Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Martha Graham

While writing a paper for the spring honors seminar, I was required to briefly report on the life and influence of one of Time Magazine's top one hundred people of the twentieth century. Thus far, I'd reported on physicists, psychiatrists, musical composers, successful businessmen and several musicians, and so jumped on the opportunity to write a paper on the life of a dancer/choreographer. Martha Graham was listed as one of Time's most influential people of the twentieth century, and though I knew she was instrumental in the development of modern dance, I wanted to know why she would be on this list... and then I was embarrassed that I didn't already know.

Graham was greatly influential in the dance world and the art world at large, forcing dancers and artists to reexamine what dance was and what it should or should not do. She pioneered a new approach to dance that required the creation of an entirely new vocabulary to describe and talk about it, using motion as a means of expressing emotions in an unprecedented way. Her career was a long and successful one that ended in her receiving various accolades and recognition toward the end of her life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the nation. In spite of all this praise, however, Martha was rather discontented with the way she was being received by the public. She wanted to be remembered as a dancer, but the world saw her largely as an innovative and original choreographer. This perception was probably exacerbated by Martha's insistence on performing into her later sixties. Unable to execute dance that carried with it the energy and power that hallmarked her earlier work, her later performances simply highlighted her role as an expert choreographer and not as a dancer.

But this frustration regarding Martha's memory was also due to her largest contribution. She is remembered as a choreographer and not as a dancer in great part due to her influence on her fellow dancers. Graham served as teacher and inspiration to names such as Erik Hawkins, John Butler, and even -ready for this?- Merce Cunningham. She is remembered not as a dancer, but as an instrumental and powerful impact on the great dancers that would change the world after her. She is remembered for creative work that would inspire other artists to push the limits of art, for serving as stimulus for original thought. And though she was discontented with the fact that the world didn't recognize her as a dancer, i think that had she known and understood the role she was, in fact, playing, she might have been a bit more appreciative. Had she known the true effect that her work as a choreographer -not as a dancer- was having and would have on the world, she might have been okay with her memory.

1 comment:

penny said...

Oh, and I liked her use of costuming too. It was very elaborate and powerful, and yet I wouldn't describe it as theatrical, exactly.
Just thought I'd mention that here, because no one else seems to leave comments... Oh, and penny, in case no one's told you lately, you're fabulous, really, you are, and I totally agree with all that you say on this and on other blogs.