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Martha Graham Dance Company

Lilith, the Pioneering Woman, the Woman in White ...

Examples of 'Knowing Figures' in Martha Graham's Dances

by Rosella Simonari

September 2003

Lilith is dressed in a fresh and pungent yellow in "Embattled Garden" (1958). Her skirt resembles that of a flamenco dancer and one of her recurrent steps, her foot beating backwards onto the floor, confirms the flamenco taste of her movements. She represents, together with the Stranger,   an intruder into the domestic relationship between Adam and Eve. She is a knowing creature; she is wise and wild.

Characters like Lilith are recurrent in Graham's creative universe. A genealogy could be traced from the sacred Virgin in "Primitive Mysteries" (1931) to the parodic and imponent image of the tall and skirted woman in "Maple Leaf Rag" (1991) whose repeated ample skirt turnings downstage present mainly her back to the audience. Graham often went to New Mexico to find inspiration from the pueblo people and their traditions. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychoanalyst, has written a now worldwide famous book of stories and legends from different parts of the world circling around the psyche of what she calls the Wild Woman. The book is called "Women Who Run with the Wolves" (1994), and one of the aspects of the Wild Woman is that of La Que Sabe - The One Who Knows -- who seems to embody Graham's 'knowing figures'.

"In the Southwest the archetype of the old woman can also be apprehended as old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows" says Pinkola Estés. "La Que Sabe had created women from a wrinkle on the sole of her divine foot: This is why women are knowing creatures". Though we do not know whether Graham knew about this mythological figure, we cannot deny, that in her dances the image of a knowing woman does recur. For example in "Appalachian Spring" (1944) the Pioneering Woman embodies this knowing quality, conforting and guiding the Bride in her path to knowledge and life as a married woman. Her movements are secure. They reveal self-awareness and authority.

In "Diversion of Angels" (1948) the Woman in White represents 'mature love' and her measured and balanced steps inscribe her in this genealogy. In her spiralling turnings as well as in her pas de deux, she keeps a harmonic stance and usually a central position on stage.

In the New York Season 2003 last January, the first one after a long period of absence due to an intricate legal question, the Martha Graham Dance Company has re/presented some of these powerful knowing figures in "Embattled Garden" , " Appalachian Spring" , "Diversion of Angels", "Sketches form Chronicle" …. They have been interpreted by an towering Katherine Crockett, an intense Elizabeth Auclair and a powerful Fang Yi Sheu among others. The line taken by the co-directors of the Company, Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, seems to be that of an athletic drive for an updated, almost post-modern interpretation of Graham's dance world, where bodies do matter more in terms of physical capabilities than of dramatic poses. The Company is now coming to London and Europe. At Sadler's Wells some of these wisdom figures will appear again in classics such as "Appalachian Spring" and "Diversion of Angels". The Graham legacy springing from their authoritative sense of space will be presented yet another time for the audience to drink a bit of that little and big wrinkle from the Wild Woman's divine foot!

 

Edited by Jeff.

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