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Flash Lesson, 3-10: Every class is a prayer
'The contraction is Martha's great gift to dance'

By Pearl Lang
Copyright 1991, 2002 Marian Horosko

(Excerpted from Marian Horosko's "Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training," revised edition, University of Florida Press, 2002. Pearl Lang passed away February 24. See also Stuart Hodes's Dance Insider tribute.)

Pearl Lang in "Diversion of Angels"
Pearl Lang in Martha Graham's "Diversion of Angels," original costume, 1948. Photo by Chris Alexander courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.

My mother was a great admirer of Isadora Duncan, and there were photos of her and her various companies in Russia and Germany on our walls. I come from Chicago, and she took me to see Harald Kreutzberg, as well as all the dance companies that played there. I especially remember a performance, when I must have been four years old, of "Hansel and Gretel," the opera. In this production, when the children went to sleep at night, the angels came down a ladder from the sky two at a time. As they stepped down, each step lighted up and I thought that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I went right home, got my girlfriends together and did my first choreography, walking them downstairs with lights at every step!

I had lessons with a Duncan teacher and later, ballet lessons in Chicago. And when I was about 16 years old, I saw a Northwestern University series of American modern dancers that included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman. I took all their master classes and was invited by Martha and Humphrey to come to New York. I arrived when I was 19 years old.

The traditional Graham class begins with the bounces, but in the last years, in watching the company's performances, the contraction is just not as apparent as I used to see it and the way we danced it. The contraction is Martha's great gift to dance. I begin the class with it, along with some of the things that are usually done later in the class. The contraction is the most basic use of the center of the body. There is always a stretch before a contraction, which engages the interior muscles and reacts as in a cough, a sob, or a laugh -- all violent physical reactions. In order for the contraction to be visual, you have to have a smooth plane before it can happen. I try to make my students aware of the contrast in these movements. I point out that before a contraction is visible, there has to be a stretch in the other direction to make it happen. Aesthetically, too, it pleases me more to see them sit down and do contractions rather than begin with bounces. Somehow, I don't think Martha would have minded my changing the order.

Nothing in the system begins in the extremities. All the movements begin in the center of the body and move out. There is an overtone here from Duncan. In her book "My Life" (1928) she wrote that movement begins in the solar plexus, the diaphragm. When Martha devised her system, Duncan training was still around. Martha made a technique of the concept of a contraction beginning in the abdominals, while with Duncan it was a style, a quality of movement. Martha worked at a time when even painters were picturing the body in a cubist style. Picasso painted the body broken up into various planes, and choreographers of the time were emulating that kind of vision.

Martha saw Duncan dance in New York at Carnegie Hall and was enamored with her and absolutely ecstatic when she saw her dance. She wrote in her notebooks that she could hardly breathe during Duncan's performance and that her own hair, combed into two buns, had become completely undone at the end of the performance. Ruth St. Denis and Duncan were dancing at the same time -- two famous and unique dancers who influenced Martha. She never talked about Mary Wigman and probably never saw her dance.

Her early background in the Denishawn company provided her technique with a strong influence in ethnic dance since their repertoire was built upon ethnic dances. St. Denis was famous for her "Nautch Dance," which bore little resemblance to the original, but ethnic dances were all very fashionable in those days.

I find that students lose sight of a movement phrase, especially at its beginning. Just as you write a sentence with a capital letter, the beginning of a dance has to have some authority to tell us what is going to happen, and it has to have an end. If it doesn't have that finality, we don't remember it. I try to convey that when I teach. There are those students who are naturally going to dance and need some technique, and you have those who study technique, technique, technique and nothing more than that ever happens.

I have been saying for years that, in addition to classes in ballet for all the students, male dancers, especially those studying Graham's technique, should be required to study flamenco dance because Martha's posture for men was macho.

Martha listened a great deal to Joseph Campbell [company member Jean Erdman's husband and author of "Man and Myth"]. Martha was a Jungian [Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung (1875 - 1961) founded analytical psychology]. A lot of Jung's psychiatry was built upon universal archetypes. The behavior of people interested Martha, so when Campbell made parallels to something in Hopi Indians and East Indian mythology, for instance, she absorbed those similarities. She didn't want to be specific in her characterizations as much as she wanted them to resonate in other cultures.

For instance, Martha was fascinated with the beautiful Southwest, which was an artist colony in the 1930s and where Georgia O'Keeffe went to live and paint. There, the cross-culture of American Indians and Hispanic Catholics influenced her early work "Primitive Mysteries" (1931).

We are, after all, training dancers for the stage, and they have to have life in them. It can't just be steps and technique. I see so many young choreographers walk to the front of the stage, look out to the audience, and seem to say, "I'm unhappy and it's all your fault." Every company director and teacher has the responsibility to develop the possibilities of a dancer. You have to know what those possibilities are and bring them out of each one. After every class I think about what the students will need in the next class. It takes the director or teacher and the student together to make this happen.

Every class is a prayer. Some of the movements are pious; there is a spirituality in dance. Martha claimed the studio was her church, just as the Asians bless the floor on which they perform. There are so many influences in our society that the student has to ignore -- the vulgarity on the screen, on television, and even on stage. If a character is vulgar, then you have to play it that way, but when it becomes pervasive in a society, it makes you wonder how you can teach the subtleties, the refinements, and the nuances and beauty within the movements. There is little or no frame of reference for them. And so little time.

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