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Discuss how the choreography of Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham reflected the changing contexts in which her/his work was produced.
Martha Graham (1894-1991) was a truly inspirational and revolutionary performer and choreographer throughout the 20th century. Her work was a great influence to people from all aspects of the arts, from famous stage actors to painters, composers, sculptors and of course choreographers. Over Graham’s seventy year long career she created a great many one hundred and eighty one pieces. (States http://www.innovationpark.psu.edu/coolblue/events/martha-graham-dance-company-clytemnestra – last accessed 05/01/2010) These were an important influence for many people. She changed the way many perceive and interpret dance.
It was 1910 when Graham was sixteen that she first laid eyes on an enthralling dance piece. It was seeing Ruth St. Denis at a performance of her famous solos “The Cobras“, “Radha“, “Nautch” and “Egypta, in Los Angeles that caught her attention. Graham knew from this point on that this new, defining concept of dance with bare feet and natural flow is what she wanted to devote her life to. Due to her persistent and determined nature, she refused to conform to the social normalities of ballet within ‘contemporary’ dance. It was 1926 when Graham formed the ‘Martha Graham Dance Company’. She veered off from the strict form of traditional ballet and led the way for a new language of dance which was based on her own principles of dance as an inner expression. With this ideology she focused more on significant movement than on classical technique, the likes of which ballet demands. She loved the form of precise movements of the body and she was set to façade classical dance moves. She would go on to do this through her expressionistic work. Many of her performances would involve a rather racy theme, or something that was very rare for the period in which it was created. She also reflected what was going on around her socially. When discussing Graham’s use of contraction and release, for which she was so well known, Susie Cooper (2009) states, ‘Graham developed the movements of breathing – contraction and release – as the basis for her movement vocabulary and technique.’
When breaking down the dance of Graham I think Merle Armitage said it best;
‘The dance of Martha Graham is neither literally (story telling in the allegorical sense) nor is it symbolic. It is a pure art of the dance…a play of form which in itself is significant and provocative…a language of its own, not a hand-maiden of another art form. Perhaps it is the first uninfluenced American dance expression, wholly disarming in its simplicity but curiously profound in its complexity.’
(Armitage, M. 1969 Martha Graham the early years. Da Capo Press, Inc.)
Graham was greatly influenced by her father. Dr Graham was a physician who showed particular interest in the way people moved and used their bodies. This state of mind was passed on to his daughter and later on in her life she used to state his favoured dictum ‘movement never lies’.
Graham was inspired by many different sources ranging from paintings and artwork to Greek mythology, Native American ceremonies and the American Frontier. Most of her truly memorable roles depict grand and significant women in history. Such as Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra and Joan of Arc.
Lamentation is Graham’s dance from 1930. It is a solo choreography which shows the struggle of human emotion and is a visual counterpart to the contemporary architecture that was beginning to grace the skyline of New York in a new and exciting way. Graham describes her piece as;
‘a solo piece in which I wear a long tube of material to indicate the tragedy that obsesses the body, the ability to stretch inside your own skin, to witness and test the perimeters and boundaries of grief, which is honourable and universal.’ (Graham, M. 1991 Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Doubleday; 1st edition.)
Many of her movements in this piece are from a grounded position and slowly contract and release to an upward position, much like the building and construction of a skyscraper. For example she is sitting on the edge of a bench and contracts from side to side and then arches into a high release which represents the rise of a building. As the dance progresses Grahams’ movements become a lot faster and angular. This shows the speed and contemporary design that the buildings were being built.
‘It seems safe to assume that her fundamental aim is to allow the power and energy of the living world to filter through and animate her work.’ (Armitage, M. 1969 Martha Graham the early years. Da Capo Press, Inc.)
Chronicle (1936) brought upon a new period of contemporary dance. Completely danced by women, serious issues were brought to light for the first time. It is a preface to war, devastation, destruction and seclusion. It showed Graham’s anti-war stance. It was a counterpart to events such as the great depression. It was an iconic step forward in modern dance.
Clytemnestra (1958) was considered by many to be Graham’s masterpiece. It was an evening long performance, her largest scale work that she ever produced. Composed by Halim El-Dabh. The piece is based on an ancient Greek story about Queen Clytemnestra. It involves love affairs and sacrifice of her daughter. This was a very symbolic piece, use of red material as costume and props for the entrance to the Queen’s bedchamber. Graham had used material before in Lamentation but not in a design way, so Isamu Noguchi incorporated it within the design. (Graham, M. 1991 Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Doubleday; 1st edition.)
Graham collaborated with many artists and visionaries alike. (The following are just to name a few.) Many of whom influenced her work and she in turn influenced them. Isamu Noguchi was a famous sculptor and was a good friend of Grahams and created many of her sets for her pieces. Graham was often compared to many famous artists by society. Her affect on dance was thought upon like Stravinsky’s music, Picasso’s paintings or Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. One of the foremost composers of the time, Aaron Copland, worked with Graham. Copland was known to incorporate jazz music and folk music into his compositions, a revolutionary design for the time. This was then shown through Graham’s pieces, for example, Appalachian Spring (1944), one of Graham’s well known dances, had a brand new score created for it by Copland. This was a revolutionary piece both in the style of the choreography and of the music. Appalachian Spring was Graham’s piece based on a springtime celebration of the American pioneers of the 19th century after they build a new farmhouse. Other composers were William Schuman, who composed Night Journey (1947) for Graham, Samuel Barber composed Frescoes (1978/79). Louis Horst was another of Graham’s most valued composers, also known to be Graham’s closest adviser on choreographic and creative issues. Graham collaborated with the famous designer Roy Halston Frowick, who created the costumes for some of her later works. He was one of the most proclaimed designers of the seventies. The first time Graham collaborated with Halston was on her work Lucifer (1975), which starred Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Lucifer was a reference to the ‘light bearer’ of biblical times. When talking about this piece Graham states;
‘Many people have asked me why I did Lucifer with Rudolf Nureyev. Lucifer is the bringer of light. When he fell from grace he mocked Gosh. He became half god, half man. As half man, he knew men’s fears, anguish, and challenges. He became the god of light. Any artist is the bringer of light. That’s why I did with Nureyev. He’s a god of light.
And Margot Fonteyn was such a glorious complement to him at it. Luminous as night. When I first saw Margot Fonteyn she was a great and beautiful figure. The magic of Margot’s presence is an elusiveness of spirit that defies description’
(Graham, M. 1991. Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Doubleday; 1st edition.)
Graham’s final performance in which she danced was her work Cortege of Eagles (1967). It is one of her Greek mythology drawn pieces. It is about Hecuba reliving the massacre of the Trojan War. It is a very dramatic based piece focusing on the internal actions and ideals of Hecuba. It is not as investigative as her earlier Greek mythology drawn pieces. It has a focus to emotions and presence more than movement of Graham herself. Instead the actions are carried out by the chorus of dancers. As if they were playing out Hecuba’s memories.
Martha Graham is still celebrated today as one of the most important performers and choreographers of all time. Maple Leaf Rag (1990) was Grahams last choreographed work with a score by Scott Joplin and Calvin Klein’s costumes. Graham was working on a piece called The Eye of the Goddess before her death in 1991. It was her new ballet for the Olympic Games in Barcelona.
So many of her students became choreographers and company leaders and took a certain aspect of her work with them. Merce Cunningham is a prime example, and this is one of the reasons why we still get to see a lot of her style of work today. Graham changed the concept of what we know as ‘contemporary/modern dance’. If not for her, many ideas of how we perceive dance would not exist in the present day. Some found Graham’s work ugly and hateful; others called it a revolutionary masterpiece.
‘People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life. ‘
(Graham, M. 1991. Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Doubleday; 1st edition.)
Horosko, M. 2002 Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training. University press of Florida.
Armitage, M. 1969 Martha Graham the Early Years. Da Capo Press, Inc.
Graham, M. 1991 Blood Memory: An Autobiography. Doubleday; 1st edition.
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