Can Martha Graham Be Kept Alive?

For those of us who care about Martha Graham, it’s been a bumpy ride. I got on board in 1958,

For those of us who care about Martha Graham, it’s been a bumpy ride.

I got on board in 1958, the year of Graham’s full-evening dance-drama Clytemnestra, the first work of hers I ever saw. To some Graham purists it was suspect—“a bit Hollywood,” as Arlene Croce put it. To me it was a revelation of what theater could be. And what dancers could be. Graham herself, in the title role (of course), was clearly diminished in strength—she was almost 64. But every gesture was so full, so powerful, so telling that it didn’t matter; all she had to do was lift her arm and it was thrilling. And, just as exciting, every one of the principals had the powerful presence of a star, in no way outshone by the star of stars, Martha herself.

Given the consistent quality of repertory and performance, who could imagine then that the great days were drawing to an end? Nineteen sixty-two saw the last really satisfying new work: Legend of Judith, with Martha as the Old Judith looking back over her life while Linda Hodes as the Young Judith dealt with poor Holofernes. After that, every season showcased an eagerly anticipated new work: The Witch of Endor (David and Saul), Cortege of Eagles (the Trojan Women), A Time of Snow (Abelard and Heloise), Mendicants of Evening (Marian Seldes intoning the poetry of St. John Perse while bolts of cloth were flung across the stage). Every one of these pieces was a disappointment—a formulaic imitation of the kind of dance-drama Martha had invented.

By the mid-70’s (and that’s being generous), the whole Graham experience had begun to deflate. The new works were more and more lackadaisical and perfunctory, although the loyalists pretended otherwise, and a new generation of dancers—dedicated, talented and hardworking though they were—lacked the charisma of their predecessors. Worse, as Martha herself aged and became embittered (and alcoholic), unable to reconcile herself to her enforced retirement from dancing, the famous Graham technique began to erode.

And so we arrived at the substitution of chic for art: the Halston years; the Blackgama ad years (Martha in furs); the Margot-and-Rudy years; the Betty Ford-Woody Allen gala years. And the years (until her death, in 1991) dominated by Martha’s young protégé, Ron Protas, and characterized by the abrupt dismissal—the massacre—of the leading dancers of the golden period who were the logical successors to carry on the great work. Finally, there were the catastrophic legal entanglements that followed Martha’s death, threatening the existence of the company and the repertory.


IT’S TO THE ETERNAL CREDIT of the band of believers who persevered against the formidable odds that we have today a functioning Graham enterprise—that we’re in the midst of a two-week season at the Joyce that’s attracting an enthusiastic audience. But the inevitable questions arise: What is this audience seeing? Or, more directly, are these performances reasonable facsimiles of what Graham intended and achieved? To a large extent, the unfortunate answer is no. The fact that pleasure can still be taken in certain works is a testament to their inherent merits—their compelling concepts, their immaculate structure, their striking imagery. Others are, at least for now, gone with the wind.

The most egregious example is Embattled Garden, the garden in question being Eden, the characters Adam and Eve, Lilith and the Stranger. This work, like Clytemnestra, was mounted in 1958, when it was obviously intended to be taken as a wry and wicked sex comedy—a jaundiced but sympathetic commentary on what fools these lovers (us) be.

Today it’s an overwrought melodrama of lust and betrayal. I was so confused opening night that the next morning I called Paul Taylor for a reality check (he danced the Stranger for years). “Yeah,” he said, “it was definitely tongue-in-cheekish back then.” There were no tongues in cheeks at the Joyce performances.

Almost as endangered is the rhapsodic Diversion of Angels, a pure-dance work that has inspired audiences since its creation almost 60 years ago. Today’s company approaches it with diminished technique and exaggerated piety. Of the three lead women, the imposing Katherine Crockett was not much more than adequate as the one in white, and Blakeley White-McGuire was a disaster as the one in red, her character’s thrilling rushes across the stage reduced to zero effect, the signature contractions in midflight almost imperceptible. (More perceptible was the signature narcissism of her partner, Maurizio Nardi.) Only the young Atsuko Tonohata, in yellow, projected the simple, happy ardor that brings Diversion to life.

Can Martha Graham Be Kept Alive?