One day in the late 1920s, in a crowded studio at the Neighborhood Playhouse on New York’s Lower East Side, Irene Lewisohn asked an assembled group of young performers to improvise on the theme of the Israelites at the Wailing Wall. She was rewarded with an unprecedented display of histrionics – weeping, moaning, a general tearing of hair and beating of breasts.
But in the midst of this pandemonium (as dancer Sophie Maslow later recalled), one woman stood still and alone, her face contorted, her body paralyzed with grief. That still figure, decisive and commanding, was the young Martha Graham.The Playhouse’s acting students learned a lesson from Graham that day about economy of movement that they never forgot. But that lesson was just one of many that Graham bequeathed to American actors.
Over her long career, she taught dozens of nondancers, first at the Playhouse and later at her own studio, among them Gregory Peck, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Tony Randall, Elli Wallach, Joanne Woodward, Ingrid Bergman, Woody Allen and Bette Davis. (Later Graham claimed that one look at Davis’s feet convinced her that the actress was “destined for stardom.”)Graham’s student actors were at first skeptical of her torturous contractions and falls.
Randall and Woodward referred to her classes as “gym.” But today actors are among the most vocal of her praise-singers: Marian Seldes has said, “I learned everything I know from Graham”; Eli Wallach, “In every performance of mine …
there is a Martha Graham movement.”You might say Graham was a Method dancer, in that the basis of her technique and her choreography was authentic emotion. Take the “contraction,” the tightening of the abdomen that forms the cornerstone of Graham’s technique. To her, it was not simply a muscular action, it was a sob – a burst of grief or ecstasy – extrapolized throughout the entire torso.
“Movement never lies,” she said and wrote repeatedly. “Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart.”Graham’s faith in the truth of action implies a mistrust of other forms of expression, particularly words. And indeed her own recounting of her monumental career, Blood Memory, seems laced with half-truths and omissions.
Her genius had a dark sideGraham’s chronicle begins conventionally enough with her birth in 1894 in Allegheny, Penn. Nothing in her strict Presbyterian upbringing pointed to a life on the stage, but when her family moved to Santa Barbara in 1909, she fell under the spell of the expressive dancer Ruth St. Denis. Graham joined Denishawn (the company St.
Denis founded with her husband Ted Shawn) in 1916. At age 22 she was considered somewhat old to begin a dancing career, but her late start was ultimately countered by her longevity: She danced until the age of 74, choreographed until 96.The tales Graham tells from these early days of performing “Miss Ruth’s” Orientalesque fantasies are crisply entertaining, filled with gossip about St. Denis, Shawn, and fellow dancers Doris Humphrey and Louise Brooks.
Her reminiscences delight if not surprise – many have been told elsewhere and are repeated here like familiar fables.As her account progresses, however – through the founding of her first company, her choreographic awakening, her doomed marriage to Erick Hawkins, and her final years as a super-celebrity – Graham’s self-conscious mythmaking becomes disturbing. The darker side of her genius is largely edited out. Her masochistic tendencies are only alluded to; the extent of her alcoholism is never fully acknowledged; and the purging of her company in the early ’70s – a shattering blow to some of her most devoted dancers and staff members – is glossed over in the single phrase, “I .
.. reorganized my company.”Tete-a-tetes with the starsToward the end of her memoir, Graham becomes absorbed with settling debts, flattering patrons and dropping names.
There is less and less written about her work, more and more about tete-a-tetes with the rich and famous: Bethsabee de Rothschild, Betty Ford, Lila Acheson Wallace, Diana Vreeland, Liza Minnelli, Madonna, Halston – even the Pope. The beautiful photographs of Graham in performance at the start of the book give way to paparazzi snapshots of her hobnobbing with politicians, fashion designers and stars of the ballet – an art form she once despised.