Mysteries:
“Step heel toe, snap other flexed foot to ankle.”  (Having learned part of this dance later in college, I can attest to how difficult that first walk is.)

Just as Graham used her dancers as a kind of Greek chorus, director Jon Lawrence Rivera often uses the five characters as a choral group, chanting certain phrases that are familiar to many: “We worship at the temple of pelvic truth, where every day we strive to dance from our vaginas.” One girl holds her contraction until it hurts, but says, “It feels good.” Hallowed contradictions like this abound.

On the rare occasions when Martha showed up for rehearsal, she was usually drunk and combative. She called
Primitive Mysteries
“the cruelest dance I ever made” and emphatically did not like the way these girls did it. They all lived and danced in fear of her. And yet, one says, “She touched me and I am changed.”

If there was any doubt that dancing for Martha was a religious experience, in the final minutes they say, in chorus, “Forgive me Martha for I have sinned.” The catalog of sins includes holding back to protect one’s neck and giggling in rehearsal. I believe the last line is “We are reborn.”

We all know how dramatic dancers’ lives are, especially with a choreographer of Graham’s stature and extremeness. But it took special skill to create a play about it. This production was inspiring. It brought back the memory of Graham-style physical striving for me, especially the all-consuming effort to attain a good and deep contraction. But I wondered why this well-written play couldn’t be performed by trained dancers, as
Chorus Line
was. It would be way more believable because you would see how they live in their bodies and they wouldn’t have to fake warming up. Of course you would need a director who is also a dancer (like Chorus Line had Michael Bennett). The actors in this production (which took place at the CSV Cultural and Educational and Center on the Lower East Side) had to show so much in their words because their bodies couldn’t help express what they were saying. And yet they wore black scoop-neck leotards, tights, and long black skirts, and huge modern dance buns. Once you put performers in leotard and tights, I think even the non-dance public can tell which ones are dancers and which ones aren’t. It’s misleading to put them in tights if they are not going to really dance. But if they were dancers who could act (instead of actors who could sort of move—two of them looked like dancers) then they could express that fierceness with both their bodies and their voices.