Dancing in the dust

Dancing in the dust

Siegel, Marcia B

LONG AGO, WHEN MARTHA GRAHAM WAS ALIVE and still performing, you didn’t dare miss a season. Every dance performance represents a hedge against death, and no one doubted that when Martha was gone, her dance would be gone too. It was Graham’s ferocious will to create that held the company together. She intended to keep her dance forever in the present, not only by being onstage and in the studio, but by constantly modifying her technique, redesigning productions, editing and guarding whatever records existed, and allowing few other companies to perform her works. In the 1970s she made a prolonged and traumatic exit from the stage, but the company kept going. She was 96 when she died, and still working. She offset her declining creativity with chic collaborators, celebrity guests, and palatable plot summaries to lure the modern audience.

Ten years after her death, the terminal scenario is finally being acted out. The repertory that underwent a perpetual construction and deconstruction during her lifetime has been contested by its supposed guardians. After a decade of uneasy stewardship, her executor, Ron Protas, and the board of directors which oversaw the company’s fiscal welfare, are battling for control. Citing an insurmountable debt-load, the board closed down the company and started a new school, in an attempt to oust Protas from command. Protas, to whom Graham left her estate, sued the board to stop it from carrying on any activities under the Graham name. He claimed, in effect, that he owned trademarks to Graham’s technique and her name, as well as the rights to her dances. In August Federal Judge Miriam Cedarbaum denied Protas’ attempt to turn “Martha Graham” into a brand name, thus clearing the way for the Martha Graham Center and school to continue. The question of who “owns” Graham’s dances was still in court as this was written. Protas has no company of dancers or a school through which to implant the Graham aesthetic. If he becomes the copyright holder, he would be able to license all productions-by the reconstituted Graham Company or anyone else-and, presumably, charge any ransom he wanted for them. Meanwhile, the dance world is ambivalent about whether to support productions Protas licensed to other companies before the onset of hostilities. Graham might have laughed at this legalistic dance; it’s her last choreography.

Whatever the courts decide, Graham’s patrimony grows cloudier, because it’s so hard to determine what she did. Dance is a beast without a memory. Even in these anti-historical times, the art museums are packed with tourists and students listening to the cassette-tours and studying descriptive wall labels next to the paintings. Bookstores are filled with illustrative catalogs and scholarly analysis. The other art forms have correspondingly strong curatorial and critical infrastructures, but dance always emerges from a conceptual outer space.

Martha Graham’s solution to preservationists’ calls for documentation was to redesign and recast the repertory, film it in contemporary guise, and suppress reminders of past performances. She filmed many of her early dances if not all of them, but those films were like malevolent spirits, consulted for their magic information and then hidden away again. Not even the dancers were allowed to see them as part of their preparation. Once in a while, excerpts leaked out. A few films made their way to open archives. A new video, Merce Cunningham-A Lifetime in Dance, by Charles Atlas, contains fascinating clips I feared had long since been destroyed. These teasing glimpses of Punch and the Judy and Appalachian Spring, together with examples from Cunningham’s own repertory, expose lost or now-altered choreography danced by a youthful Cunningham and a mature Graham. They represent flecks of dust blown off a historical mountain. They aren’t glamourous, they aren’t complete records, but they are authentic, precisely because they haven’t been doctored to perfection.

Graham’s contribution to her own mythology was always bolstered by devoted admirers, and the edifice is still under construction. The latest addition to the Graham hagiography is Spaces of the Mind, a survey of the dance designs of Graham’s first and most influential collaborator, Isamu Noguchi.1 Robert Tracy, the editor of an interesting if gossipy set of interviews with Graham dancers from the 1920s to the 1990s,2 has put together a quasi-documentary of Noguchiana, mostly created for Graham but also for George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and some less well-known people, like Ruth Page, Erick Hawkins, and Yuriko Kikuchi. The Japanese-American sculptor is already well-represented in at least three important volumes, but Tracy wanted to concentrate on the stage works that were an ephemeral expression of Noguchi’s aesthetic.

Noguchi was an ideal designer for the stage, particularly in the early days of modern dance, when the old backdrop-and-wing conventions of ballet had been rejected. What Noguchi brought to Graham was a sense of the object as part of a landscape and an investment in abstract forms-slabs and towers, airborne shapes, complex enclosures-that could be loaded with psychological freight. Their close personal and professional relationship began in the early 1930s when Graham was formulating her ideas, and continued through her “Greek” phase, essentially ending with Phaedra (1962). Noguchi was just as interested in spirituality, sexuality, and the psyche as Graham; they were friends and fellow-seekers as well as collaborators.

Spaces of the Mind follows a set scheme. Dance by dance, beginning with the masks for the 1926 production of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well by Michio Ito, Tracy culls relevant comments from a series of interviews he did with Noguchi between 1983 and the sculptor’s death in 1988. These are followed by “Notes” about the dance from various sources and a photographic section devoted to the designs in their choreographic habitat. It seems like a great idea, but the book is only superficially comprehensive. Documentary form is a deceptively transparent way to make a book. Gathering information from many sources gives dimension to the subject, but unlike oral history, a documentary editor must play an active role. Tracy provides a biographical introduction to Noguchi, but assumes everything else is self-explanatory.

Although the dances appear in chronological order, the text isn’t so straightforward. None of the quotes are clearly identified or dated. There’s a loose category headed “From the Original Program Notes” that I find particularly troubling. Graham frequently revised her program annotations, and in the Protas years they became quite literal, but the lengthy narrative paragraphs under Tracy’s rubric don’t sound like any notes I remember. For instance, regarding the 1947 Night journey, Tracy quotes some lines from Sophocles and a long paragraph outlining the life of Oedipus Rex. The same or another quote goes on: “In NightJourney, Martha Graham’s dramatization of this great myth, it is not Oedipus but the Queen Jocasta who is the protagonist…. The chorus of women who know the truth before the seer speaks it try in vain to divert the prophecy from its cruel conclusion.” A shorter, more plausible paragraph follows under the vague heading “From Another Version.”

It seems unlike Graham to explain herself in the pedantic prose of those first supposedly original citations. What I remember about her program notes between 1962 and the late 1970s, when Protas became Graham’s shadowy amanuensis, is their poetic allusions and their deliberate omission of any stories. These compressed, poetic renderings signalled the form of the dances themselves. Mere storytelling wasn’t Graham’s line. The audience was expected to know a dance’s mythological background when there was one, or do without it. I tried to retrieve the original program notes for myself. They aren’t transcribed in any of the eleven books devoted to Graham that I own. On the widelydistributed film of Nightjourney, released in 1961, the program note has undergone another condensation, giving the story in two sentences. Finally I asked my friend, dance critic and scholar Gay Morris, who has been researching the late modern dance period at the New York Public Library, whether she had come across the evidence I wanted. She promptly faxed me the three-page program from Night journey’s premiere as part of a symposium on music criticism sponsored by the Harvard Music Department on May 3, 1947.

Here is the note in its entirety: “This dance is a legend of recognition. The action takes place in Jocasta’s heart at the instant when she recognizes the ultimate terms of her destiny. She enters her room where the precise fulfillment of its terms awaits her. Here the Daughters of Night, Oedipus in his inescapable role, and The Seer pursue themselves across her heart in that instant of agony.”

With a minor word change, this is identical to the note Tracy ascribes to Another Version, and it differs drastically from the narrative material he labels Original. It would be nice to know the source of this other material-and similar plot summaries that accompany other dances in the book-but much more serious is the effect of Tracy’s transposition. Perhaps he thought the dances needed explanation, but he could have done that in other ways. In clouding the provenance of these texts, Tracy diminishes Graham’s originality and daring. Differences in tone, language or intent among them might also shed light on Graham’s shifting attitude toward her own audience over time, if we knew the true sequence in which the program notes were altered.

Tracy’s photographic presentation is vexing in a different way. Although every dance brings at least one picture along with text, the photos stem from different productions spanning fifty years, and they’re uncaptioned. At the back of the book is a list of “Photographic Identifications,” containing only the names of the principal dancers, the title of the dance, and a date, perhaps the date of the photograph. There is no link between this information and the page in the front of the book where the picture appears. Unless you flip back and forth several times, you don’t know whether you’re looking at Graham herself in Cave of the Heart, or Christine Daykin (mistakenly said to be dancing it in 1947, probably before she was born), or Yuriko Kimura, or Helen McGehee.

If Tracy is stimulated to further insights about the photographs he’s collected, he doesn’t offer them. Though oddly assorted, the Graham examples deepen my sense of those dances I’ve seen. I think of Graham’s scenic presentations as having been closely dictated and monitored by her, as were her musical commissions. Noguchi certainly was a commanding artistic force himself. There’s no clear account here of their working process, though as in the best collaborations, you can’t tell whose idea anything was. Noguchi’s Graham designs always served to amplify or frame the dancers. He made props that acted like costumes, extending the body but never obscuring or transforming it, like the extraordinary bush made of brass wires in Cave of the Heart. Medea crawls through it and finally puts it on like a dress. Noguchi calls this shimmering object the sun. Like all the scenery he made for Graham, and probably for his other choreographic projects, it was symbolic, multivalent. He calls the big hinged panels in Phaedra “a huge womb-like sphere… If you didn’t have Aphrodite in there with her legs spread apart, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that it was anything but a butterfly.”

When they weren’t actually worn on the dancers’ bodies, his objects served as monumental framing pieces, emblematic backgrounds and platforms, signposts for the dance’s metaphorical journey. In the photographs you see the dancers posed against them or in them. Graham tips up a rocklike shape in Dark Meadow as three men hover around it, ready to impale it with sharp objects. In the next picture, she’s lying back against the rock gazing up at her seducer, Erick Hawkins. In four shots by Cris Alexander from Judith (1950), Graham seems to echo the large bony set pieces with the shape of her arms and feet. Yuriko Kimura in a revival of Errand into the Maze clings to a Ushaped structure she’s made into an enclosure by threading a tape across it. After she’s conquered the Minotaur-creature, she releases the tape and herself. Arms raised to echo the opening, Graham in another photo is about to step out into freedom.

There are so many places where this book could have illuminated, interrogated, or corrected the mythology of these two dance icons. Noguchi’s language is sometimes elliptical; Tracy doesn’t clarify it. Rather than telling us the significance of Graham’s costume changes over time, Tracy doesn’t even take note of changes that we can see in the pictures. He makes no comment about Graham’s disconcerting practice of recycling sets from one dance into another when the company was pressed economically in its later years, though Noguchi is unfailingly polite about this. For the general reader, Tracy’s lapses probably will have the opposite effect from what he intended. Instead of adding to our understanding of these legendary collaborators, his book only reinforces their status as celebrities.

Graham’s dance wasn’t as static as it looks in photographs, but it did fix itself on your mind. No matter how many psychological reverberations it touched off, the action onstage was very concrete. The characters never overstepped their archetypes. The relationships didn’t change even if the costumes did. Graham’s insistence on nailing the moment with such specificity and then letting it go was pushed into an extreme of transience in the next generation by Merce Cunningham. He practiced chance and indeterminacy in his compositional process, and even after he had relaxed his rules about keeping hands off the decision-making, he continued to build variables into the performance. His choreography usually takes place in an aural atmosphere that changes with every show, and the lighting and scenery often have aleatory properties as well. Cunningham’s movement style and the dancers who perform it have changed over the years as much as Graham’s did. What’s so astonishing is that, although Graham eventually fell back on her own stage formulas, Cunningham at 82 continues to find incentives for creativity.

Cunningham started out with Graham in 1939 and was already making his own choreography before he left her company in 1945. His fifty-year partnership with John Cage determined much of his aesthetic, especially a Zen-inspired belief in artistic disengagement. The choreographer shouldn’t impose his will-meaning, implicitly, his psychological disposition-on the dance. Composing by chance procedures was the most discussed and misunderstood device he used, but he also let designers and musicians work independently instead of requiring them to tailor their ideas to his. He doesn’t even coach dancers to interpret the steps a certain way. Viola Farber tells the story, in a 1975 book of photographs by James Klosty, of Cunningham leaving the room while he was teaching company class one day. When the class was over, he returned and told the class how well they’d done during the time he wasn’t watching.

While Graham saw the wisdom of maintaining some older dances in the repertory, Cunningham’s overwhelming emphasis on his most recent products gives us only a limited picture of his creativity. For the company’s April performances at New York’s City Center, he brought back Summerspace (1959), in the 1999 revival he staged with Robert Swinston and Carolyn Brown; and a reconstruction of RainForest (1968) that he did with Swinston a year ago. But the company’s April season bore witness to Cunningham’s investment in his future rather than his past. Except for the gala opening night, the seven programs included only one performance of each of the two old dances. The four other works dated from 1998 on.

Since the mid-1980s, Cunningham has sanctioned a modest and almost clandestine program to revive his old pieces, first under the direction of the late Chris Komar, now led by Robert Swinston and Carolyn Brown. A group of from four to six young dancers, who understudy the main company, has been intermittently appearing in schools and special performances with a repertory that’s almost never seen on his main stage: Septet, Signals, Scramble, Winterbranch, and other memorable but subterranean dances. Recapturing them has been difficult.

Cunningham’s dance is deliberately open-ended. He sometimes applies second thoughts to a completed work, and in the past there have been built-in windows of indeterminacy, when the dancers had choices they could make in performance. Deciding what was the definitive version of any dance is a major dilemma now. The Repertory Group makes use of tapes and films, and former dancers have been brought in to supplement the comprehensive memory of Carolyn Brown, who danced in the company for its first twenty years. None of these laboriously mounted revivals is ever seen by the regular Cunningham public. The brainstorming retrieval sessions of coaching and teaching have not been videotaped either. When the particular dancers who’ve learned one of these dances move on, dance history will once again push the Delete button.

A Cunningham dance is unmistakably a Cunningham dance, and each one is distinct from the others. Perhaps because I was thinking about Noguchi and Graham’s stage, I was more conscious than ever of design during the City Center season. Not all Cunningham’s dances are as visually coordinated as Summerspace. Robert Rauschenberg made the matching pointillist backdrop and body wear, and Morton Feldman’s “Ixion” sprinkles clusters of piano notes into space the way the dancers come and go, as if on a whim. True to its title, Summerspace seems to be about the idea of space. Much of the movement cuts or sweeps through the space, drawing your attention to the dancers’ medium. The turns are always traveling, the jumps and hops too. The women’s legs go up into big battements, and come down just as straight and deliberately. The dancers turn in profile and brush their straight arms up and down, clearing the air.

Rauschenberg also designed the new Interscape, which has a 1991 score for solo cello byJohn Cage. We first see a front curtain with one of Rauschenberg’s black-and-white photomontages: the head of a horse in medieval trappings, an old frame house with outdoor stairs leading to porches, a globe seen from outer space, the Parthenon, an arrow. As the lights slowly change, we can make out dancers warming up, but when the stage is fully lit and the scrim flies out, we find the same montage on the backdrop, in color, and the dancers entering in costume-printed and color-washed unitards, pale for the women, intense greens for the men. The long dance for fourteen that follows is full of interesting Cunningham figures: duets, contrapuntal small groups, a section where all seven women gather and do the same phrase facing in different directions, and an extended trio where one dancer enters, joins, and continues, and another leaves. The trio never stops, but you can’t predict when someone new will appear or who will be the next to drop out.

Early in Interscape, I noticed that as the dancers moved, new patterns appeared on their costumes, drawing your attention to parts of their bodies. A man turned in profile and revealed a stripe running along the inside of his leg. Another man had a big postmark printed on his back, and still another had purple buns. All the unitards, it turned out, were different, and as the dance went on it was like looking at a show of Rauschenberg’s paintings.

Cunningham’s stage designers open up possibilities for motion. As opposed to the static investiture of the Graham dances, Cunningham’s sets are things you see through; they don’t stop your eye at some significant point in space. Most of them don’t even give boundaries to space. They shift around, or get in the way and have to be shifted around as the dancers move. The dancers aren’t alone in a universe of myth; they have ajob to do in an overall system that they can’t totally understand. Charles Long’s five Brobdingnagian papier-mache Tripods, which squatted on spindly legs in Way Station (2001), were an exception that tested Cunningham’s laissez-faire policy. Obtrusive decors have appeared before, like Frank Stella’s canvas panels stretched at different levels on wheeled aluminum frames (Scramble, 1967). The dancers pushed them out of their way. And Robert Morris’ enormous vertical box that moved across the proscenium with bright lights inside it that blared into the stage (Canfield, 1969). The dancers either ignored it or seemed drawn to it like moths.

In Way Station, they seemed to consider the objects as some kind of refuge or meeting-place. Someone would wait quietly under an archway of orchid or robin’s-egg blue, watching others dance. Much of the choreography stressed couple work-lifts, oddly shaped supports and falls. The dancers never seemed to walk naturally, they hopped or leaned off balance. Their unitards by James Hall had panels of material attached to them, like vestigial or prototypal skirts, sleeves, aprons. I began to think I was looking at a mating ritual carried out by aliens, or humanoids in a prehistoric colony. They all exited through the tripod spaces as if they’d found the trail home.

When I try to remember the movement in BIPED (1999), I fail almost completely. I saw it only once last spring, and once the year it was made. Yet I think it’s one of Cunningham’s most exquisite and gripping dances. BIPED is the work that uses the technique of motion-capture, an animation program based on actual dance movement. This is a different technique from Life-Forms, the program Cunningham has been using to originate movement in the computer for the last ten years. Motion-capture inputs filmed traces of dancers moving with lights attached to their joints. Once installed in the computer, the figures can be manipulated with all the graphic wiles at the computer’s command. Designers Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser made a series of images, scored to Cunningham’s choreography and Gavin Bryars’ mellow, dreamy electronic music, that get projected on a front scrim. The dancers inside the scrim are accomplices to these shapes that streak through the air around them.

The animations don’t always resemble people; they whisk in like leaves in an autumn wind, frame the corners in polka dot bubbles. Green vertical lines open out like an accordion, and the real dancers dance between them as if they were curtains. Horizontal lines press the space down, only to open up a new space above. Maybe because motioncapture is made from real movement, the projections seem to have an ability to phrase the way a person does. They move in smooth waves of time, slower, faster, not in the metronomic lines and staccato explosions of ordinary animation. Aaron Copp’s lighting creates a velvet darkness instead of a closed stage area. Vertical strips in the back pick up some of the projections and create a sense of depth. Dancers don’t enter and exit, they materialize and disappear.

Constant slippage and recalibration is a fact of dance repertory, which may be why Cunningham doesn’t keep many older dances. I enjoy the immediacy of his dancers’ performing, the opportunity to examine everything with new eyes, his resistance to stagnation and banality. But I never could swallow the sense of loss that went with all that. The New York season’s other old piece, RainForest, suffered a subtle alteration perhaps attributable in part to the company’s institutionalized forgetfulness.

RainForest had one of Cunningham’s most spacious and unmanageable decors, a flock of helium-filled Mylar pillows by Andy Warhol. The silver things wafted all over the stage, and the dancers simply kept on doing their movement. Carolyn Brown, who was in the original cast, says it was like walking through trees; if something got in your way you just brushed it aside. The pillows behaved in their own fashion. They skittered along on end at the slightest disturbance of the air. They drifted above the floor or out into the wings, sometimes floating up into the flies. (A number of them were eventually tethered in the back so they wouldn’t escape.) They rocked gently at eye-level. They were enchanting.

When Cunningham and Robert Swinston revived the dance last year, no one could remember how many pillows had originally been used. They settled on fifty. At the performance I saw, with the second cast, the stage looked crowded and inert. Somehow the pillows weren’t light enough; when they got moved by the dancers, they bounced up and landed like wads of Jell-O. Perhaps responding to their resistance, the dancers began kicking them out of the way and deliberately barging into them. The energy needed to dislodge the intractable pillows spilled over into the rest of the dancers’ movement. Things that I remember as deliberate but calm looked forced. The first duet took place nearly out of sight of the orchestra patrons, behind a big, immobile silver pile.

For me there are always questions about what a dance is and what’s needed to revive it credibly. The best I could do to confirm my own misgivings about RainForest was to look at a piece of archival film in Elliot Caplan’s 1991 documentary Cage/Cunningham. Pausing the tape at a full-stage view, I counted approximately thirty-two pillows tumbling lazily around the dancers. The exact number doesn’t matter, but the density and consistency of the space does. Inexplicably, inadvertently, RainForest became a dance about a junk pile instead of a dance about strange, animal-like creatures in a mysterious jungle. Weeks after the season I learned from Robert Swinston that the pillows now are made of a different type of Mylar than the originals. They inflate differently and behave differently, and once blown up, they can’t be deflated for storage or re-used. The night I saw the dance in New York during the bows, Cunningham playfully batted one of the pillows out over the footlights. The dancers followed suit, and soon the audience was enjoying a small, one-time-only happening.

1SPACES OF THE MIND: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs, by Robert Tracy. Proscenium Publishers, Inc. $40.00; $25.00.

2 Robert Tracy, Goddess: Martha Graham’s Dancers Remember (New York, 1996).

MARCIA B. SIEGEL is working on Howling near Heaven:

Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance, due out from St.

Martin’s/Palgrave ….

Copyright Hudson Review Autumn 2001

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