One has watched the Martha Graham flap run its course during the past year with a mixture of amusement, indignation and serious consideration.
For those who don't know the circumstances: Martha Graham was befriended by Sen. Dennis DiConcini, D-Ariz., who has attempted by any and all means to find her a $7 million appropriation, touting the need to put her large and important body of modern dance choreographies on film for future generations to study and enjoy.When his bill proposing a direct appropriation for Graham was KO'd by the Congress last fall, DeConcini tried an end run, tacking his $7 million request on the end of a general appropriations bill in the spring. Again he was turned down by Congress.
At issue was the legitimate desire of a woman who is unquestionably one of the century's dance giants to have her work filmed and archived. (Not so legitimate was her perhaps unseemly wish to renovate her Manhattan studios, for which the lion's share of the proposed appropriation - $4.5 million - was to be allotted.)
Against this scheme weighed the heavy displeasure and indignation of the country's dance community, many of them far from artistic pygmies, who receive their federal monies only through the National Endowment for the Arts. If DiConcini had succeeded, the door would have been open to unbridled leverage of Congress by special interest arts groups, deserving and otherwise.
Without question, Graham's work should be preserved, for it is indeed some sort of national treasure. But one wonders whether this feisty lady, now 94 and highly unlikely to see her dances committed to film in the complete and orderly way she would prefer, has done all she might over the years to re-cord and preserve her oeuvre.
Somewhat analagous to Graham is modern dancer-choreographer Jose Limon, who died in the early 1970s. He successfully left a legacy, since some of his work had been notated and taped and given to other dance companies to perform. And his company continues to keep his repertoire alive.
At this moment, dance companies and major choreographers all over the country are busily preserving their works, through dance notation, videotaping, filming, still photographs, costume preservation and other notes. Today, dance is constantly videotaped - not necessarily for broadcast but simply to see it. "Twyla Tharp has videotaped almost everything she's ever done," says Sali Ann Kriegs-man, head of the NEA's dance program.
In contrast to Graham, George Balanchine, the 20th century's most prolific and seminal ballet choreographer, has left a great legacy. Many of his most significant dances have been videotaped in the studio or professionally filmed for public television or other public outlet. This he did as he went along, not postponing all for one humongous effort at the end of his life.
In another way Balanchine exceeded Graham in foresight: he distributed his work, giving many pieces to deserving companies. And dozens of his personally-trained dancers are now scattered across the country, running major dance companies or hiring out to set Balanchine dances on other companies.
As a result you can find performances, highly faithful to Balanchine's style and spirit, of "Serenade," "Concerto in C," "Concerto Barocco," "Symphonie Con-certante," "Stars and Stripes," "Western Symphony" and "Bugaku" in Ballet West's repertory, for example.
By contrast, Graham has given almost none of her works to other companies. If you want to see "Appalachian Spring" or "Cave of the Heart," "El Penitente" or "Diversion of Angels," you must depend on an infrequent revival by Graham and her dancers. Instead of training choreographers to take her place, she has fostered an attitude of inflexible irreplaceability.
Efforts of the Graham coterie to record her works have so far consisted of some videotaping, and collecting film footage from the '30s and '40s. In general, the many works would have to be revived and often re-costumed to prepare for filming. It's a mind-boggling project to which Graham's strength might not be equal.
To facilitate the archival taping proj-ect, an assistant says the company will be applying to foundations, "and we're approaching a major movie studio for assis tance." Yet Graham is no stranger to largesse. Several decades ago she was the darling of several generous, wealthy individuals, some of whose money could certainly have been diverted to filming projects.
One cannot help pondering the bottom line of all this.
"Dance is still very much a person-to-person transmission," says Kriegsman; and people, with their love and dedication, are still the most important element in preservation. Like all other things, great choreographers' works become immortal when they are given away.
Balanchine understood this. As his mortality closed in around him, he began to distribute his treasures, enriching the whole dance world. But Graham is still riding shotgun, jealously guarding her turf from all potential invaders. Some of her ex-dancers and students are out teaching "Graham technique," and her inspired and revolutionary movement has influenced many, as much by osmosis as direct transmission. But no one was ever given authority to go out and set her works on interested companies.
True enough, in a few decades dancers may not be dancing pure Balanchine technique. Maybe even right now they aren't doing what he would have preferred. Nonetheless he will be included in a chain of perpetuity, an evolution of dance that includes such illustrious names as Bournonville, Coralli, Petipa, Ivanov and Massine.
Graham apparently cannot bear the thought that even one jot or tittle should pass away from her conception of any of her dances. She may get the inevitable payoff of such thinking - going down to the grave clutching all her treasures to her bosom, to be buried with her, since she could not share, and trust the good intentions and abilities of others.
One suggests that some acts of generosity might have been the best preservative for Graham's works.