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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Martha Graham’s Last Dance

Martha  Graham
In the fall of 1970 Brooklyn overflowed with modern dance. As part of the Brooklyn Festival of Dance, BAM brought to the stage such heavyweights as the American Ballet Company, Merce Cunningham, and the Martha Graham Dance Company, which kicked it all off with seven consecutive days of performances from Graham’s repertoire.

While this was not the first time the Graham Company danced at BAM (it has performed here regularly since 1933), these performances were remarkable in that they were the first time Graham would not appear in her dances. Apparently, Graham did not want this fact publicized, and on October 2nd, the morning of her company’s premiere, a front page story appeared in The New York Times with the headline, “Martha Graham, 76, to Dance No More.” Harvey Lichtenstein, former BAM president, recalls that she was furious the entire day. That night, just before the curtain opened, Graham suddenly appeared onstage and then walked behind the curtain, through the stage door, and into the auditorium. Lichtenstein recalls that
“the minute the audience saw her, everyone was on their feet, absolutely jumping up and down and applauding and cheering. And she took a slow walk to her seat, a performer always, on stage or off. And the program began and she was fine, but she never danced on stage again after that.”

Advertisement for Graham's first BAM appearance, 1933

And the show did, indeed, go on. The following night brought about the revival of Graham’s 1940 piece Letter to the World, an exploration of the duality between the inner and outer lives of the artist, inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Its title is taken from one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems:
This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to Me –
The simple News that Nature told
With tender Majesty –

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see –
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen
Judge tenderly – of Me –
This poem was written during Dickinson’s most creative and prolific period, which occurred at a particularly violent time in American history: the outbreak of the Civil War, when BAM was in its infancy. Likewise, Graham’s greatest work comes largely from the World War II era, when she was grappling with the contradictions of identity and creativity in a destructive time. Graham herself described Letter to the World this way: “I conceived of two Emilys, dressed alike… Throughout the dance the Emily who spoke would witness the other Emily, myself, who danced the inner landscapes of the poetry.”

Letter to the World. Photo: Tom Kerrigan

Whereas Dickinson was an intensely private poet, publishing only a handful of poems in her lifetime, from early in her career Graham embraced the role of public artist—and the public certainly embraced her. Though she continued to choreograph new pieces until her death in 1991, we can imagine her impromptu walk from the curtain to her seat in the audience in 1970 as her last public performance—or even her final letter to the world—as the audience cheered her through the aisle. It was the language of her body in motion that she knew best, that was the “simple News that Nature told” through her rhythm and movement.

1 comment:

  1. this is an incredible story and this post is beautifully written. also, comparing the artistic sensibility of emily dickinson to martha graham is ingenious.