Martha Graham is not a cracker

Despite my public statements to the contrary, I don’t really have much use for terms like “important” when it comes to art.  When someone tells me that an artist or an artwork is important (thus implying that I’m ignorant or uncultured for not caring about her or it), I have to quell the urge to snark: “Says who?  Why?  Who decides what’s important?”

So I feel no shame when I admit that I know Martha Graham was and is important to the world of dance (I can spout off the appropriate reverence when needed), but before tonight’s show, I really didn’t know why.   But I was by gosh not going to miss the performance by her company tonight, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

Graham in her iconic solo Lamentation.
Photo Credit: Barbara Morgan.

I think I get it now, and at the risk of being blasphemous, it’s not because Martha’s choreography is all that pleasant to watch.  Appalachian Spring, considered to be one of her most hopeful works, has ominous overtones that linger long after after the curtain falls. Her movement is interesting, weird, and highly symbolic, but it’s not going to leave you significantly lighter of heart.  It’s not going to leave you, period. 

It also helps to consider the context in which Martha began dancing and choreographing.  It was the early 20th century.  Women barely had the vote.  War was rampant, as was poverty and social injustice.  And from what little dance history I know, dance was about technique and presentation, about the beauty and lightness of a dancer defying gravity on a perfectly pointed toe.

So I can only imagine the knickers of the dance world getting twisted up big time by Martha’s earth-bound, emotional, clomping, clapping, sarcastic, satirical dance.  There were so few leaps and lifts in this show that when they did happen, you filled your lungs with air because you knew there wouldn’t be more for a while.  The dancers were strong, precise and compelling, but this night was about the choreography.

Blasphemy again, but the most interesting works on this program to me were the ones that weren’t choreographed by Martha.  Three young choreographers, back in 2007, created works inspired both by the anniversary of 9/11/01 and Martha’s iconic (eek, there’s another of those words!) work, Lamentation.  These works reached into my gut and messed around, to point where, at the end of the third work, if the lights hadn’t come up and the audience start to talk, I probably would have had a good old fashioned crying jag. Maybe it’s because the memory of 9/11 influences me like World Wars I and II did Martha, or maybe I’m in a particularly sentimental mood; who knows.  But after a heart-wrenching sequence of the entire company performing on stage with no one touching, making eye contact or even acknowledging their shared grief, a couple finally comes together, and I told myself “well, at least they found each other.”  And then, like wax melting on a candle, the woman in the couple sinks to the floor, leaving the man hugging nothing but a memory.  Cue the tears and get this girl a tissue, would you?

Martha sounds like, from what we learned tonight, a fiery, passionate – dare I say bitchy? – woman who was determined to be different.   So what surprised me most about tonight was how familiar the dances seemed.  And that’s how I know Martha Graham was important to modern dance.  Her aesthetic has become part of modern dance, so that when I see a flexed foot or a strange bend of the arm, it doesn’t look odd…it looks normal.   But it wasn’t normal when she did it.  It was revolutionary.

So you go, Martha Graham.  I humbly admit that you were pretty darn important.  And I will hereby and henceforth do my best to make sure that you are not confused with a tasty cracker that goes great with marshmallows and chocolate.

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