Why Don't Women Make Dances Like That Any More? Or, What Made Martha So Mad?

June 9, 2010

Like a bat out of hell, each woman bounded across the space with leap/runs, hands in fists, face set in determination. The all-female ensemble of Sketches from ‘Chronicle’ (1936), led powerfully by Jennifer DePalo, worked up to a fever pitch, infusing the spare geometry of Graham’s choreography with energy and resolve. I couldn’t really see a difference between the pre-war states (Parts I and II) and the anti-war protest (Part III), but I was overwhelmed by the collective force of these women of the Martha Graham Dance Company. The driving rhythm of Wallingford Riegger’s music pushed the dance along with exciting momentum.*

At the opening of their Joyce season Tuesday night, artistic director Janet Eilber read a statement Graham wrote in response to Goebbels’ invitation to her company to perform at the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. She refused because of her abhorrence of the growing fascist German state. It was in this frame of mind that she made Sketches from ‘Chronicle.’

In early Graham, elbows puncture the space around the dancers. They are an expressive element—spiky, strong, stubborn; and they are a shape element—angular, giving the choreography an almost Egyptian look. Those elbows helped define modernism in dance. In this piece they contribute to the feeling of an inexorable mounting of purpose.

By the end of this three-part work, you’re cheering for these women—their strength, their unity, their indifference to prettiness. (Shortly after, in 1938, Erick Hawkins joined the company, and that was the end of the all-female dances.)

The audience left the theater jabbering and speculating about Graham’s divine anger. I ran into Carmen deLavallade and Geoffrey Holder. “It’s that Irish blood of Martha’s!” Holder was saying. Carmen had a different opinion: “I think she was just so mad at Goebbels.” And I said, “Or she was mad at Louis Horst.” (He was her lover and musical director who forced her to give counts to the music.)

Any way you slice it, the source of Graham’s theatrical fury is a source for contemplation…and for wondering, Where is that energy today? What female choreographer will bring us that kind of vehemence? In the meantime we can thank the Graham company for preserving this incredible work.

*A note about the music for “Steps in the Street,” the second—and quite astounding—section of the dance. For the record, I received this email from Charles Woodford, Doris Humphrey’s son:

“The music by Wallingford Riegger for Yuriko’s recreation of “Steps in the Street” was originally commissioned by Doris Humphrey for New Dance, which premiered in 1935. Doris Humphrey created the dance and supplied Riegger with the counts. He then composed the music. Riegger was also the composer of the original music for “Steps in the Street,” which premiered in 1936. In the book Yuriko: A Japanese American Dancer (pages 179-180) by Emiko Tokunaga, Yuriko describes how the music for New Dance came to be used for her 1989 reconstruction of “Steps in the Street”:

“After looking for many hours in Martha’s archives and storage, I could not find the original score by Wallingford Riegger, and so I asked Stanley Sussman [then music director of the Graham company] to find suitable music by Riegger that would fit the dance. He found ‘New Music,’ which was commissioned by Doris Humphrey, which was unknown to me, and I was happy to have music I could use. Later on after I left the Company, they found the original music. However, the Company did not use the original score, because everything would have to be restaged. I had to make changes in the beginning entrances/exits by the group which is done in silence, and when the center lady is left on stage…the music began, and then I reconstructed the dance based on the original choreography.”

Pictured: Jennifer DePalo in
Sketches From “Chronicle”, Part III: Prelude to Action. Photo by Costas Cacaroukas, courtesy MGDC