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The Buzz, 4-14: "Sex" and the City Center
The (Short-)Selling of Martha Graham

"As I look back on twenty years of Graham choreography as on some ritualized kind of mime, the vivid decision of its action, the rapidity and range of its gesture meanings jumping by free association from close at hand to remote, the turbulence and vehemence of the dramatic powers invoked have been extraordinary. It has been unique. I know ballet fans who feel passionately that the work is wrong in principle. As for me, its principles make those of ballet the clearer. A life of such enormous energies that keeps pouring itself according to its fate into the imaginative world of dance is a godsend."

-- Edwin Denby, "Martha at Sixty-eight," unpublished essay, Spring 1961.*

"Graham: Myth. Sex. Passion."

-- Slogan of choice, Martha Graham Dance Company marketing campaign, as seen in the New York Times, Spring 2004.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in the Buzz are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of others on the Dance Insider staff or among its advertisers.)

Has modern dance really become so desperate to attract an audience that its most revered company feels it needs to promise "Sex" to fill its house? Why are the new custodians of the Martha Graham legacy -- I'm speaking of the administrators of the Martha Graham Dance Company, not the dancers -- who many of us assumed would rescue the company (and the legacy) from its non-dancer former director, instead dragging Martha Graham's name into the gutter by advertising the company's City Center season, which opens tonight, with the slogan "Graham: Myth. Sex. Passion"? (I caught the ad on the web site of the New York Times, where these words hovered over a leggy photograph of Katherine Crockett.) By choosing "Sex" as a major marketing motif and thus defining the company and the work so basely, the new brain trust running our oldest and most cherished dance company (do they even realize what they have?) has betrayed the trust the community invested in it in the belief it would restore this vital part of our heritage. It has denigrated the company's heritage and debased the art and the artists -- those of the company and dancers in general, in effect confirming the worse stereotype of what it means to be a "dancer." By promising "Sex" and thus putting off families, the new administrators of the Martha Graham company have also excluded many of the young people they should be cultivating to ensure the company's long-term survival. What we have most of all here, though, is an utter failure of imagination, a failure by the caretakers of the Martha Graham legacy to really understand the work and fully appreciate its value.

I put the following question to Martha Thomases, a spokesperson for the Graham company: "Why is the Martha Graham Dance Company marketing its City Center season with the slogan "MYTH. SEX. PASSION"?

"We (the Martha Graham Center) had written this up as the copy for the radio ads," answered Thomases. "When we heard it, we thought it was absolutely great and as we were designing the next series of ads and printed materials, we decided to change the byline (sic) from Unparalleled and Unplugged (which indeed we still are). After all, whose work is more about Myth + Sex + Passion than Martha's?"

Oh, that the woman who gave so much by way of imagination to dance, to art, to the world should be cursed by handlers with so little of it! Certainly, there are sexual archetypes to be found in Graham's work, with psycho-sexual tensions, but its invention and meaning are so much deeper than "Sex." By exercising even just a little more ingenuity -- doesn't she deserve it? -- it would have been so easy to come up with a word which reflects the work better and which reflects better on the field. I'm not even paid to do this, and since last night, with very little research, I've come up with: Ritual. Drama. Imaginative. Fury. Intellect. (Denby titled an early review simply, "Graham's Intellectual Fury.") Technique. Why even fight for the right to say you teach the Technique, as the current administration did in court, if you're not going to flaunt it, instead pitching your artistic wares like you would a strip club?

Ah yes, the strip club. Spend any time outside of New York, San Francisco, and a few other metropolitan centers and you'll know that when most Americans in the non-dancegoing public hear "dancer" they think "exotic," as in the ones that you used to find plying their trade in Times Square. Which is not to dis' nightclub dancers -- a girl's gotta make a living -- but there IS a difference between them and trained concert dancers. By promoting its appeal in large part as "Sex," the Graham company's administrators only reinforce this misperception, doing a disservice to dancers everywhere and to their dancers in particular. Those dancers are certainly gorgeous to watch, but to concentrate on their "Sex" appeal is to undervalue them as artists and to undervalue the work. They trained for years so that they can present an audience with ART. Their administrators could and should have spent more time and devoted more thought to coming up with a pitch that honored their work and the work better, instead of muddying both.

Less important, but very visceral for me, is that, while the current management team ultimately made a good case for legal deed to most of the Graham oeuvre, those of us who supported them believed they had the moral title as well. If the courts have granted them legal rights to the legacy, this cheap campaign, which would make even the most shameless carnival barker blush, casts serious doubt on their fitness for the responsibility. Is this what we were fighting for?


*From "Collected Writings" (New York, 1986, Knopf), edited by Robert Cornfield and William Mackay.

 

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