Martha Graham’s Dancers, On Stage, Here in Vienna

Precision drama and breathtaking energy on stage in Vienna

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” – Martha Graham | Photo: BB Promorion

In America, Martha Graham has been an icon for generations of women. Yet she was one of the 20th century’s most iconoclastic artists. And one of its most influential: Born in 1894, she died less than twenty years ago, at nearly100, having created a completely new vocabulary of movement, revolutionizing the medium and freeing dance from a form of stilted aristocratic entertainment to an expression of deep humanity.

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” said Graham, and she went further than anyone had yet gone to find it.

There is nothing arcane about how humans move. We read people and their gestures before they open their mouths. And what is dance if not the capturing of these signs, combining them into a new algorithm of understanding? Watching Graham’s work we feel this, with a nod of recognition and a quickening in the blood.

To launch a career that lasted more than seven decades, Graham had to rebel against a puritan, well-to-do East Coast family, who considered performing on stage immoral. She began studying dance relatively late, in her twenties, and in 1926, at the age of 32, founded the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. Of the many famed contemporary dance companies in the world today, hers is probably the most legendary. It also spawned several generations of choreographers of equal stature, including Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins. Today, although the Company performs works by others, it continues the legacy of its founder and namesake, with much of its repertoire selected from the over 180 choreographies she left behind.

The Company made a rare visit to Vienna in October, with seven performances in the MuseumsQuartier. Surprisingly, they had not sold out months in advance. Despite the attempts of the MQ to be cutting edge in dance, despite budgets for posters around town, despite the ImPuls Tanz Festival, Vienna has not developed a steadfast audience for dance. But this did not diminish the stunning performances from the Company’s 20 members, precision drama and breathtaking energy, perfectly poised between balance and relaxation.

These are not the linear fairytales of classical ballet, slumbering in tradition, but stories as we have them in our minds, multi-layered, linked to our fears and hopes. It is a deconstruction of movement, a freedom from authority. But it is not “anything goes,” it is a strictly defined language that pulls daily gestures to the level of the artistic.

The Graham idiom is unmistakable: The profile poses of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Grecian urns, the flexed hands and bare feet. Cloth and skirts used as ever-changing props, from water to wind, pennants to shrouds. The dramatic use of light and shadows, of color and contrast. There is no illusion of feminine frailty, no tip-toeing, no fear of something being not “beautiful.” The hips and elbows jut naturally, hair is thrown, eyes are half-closed in seduction and pleasure. This is dance that could only have shocked at the time of its inception. But 50 years and more later, we are still swept away by its raw display of emotion.

Chronicle lingers longest in the memory. Created in 1936, it was a response to the destruction and depression following WWI and to the growing fascism in Europe. Despite an all-female cast, one sees the machinery of war: the soldiers, the tanks, the well-oiled gears of destruction. And to the beat of the drum, the bloody winding sheet. It is one of Graham’s few political works.

Martha Graham was invited to perform with her company at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Her response: “It would be impossible for me to dance in these times in Germany […] by no means [would I want] to be identified with the regime by accepting the invitation …” 

In 2007, as a memorial to 9/11, three choreographers were commissioned by the Company to create short personal reflections on a film of Graham performing her 1930 piece Lamentation, one of her best-known works. Lamentation is a nearly stationary solo piece of a dancer writhing within a tube of cloth; it depicts a person in the grip of grief. One feels the constricting of the throat, the pain in the chest, the sense of being rooted to one spot and unable to move.

The resulting works in Lamentation Variations did not mimic Graham’s language, they captured its essence. The gentle anguish of “I had to say farewell to the place I loved most,” from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, introduced the three dances of departure and leave-taking. Left behind was a hushed yet sharp sadness, irrevocable.

Embattled Garden (1958) and Errand into the Maze (1947), one based on the tale of the Garden of Eden, the other on the myth of Theseus, regrettably felt dated. Their story-telling verged on the exaggerated expressiveness of a manga comic. Nevertheless, both pieces, with their scrutiny of tense interpersonal relationships, are intimately connected to another iconoclastic breakthrough of the 20th century, the discovery of our psyche. Freud used ancient mythology to show that his ideas are universally valid; he gave us a new vocabulary for our daily lives. Graham, inspired by another of the great early psychoanalysts, Carl Jung, saw the journey into the labyrinth as one into the last corners of the soul, the serenity of the Garden as a mask for passion.

The evening ended with Maple Leaf Rag, set to a group of rags by Scott Joplin. It was Graham’s last work, created at the age of 94 in 1990. Surprisingly youthful and yet not childish, it is an unexpected, witty romp, full of silliness and flirting, playful envy and partying. And also a nice dose of gentle eroticism. A work for a precocious twenty-year-old, not a nonagenarian.

Martha Graham described herself and her dancers as having “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” Hers was certainly a restless spirit, unique and powerful. And her dancers continue to show us that, brilliantly.

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