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Martha Graham Redivivus

By Mark Franko


Martha Graham’s work was prominent in the New York dance world of the 1930s in the wake of her innovative Primitive Mysteries (1931). Yet, her reputation grew exponentially beyond the confines of dance and the New York art world after the premiere of American Document (1938) followed by its national tour in 1939. This is, paradoxically, a work that the Martha Graham Dance Company may be reluctant to perform today in a version close to the original. It was related to the political issues of the day, highly anti-fascist and popular front, and critical of the history of the United States. Graham’s national reputation took hold at this time, and she was noted not only for her choreography and dancing but also for her political stance in the pre-war moment.

It is incongruous that this occurred by and through a work that is considered to be of little artistic value today. To some American Document might indeed appear old-fashioned or too specific to its time to merit revival. Yet I think in this time of political uncertainty Graham’s anti-fascist work — done without updating the context and streamlining the aesthetic to be faster and brasher to account for what is assumed to be the audience’s diminished attention span — may prove most successful. The obscuration of democratic traditions and the perverse rhetorical prevarications of our present political climate have more than a little resemblance to the period that saw the rise of fascism. Dance can be exciting precisely when it is not updated, not commented upon in the process of performing it. But, to understand such works and to convey them effectively to an audience demands a deep historical and theoretical grasp on the director’s part — one that might not have existed at the time of the premiere either on the part of the artists or the public — and an ability to translate that historical perspective into immediate artistic terms.

Graham’s scrapbooks housed at the Library of Congress seem to have saved every bit of ephemera concerning her career, all meticulously cut out and pasted in, probably by her mentor and musical director Louis Horst. They reveal her in advertising, popular culture, and the media as driven to reach a broad public throughout the 1940s, which she did quite successfully. But the media also manipulated her image in ways she disliked. By the end of the decade, however, Martha Graham had become a household name.

This was in no small measure thanks to the efforts of her dance partner and lover Erick Hawkins who first came to her work in 1938. In addition to dancing in her company, serving as a company manager, booking agent, technical director, and general factotum, Hawkins brought a knowledge of the myth culture of ancient Greece that was most useful to Graham. He had graduated with a major in classics from Harvard and read Greek. He also dreamed up the first scheme for fundraising in the dance world and executed it successfully. Their relationship, however, was in many ways a tormented one. Although Hawkins was demonized in Agnes de Mille’s biography Martha for walking out on Graham in London in 1950, the correspondence between Hawkins and Graham tells a different story.

The myth works of the immediate post-war era made an appeal to the themes sanctioned by psychoanalysis as universal, notably the Oedipus complex explored in Night Journey (1947). How could she reconcile a fascination with myth so identified with Nazi fascism — think of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which also premiered in 1938 — with her own anti-fascist stance? This was a mystery to unravel. Her well-known interest in Jung only aggravates this question as recent scholarship has shown Jung’s involvement with Nazism during the Second World War.

Knowing that Graham was a voracious and serious reader of modern literature and psychology, I thought it possible to unearth a literary logic behind choreographic thinking in many of her artistic choices. But, could her reading be tracked? Of course, there were clues. Bertram Ross (one of her lead dancers) said she was reading Esther M. Harding’s Psychic Energy while choreographing Night Journey. Might her library have survived her death intact? Certainly, the publication of The Notebooks of Martha Graham (1973) was a strong indication that her choreography was linked to a practice of writing and reading, even though the Notebooks are often quite difficult to decipher.

Also key to Graham’s work of the immediate postwar era were Otto Rank and Erich Fromm. She had actually consulted with Fromm — and some say had an affair with him — in 1946. Although her connection to Freud is often touted, Graham was much more up to date: she was a choreographic post-Freudian. Her myth works dealt with the cultural value of incest, the demystification of the Oedipus conflict, and the revalorization of the mother in psychoanalytic theory, something principally attributed in psychoanalytic literature to Rank’s The Trauma of Birth. Although Graham did read Jung, one should differentiate between the influence of psychology and psychoanalysis in her work. She underwent an extended analysis with Frances G. Wickes, a prominent New York Jungian, in the early fifties. Paradoxically, her analytic experience did not lead to further myth works but to her only anti-myth work, Voyage (1953). All but disappeared from the annals of Graham performance, yet Voyage (retitled Theater for Voyage in 1955) set to a score by William Schuman deserves to be rediscovered – perhaps even on the stage.

Mark Franko is Professor of Dance at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Director of the Center for Visual and Performance Studies, and Editor of Dance Research Journal. He is the author of Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work.

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Recent Comments

  1. EJames Lieberman

    Thanks for these insights. Glad to see Otto Rank in the picture. He is quoted in some Anais Nin diary entries about learning to dance (with her) in Harlem, around 1934. Unlike his mentor, Sigmund Freud, he knew and loved music–attended many concerts in Vienna initially as a student, in the free or cheap seats.

  2. Mark Franko

    Yes, Rank is essential to this history even though Graham and Rank were apparently not acquainted. Hawkins and Graham read Rank’s Art and Artist in 1932. In general, the post-Freudian theory of the power of the mother that Graham drew upon to retell the Oedipus legend originated with Rank. Rather than Freud or Jung I see Rank as the most important psychoanalytic theorist for Graham.

  3. Mark Franko

    And, I realize now that you are the author of the Rank biography. Your book was very important to me! Thank you!

  4. Kyra matustik

    So wonderful to see your work Mark. Wish I could read it. Just simply excellent. Best wishes.

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