Archive for May, 2012

Martha Graham’s anti-fascist choreography relevant again in current environment for civil rights and artistic freedom

Friday, May 11th, 2012

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Martha Graham’s work was prominent in the New York dance world of the 1930s in the wake of her innovative Primitive Mysteries (1931). Yet, her reputation grew exponentially beyond the confines of dance and the New York art world after the premiere of American Document (1938) followed by its national tour in 1939. This is, paradoxically, a work that the Martha Graham Dance Company may be reluctant to perform today in a version close to the original. It was highly anti-fascist and popular front, very related to the political issues of the day, and critical of the history of the United States. Graham’s national reputation took hold at this time, and she was noted not only for her choreography and dancing but also for her political stance in the pre-war moment. It is paradoxical that this occurred by and through a work that is considered to be of little artistic value today. To some American Document might indeed appear old-fashioned or too specific to its time to merit revival, yet I think in this time of political uncertainty Graham’s anti-fascist work –done without updating the context and streamlining the aesthetic to be faster and brasher to account for what is assumed to be the audience’s diminished attention span —  may prove most successful. The obscuring of democratic traditions and the perverse rhetorical prevarications of our present political climate has more than a little resemblance to the period that saw the rise of fascism. Dance can be exciting precisely when it is not updated, not commented upon in the process of performing it. But, to understand such works and to convey them effectively to an audience demands a deep historical and theoretical grasp on the director’s part – one that might not have existed at the time of the premiere either on the part of the artists or the public — and an ability to translate that historical perspective into immediate artistic terms. Martha Graham in Love and War is not, however, a book about the revival of dances, but rather a study of Graham’s work between 1937 and 1953 – arguably her most productive period – that attempts to envision the work as it originally appeared. So, for example, I interpret Appalachian Spring as a wartime work (it premiered in 1944 during World War II). There is an awareness and fear of war that pervades the work despite the temporal indeterminacy Graham so carefully practiced by implying it took place during the Civil War of the previous century.  In reality, the presence of the Civil War, in particular of the Escaped Slave character who was cut but yet retained in the Revivalist, as well as the presence of the abolitionist John Brown beneath the Husbandman, allowed Graham to imply an earlier popular front politics critical of injustices in American life in the guise of a patriotic wartime ballet. This analysis was possible by examining the scenarios she wrote for Aaron Copland in preparation for the work. Copland wrote his score for some characters that did not make it to the stage (another is the Indian Girl). But none of them entirely disappeared. I theorize this kind of choreographic process as one of character compression, which leads to a use of the archetype in postwar works.

Graham’s scrapbooks housed at the Library of Congress seem to have saved every bit of ephemera concerning her career, all meticulously cut out and pasted in, probably by her mentor and musical director Louis Horst. They allowed me to reassess her relationship to advertising and popular culture as well as the media interest in her as a complex public figure as of the early forties. The newspaper clippings show that her Graham was taken up as a politically influential international figure by the early forties. With the entry of the US into World War II, however, she was enlisted in the war effort as an example of “productive femininity”. It was at this point that her fame grew at the expense of a distortion of her personal and artistic personality. Her role was to reassure the working woman she would not sacrifice their femininity to the war effort. The war brought women into the work place but also reinforced gender stereotypes by virtue of the conformism that invariably accompanies wartime mentality. After the war, Graham turned to Greek myth and characters such as Jocasta, contradicting the more wholesome wartime image that had been constructed of her with a more perverse image. If her original positioning in the media had been political, the notoriety she gained during the war was at the expense of her fierce independence as a woman artist. By the end of the decade she was out of touch with the new consumerism that pervaded American society, but a sacred monster of the theater who drew large audiences. The one goal she retained since her first popular success in 1938 was to reach as broad a public as possible without compromising her modernist aesthetic, and by the mid forties she achieved this goal with the unheard of two-week Broadway season.

This was in no small measure thanks to the efforts of her dance partner and lover Erick Hawkins who first came to her work in 1938. In addition to dancing in her company, serving as a company manager, booking agent, technical director, and general factotum, Hawkins, who had graduated with a major in classics from Harvard, brought a knowledge of the myth culture of ancient Greece (Hawkins read Greek) that was most useful to Graham. He also dreamed up the first scheme for fund raising in the dance world and executed it successfully. Their relationship was, however, in many ways a tormented one. Although Hawkins was demonized in Agnes de Mille’s biography Martha for walking out on Graham in London in 1950, the correspondence between Hawkins and Graham tells a different story.

But, then there were the myth works of the immediate post-war era that made an appeal to the themes sanctioned by psychoanalysis as universal – notably the Oedipus complex explored in Night Journey (1947). How could she reconcile a fascination with myth so identified with Nazi fascism — think of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which also premiered in 1938 – with her own anti-fascist stance? This was a mystery to unravel. Her well-known interest in Jung only aggravates this question as recent scholarship has shown Jung’s involvement with Nazism during the Second World War.

Knowing that Graham was a voracious and serious reader of modern literature and psychology I thought it possible to unearth the logic behind choreographic thinking in many of her artistic choices, influenced by her extended literary ruminations. But, could her reading be tracked? Of course, there were clues. Bertram Ross (one of her lead dancers) said she was reading Esther M. Harding’s Psychic Energy while choreographing Night Journey. Might her library have survived her death intact? Certainly, the publication of The Notebooks of Martha Graham (1973) was a strong indication that her choreography was linked to a practice of writing and reading, even though the Notebooks are often quite difficult to decipher.

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Portrait of Martha Graham (courtesy of the Music Division, Library of Congress. Photographer unidentified).

Also key to Graham’s work of the immediate postwar era were Otto Rank and Erich Fromm. She had actually consulted with Fromm – and some say had an affair with him – in 1946. Fromm popularized, to some extent, key ideas of Rank. Graham quoted both men in her notes. Although her connection to Freud is often touted, Graham was much more up to date: she was a choreographic post-Freudian. Her myth works dealt with the cultural value of incest, the demystification of the Oedipus conflict, and the revalorization of the mother in psychoanalytic theory, something principally attributed in psychoanalytic literature to Rank’s The Trauma of Birth. Although Graham did read Jung, one should differentiate between the influence of psychology and psychoanalysis in her work. She underwent an extended analysis with Frances G. Wickes, a prominent New York Jungian, in the early fifties. Paradoxically, her analytic experience did not lead to further myth works but to her only anti-myth work, Voyage (1953). All but disappeared from the annals of Graham performance, yet Voyage (retitled Theater for Voyage in 1955) set to a score by William Schuman deserves to be rediscovered – perhaps even on the stage.

Time Has Come Today to the Whitney with the Atlas Ocean

Monday, May 7th, 2012

By Juliet Neidish

The Whitney Museum of American Art not only revealed its commitment to time-based art by choosing lots of it for its 2012 Biennial, but also extended its definition of the genre beyond de rigueur video and performance installations, to include dance, theater, film and music. With the Biennial still on-going, it’s not yet clear how, if at all, placing these various types of performance in this particular museum setting will affect the viewing experience or the making of such time-based work, other than to expose it to a primarily visual arts-going public.

The selection of Charles Atlas’ film, “Ocean” (2011), was however, an exciting example of how the museum setting can provide an arena that not merely displays a non-static canvas, but actually adds to its fulfillment. Charles Atlas, a pioneer in film and videography, has a long history of collaboration with dance, including having worked closely with Merce Cunningham since the mid-1970s. “Ocean” is a dance Cunningham premiered in 1994, in a theater-in-the round of the Cirque Royal, in Brussels. In 2008, at the age of 89, Cunningham took on the major project of restaging it outdoors, in the huge Rainbow Granite Quarry in Minnesota before an audience of 4,500 spectators. Atlas’ vision was also big: with a 5- camera team he shot all 3 performances to create one vast film mirroring the immensity of both the quarry (the setting of the piece) and the ocean (the subject of the piece). The otherwise bare, 4th-floor Whitney gallery provided a wall- as- screen large enough to match his vision. Light chairs were strewn around for viewers. Only a small amount of light was maintained for the negotiation of audience entrances and exits.



Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust.

The film begins with the technical crew engrossed in building the theater interspersed with clips of The St. Cloud Symphony warming up. An electronic score by David Tudor merges with Anthony Culver’s Cage-inspired orchestral score played high above the audience by the 150-piece orchestra. We get a strong sense of this massive, open-air quarry into which the circular stage and its apparatus will seemingly have to be placed. Reiterating Cunningham’s conceit that their is no one vantage point from which to view a piece, Atlas, while letting us bask in the piece in its entirety, will also give us cuts from different facings and distances, sometimes splitting the screen to show several views at once. From the minute the first dancer appears onstage, pensively feeling his way through his steps, we know that we are up front and center. And not long after that- side and back and split-screen.


Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust


But a marvel of the film is that you sense much more than just closeness. It is grippingly dimensional, heightening your awareness of skin, muscles stretching, and even an eye scanning furtively for an approaching dancer. It made me feel able to see exactly how a dancer’s anatomy was able to work the Cunningham technique. For example, how the power a fully pointed foot when directed into the air was the main dictator of strength throughout the entire body. And how that foot could set off a pulley system allowing the thigh rotating in the hip socket to turn the whole body over to face a different direction. The skin-tight ocean-blue spandex unitards worn by the 13 dancers, both revealing and encasing their muscles, also led the eye in this kind of body reading. The Atlas camera work allowed me to see when a dancer was not totally “on their leg” and how they negotiated to correct or deal with imbalance. This, of course, is part of a dancer’s prowess as a performer, and the piece does go on for 90 minutes without stop, but it is rare to feel almost as if you are in the dancer’s brain following their every move. This 2008 manifestation of the nearly 60 year-old Merce Cunningham Dance Company was a strong one. The dancers breathed as one, phrased as one, and all the while offered glimpses of their own, individual presences.


Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust


Having recently seen the Martha Graham Company, I began to think about why Cunningham dancers stay so fresh, so aesthetically contemporary, yet adhere to all that has marked the Cunningham dancer throughout the decades. The current leadership of the Graham Company seem to have concluded that an audience today won’t “get” Graham, unless it is jacked-up to a frenzied pace, performed with an intent to indicate and underline its narrative, and even to parody and comment upon itself while it is being danced. The result produces something quite different from the weight, timing, and abstraction, which has historically communicated story and subject so uniquely and poetically. The Limon Company, which has tried to stay religiously traditional, has in effect locked out a contemporary connection to who they are today and as a result, often appears staid or old-fashioned. The Cunningham dancers up until now have maintained vibrancy without making overt alterations to the fundamental tenets of the Cunningham technique. Now that the company has officially disbanded as of December 31, 2011, according to the plan formulated by the Cunningham Trust in concurrence with the wishes of Merce Cunningham before his death in 2009, we will have to wait to see how the effects of the Cunningham presence will continue to extend into the future.


Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust

Museum Dance: Michael Clark explores classical sensuality at the Whitney Biennial

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

A very large fourth floor gallery space was emptied out for Michael Clark’s Who’s Zoo? at the Whitney Biennial (April 7, 2012) in order to look and feel like a performance space. The audience was directed to sit on the floor at one side of the gallery all for the forty-minute show. The performing area was extremely wide although not comparably deep, and was symmetrically framed by two entranceways at either side serving as wings for the performers. Charles Atlas’s lighting and video projections for Clark on the back wall would create a sense of depth for the choreography as the piece progressed, which from the start privileged the use of diagonals for very practical reasons. The space used in this way was far from ideal as the intimacy of viewing dance in a museum was undermined by the lack of space in depth and hence of perspective. The performance style of the dancers, in addition, seemed more inclined to projection to an audience further away. Despite this impediment, the visual qualities of the space were extremely “clean”. A laser-like lavender line cut horizontally across the white wall we faced, joining the two entranceways.

Kate Coyne in Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

Kate Coyne in Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

 The walls were white, the marly floor was black; copious lights hung unobtrusively from the ceiling, which was high enough to render the technical apparatus virtually invisible, as in most theaters. In short, I was not terribly aware I was in a museum except for the challenge of crowd management briefly imposed on museum staff.


Clark’s company boasts six excellent dancers and himself. Three men and three women appeared initially as two species – two men in black leotards and the other four dancers in glowing orange. The music initially made this feel like a late sixties so-bad-it’s-good sci-fi film. The choreography seemed derivative of Cunningham although Clark injects arresting torso shifts that project a sensuality into the classical figures. Later on, all six sport stylish zebra like leotards. It would seem Clark is presenting his performers as dancing creatures – hence the zoo. Or, perhaps, he is saying dance always already takes place in/as an atrophied museum of its own fashioning. Clark’s own presence offered a useful counterpoint as he hovered on the outskirts in pedestrian garb fulfilling his reputation as the bad-boy of British contemporary dance.


The two male dancers in black worked in rhythmic unison, occasionally partnering each other. In fact, most of the choreography mimicked the musical rhythms. The title Who’s Zoo? suggested the dancers were creatures to be observed in their habitat and introduced in this way a sense, perhaps, of the natural history museum. Some kind of critique of the museum was being suggested here, doubtless, but it lacked focus. The title’s question also suggested the reading: Who is Who? – which could be understood to ask: Who is the audience and who the performer? Or, who is the human and who the animal? Understanding the question this way was underlined by the participation of many amateur dancers — called “untrained volunteers” in the program — Clark used in counterpoint to his professional and highly trained company. The program stated somewhat naively this was “an attempt to expand what our experience of movement can be.” One could, however, consider the untrained volunteers to be the third species on stage, one with which the audience might identify as the amateurs coped with their fairly basic rhythmic unison assignment.

Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court


In the final section, a vocalist in green face paint and blue jeans took center stage to underline a grotesque presence hinted at marginally by Clark from the start. The performance from here on devolved into an acid rock concert as Darren Spooner bleated “Maggot Brain” deafeningly into a mike and any notion of choreography faded from view. This gesture in conjunction with the sci-fi ambiance, and the unfocused critique lent a dated feel to the proceedings. The sci-fi parody blunts the museum critique and leaves us wondering what is going on. Does dance in the museum need to acknowledge the institutional site of its performance? Or, should it transform the museum into a theater? Neither of these tendencies were realized by this performance, but both remained as unresolved questions.


 A few days later I attended the conference “Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen and Stage” at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center. Here were assembled a group of artists, curators and academics to discuss the presence of time-based art in museums. I was honored to be on a panel to discuss “Dancing in the Museum.” with Jonah Bokaer, Judy Hussie-Taylor of the Danspace Project, and Ralph Lemon. (The entire conference will soon be available on line at: Sabine Breitwieser, curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, expressed the view that dance now finds itself in the museum because dancing bodies display skills and are attractive to look at. Shannon Jackson, director of the Arts Research Center, assured the audience in introducing our panel that we would make the deceptively simple “dancing in the museum” scenario more complicated.


The fields of visual art creation and the curation of art, film, dance and theater were well represented at this conference through an interdisciplinary discussion where no one discourse dominated the conversation. I noted that some curators are aware dance brings the public into the museum. Choreographers and companies are aware that museums are the new performance producers on the block with a big budget. The question of the museum as a site of display in which moving bodies challenge previous definitions of what it means to exhibit art objects and material culture was stimulating. This is uncharted territory. Curators seem to be anxious to learn more about dance and its histories; artists are aware that time-based models of art in some ways contradict the institutional mandate to preserve and display art; scholars are examining notions of liveness and objecthood in relation to exhibition and performance.