The Perfectionists’ Wing

‘Martha Graham, A Life: When Dance Became Modern’ By Neil Baldwin & ‘Errand into the Maze: The Life and Works of Martha Graham’ By Deborah Jowitt

Graham and Ted Shawn in Shawn’s duet, Malagueña, 1921. Photograph by Albert Witzel. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library.

Martha Graham (1894–1991), whose dances—and the evolving technique for how to perform them—dramatically upended what audiences expected from theatrical dancing, did not identify as a choreographer. She was a dancer, even after she retired from the stage in 1970—a priority that affected the construction, content, and tone of her 181 works and determined how she chose to conduct much of her life.

Graham came to dance late. As a teenager, her attention was snagged by a poster of Ruth St. Denis, the influential, barefoot Orientalist dancer who retained her stage mystique into her eighties. (Her most famous dances invoke devotional Asian art.) On May 3, 1911, Graham persuaded her father, a physician with a special interest in the workings of the psyche, to take her to St. Denis’s concert in Los Angeles, near their home in Santa Barbara, where the Graham family had recently relocated from Pennsylvania. For the sixteen-year-old Martha, the performance was an epiphany, but she wasn’t able to begin formal classes until after the death of her father. By then 22, she attended Denishawn, the school and company that St. Denis and her new, much-younger husband, Ted Shawn, founded. Denishawn supplied scores of dancers for the silent film epics of Cecil B. DeMille. It is one of the ironies of Graham’s career that St. Denis, whom she idolized, didn’t think much of her as a dancer, finding her too wild and unpredictable. Graham captivated Shawn, however, and in her seven years at the company, he choreographed parts that showcased her intensity and theatricality, helping to launch her career.

You are witnessing a pristine treasure excavated at great psychic cost.

The next three decades were the period of Graham’s intense invention in both the theater and the classroom. These are also the fantastic years that Neil Baldwin—a prominent biographer of Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and Man Ray—covers in his recent, multi-focused cultural biography Martha Graham, A Life: When Dance Became Modern. From the late twenties through the forties, Graham created all of the movements in her dances, for herself and everyone else, and served her students as the model for each step and gesture. It was in this period that she created not only the tightly structured and imagistically astonishing dances she and her all-women company performed but also the movement language they required to realize her visionary images on stage. Graham choreographed many masterpieces; still, what makes her a dance genius of the very highest order is the “Graham technique,” with its contractions, which give birth to motion and emotion simultaneously, and its variations on the back fall, which show the human being to be not only a self-conscious, heroic actor but also a passive object of flesh and bone that is acted upon by forces it cannot control.

Graham’s memoirs and those of her dancers agree that from the late 1920s through the early 1950s—the period in which Baldwin proposes, controversially, that modern dance became Modern Dance—every hour in the studio was a pilgrimage toward spiritual purity, a time of such messianic energies that Graham disciplined her dancers not to come to class if they hadn’t washed their hair first. Her principal advisor was the older composer (and her married lover) Louis Horst, whom she had met at Denishawn. Graham’s theatrical creations during this era were lodestones emotionally and multi-valence artifacts intellectually. When you see Primitive Mysteries, in which young girls inhabit the life of the Virgin; or Lamentation, a solo of mourning in which the dancer is not a mourner but rather the abstract, life-sized representation of grief, siloed in a shroud; or El Penitente, in which the playacting conveys irreversible sorrow; or Letter to the World, in which the constricted life and uniquely slanted poems of Emily Dickinson open out to a world of archetypes relevant to all women, you are witnessing a pristine treasure excavated at great psychic cost. This is not everyone’s Modernism; it belongs in the perfectionists’ wing with Brancusi, Rouault, Giacometti. When the dancing is pristine as well, the result can feel like a prayer, or a silent tirade, or a disclosure in a confessional.


The years of the Second World War saw dramatic changes in Graham’s enterprise. Led by Erick Hawkins—her husband, principal male soloist, and the de facto manager of her company—and followed by the young Merce Cunningham, men were introduced into Graham’s hitherto all-women company, which affected the kind of repertory she made. There were also important shifts in her attention. She lost the guidance of her composer and lover Louis Horst at this time, and her imagination transferred from Horst’s spare, eminently danceable music to more symphonic and layered scores, such as those of Aaron Copland, introduced to her by Hawkins. She moved from making choreographic structures that functioned as self-contained dance poems of musical form—lyric, spiritual, or satiric—to the building of quasi-narrative, character-driven situations, a few set in the delicate gloom of nineteenth-century literary parlors and then, as the war wound down, a collection of robust, outdoor dances. Beginning with the 1944 Appalachian Spring, they invoked the sunburnt worlds of the imagined past and of ancient myth. These works enjoyed both Graham’s classic ideas concerning costume and creative partner Isamu Noguchi’s genius for sculptural sets. Noguchi used ropes and cables to draw in space and developed biomorphic sculptures and set pieces that seemed to put the very bones and brains of the dancing figures onto the stage, alternately heated up and cooled down, from 1958, by the lighting of resident company designer Jean Rosenthal.

This fall, I was sufficiently lucky to see a rehearsal by the Graham company of the 1947 Errand into the Maze—Graham’s contest to the death between an Ariadne figure (the woman artist, here Laurel Dalley Smith) and a Minotaur (according to Graham, the embodiment of the artist’s fears, danced by Antonio Leone), his chest bare and his arms pulled back behind him and pinioned around a stick or a bone (designed by Noguchi). I have seen this glamorous and spooky duet many times, yet the performance on this occasion was so full of physical suspense that some of its effects were shocking—notably a moment when the woman jumped onto the man’s braced thighs and he appeared to catch her and pin her there without using his arms. Graham herself once performed that leap, and other potentially bone-bruising ones, as when, dancing as the Bride in her 1944 Appalachian Spring, she rolled up and down the several stairs leading to the porch of the house that she and the Husband were about to inhabit. These risks were important to what it meant for her to take herself seriously as a dancer.

By Graham’s fifties, in the 1950s, however, her nimble, strong, and fluent body began to protest. At just this moment of metabolic change, Hawkins left her for reasons he elucidated in a twenty-page, single-spaced letter. They included his lack of featured billing on company advertising and Graham’s reluctance to acknowledge the physical dimension of their union in public. A choreographer with an ego to match Graham’s own, Hawkins founded his own company and a technique sometimes described by modern-dance mavens as “Graham lite” (i.e., without the deepest contractions or the most challenging falls). I once took a master class with Erick Hawkins. Wearing a dance belt and nothing else, he spent the 90 minutes facing himself in the mirror, we students following along behind him. Even so, he had his brilliant moments. Baldwin reports that Hawkins perceptively defined “Modern Dance” as, technically, dance wherein the torso, rather than the legs, initiates movement.

Meanwhile, in rehearsals, Graham increasingly delegated to other dancers the specialized task of generating movement for their solos, duets, and trios, which she would then edit and clarify in the larger context of the whole work she envisioned. Because Graham still revised the dances, because she alone planned the concepts, descriptions of action, and production elements of her repertoire, and because she had chosen her company with care, training its members meticulously in her way of moving so they would simply intuit what she wanted without her having to specify it—because they were devotedly hers—the name Martha Graham still deservedly appeared on the programs, posters, and donor solicitations.


During the second portion of Graham’s long career, from the 1950s to her death, her willingness to delegate at least some movement invention meant that even when Graham was indecisive, disheartened, debilitated, or drunk, she and her company could plow on through residencies and tours as well as classes at her Manhattan school. It also meant that she could plan new works by reading, making notes, and visualizing elements of the Martha Graham movement language, without having to undergo quite as many of the terrible throes of anxiety and the famous, enervating rages (in one of which she tore a telephone off the wall) that accompanied her earlier years, when she generated nearly all the movement by herself. By her eighties, when she could no longer demonstrateor even indicate—movement from a standing position, she oversaw and edited choreography from a chair. Even on the edge of her nineties, when sober, her brain did not fail her. Her staging, in 1984, of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring holds its own against the more admired stagings of Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch. In terms of the solos and duets, though, Graham’s dances from the 1950s on were at times, one might say, corps-sourced. As Yuriko (Yuriko Kikuchi, the great Graham soloist) summed up the situation: “We all chipped in to choreograph Clytemnestra for Martha.” A film was made of its opening night in 1958; Yuriko—who danced Iphigenia originally—showed me her copy. The different choreographic voices did not come together and the actual choreography was exhausting to try to follow. I understood why later productions trimmed it down by as much as an hour.

Graham in her ballet Ekstasis. Photograph by Soichi Sunami. Courtesy of the Soichi Sunami Estate and Martha Graham Resources.
Graham in her ballet Ekstasis. Photograph by Soichi Sunami. Courtesy of the Soichi Sunami Estate and Martha Graham Resources.

And yet, Graham was an outstanding company director and teacher, as evidenced by the amazing dancers and dancer-choreographers whom she taught and mentored. Most of them are recognized (and choreographers whose contributions came to the Graham company after the choreographer’s death are at least named) in Deborah Jowitt’s new and majestically reported Errand into the Maze: The Life and Works of Martha Graham. The Martha Graham Jowitt chronicles is, for me, believably the one I saw dance, in 1967, in the title role of The Witch of Endor, where she was essentially a fabulous head floating over a voluminous cape; heard speak magical (if not always logical) pre-curtain addresses from an elaborate armchair on the stage; read and read about in thousands of pages of memoirs, essays, and correspondence; heard analyzed in interviews with her dancers and in Graham technique classes with company members Cristyne Lawson and Ethel Butler; and listened to, rapt, in an afternoon session that Graham conducted with Antony Tudor in her East Side studio-townhouse on the nature of dance. I once sat behind Graham at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, at a performance featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had performed as a guest in her company and who now magnetized Graham’s attention as, back like a board and unmoving for the length of the dance, she studied his performance. At the end, she was unable to derive applause from her arthritically contorted hands in their wrist-length, pristine white gloves—still, she was there.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, January 2024, 480 pp.

Jowitt’s Martha Graham biography tells the story of its subject as a person centered in a community of dancers. Jowitt is the right person to make that community viable. As a dancer and a choreographer, she studied and performed for many of the artists she writes about, and, as the lead reviewer of The Village Voice for decades, she interviewed and/or evaluated just about everyone else. As the author of a book of dance history and a bio­graphy of Jerome Robbins, she also has learned how to interpret performances on film as well as live ones.

A spectacular passage of Errand into the Maze discusses the black-and-white film, made in the late 1930s, of Graham in her solo Frontier. What Jowitt finds in the way the dancer focuses her gaze is an entire life: “She (subtly, amazingly) gives you the sense of a woman newly alone—perhaps a husband is away at war—who is testing both her freedom and her necessary strength.” In the way that Graham lifts her leg four times to a series of drumbeats, Jowitt notes that, although coordinated to the percussion, the leg actions are “not as mechanical as the drumbeats . . . The effect is of a woman taking in increasingly deep and exhilarated breaths.” Through close looking, this brief solo opens up a lone figure to represent a world.

One of Graham’s greatest magicians of that kind of transformation was Merce Cunningham, the original Revivalist in Appalachian Spring, whose virtuoso wedding address to the Bride and Husband warns, with considerable acrobatic vehemence and not one spoken word, that the wages of sin are death. Although Graham did not craft the movement phrases of the Revivalist’s solo, it is still one of her achievements. When you see the charismatic man of God fly backwards onto all fours, you’re seeing the dance imagination of Merce Cunningham realizing his intuitions of what Graham wanted when she told him to go into the studio by himself and choreograph his solo. There are many more examples of Graham’s influence on the dancing of her time and on future generations. Just about every modern dancer of significance in the second half of the twentieth century either studied with her directly or touched base with the foundational contractions and back falls of her technique. Absent acquaintance with the dance principles of Martha Graham, I believe it is fair to say, a dancer of any kind is not fully literate.

And absent direct experience of Graham’s notorious directive to students, male as well as female, to “Dance with your vagina!” (eventually, she adjusted that imperative to “Dance with your genitals!”), a dancer is not entirely wised up about the importance of Graham’s enterprise as a counterpoint to the puritanical legacy of sexual repression in American culture. Yet, genitals notwithstanding, I suggest that what makes Graham’s technique a real dance technique are the unisex facts: it animates the entire body; the insteps are in continual play; and that the personal space of the Graham dancer has significance. In the 1920s, that space was archaically stable (like the almost tangible space defined by the stones at Stonehenge); then, in the thirties, it became oceanic, owing to such evolutions as the introduction of a twist to the dancing torso and elevated working leg, associated with a maneuver called the spiral.

Jowitt’s book fills us in on Graham’s vast reading projects (Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, the New England poet Ben Belitt, the studies in myth and anthropology that galvanized Joseph Campbell, the essays of William Carlos Williams, the works of Carl Jung, and the philosophers popular among dancers—Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, et al.). It discusses her emotions, as well as her facelifts. Jowitt puts in some cultural context, though nowhere near as much as Baldwin provides. However, what distinguishes her Graham biography most of all is that Jowitt accounts for the movement of the dances and the evolution of the technique. So many books about dancers shy away from writing about dance itself. Jowitt’s makes dance the subject.


This fall, New York was given brilliant live demonstrations of Graham’s early choreographic approaches. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of “Art for the Millions,” a retrospective exhibit about American art in the 1930s, members of the Martha Graham Dance Company performed solos in various parts of the museum—solos that Graham made for herself in that period. A few of them, such as Lamentation, have been steadily performed by the company for decades; others, considered lost, have recently been “reimagined” with the help of pictorial and verbal documentation, in particular, sequential photographs (by various photographers) that can suggest motion like the pages of a flip book or a sequence of Eadweard Muybridge images. Uniquely mesmerizing at the Met was that 1930s film of Graham herself dancing Frontier: Its meticulously individual sections of movement, various in tone, are austerely presented head-on to the viewer yet viscerally linked by the soloist’s unrelenting rigor of execution. The Graham company as a whole is dancing with clinical precision these days under the artistic direction of Janet Eilber, and soloist Anne Souder was especially striking in the 1933 Ekstasis, animating with superhuman exactitude the tension between shoulder and opposing hip that photographer Barbara Morgan trapped in her viewfinder when Graham danced the solo for Morgan’s camera some ninety years ago. Souder’s technical commitment was total, giving rise to the emotions of the dance, the feelings of tension between opposites that become resolved by a moment of exultant release.

Was the inclusion of these Modernist Graham solos from the 1930s a tip of the hat to Baldwin’s biography, which more or less restricts its purview to the first half of Graham’s career? Baldwin follows Graham’s intellectual adventures in dance through the Great Depression and the Second World War, and abandons the story when she and Erick Hawkins sever their marriage, in 1950. He gives a summary of two pages or so to account for the four decades of her existence that followed, using “genius” for her and “tedium” for what she made. Nevertheless, Baldwin’s beautifully produced volume offers many helpful sections. He is especially interested in the men who surround Graham, and he gives them full measure in his research, beginning with Graham’s physician father, who spent years on call at a mental institution. From Baldwin, we learn quite a lot about the musicians with whom Graham worked. And Baldwin’s account of Erick Hawkins’s life, career, and friendships—he demonstrates much more empathy toward Hawkins than Jowitt musters—is absorbing on its own. A reader who hasn’t seen much of the work of Erick Hawkins might be led to think that he got a raw deal playing second fiddle to Martha Graham.

Michio Itō, Copland, Lincoln Kirstein, and many other figures of the era fascinate Baldwin, and the community of intellectuals he depicts often dazzles. Both authors lament that Graham burned all the letters she wrote to her mother, as the destruction left a huge hole in any effort to reconstruct the choreographer’s psyche. But it is Jowitt who goes the distance and searches out surviving letters that Graham wrote to her sister, Geordie, also a dancer in Graham’s company. And it is Jowitt alone who seeks out the unpublished manuscript of remembrances of Graham that Francis Mason compiled from her dancers and friends and others who knew her. Too, it is Jowitt who notes that Graham had other lovers in addition to Horst and Hawkins, including the nineteen-year-old Charlus Dyer, whose name Baldwin mentions once as that of an acquaintance and misspells.

The dance world is small. I met Neal Baldwin in the early 1970s, when we were fellow grad students in English literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I first met Deborah Jowitt in 1977, when I was one of the fellows in the American Dance Festival Critics Institute, which she then directed. For Baldwin, the life of Martha Graham is an excuse to survey the cultural life of America during a period of tremendous energy and challenge. Nothing wrong with that, and a reader will learn quite a lot about the period, as well as some things of interest about Martha Graham. Transforming a dancer into a lens to appreciate nondancer subjects makes Martha Graham, A Life a useful text for a cultural studies course. Errand into the Maze, on the other hand, brings in nondancing culture on a need-to-know basis in order to illuminate Graham, and yields the kind of deep inquiry around which one could develop an entire course.

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