A Martha Graham Study Day
This was a wonderful day run to coincide with the one-week season of the Martha Graham Dance Company at London's Barbican Centre in June 1999. It provided a model for how to run such an event, and Professor Chris Bannerman of Middlesex University, previously a dancer and choreographer with London Contemporary Dance Company, is to be congratulated on the manner of his organisation and chairing of the seminar.
Professor Bannerman assembled a formidable team of dancers and choreographers, who then disarmed us all with a flow of memories, insights and anecdotes about Martha Graham and her dancing, choreography, technique and teaching and also about the Company that bears her name and continues the spirit of her work. With one exception, we heard practitioners rather than academics. Thus, we learned about the founder of modern dance, from what Bannerman accurately described as 'primary sources'.
We kicked off in grand style with Jane Dudley, who spent the whole day with us and then attended the evening performance, having come out of hospital the previous day. You can almost see the early job adverts for the Martha Graham Company - 'only the very resilient need apply'. From an early stage, Dudley was keen to take up dance as a career. Her mother did not want her to study with Graham as she felt that all the dancers ended up looking like Graham herself. But Dudley got her way and joined workshops with the company in the 30's and found that Graham had a 'great presence, something very special.' We heard about her early days as a student. The floor work which can take up the majority of a class; the development of the Graham technique with innovative steps from the new dances being added to the classes and the mood-setting words or 'pleadings' that remain an important precursor to many of the exercises. Dudley then told us about the work that Graham carried out with actors. They would read some text, then do some of the Graham exercises, which place the body under great strain. When they read the text again, it would be transformed by the process and to this day, a number of US actors such as Eli Wallach use the technique in their work.
Dudley went on to join the Company and one of the early works that she performed was 'Celebration', a 12-minute piece with 9 of those consisting of 457 jumps. None of these early works were notated and sadly this one has been lost, as Graham declined to recreate it, maintaining that it was not one of her favourites. After a period with the Company, to Graham's fury, Dudley was attracted by the opportunity to join a left-wing artistic group, which turned out to have strong ideals, but weak aesthetics. After a few months, she asked for her job back and Graham accepted quickly, but a period in the sin-bin followed with few parts and those that did come her way consisting of sitting still on stage for long periods. Eventually she was forgiven and given the central role in 'Chronicle', one of the works performed, in part, by the company in the Barbican season. Dudley told us that she had heard the term, doom-eager, used to describe to Graham and that it was appropriate. 'Sorrow was always a powerful source for Martha.'
There was a delicious story (I think from Dudley) about the very early days when Graham was performing exotic dance items in touring vaudeville shows. As she began to receive admiration for her striking dancing, there was a lot of jealousy from some of the showgirls. One day in Chicago, a policeman was given the job of checking that a high moral tone would be preserved in the show. He had the task (it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it) of checking that the showgirls were wearing underpants. As he finished, an outraged girl pointed to Graham and said 'What about her.' The reply was, 'That's OK, she's Art!'
Dudley went on to be one of the key early teachers of the technique in this country, which we heard about later in the morning, and she ended by saying that she was sorry that Graham technique had been eclipsed in recent years and felt that it still had a role in the training of dancers. She told us that she was often appalled at the slack bodies of many current dancers, and that it seemed, 'As if they were dancing in Jello.'
The story then moved to the 50's, when Maurice was a dancer with Ballet Rambert. The Graham Company made their first visit to London and Rambert made all the dancers go to see the visitors. This was partly for the unique experience, but also because no one else in London was going to see them, especially during the latter part of their 3-week season. Morrice was instantly entranced by the radical set of values - the look of the stage, the use of sculptural sets in works such as 'Letter to the World', the astonishing choreography and the wonderful Graham herself.
Eventually, the ballet-trained Morrice persuaded Rambert to let him go to New York and study a wide range of dance with Ailey, Joffrey Ballet, and at the Julliard as well as Graham. It was a heady experience for the young Englishman and as he told us, 'The Graham technique and the body of work changed my life.' It was not all hard work, however, and on one occasion Graham asked him to accompany her to a Kirov opening. After a carefully choreographed grand entrance to the theatre, Graham and Morrice settled down for the performance, with Graham producing two fans to counter the hot New York night. But the sweat was still pouring off Morrice and eventually Graham leaned over and said that he should take off his jacket. He nervously whispered that no one else had and would it be all right? Graham replied, 'Don't worry dear, you're with me. If you do it everyone else will follow.' And they did.
Back in London, it soon became clear that Ballet Rambert was running into difficulties. The central problem being, 'How to run an artistically creative medium-sized ballet company?' The Company was involved in endless tours performing 'Coppelia' and 'Swan Lake' over and over again. Morrice went to Marie Rambert and suggested that a new direction was needed and that a smaller company be established to create new work inspired by the Graham example. Innovative as ever, Rambert seized the opportunity and Morrice was given 3 months to switch the Company from classical ballet to modern. It was an exciting time, with two classes being run and he succeeded in creating a vital, new Ballet Rambert that acted as a pathfinder for contemporary dance in this country.
In conclusion, Morrice emphasised the ability of Graham to harness inner strength and power and the crucial legacy of her technique to the world of dance.
The story then moved back to the 40s and was picked up by Robert Cohan. He was living in New York, had a dull job and was interested in dance, but primarily in the style performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He turned up one day at the Graham School and experienced a spiritual awakening. He was mesmerised by the movement and captured by its power. Cohan can't remember whether he left his job or was thrown out, but he ended up 'hanging around the Studio'. He had the advantage that there was a shortage of men in those days, but soon realised that scarcity value was not enough and that Graham demanded 100% focus.
He remembers that the relationship between Graham and her disciples was formal and that it was as if she existed on a different plain, as an archetypal figure of greater depth, than those around her. She was sure that in an earlier life that she had been an Egyptian. Cohan told us of the crucial link-up between physical movement and emotional reaction in Graham's method. He is sure that he has never encountered anyone who has been able to combine both creativity and methodological structuring ability in the way that Graham could.
She did not lose sight of the importance of commercial realities, however, and the Company survived on one-night stands, trekking back and forth around the country. Graham always tried to persuade the local papers to send their sports correspondents, in the belief that they might have some affinity with the athletic movement vocabulary. What she usually got, however, was the music critic, who hated the 20th Century music, never mind the 'peculiar' steps.
Cohan remembers the first London visit, when the dancers would look out each night to see whether the audience would outnumber the dancers. Apparently it was touch and go on several occasions. The trip was no holiday, as Graham had promised the London theatre a premiere, which wasn't ready. So, each night after the performance, the dancers would change and then return to the stage to rehearse the new work until midnight.
It was also on this tour that an ex-Spitfire pilot, Robin Howard, came to see a performance and was so impressed that he decided that he would like to set up a Graham-based School in London. At a special meeting, he discussed his plans with de Valois and Rambert and they were both enthusiastic and urged him to go ahead. As a result, in the late-60s, Howard put up the money necessary to establish The London Contemporary Dance School - the birthplace of so much of the contemporary dance scene in this country and still one of the leading dance schools in Europe.
Cohan then gave us an outline of the early days at the School, which were exceptionally busy for him. Eventually, he sent out a cry for help to Jane Dudley, who joined him to help with the teaching. Another major landmark was the setting up of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, a beacon for the art form, which burnt brightly into the early 1990s. Cohan explained that despite the importance of the Graham technique for him in a repertory company like LCDT, it was necessary to shift the technique in order to encompass work by other choreographers and to enable dancers to perform with a wider range of companies.
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