Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey

Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey

Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey

Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey

Excerpt

You do not realize how the headlines that make daily history affect the muscles of the human body.

Martha Graham

From 5 to 12 January 1930, four modern dance companies performed on alternating nights at Maxine Elliott's theater on 39th Street in New York City. Calling themselves the Dance Repertory Theatre, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Helen Tamiris, and Charles Weidman joined together to share the almost insurmountable costs of theatrical productions. The content of the week's performances conveyed the range of ideas that engaged modern dancers: from Graham's Heretic (1929), a battle between an individual and society, to Tamiris's pull of the body against forces of gravity and oppression in Three Negro Spirituals (1928); from the clever pantomime of Weidman's Marionette Theatre (1929) to Humphrey's The Life of the Bee (1929), a dramatization of Maurice Maeterlinck's 1901 study on the hierarchical authority of the queen bee and the pitiless duties of worker bees. Poised at the perilous moment after the stock market crash of October 1929 and the start of a new decade, modern dancers steeped themselves in the social, political, and aesthetic issues of the day.

Reviewers hailed the week, seeing a new solidity and momentum in the group effort that moved this art form beyond scattered, individual accomplishments to a growing force in the arts that deserved wider recognition. John Martin, the first dance critic at the New York Times, appointed in 1927, declared of the week, “The American dance has come of age.” The New Yorker had a more coy view, proclaiming that the new art form was “an entity capable of standing on its own legs—and what legs some of them are!” Margaret Gage, a critic writing in Theatre Arts Monthly, offered the most trenchant commentary. She asked, “What is ‘modernism’ in the American art of the dance?” Looking for associations with the scientist Albert Einstein and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, intellectuals she . . .

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