Dancing for laughs: Martha Graham and comedy

-- Impersonations of Martha Graham, says Henrietta Bannerman, remind us of the comic aspects of Graham and her work.

by Henrietta Bannerman


Richard Move's impersonation of Martha Graham in Martha@Dance Umbrella, seen at the end of 1999 at the Brick Lane Music Hall in London, reveals an essential truth. If you invest yourself with an unassailable god-like status, as Graham did, you leave yourself open to mockery. Be it ever so gentle and tongue-in≠cheek as Move's show is -- there is still the danger that you will be ridiculed. Graham constructed herself as a goddess of modem dance and of culture, even to the extent that she had to be reminded by her close friend, the Jungian analyst Frances Wickes, 'Martha, you are not a goddess. You are human. You are not immortal'. (1) But the aura and atmosphere of serious art that Graham created around herself and her dancers was palpable -- she was, on stage and in private life, the High Priestess of modern dance and, throughout the years, her sense of high art has provided a rich field for parody and caricature. Entertainers from Fanny Brice in the 1930s to Move in the 1990s have taken off Martha Graham.

Yet there is another truth in there too. Graham's impersonators, including Charles Weidman in the 1940s, Danny Kaye in the 1950s and British music hall comedian Cyril Richard (Graham's favourite), (2) responded to a comic sense that is intrinsic in Graham and her dances. Undeniably Graham took herself seriously, she could not have built an entire technique or achieved her place in modern dance history if she had not. Louis Horst's 'Mirthless Martha' suffered earth shattering and ferocious bouts of temper and 'black Irish moods'. (3) But she had a funny side too. Agnes de Mille recalls that Graham could be 'impudent, sly, merry, her wicked humour flickering-dusting'. (4) That Graham had a sense of humour about herself as a performer is revealed in an incident related in her autobiography Blood Memory. When she had to be replaced at short notice as Jocasta in Night Journey (1947), she was asked, 'Martha did you die by the bed?' Graham, who was renowned for insisting that her place was centre stage, replied, 'Die upstage? Never!' (5)

Even though Graham is known best for her canon of sombre, stark and psychological dances, she did make several works throughout her career that are light in tone and others that are funny. The comic dances in Graham's repertory include Acrobats of God (1960) which jokingly portrays the trials and tribulations of the dancer's way of life and Maple Leaf Rag (1990), the last complete dance that Graham created.

The development of Graham's comic and satiric dances started early in her career, at a time when she was creating and constantly changing her vocabulary. In Four Sincerities of 1929, for example, she first wore shores -- a pair of 'giddy high-heeled slippers' to help convey the vain and silly aspects of the personality she portrayed. (6)

Graham's movement system at this time was designed primarily to express suffering, despair or protest and featured the 'taut strong torso with its deep contractions and spasmodic breath releases'. (7) Twists in the upper body, walks that carried the dancer dramatically and purposefully through space, hips and elbows thrust in counterpoint to one another, or to the knee, typified Graham's austere vocabulary. Her dances communicated a sense of rebellion and she questioned traditions associated with dance as well as those allied to political or social issues. Going against the grain, she remarked that 'ugliness may actually be beautiful if it cries out with the voice of power'. (8) But, writes dance historian Jack Anderson, the voice of power was too strident for one of Graham's dear friends who reacted to these early dances with the exclamation, 'It's dreadful Martha, how long do you expect to keep this up?' Graham replied, 'As long as I have an audience.' (9)

Another of Graham's witty, humorous works was a suite of solo dances, called Dance Songs included one subtitled Satyric Festival Song, created in 1932. In a sheath dress of broad black and green bands, the dancer scuttles and skitters around the stage stopping now and then in an exaggerated pose. The thrust of a hip or knee is comically accentuated by the stretchy material of the costume which both confines and accentuates the dancer's movements. She throws mischievous challenging looks at the audience and scampers this way and that. Arms held tightly at the side of a stiffly held torso, she teeters forwards, suddenly changes her mind and moves just as fast backwards.

Stodelle who saw Graham's performances of Satyric Festival Song recounts that when she performed 'impish capers and off-balance nms' or tossed her hair about with jerky motions of her head, the audience responded with 'gales of laughter'. (10)

In 1932 Graham would not have used much facial gesture in her performance. Critic and historian Walter Terry (11) tells us that the solo Frontier (1935) was one of the first dances in which Graham's face lost its impassivity and expressed emotion. The contortions and gyrations of her body against a deadpan face in Satyric Festival Song would have added an ironic effect to the solo. Dancers today allow their facial expression to reflect the comic antics of the body but over the years Graham probably changed her mind about the way she wanted to see the solo performed. The Japanese-American dancer Yuriko remarked that Graham flowed with the time, she never resisted change. When she saw new bodies coming into the studio, she changed the technique. (12)

Satyric Festival Song was an early indication that Graham could make people laugh. In the six-minute solo Frontier of 1935, she moved effortlessly between sobriety and humour. A precursor of Appalachian Spring (1944), Frontier is a joyous dance with a sense of vibrancy and frolic. The young pioneer woman is thrilled by the challenge of the land and her ownership of it and there is comedy in the changes between her expression of awe-struck wonder and the carefree way in which she kicks up her heels, leaping forwards and backwards in front of the fence that represents her homestead.

If the solos Satyric Festival Song and Frontier hinted at wit and humour, then the company work Every Soul is a Circus of 1939 is clear evidence that Graham could make an entire comic dance and that she herself was able to sustain a comic role.

By 1939, Graham had considerably expanded her theatrical approach and resources. In 1938, the ballet-trained Erick Hawkins joined the erstwhile all-female group and in American Document of 1938 Graham had begun to explore the rich choreographic field of human relationships. The partnership extended beyond dance when Hawkins became Graham's lover and Every Song is a Circus reveals something of their real life feelings for one another. In this Graham 'staged a circus of her own with tricks and props a-plenty'. (13) As the Empress of the Arena, Graham was a 'dizzy woman, flirting and playing parts'. (14) She was saved from herself by the dominating and pompous Ringmaster. Even so, 'she indulged in flirtations of the frothiest kind with an Acrobat, whose aerial antics swept her off her feet', (15) But, in amongst the fun and frolic was a tragic note. Graham portrayed the Empress as a woman aware of the banality of her life and with a sense that she was lost and alone. Graham's comic art arose from her special ability to veer between the humorous and the tragic, to be laughing, joking and flirting one moment and then to collapse in despair the next; it was this switch in emotional states that made her such a consummate comedienne.

An extract from Every Soul is a Circus (16) that I was able to see in New York revealed Graham as a true coquette. Wearing a glamorous white chiffon dress, she reclines flirtatiously on a sofa or executes her signature high split kick. The leg slicing up sideways past the ear in the context of the dance communicates playfulness and high spirits.

Terry compared Graham's brand of humour in Every Soul is a Circus to performances by the comedy actress Beatrice Lillie. (17) Lillie won an intemational reputation for her work in revues, television and films and of particular note to British audiences was her role as Mame during the late 1950s in the play Auntie Mame. Like Graham, Bea Lillie was small, dark-haired and elegant and she was well-known for her sophisticated, ironic wit. Helpern suggests that Graham's skill as a comedienne resulted from her sense of timing, as well as her use of dynamics. It is, remarks Helpern, the 'pauses between gestures and glances, the small sudden movements' that were marked aspects of Graham's interpretation of the Empress in Every Soul is a Circus. (18)

Every Soul is a Circus has retained its sense of comedy for later audiences. The critic Camille Hardy described a 1980s revival of the dance as 'wickedly funny and self-mocking'. (19) In this and in Punch and Judy (1941), Graham's sense of comedy was, said one critic of the time, almost Chaplinesque. (20) Terry recounts that Punch and Judy dealt with 'the squabble and scuffle of married life'. He remarks that Graham handled the theme with 'devastating truthfulness and roaring humour' and praises her performance of a wife who is driven into a 'romantic dreamworld' by 'her irritating husband'. This escape into flights of fancy does not stop her indulging, however, 'in multiple and hilarious flirtings with a soldier, a scout and a highwayman'. She is, says Terry, getting her own back on her husband for 'his amorous digression with one called Pretty Polly'. (21)

In 1944, Graham made what is considered to be one of her greatest works. Appalachian Spring concerns a newly married Quaker couple at the turn of the century who are settling into their homestead and it expresses an entire range of human emotions. Who cannot fail to smile at the zealous behaviour of the Revivalist preacher? Dressed in a tight-fitting frock coat, his face shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat, he is both comic and sinister. Here is a pompous man of religion who Graham described as 'ninety-nine percent sex and one percent religioní. (22) Throwing himself to his knees and in expansive and emphatic arm geshues, he preaches fervently about life, love and God whilst his four female followers scamper skittishly around him. Somehow the devout sense of religious ecstasy and evangelical worship becomes transformed into an interplay that suggests sexual attraction as much as it demonstrates religious zeal.

In Appalachian Spring, Graham draws humour from the character of the Preacher when, for example, crouching low to the ground and with his torso inclining backwards, he minces forwards supported by his young acolytes. The Preacher's zigzag body design makes a striking and comic counterpoint to the four young women shuffling along at either side of him. Later in the work, about to preach his fire and brimstone sermon to the newlyweds, the Preacher places his broad-brimmed hat atop the four girls' upstretched hands. What man of God ever had such a willing human hatstand?

The role of the Bride in Appalachian Spring has its comic touches too, especially when, in her first solo, she flirtatiously marches forwards fluttering her hands at the shoulders as if showing the audience her happiness and elation.

As a performer, Graham possessed an innate response to the mood of an audience. If she sensed her public were attuned to the note of irony in her work, she would play her comic characters relatively straight. On the other hand, if she felt that the audience needed a different approach, she could be very spontaneous and camp the whole thing up. In her role as the choreographer in Acrobats of God, for example, Graham makes jokes about her personal artistic struggles. She lets the audience in on the agonies of trying to find a suitable movement for a dance. (23) She tries her arms first one way and, pausing to wander around the stage as though looking for inspiration, she then tries them another way, only to return again to experiment with an altogether different set of poses. Dressed in a mauve kaftan, the distraught choreographer remonstrates with the authoritarian rehearsal director. Again she brings a touch of ironic humour to her actions. One of the beleaguered dancers is ensnared in the rehearsal director's whip. Balanced on one hand and foot, the other leg lifted high off the ground with the rope coiled round it, the dancer is sorely tried to keep his pose. Graham, ever the sympathetic choreographer, comes to his aid and removes the constraining rope but, she cannot resist showing her true colours by giving that lazy dancer's leg a tweak and yanking it up even higher before he is free to move. (24)

Graham made several other light-hearted dances throughout her career. There is, for example, the lyrical Oversight of Angels of 1948 and the more cornic Gospel of Eve (1950). This dance shows 'a woman trying on improbable hats, vainly trying to preserve outward appearances'. (25)

In 1978 Graham created her version of Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat which, although not in the same league as her earlier comedies, nevertheless provided some witty choreography, especially for the role of the Pussycat.

Very late in her career, Graham set a dance based on the idea of Scott Joplin piano rags. Her starting point was the Maple Leaf Rag, the tune that she asked Louis Horst to play whenever she sank into one of her black Irish depressions. Maple Leaf Rag is both light≠hearted and ironic because it parodies dramatic movements such as the dart. (26) Mentioned in Graham's Notebooks (1973), the dart is most often seen in serious works like Sketches from Chronicle (1936) or Errand into the Maze (1947). In one of her solos, Ariadne performs this movement as she strides out with the heel thrust forwards and the leg raised low to the back, foot flexed. An angled arm, with contracted hand, frames the head and the whole upper body is twisted against the forward surging legs.

The dart movement is a powerful body design suggesting anguish and inner turmoil. Viewed in the context of the light-hearted Maple Leaf Rag, it is an ironic reference to the dark side of Graham's personality and choreography. There are other more obviously funny moments in this work, too, particularly when the dancers flirt with each other while balancing precariously on the wooden plank or joggling board which is used by courting couples in the American South.

As the High Priestess of modern dance, Graham created a repertory of serious dramatic dances that mine deep into human psychology and emotions, but to overlook her capacity for humour and satire would be to miss a vital part of her searching exploration of human behaviour. Graham's imitators and impersonators highlight her particular brand of high-art modern dance, but they serve too as an illumination of Graham's other -- her sense of fun and vitality and her ability to laugh at the world and at herself.

Henrietta Bannerman, lecturer supervisor at Laban Centre London, studied Graham technique in New York in 1964 with members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and later at the London School of Contemporary Dance under Robert Cohan. In 1998 she gained a PhD for her thesis on movement and meaning in the works of Martha Graham and has since given papers at the New Scholars Conference at Middlesex University and at the Martha Graham Study Day at the Barbican Centre.

1 De Mille, Agnes. Martha. The Life and Work of Martha Graham. A Biography. London : Hutchinson, 1992; 232.

2 Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. Martha Graham. An Autobiography. New York : Simon and Schuster, 1991.

3 Graham, 1991: 274.

4 De Mille, 1992: 14.

5 Graham, 1991: 216-218.

6 Lloyd, Margaret. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York : Knopf, 1949: 51.

7 Ernestine Stodelle cited in Gardner, Howard. 'Martha Graham: discovering the dance of America ', Ballet Review, 22:1, Spring, 1994: 77.

8 Martha Graham cited in Armitage, Merle. Martha Graham. New York : Dance Horizons, 1966: 4.

9 Anderson, Jack. Ballet and Modern Dance. Princeton : Dance Horizons, 1992: 77.

10 Stodelle, Ernestine. Deep Song - The Dance Story of Martha Graham. New York : Schirmer Books, 1984: 84.

11 Walter, Terry in OM Snyder, Theatre as a Verb: The Theatre of Martha Graham 1923 - 1958, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Illinois, Ann Arbor Michigan, University Microfilms International, 1984: 81.

12 Yuriko cited in Joseph Mazo, 'Martha remembered', Dance Magazine, 19, July, 1991: 43.


13 Stodelle, 1984: 107.

14 McDonagh, Don. Martha Graham-A Biography. London : David and Charles, 1974: 142.

15 Stodelle, 1984: 108.

16 Every Soul is a Circus (excerptl. Barzel, Ann. Chicago: Civic Center, 1939.

17 McDonagh, 1974: 143.

18 Helpern, Alice J. 'Martha Graham: the technique of Martha Graham', Studies ;n Dance History, 2 no.2, Spring/Summer, 1991: 17.

19 Hardy, Camille. 'Martha Graham Dance Company, City Center, May 25 - June 15', Dance Magazine, LX, no. 9, September, 1986: 22.

20 Anon cited in McDonagh, 1974: 155.

21 De Mille, 1992: 245-246.

22 De Mille, 1992: 261.

23 These arm movements parody those that were created from Graham's role as Clytemnestra in Clytemnestra (1958). There are other idiosyncratic arm movements in Graham's role in Acrobats which refer to her role as Phaedra (1964). Personal communication with Mr Ron Protas, 1999.

24 Acrobats of God (excerpt) in Lasseur, Dominique. The Dancer Revealed, New York : WNET Cameras Continentales, La SepvArte, 1994.

25 McDonagh, 1974: 142.

26 Graham, Martha. The Notebooks of Martha Graham. New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

This feature previously appeared in the Dance Theatre Journal.

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