One, Many, Two

By Phillips, Siobhan | The Hudson Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

One, Many, Two


Phillips, Siobhan, The Hudson Review


ONCE, NEAR THE START OF HIS CAREER with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Robert Cohan told Graham that he couldn't go on stage yet; he didn't know how to dance. "Darling," Graham reassured him, "there is only one place you learn how to dance and that is on the stage." For Graham, that was where one learned everything. Performance was not the end of a process but the whole of a process, not a reason for being but being itself. She once watched a lift in rehearsal and shouted "Get me down!" Graham's "me" was the person performing a role-always.

Those roles are newly clear, newly available for our admiration and surprise, for the Martha Graham Dance Company is once more presenting her work with skill and commitment. Last spring, as I gratefully watched some of Graham's greatest ballets, I wondered why they seem so powerful and yet so strange right now, so vital to our time and yet so distant from it. I kept coming back to Graham's notion of performance: how special and even sacred an activity it was to her. It has been a difficult subject, perhaps, because Graham's desire for the stage outlasted her ability to dance there, and her agony at giving up roles helped to provoke the struggles from which her troupe is only just emerging. But the Company's current strength lets us forget the unfortunate effects of Graham's passion and leads us to fresh contemplation of its enduring result: the ballets themselves. And as I watched them, as I understood better how Graham used the stage, I could understand more clearly why she needed it-and what her need might mean to us now.

For Graham's craving, which drove her to perform into her seventies, was more than the megalomania of showmanship. Were she dancing simply to draw attention, Graham might never have left the Greenwich Village Follies, where she found work in the 1920s after she left the company of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Instead-alone, penniless, and almost thirty-she started again: left the review and began her quest for truth through movement. It was a new sort of truth; rather than re-create a foreign mood or spiritual realm, as most Denishawn dances had done, Graham's work would reveal the most basic drives and needs of existence. The paradox was that such radical naturalism could only be realized in a theater. Graham, who famously repeated that "movement never lies," used some of the most brilliant stage artifice of twentieth-century dance; Graham, who told her students that secondposition plié was an "absolute truth," suggested one of her dancers wear makeup to bed with her husband. For Graham there was no contradiction between verity and pretense, belief in candor and belief in costume. And the most important performance, always, was the show of oneself. Every Soul Is a Circus, one of her titles proclaims, just as Deaths and Entrances hints that every step into life is a step into a spotlight. The Graham heroine-from the nameless pioneer of Frontier, swinging her leg with brio toward an uncertain future, to the Jocasta of Night Journey, recoiling her body with horror from a revealed past-might know who she is only through performing that difficult role.

For Graham, then, authentic subjectivity required a stage and a spectator. But authenticity need not-must not-make concessions to those watching. In her ballets, self-realization is self-reliant; indeed, there is often an Emersonian severity to her stance. Graham was never more true to her native predilections than when, playing Medea or Jocasta, she dared live from the devil if she were the devil's child-just as Emerson, in "Self-Reliance," vowed to do. (This tendency helps to illuminate, perhaps, why her ballets draw from Americana almost as often as from Greek tragedy: as Arlene Croce notes in an important essay, "The Blue Glass Goblet, and After," Graham's basic impetus was the Delphic charge to "know thyself," but the quest for such knowledge, public yet self-adjudicant, winds as tightly through American philosophy as it does through Socratic thought. …

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