It's still hard for me to believe that I was fortunate enough to see the dance company
of the legendary Martha Graham. I don't know if I recall correctly, but I was forced to
stay at college during Thanksgiving and the young woman, Janet, who became my wife's
maid-of-honor and lived locally, invited me to share turkey and stuffing with them. Since
my birthday often falls on or near Turkey Day, she treated me to join her at the legendary
Cincinnati Music Hall to see the Martha Graham Dance Company.
It's hard to imagine anyone in the field who celebrated the human form more than Ms.
Graham. Her choreography plumbed the depths of human emotions. Her own dancing
seemed not so much an act of thoughtful artistry but one of expiation and emotional
I'm sure I largely knew her from Appalachian Spring, the ballet she created to Aaron
Copland's orchestral suite. I had known the music since I was small, an excerpt from
the "Shaker Hymn" was the theme music for CBS Reports, a documentary TV series
that produced such investigative journalism as Harvest of Shame in 1960 about the
plight of migrant farm workers. The music never failed to move me.
Ms. Graham created a new kind of dance in her choreographed works, one that
focused on the dialectic between "contraction" and "release" of the human form,
and one that required extensive training and breath control. She taught her dancers
to fall in creative ways and to exploit the force of gravity in their movement.
Her influence was profound. Here she is expressing her thoughts on being a dancer,
followed by a clip of her company performing an excerpt from Appalachian Spring.
It was thrilling to see this dance performed live. The audience was transported.
Ms. Graham was well along in years then, but she still maintained a firm grasp
on her troupe's vision. She had handpicked Peggy Lyman as the company's
principal dancer, and it was Lyman's interpretation of Graham's "Lamentation"
that was the most memorable offering that night. It is a dance piece created to
accompany a Zoltan Kodaly piano work in 1930, and it is the essence of modern
dance. It is about sorrow and rebirth both. Unlike virtually all prior dance works,
the dancer is often seated. Yet it is clearly a dance.
Below is Graham's original and the interpretation by Peggy Lyman under Graham's
watch in 1976. Ms. Lyman eventually succeeded Graham as the director of the
company. In the third clip she trains a young dancer on the Graham techniques.
Modern dance doesn't exist without Martha Graham. When I went to see the
Alvin Ailey Dance Company, for example, it was apparent that Ailey's choreography
was inspired by Graham. Her dances are better appreciated today than perhaps they
have ever been. What a profound shock her works must have given audiences ninety
years ago! Here is Martha Graham introducing her work Frontier, danced by Janet
Eilber, and Adorations, danced by the corps.
Below is a tribute to Ms. Graham's lifework. At the end of the performance I saw
on my birthday, the audience gave her troupe rapturous applause. But they all
stood as one when the curtains parted and out came Martha Graham, herself,
pushed in a wheelchair to the front of the stage. Now in her 80s, she bowed her head
to the thunderous ovation from a grateful audience. It is quite a memory.