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Flash Essay, 4-6: Shape Shapes Meaning
A Tale of Two Marthas: The Play's the Thing

By Janet Eilber
Text copyright 2005 Janet Eilber
Photography by Cris Alexander and others

NEW YORK -- Martha Clarke's mother, in a prescient moment, decided to name her daughter after Martha Graham. Martha (Clarke) did indeed grow up to become a dancer (and early member of Pilobolus) and choreographer, and to join forces with Martha Graham, whose dance company premieres her "Sueno" for tonight's City Center opening of its New York season. The work, based on etchings by Goya, may seem to be more theater than dance. But those of us who worked closely with the woman who brought dance into the modern era understand that Clarke not only inherited Martha's first name but, like others in dance and theater, her aesthetic legacy. Having observed the previews of "Sueno" in Austin, I was impressed with the way that Clarke broadens our understanding of how contemporary choreographers draw upon and extend Graham's vision.
Martha Graham in Cave of the Heart Martha Graham in Cave of the Heart
The Martha Graham Dance Company in Graham's "Cave of the Heart," with Martha Graham as Medea. Photo by Cris Alexander, copyright Cris Alexander, and courtesy Martha Graham Resources.

The actor Tony Randall, a Graham student and devotee, once told me, "People don't realize that Martha changed the course of American theater." He was right.

In his recent essay "What's the Story: Is It Dance or Theater?," prompted by Matthew Bourne's "Play Without Words," the New York Times's John Rockwell mentions in passing Martha Graham's "having told stories in her dances." In fact, Bourne and every director working in narrative movement in the last 75 years has been deeply influenced by Graham's innovations. But, much more than "telling stories in her dances," Martha took stories and turned them inside out. By pioneering techniques that were not only new to dance but new to theater, she gave her audiences radical, disconcerting new perspectives on myths that had been comfortably part of our lives and psyches. She created an entirely new form -- neither dance as we knew it, nor theater as we knew it -- and everyone from Agnes de Mille and Bob Fosse to Martha Clarke to the current crop of MTV choreographers has been creating within this form since. It has traveled to musical theater, film, television and opera; all forms of dramatic narrative reverberate with Martha's early experiments and ensuing masterworks.

"Shape shapes meaning" Martha once declared as she prodded me into a deeper and deeper contraction before the welcome release. The phrase ranks with "movement doesn't lie" as seminal to all of Martha's discoveries, because her concept of 'shape' permeates her theatrical revolution. First she changed the shape of gesture; then she changed the shape of space; finally, she changed the shape of time.

When it was said, in praise of her innovation, that Martha discovered what the body could do, she demurred, "No, I rediscovered that." The seed of all of her theatrical innovations was the idea that everything about us is telegraphed by the way we move. Martha set out to theatricalize body language -- to strip away any facade, any non-essential or decorative move and to let the body narrate the inner life. When the well-discovered Bourne comments in Rockwell's article, "I've always been excited by the strangeness of ballet, but I can't bear it when people just come forward and do a turn in the air for no reason," he is rediscovering the concepts Martha articulated for us.

Isadora Duncan may have been the first modern dancer to connect emotion to movement, but Martha gave this expression shape. She invented the actor-dancer's alphabet. She gave us a lexicon of gesture that was true to life: it did not resist gravity, hide effort or rely on designs of the body that were traditionally considered pleasing. Martha's method used shapes never seen on the stage before. It was angular, percussive and powerfully driven from the center of the body, the pelvis. To the astonished and often alienated audiences for her early solos, it was shatteringly recognizable.

In 1928, Martha began teaching dance to acting students at the Neighborhood Playhouse, giving them a rigorous physical vocabulary to match their study of verbal expression and insisting that they recognize the connection. Her work had an intrinsic relationship to Stanislavsky's "Method" for actors, then taking hold in America. She told me of working with "that beautiful boy" Orson Welles (all of 19 at the time), who gave a facile reading of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" monologue. Martha twisted Welles into a precarious pose -- standing on one foot with his head to his knee and the other foot hooked on the barre behind him so that maintaining his balance demanded his full effort -- and had him repeat the monologue. This time, he delivered the speech with a strained voice, full of purpose and emotion. She delighted at Welles's discovery that he could recreate Hamlet's emotional state from this physical imposition -- that the connection between the physical and emotional worked in both directions.

The emerging actors that were lucky enough to take Martha's class at the Neighborhood Playhouse became leaders in the new era of American acting. Bette Davis, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Gregory Peck, Joanne Woodward and many of their contemporaries have credited Martha with changing the course of their art. Actress Marion Seldes confessed, "I learned everything I know from Graham."

This idea of character through gesture was only the beginning of Martha's contributions. Having created and then codified a form of gestural communication for the individual figure and mastered the basics of her language, Martha extended her vision with innovations in lighting, costumes and music. Imagine the impact of that stretchy shroud of fabric she donned for "Lamentation" (1930) in an era when many performers of popular dance were clad in high heels and feather boas. As to music selection, Martha refused to decorate a composer's completed vision, preferring to commission scores that were integral to her own message. Then, she was ready to take on the space of the stage itself.

As the number of women in Martha's company increased, the meaning of shape had new possibilities. Her works for large casts of women in the mid-thirties used shape -- her geometry of groups -- to deliver the emotional impact. In "Heretic" (1929), her longings as the lone figure in white are defeated again and again by the configurations of the chorus of women in black, a wall of disapproval blocking her at every move. In dances such as "Celebration" (1934) and, even more, "Panorama" (1935) -- in which she used 35 dancers -- Martha made visual the power of numbers. With driving lines and surging patterns, she shifted and rearranged the space on stage, guiding -- at times, controlling -- the focus of the audience. This technique reached its full maturity in works of social commentary such as "Chronicle" (1936). One prominent director said that after seeing "Chronicle," he knew exactly how to stage the battle scenes in King Lear.

But in revolutionizing the shape of space onstage, nothing compares to what was born out of Martha's collaboration with sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Martha had always danced on a blank stage, having no use for the painted scenery that had been the norm. As her power as an artist increased, she needed symbolic imagery beyond what she could suggest with her own body. In 1935, as she envisioned her newest solo, "Frontier," she asked Noguchi for a vista -- something that would allow her to dance in the limitless space of the American plains. Noguchi said he was fascinated by the challenge "to wed the total void of theater space to form and action." He placed a short section of a wooden fence center stage and suspended two white ropes in a V-shape from the outside upper corners of the proscenium to a meeting point behind the fence. For the audience it suggested great distance -- like watching railroad tracks disappear into the horizon. For Martha, it gave her an outpost on the edge of the unknown -- the perfect wedding of emotional concept and visual metaphor.
Martha Graham in "Errand Into the Maze"  
The Martha Graham Dance Company in Graham's "Errand into the Maze." Photo of Martha Graham by the Associated Press, and courtesy Martha Graham Resources.  

Over the next 30 years Noguchi created worlds that were extensions of the "interior landscapes" that Martha was so intent on revealing. His shaping of space onstage was organic, tactile, and evocative, perfectly meshing with Graham's vision for the theater. One cannot imagine dances such as "Errand into the Maze" (1947) or "Appalachian Spring" (1944) without the unique sense of space in which they exist. In "Errand into the Maze," the bone-like portal and the mysterious objects floating overhead give the stage a cavernous quality; the psychological overtones of this maze of the mind are unmistakable. In "Appalachian Spring," every angle of the simple new house, its porch and fence evoke not only the great distances of the American Frontier but the limitlessness of the American Dream. Together, Graham and Noguchi set a standard for shaping theatrical space that was unmatched for decades.
Martha Graham Dance Company in "Appalachian Spring"
The Martha Graham Dance Company in Graham's "Appalachian Spring," with sets by Isamu Noguchi: Martha Graham (Bride), Erick Hawkins (Husbandman), May O'Donnell (Pioneering Woman) and Company. Library of Congress staff photograph. Reproduced from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy Martha Graham Resources.

By the late 1930s Martha had mastered her new style of integrated theater. All of the elements of her "plays," as she called them -- music, costumes, lighting and sets -- were essential to the unstinting expression of her central emotional theme. Like her new method of movement, they were spare, astringent, and reduced to their most elemental. As the first men (Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham) joined Martha's company, limitless new thematic possibilities opened to her, and Martha pressed forward into even more complex forms of her theater. She was now able to take on themes and characters of which and about whom the audience would have prior knowledge, manipulating and playing against the viewer's preconceptions of classic material. She paired Bible stories with primitive ritual, ("El Penitente") Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters with psychological theories ("Letter to the World" and "Deaths and Entrances"). And then came the Greeks: "Cave of the Heart," "Errand into the Maze" and "Night Journey." In the radical chronology of each of the stunning Graham masterworks of the 1940s, the shape of time was essential to the message.

Martha pioneered new structures that were rooted in a dizzying range of materials that she borrowed and shaped to her own needs: primal ritual, French symbolist poetry, Greek and Asian Drama, Jungian and Freudian psychology, religion, mythology, as well as works of contemporaries like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. "I am a thief," she admitted with pleasure, "but I only steal from the best."
The Martha Graham Dance Company in Graham's "Cave of the Heart," with Martha Graham as Medea. Photo by Cris Alexander, copyright Cris Alexander, and courtesy Martha Graham Resources.

The narrative structure of "El Penitente" (1940) offers audiences a play within a play, while "Appalachian Spring" is designed to evoke an American primitive painting; certain characters are frozen in the tableau as others step forward and dance their monologues. In "Letter to the World (1940)," Martha was the first in modern dance to use a technique fundamental to abstract expressionism: simultaneous narration, in which the same character (or aspects of her) is represented by several performers who may be onstage at the same time. She took this even further in the 1943 "Deaths and Entrances," incorporating the literary technique of stream of consciousness -- shuffling events of the past, present and future with real and imagined characters in an unveiling of the lead character's brooding subconscious.

Martha's manipulation of time's shape reached its pinnacle in "Night Journey" (1947). This version of the Oedipus story is driven by a brilliant backwards chronology. The dance begins as Sophocles's play ends; the curtain goes up on Jocasta, about to hang herself. Her life passes before her eyes and we see the entire story in flashback. Jocasta participates in her own memories with full knowledge of her inescapable fate. The chilling piece ends where it began. Jocasta tightens the rope around her neck and collapses as the curtain falls.

By the early 1940s emerging ideas in American art, drama, literature and psychology coalesced in Martha Graham -- she became the point of combustion. She took these diverse intangibles and made them tangible, turning them into disciplined theatrical techniques that offered her audiences jaw-dropping theater and "the shock of recognition." Because these techniques were so quickly and completely absorbed into theatrical presentation in all forms, the newest director-disciples may not even realize their debt to Martha.

We have seen how Martha changed the shape of gesture by demanding it adhere to and reveal human truths. She and Noguchi changed the shape of space on stage by stretching the illusion of horizon far beyond the limits of the set. Finally, by the use of flashback and premonition, she broke the chain of events in the unfolding of a narrative, reshaping the sequence of time, marrying the memory of the past with the hope or dread of the future.

I think Martha Graham would be proud to see her vision of "shape shapes meaning" carried forward in the American theater in Martha Clarke's "Sueno" and in the creative work of all the Marthas to come.


Janet Eilber is artistic director of Martha Graham Resources. A graduate of the Interlochen Arts Academy and the Juilliard School, she worked closely with Martha Graham as a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company throughout the 1970s, returning regularly as a guest artist through the 1990s. Graham created roles specifically for Eilber, reconstructed for her the seminal solos "Lamentation" and "Frontier," and coached her in some of the great roles of the Graham repertoire. Eilber soloed twice at the White House, was partnered by Rudolph Nureyev, and starred in three presentations of Dance in America for PBS. A master teacher of the Martha Graham technique, she has taught, lectured and restaged Martha Graham ballets internationally. She oversees artistic content for the Martha Graham Legacy Project at the Library of Congress and serves on the advisory board of the Dance Heritage Coalition. Eilber has also danced on Broadway for Agnes de Mille, Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune, received a Drama Desk nomination and starred as an actress on television and in films. She received four Lester Horton Awards for her work as co-founder of the American Repertory Dance Company. Eilber is currently principal arts consultant to the Dana Foundation and serves as a trustee of the Interlochen Center for the Arts.


Special thanks to Laura Raucher of Martha Graham Resources for photo research.

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