How modern is modernism?

The Relevance of Reconstruction. An Essay by André Lepecki about the Martha Graham Retrospective

Ballettanz 1 Aug 1996English

item doc

The problem is not uncommon. It is the problem of the performing arts in general, and of dance in particular: how to revive a performance that is no more? How to bring back that which we think once was? Such is the problem of the choreographer and her dancers, the task they must work on daily in the studio: to collectively remember which is another way to say to rehearse.

The dance collective must revisit the past in order to revive the dance from an ungraspable memory into their skillful bodies. The core of choreography's labor is the revisiting, and its hope is that the past can indeed be once more brought back to life in every performance, in this sense, choreography maintains a close relationship to history, and the choreographer acts as a kind of historian, organizing sense and shape out of scattered muscular and imaginary memories. But what happens once the choreographer is no more, when her disciplined eye, her intuitive command that decides which movement quality is the right one, which lacks content, can no longer be heard?

Here, we move from revival to dance reconstruction, and deeper into historiography proper, since such is the problem of dance history, and of dance reconstruction: to know how to keep the dances alive once their creator is no longer there to participate in rehearsals.

There are, of course, several mnemonic methods to keep the shape of dances alive. Throughout western dance history, numerous forms of dance notation, of choreologies, were developed in order to counter the ephemeral life of the dancer. Either systematized or highly individualized, these dance notations are a helpful instrument for the dance historian to revisit the shapes of dances that are no more and to re-choreograph them. The problem and the critique that these reconstructions usually disappoint has to do with the choreographic fact that a dance piece is much more than a succession of steps within time. Even if the correct shape is there, at the right moment, there's always something else lacking: that something which makes the difference between a good choreography and a master-piece performance.

The 'Ideological' Problem

There is more in dance than the eye can catch. And even if specific body techniques, specific movement subtleties, specific intentions might not escape the dance notation, there is always a subtle element, a spectral mark, a ghostly intention that eludes description, that introduces the realm of transcendence - this is the spirit under which perfect movements are created. This spectral barrier, that one may call, following cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, ideological (1) becomes the final mystery and challenge for the dance historian to transpose in order to arrive at the liveliness of dance.

Thus, the work of reconstruction emerges as much more complex than just following the motion noted, requiring a broader approach to the epoch in question, and a cross-reference investigation with several other disciplines that go beyond the boundaries of dance history and choreology. The dance reconstructor will have to look at the larger cultural context that informed the making of a specific dance piece in order to supplement the lack of a physical memory of such dances. It is here then, that the role of a privileged witness becomes decisive. If the dance to be revived is not so far away from us we could hope to find people who actually saw, or better, danced those dances. The presence of such witnesses should be enough for the success of the reconstruction: they were there, they saw and experienced with their bodies the ungraspable quality of movement and intention of the dance. But sometimes, even this 'being there' is not enough.

Martha Graham Today

And with this sense of 'being there' that is still somehow lacking, and after this long preface, we finally arrive at the problem of seeing (and of writing about) the work of Martha Graham when this work is performed live today. For to see the work of Martha Graham today, one has to take into consideration precisely such choreographic and historical problems, even when the pieces are danced by the Martha Graham Dance Company. Because even if it is a fact that the passing of time and the effects of history on the Company's repertoire are countered by the means of presence (since the Company preserves Grahams's legacy by the means of a group of dancers, teachers and rehearsal directors that worked closely with Graham herself); and even if it is a fact that there is a very precise technique (Graham's technique) that trains and shapes the bodies of the company's dancers; and finally, even if it is a fact that there are several film documentations of the original material - it is nevertheless also a fact that the works we see touring today are reconstructions (mostly of Graham's masterpieces from the 1940s and the 1950s), and therefore are subject to critical and performance misunderstandings.

Seeing Martha Graham must start with taking into consideration that her choreographic career spanned a period of sixty-five years. Given the century we are in, these sixty-five years of work witnessed, to say the least, a lot ... both artistically and politically, which means that we are not talking about a body of work that can be reduced to an 'essence', (despite the fact that it usually is reduced to an artificial'Grahamness' unfortunately not only by dance critics but also by the dancers themselves)

What I find extremely important about Graham is that she emerges as a choreographer in a highly politicized moment of the American stage. A student and dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, her first concert piece 'Flute of Krishna' (1926) is still highly influenced by her teacher's orientalism. But just after the Wall Street Crash, and at the beginning of the Great Depression, Martha Graham startled the dance world with her extraordinary solo 'Lamentation' (1930). Dance critic Marcia Siegel writes about this solo: "perhaps no dance up to 1930 (...) so thoroughly destroyed the conventional image of the dancer as did 'Lamentation'." (Siege11985: 38). Siegel argues that this radical disruption of the image of the dancer derives from the fact that for the first time the dancer is choreographed "sitting down", therefore subverting the Western dance canon and its deeply embedded longing for an ideal of dance as a flying away and of the female dancer as an ethereal figure. Graham's formal revolution in 'Lamentation' is certainly important; it opens up the way that will allow, for instance, the early formal experiments of de Keersmaeker (l'm thinking here of Rosas danst Rosas). Curiously, just as Graham did, de Keersmaeker startled the dance world as a choreographer of women sitting down.

My link between the early Graham and the early de Keersmaeker may be surprising and forced for many (even though l'm not attempting here a teleological or genealogical connection between the two; just an analogy). Isn't Graham the choreographer of 'expression' of 'excessive emotion' par excellence, and isn't 'Rosas danst Rosas' a piece of an almost too cold and distant formalism? This question is a pertinent one, for with its misreading of Graham, (and of de Keersmaeker, but we'll have to leave the Belgian choreographer to a different article), we enter info what is much more radical in Graham's work in the 1930s than just the formal disruption of the canonical rules of dance.

One of the most frequenty head disclaimers about Graham's work is the one attaching to her choreography an excessive emotional expressionism. For most of today's dance master-narratives, Graham is the choreographer of excessive emotions, therefore forever historically 'behind' her pupil and dissident, the 'emotionless' Merce Cunningham. According to such master-narratives, Cunningham would 'correct' Graham's emotionalism, and become the first to truly choreograph a perfect, emotionless 'abstractionism'. The problem with such master-narratives of dance 'evolution' is that they appear to be too teleological to be historically accurate: once we revisit them with more care, they appear to duplicate the project of modernism itself, a project that believes and relies on the ideology of the 'new' and the hope of historical progress.

Coldness and Abstraction

In his recent book Dancing Modernism/ Performing Politics, dance historian Mark Franko returns to Martha Graham, and particularly to her earlier work, precisely by means of a critique of this teleological (and modernist) master-narrative. (Franko also cogently critiques in his book other master-narratives of modern dance, from Duncan to Douglas Dunn). Franko revisits Graham by contextualizing her work within the political and aesthetic debates taking place in New York in the 1930s. Franko locates Graham in the middle of a political and critical debate between left-wing intellectuals and more conservative reviewers who tried to claim her work for their own agendas. It is in this debate that Graham's 'emotivism' becomes an ambiguous site for the choreographer herself. Precisely with 'Lamentation', some left- wing reviewers criticized Graham for her coldness and abstraction: "when millions are compelled to suffer crushing miseries [...] she can find in the lamentation idea nothing beyond a stylized, rhythmical decoration devoid of communicative emotion!" (cited in Franko 1995: 47).

Hence, through a historical revisiting not of the dance itself, but of the critical responses to the dance, we arrive at a surprising moment. She who became known as the "choreographer of emotions" par excellence was critiqued by her contemporaries in the 1930s precisely for the lack of emotivism in her dances. This moment is extremely important for us to understand and to see Graham today. For it tells us a lof about how dances are made and how choreographers are categorized and how this categorization becomes a sort of semiotic and sensorial trap both for the viewer and for the dancers who will later on perfom them.

A Most Graceful Warrior

What was the 'quality of movement' of Martha Graham and her company in the 1930s and early 1940s? Recently, some lost footage of Graham's work in the 1930s was discovered and restored. The film is a silent clip of Graham's exercises: a dancer, in an open air space, stands on a cement floor, her body powerfully muscular. As I watch the film in a classroom at New York University, I hear the silence of the film replaced by the surprised comments of the dancers among the audience: cries of pain and of amazement, underlying the extraordinarily powerful gestures flickering across the screen. I see that throughout the exercises the female dancer keeps her fists clenched. A most graceful warrior.

The image of this dancer has little to do with what we find in today's Martha Graham Company. Marcia Siegel, in the same quoted earlier, writes the following footnote regarding 'Lamentation': "Graham revived the dance in 1975 for two of her company members, Janet Eilber and Peggy Lyman. Being contemporary dances, trained in ballet and the softer, more peripheral Graham style of today, and also being tall, lyrical women, their dynamics were quite different from what we see in Graham herself, doing the dance in two films made in the 1930s." (Siege11985: 38).

Thus we have the choreographer, alive, reviving the dance, bringing it back (frorn where, where is the space of the dance while it rests between performances?) to "contemporary dancers", bringing it back to two "lyrical women", trained in a softer version of Graham's technique. Bringing back the dance but yet failing to match this revived dance with the strength of the original. This failure is where we can clearly see that no matter how wonderfully trained we may be as dancers, no matter how accurate may be out mnemonic supplements (notes, films, photos, the body itself), the quality of the dance lies in a careful balance between shape and intention, form and ideology. There is something invisible in the dance that nevertheless is essential to its success. In the case of Graham this 'something else' translates into movement as bodily power, a concentration of will and strength. This spirit was an embodied form of feminism, the way by which Graham resisted the stereotypical image of the female dancer. (And it is important to note that for a long time Graham's company was a company of women).

Thus it is no wonder that Graham, at the same time that she alienates some left-wing reviewers in terras of her choreographic language, (and her language is also hot at all stereotypically 'feminine', as it refuses the fluidity of ballet), will also attract the most radical New York critics in the 1930s, such as Edna Ocko. Ocko saw in Graham the most important American choreographer and was particularly captivated by her technique. She writes in the radical journal New Masses that "this rigorous training presents itself to me, at least, as an admirable technique for the revolutionary dance. [...] it embodies dramatic elements of militance and courage. Its most delicate moments are fraught with latent power. When the body stands, is seems immobile. The body in motion is belligerent and defiant. It seems almost impossible to be meaningless with this equipment. [...] This technique has produced dancers definitely aligned to the militant working-class movement whose merits as directors, teachers, and soloists, cannot be gainsaid."

Mark Franko suggests that Graham's work remained ambiguous regarding this call to a militant working-class movement. Yet Graham's women were powerfully effective, and Franko emphasizes the importance of Graham's feminism to understand her choreographic project and her technical training. It is in the light of a feminist project that Franko interprets Graham's main choreographic characteristics such as: the fractured use of time; the refusal or containment of flow; an emphasis on a certain architectural disposition of the bodies in space (that we can see all the way through her career). Franko makes the point that such devices were used by Graham precisely in order to reduce the attribution of emotionalism to the dance. An emotionalism which at that time was always linked to a certain image of the (hysterical) female dancer displaying her uncontrolled and fragile emotions to the audience.

The Dark Poetry of Perversion

It is here that perhaps Graham's work gets more and more lost in the performances of the current Martha Graham Company. The same words that Marcia Siegel used to mark the difference in quality from the original 'Lamentation' to the one danced by more 'lyrical woman' in 1975 would still make sense today. The difference is not properly choreographic, but it is interpretive - in both senses of the word: how we interpret the work of Graham and then how we perfom it. Today, even when seeing her later work, it is hard to imagine the impact of those first shown, like the impact that 'Ardent Song' (1954) had on James Roose-Evans, who wrote that "Only Jean Genet and David Rudkin, as writers, have been able to articulate this, the dark poetry of perversion." This power, this theatrical and choreographical fearlessness, is no more. So, when seeing Martha Graham today, keep in mind the warning of her rebellious disciple Cunningham: "It has always seemed to me that Martha's followers make her ideas much more rigid and specific than they really are with her, and that Martha herself has a basic respect for the ambiguity in all dance movement."

References .

Franko, Mark. Dancing Modernism/ Performing Politics. Bloomington: indiana university Press, 1995.

Siegel, Marcia. The Shapes of BChange. Berkeley: University of California press, 1985.

Zizek, Slavoj. "The Spectre of Ideology." Mapping Ideology. S. Zizek (ed.). don & New York: Verso, 1994.

(1) I am thinking here of Zizek's definition '" as a matrix that regulates the between the thinkable and the the visible and the invisible. See Slavoj. The Spectre of Ideology. In Map- edited by S. Zizek. London & Verso, 1994.