So, she has gone.
The lone figure, the standard bearer, the adventurer who dared the unexperienced. All our lives she has been there, out front, ahead. Sometimes we caught up with her, sometimes we didn't, but following or not, we were aware of her precedence, and while we lived through this century she delivered herself of nearly 70 years of creative work; an unprecedented amount.The vigor of her mind and her courage held to the last. Martha Graham remained undaunted by anything, even life stretching and lengthening while all her bulwarks fell away: she was a dancer, she lost her body; she was a woman, she lost her family and loves; she was a presence, she was shut away alone. Martha continued.
Now she has left us, but though she died this past Monday in New York at the age of 96, her legacy stays. From her first solo concert in 1926 to her final New York concert last fall, she spelled out the art trajectory of the 20th century.
In this hundred years the five shaping artists are, I believe, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso and Martha Graham. As far as dancing and the theater are concerned, this is her century.
And of all five giants, Graham made the greatest change in her art - in the idiom, in the technique, in the content and in the point of view - greater, finally, than any other single artist who comes to mind.
She produced her dance, the Graham or so-called modern technique, in the space of one lifetime and with little money. Graham was poor most of her life. (But) she changed the root, the starting impulse, the balance, leverage and dynamics of dance. Indeed her discoveries and inventions amount to a fresh speech: she has, therefore, in effect, enlarged our language. She has given us more than 200 compositions in this new language, many of them enduring works of art, thereby ensuring its permanence.
William Butler Yeats said that the individual is capable of either great art or great life, but not both together. Martha felt she must cut from her life all deep emotional involvements, all attachments, all comforts, even moments of leisure, and, beyond that, love involving family and children. She gave everything to her work, withheld nothing, kept nothing apart.
In surveying any period's art we recognize that certain individuals are obsessed, that they recognize themselves as such, and most importantly, that they have no choice in the matter but are there to be taken over and used for life. Graham often quoted in this connection Ibsen's phrase "doom eager." She could do this because she accepted it as her reason for living.
This understanding involved no false modesty. The process had nothing to do with modesty. Saints do not doubt their own worth. Whatever their verbalizations, they are consumed. There is no self left to be modest about. . . . It is that simple. Few people outside the cloister have understood what the experience entails; Martha was one of the few.
Graham did not look upon dancing as entertainment but as an exploration, a celebration of life. Dance to her was all-important, in a sense sacrosanct; it was her reason for living and never to be taken frivolously or used, as many professionals use their skills, for monetary gain. On the contrary, dancing was to be . . . the servitor of religious and intellectual purpose. . . .
Her gift for tragedy was awesome, her gift for comedy irresistible. In performance, she would seem to giggle like a teenager or laugh with the bitter scorn of a doomed king.
She was a great dancer. She was a greater choreographer. And she was a great teacher. She founded aschool known throughout the world to teach the new technique and trained large cadres of disciples.
One of the finest costume designers of all time, Graham concerned herself with shape; but also color, and above all with movement.
With the superb collaboration of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, she discarded painted scenery and the box stage of Western theater and substituted three-dimensional symbols, which opened up her playing area into endlessly imaginative vistas.
Martha was blessedly vocal. She explained what she was doing and she explained unforgettably. Ruth St. Denis talked mysticism; Doris Humphrey talked esthetics; many teachers talked technique and pedantry. Martha talked enlightened poetry.
Martha's pronouncements were like a flight of arrows. One was not convinced, one was impaled and left standing like St. Sebastian, not knowing which shaft had struck home, knowing only that one was pierced to the heart.
"The spine is your tree of life. Respect it."
"Stand up. Keep your back straight. Remember that this is where the wings grow."
"There are times when it is almost necessary to feel an animal sensuality in dance, not sexy, but rather of the senses like completely primitive animal movements - like the M-G-M lion, like the way a cat walks."
"The dancer's body is a celebrant of life."
"A gesture does not exist alone in time. Be aware of where you have come from. There is a double pull before and after."
"No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time."
"It takes five years to learn to run, 10 years to learn to walk, and 15 years to stand still."
"Look up! Your eyes blinded by the zenith."
How did Martha Graham appear on casual meeting? Perfectly adorable, that's what: vulnerable, even girlish, childlike, with a light husky voice that trembled with enthusiasm, and a giggle. She had an enormous sense of play.
She invariably spoke with absolute authority. She pronounced, she pontificated on everything, all delivered in a childish half-whisper. Conversations with Martha were like someone running around the house opening windows. There seemed to be one intent: air.
It turns out she didn't always feel certain. "But," she explained, giggling as she said it, "I never tell."