Martha Graham Needed Her Rage

December 31, 2009

I had heard about the fights with Louis Horst that were part of Graham’s creative process, but I had no idea how violent their sessions were—and how necessary. Dorothy Bird, who danced with Graham in the 1930s, describes an amazing scene when she, as a very young dancer, was asked to observe Martha’s raw discovery of movement. In
Bird’s Eye View: Dancing With Martha Graham and on Broadway,
co-written with Joyce Greenberg, she tells of watching, in frightened awe, how Martha growled, hissed, and whirred her way through explosive movements she had just choreographed, movements that “rose up inside her and exploded out of her body.” When Louis came in to see the material, Bird saw the passion go out of the dancing as he forced Martha to assign counts to it. Martha “battled him like a scorpion lashing its poisonous tail in the air. Louis…absorbed all the stings. She battered him with clenched fists, but there was no way he would give up until he had forced her to discipline herself.”


Wow, I can only hope that Martha got the passion back after they settled on the counts and the music. But…how fascinating. And it shows, very specifically, why it is that Louis was so essential to Martha. This dependence is a celebrated fact of dance history, but never had I seen it written so clearly.


Merce had John Cage; Balanchine had Lincoln Kirstein, and Graham had Louis Horst. In each case, the choreographer needed that other person in one way or another, or in many ways. Each of those three probably wouldn’t have become the great artists they became without that other necessary person.


This book has other juicy bits in it too. Like how totally cool Anna Sokolow looked in her tight skirt and ripped stockings. Like how she (Dorothy Bird) was teaching for Balanchine at SAB, and when she told the demure students to yell “NO,” he leaned into her and whispered, “Why don’t you tell them to say YES?”


I recommend the book. The paperback is published by University of Pittsburgh Press.