Saturday, 30 June 2012

Martha Graham in Love and War

Mark Franko’s book-length study on Martha Graham is a much awaited and very welcome work.
As he notes in the Introduction, Graham is often compared to Picasso or Freud, but biographers, whose studies have been fundamental to frame her life and achievements, “have not always given her work the quality or quantity of analysis that has been devoted to Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, or Gandhi”. That is why Franko’s intention is to focus on her most productive years, namely those between 1938 and 1953, with a specific attention to what was happening in her life and, more precisely, in her relationship with Erick Hawkins off and onstage. As he says, “it is appropriate and indeed necessary to bring biography into relation with the analysis of production work”.

In particular, he chooses four dance pieces, American Document (1938), Appalachian Spring (1944), Night Journey (1947), and Voyage (1953), to investigate the relationship between Graham's life and work. The first and last are quite unknown to the audience, while the second and third represent two of her most popular pieces. He devotes to each of them a chapter filled with impressive analyses fuelled by research that includes the consultation of unpublished material. 

Franko’s research unveils fundamental aspects of Appalachian Spring which is stripped of its joyful rhetoric. Appalachian Spring is about a newly married couple who is welcomed by the community into their new house. It is the last piece Graham created on North American themes. Analysing material on the creation of the work, Franko discovers that its original conception included other characters, like the Indian Girl and the Fugitive. Throughout the working of the piece, they were eliminated, but, in a way, their ghostly presence remained in the piece. That is why the work is characterised by what he terms “character compression”, in that each character is also the result of the elimination of these characters who possibly survive in another character's movement quality or step or even in Aaron Copland’s musical score.

Another significant result of Franko’s research is his analysis of Night Journey and Voyage in connection with the Graham-Hawkins relationship and, more precisely, with their separation. The first is one of her signature pieces and retells the Greek tragedy of Oedipus from Jocasta’s perspective, while the second is one of her most unknown pieces, perhaps her most neglected one, and is about “the effort to shed delusions”. Graham interprets the role of a middle-aged woman who relates herself to three different men. In this sense, she turns away from myth, which had been a kind of creative shield for her since the mid-1940s and presents herself as a more vulnerable artist. That is why, according to Franko, this work was not appreciated by the critics who were instead used to Graham’s magnetic power onstage.  

As I said, Franko does a marvellous job in putting the two pieces in relation to each other. Graham was writing the libretto for Night Journey when Hawkins left her for the first time for about a year and this event “had to influence Graham’s vision of Jocasta in relation to Oedipus”. Hawkins then definitely left her in 1950 during their European tour which was cancelled due to Graham’s knee injury. Voyage represents a creative elaboration of their separation. Franko notes that “if Night Journey was an anticipatory ritual of separation, Voyage was a post-ritual of becoming separate”. In particular, Voyage “is unique in the annals of twentieth-century choreography because it was conceived in analysis, and developed in a correspondence (and probably also in conversation) with the choreograher’s analyst,” Jungian psychotherapist Frances Wickes.

Because Franko does not provide a thorough introduction to either Graham or her pieces, his study may not be of easy access to those who are not familiar with her work. However, the scope of his analysis and the richness of his findings, make it a must read for anyone interested in dance, cultural, and biographical studies as well as the creative process of a remarkable artist.

I would like to thank the Oxford University Press for letting me have an advance reading copy of the book before its actual publication.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Lecture performance on Martha Graham

The Italian version of this post has first appeared on one of my other blogs,, at this address.
 ADAM Accademia (Macerata Art Academy) celebrates Martha Graham twenty years after she passed away with a lecture performance created by myself on September 17th, 2011 in Civitanova Marche.

Martha Graham (1894-1991) has been one of the most important figures in the twentieth century, so much so that she has been compared to Picasso and Freud for the scale of her revolution in dance. Her work represents a fundamental stage in contemporary dance history: as has been said more than once, every dancer is Martha Graham's son or daughter, both in the case he or she has continued to work alonge the lines she created and in the case he or she rejected them, as it happened to Merce Cunningham, who danced in her Company for a few years.

Graham has been an extraordinary dancer, a remarkable choreographer and has created a dance technique centred on the movement of the torse, a technique which has questioned the supremacy of ballet and the idea that dance should only be an entertaining art. Before her, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis had questioned these aspects without producing lasting and structurally defined alternatives. Graham, on her part, has managed to delienate a creative corpus capable of facing a comparison with the rich tradition of ballet and with Broadway. Maybe it is for this reason that in 1959 the famous Russina ballet choreographer George Balanchine, father of the New York City Ballet, asked her to collaborate with him at the creation of his new piece Episodes. Many personalities have been seduced by Graham's charisma: Andy Warhol has recreated her image in famous serigraphies, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn have danced in some of her pieces, Liza Minnelli has acted in one of her works, Woody Allen and Madonna have both studied at her school.

The lecture performance on Graham is structured according to three lines: one dedicated to the verbal medium and interpreted by myself as dance historian (that is the proper lecture part of the whole event), the second centred on movement and performed by contemporary dancer and choreographer Simona Ficosecco and the third one devoted to sound and mixed by dj [Nooz]. Graham always created spledid collaborations with the people she worked with, such as set or costume designers. The idea is to create an unusual synergy between three different languages which are not usually put together to celebrate Graham's work and to unveil some of its flaws.

[the image above is a sketch I made taking as inspiration Graham's Lamentation, the graphic design is by Nooz]

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Message (International Dance Day)

In 1982 the International Dance Comittee of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a UNESCO partner NGO, has chosen April 29th as International Dance Day to be celebrated worldwide. This is Jean-Georges Noverre's birthday (1727-1810). As is known, he is considered the father of Romantic ballet. Every year an important choreographer is called to give a message to the international community. This year Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has been asked to deliver the message (clik here to read it).

It is a significant message that gives numerous stimuli. First of all, he relates dance with its past, even though it is an art rooted in the present. Second, he exalts dance with a too dance-centred approach, "dance does not have limits with other arts". This is a necessary vision, if we think of the reiterated disadvantage dance has with respect to other arts such as opera or music, especially in Italy, but it is perhaps not entirely correct. Maybe he refers to contemporary dance where frontiers between space and body are often altered, but in other styles and techniques this crossing is not always possible.

Furthermore, in the third paragraph he underlines the honesty in the act of dancing. In this sense, he recalls Martha Graham's famous affermation, "movement never lies", a questionable one as movement can indeed lie. Graham, and, in a smaller measure Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, place, in this way, the art of dancing in a dangerous pre-verbal dimension which puts it more in relation with nature than with culture and that ricks to essentialise it.

Apart from this, Cherkaoui's message has a great impact, mainly for what concerns the ability to dance as ap recious instrument of communication and connection. This works particularly well in today's world, a world which is highly interconnected both for what concerns virtual reality and actual reality, "by moving like other people, by moving with other people and by watching them move, we can best feel their emotions, think their thoughts and connect to their energy. It is, perhaps, then that we can get to know and understand them clearly."

In the final paragraph, he even defines dance as "a celebration of co-existence, a way to give and make space and time for each other," a kind of powerful sharing experience that everybody should experiment.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

dance history (a brief definition)

Dance history deals with the past (even recent) of the art of dancing through the analysis of various kinds of sources (photographs, articles, oral documents, books, video etc.). Its aim is to understand the way it developed and anayse the way it eveolved according to different perspectives.

ps- the photograph is the cover of a famous dance history book, Curt Sachs,'s World History of Dance, first published in 1933.