Martha Graham: Dance on Film

[12 December 2007]

By Lana Cooper

With a career as both a dancer and choreographer spanning over 70 years, Martha Graham was both an important figure and an innovator of contemporary dance in the latter half of the 20th century.  Not too shabby an accomplishment for a girl once told that at 5’2”, she was too short and at the age of 22, too old to headline as a principal dancer. 

Restoring to crisp, digital black and white tones, Criterion’s Martha Graham: Dance On Film compiles some of Graham’s most pivotal works and rare performances captured for posterity.  The two-disc set’s main attractions are three short films featuring Martha Graham and her dance company, each performance clocking in at roughly half an hour.  While the artistry and rarity of these dance timepieces are must-haves for any fan of the fine arts, it’s the overwhelming amount of bonus features that spill onto two discs and provide a multi-faceted portrait of an artist and her art.

As the highly detailed liner notes that accompany this two-disc set mentions, Graham was wary of having her art preserved on film, feeling as if it would take away from the electricity of a live performance.  It wasn’t until she reached her sixth decade that Graham finally acquiesced, allowing her work, her troupe of dancers, and ultimately herself to transcend beyond solely a live medium and reach a broader audience through film.  The director of all three films at the heart of this set, Peter Glushanok, was able to coax the grande dame of dance into a comfort zone in front of the camera.

It is on the first film of the DVD, 1957’s A Dancer’s World that the audience is personally introduced to Graham. She’s a likeable lady who speaks in eloquent, yet conversational tones with a quiet, yet unparalleled passion for her chosen art form.  Her speech is thoughtful, giving insight into the layers of creating a character: “There comes a moment when she looks at you in the mirror and you realize that she’s looking at you and recognizing herself.  It is through you that her love, her hope, her fear and her terror is to be expressed…And there’s a moment of fear on your own part.  Dread.  A sense of hazard.  Feeling that perhaps you haven’t done quite enough work.  Perhaps you should go back to the studio and work again.  Because that which you do not want to do is to fail in either clarity or in passion.”

A Dancer’s World is a wise choice to start the collection off with, giving viewers even more of an appreciation for the creative process and witnessing each of the dancers of the school Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance perform in the studio.  There are no elaborate costumes or layers of theatrical makeup, just simple leotards as the dancers use their bodies as instruments to succinctly convey emotion and aspects of the human condition without words.  The focus is strictly on dance. 

Graham narrates as her students exhibit feats of flexibility and strength, falling almost effortlessly into position, demonstrating a controlled balance of holding difficult postures, and fully utilizing and feeling each beat of the music, finding motion even in the pauses of the melody.  Nevertheless, each dancer freely showcases his or own unique style, even when dancing as a unit.  Whereas ballet consists of a corps of background dancers, each with Rockette-like uniformity, no one dancer’s leg is lifted higher than the other.  There are no slight variations of form—or even poses of the arm, Graham’s method allows for individuality while still espousing a philosophy of “freedom through discipline” of the self.

While contemporary dance finds a heavy basis in classical ballet, it is less rigid and less angular in posture. Graham’s style is built heavily around contractions as a way to ease into postures, making them seem even more fluid.  This influential aspect of her style made her a much sought-after figure even by Hollywood actors of the ‘50s and ‘60s, using movement to enhance the spoken word portion of their performances and looking to Graham to train them how to convey the character through their bodies.

With A Dancer’s World laying the groundwork for the motivation behind Graham and her company, in both performance pieces, Night Journey and Appalachian Spring, once again, the tandem of Graham’s creativity and choreography with Glushanok’s photography work to aim the spotlight on the dance.  Each and every element conspires to ensure this focus.  The costumes are simple, yet character-appropriate.  The sparse, mini-monolithic sets by sculptor Isamu Noguchi (who was responsible for the set design on countless Graham productions) provide a stark, yet fitting backdrop for the drama.  Even the way the story itself is told conveys this sentiment.  In both pieces, completely different in subject matter in nearly every single way otherwise, the stories are not told in chronological order, rather through a rough outline that skips between memory and current waves of emotion as felt by the character to move the dance and the action forward.

In Night Journey, a retelling of the Oedipus myth from the point of view of Oedipus’s disgraced mother/wife, Oedipus and Jocasta.  Graham, cutting an elegant figure, well into her 60s in this film, portrays Jocasta at the moment of her death. Her sharp movements are indicative of her character’s extreme emotional pain, in the throes of madness due to her unwitting indiscretion and the loneliness of the underworld.  Her binding costume initially impedes her movement, nevertheless Graham is a magnetic presence onstage.  The only drawback to her performance is seeing how strong of a dancer she was at age 60 and imagining what she was like in her prime, if only she caved and captured those performances on film.

She is complimented nicely by longtime company dancer Bertram Ross as Oedipus, appearing very regal with crisp extensions of his arms and legs.  His distinctly masculine style serves as a contrast to Graham’s characterization of Jocasta. Seduction, intercourse and incest are portrayed in a way that is not explicit, but rather quite exquisite, with the duo moving and contracting between postures that simultaneously convey rocking a child and holding a lover, one in the same in this case.

The piece’s other male performer, Paul Taylor as the blind prophet Tiresias, who all but steals the show with his performance.  An ominous, yet somewhat sympathetic figure, Taylor makes great use of his prop of choice, Tiresias’s walking staff, wielding it like a weapon, using it as a pogo stick, or as a means to thump the stage, signifying changes in direction.  He contrasts the heavy thumps with the fluid, swirling, compass turns accentuated with movement of his long cape-styled costume. 

An interesting addition to Night Journey‘s stylistic take on the Greek tragedy is the all-female chorus, lead by principal dancer Helen McGehee.  A departure from the traditionally all-male chorus featured in Greek tragedy, the silent, dancing women figure prominently into this piece, assisting to weave a tale comprised of shadows of the past and portents of things to come. 

Although completely different in subject matter, the third performance piece featured in this set, Appalachian Spring, bears a few common threads to Night Journey: fear of the unknown.  Whereas Night Journey is a somber affair, Appalachian Spring features a rousing Aaron Copeland-penned score and moments of light humor throughout. Noguchi’s set design is present once again and works well with the prairie landscape, featuring just a lone corral fence and what looks to be a rustic frame that doubles as the frontier couple’s home and a community place of worship.

Central to the piece’s theme, Graham and Stuart Hodes are the newlywed husband and wife who have embarked on not just a new journey together as a married couple, but to uncharted territory on the American frontier.  A circling chorus of pioneer settler women, all rustling skirts and joyful poses, execute Graham’s choreography, this time contemporary dance meets hoedown with Copeland’s music fitting their movements perfectly.  While Graham is delicate and willowy in her performance, by contrast, Hodes’ Husband commands attention with a serious of bold, rigid postures followed by elegant acrobatics that give way to a tender sweetness in his interaction with the Wife character.  Among the set’s bonus features, footage from the Graham School’s 1944 production of Appalachian Spring serves as visual proof that the same piece need not be performed the exact same way.  Graham’s portrayal of the female lead morphed from that of a panicked bride fearing a new frontier to a woman more subdued in her worry—a calm, accepting wife.

Using the archival footage from the disc’s extras, another contrast is shown between the original dancer in the role of the Pioneer Woman, May O’Donnell’s austere interpretation compared to the serene, almost ethereal portrayal by the 1961 version’s Matt Turney.  Turney, in the lead female role of the chorus of settler women, shows off beautiful extension and effortless grace. 

Once again, Ross dances a principal role as the “Preacher”, a revivalist among the settler community.  Ross’ signature style is marked yet again by crisp movements, and a playful, comedic quality to his dancing.  Turning on a dime, literally and figuratively, his character takes a dark turn with an interpretive dance version of a hellfire and brimstone sermon.

In addition to A Dancer’s World, Night Journey, and Appalachian Spring, Criterion rounds out the collection with a hours of extras ranging from the full-length PBS documentary, Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed, interviews with dancers and members of the company, and even interviews with noted composer Aaron Copeland.  Additional features include a 1975 demonstration narrated by Graham herself, detailing her teaching methods and techniques of her students, and rare silent footage of the company’s 1954 tour of Europe.

Each of the three films showcased on this collection, as well as the overwhelming amount of bonus features, serves to underscore Martha Graham’s importance as a choreographer, dancer, and creative force.  As some of the additional extra features on this two-disc set indicate, Graham was a perfectionist possessed of an “artistic temperament”, at times.  However, each performance piece showcases that she granted her dancers enough artistic autonomy to create and re-create characters to showcase their own considerable skills.  Each performance creating a lasting impression and ultimate reflection on one another’s creativity.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/martha-graham-dance-on-film/