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Martha Graham, A Life in Art

In Deborah Jowitt’s new biography of Martha Graham, Errand into the Maze, the iconic dancer and choreographer is made new, and radical, again. This is no simple feat given how many artists and dance lovers worldwide have, at the very least, a passing familiarity with Graham’s immense presence, dramatic proclamations, and enduring choreography. The accomplishment is even more significant when considering the sheer volume that has been written by her and about her, including last year’s mammoth biography Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern by Neil Baldwin. Where Baldwin leaned into the encyclopedic, Jowitt has pruned and curated. The result is a highly readable journey that brings you deep into Graham’s heart, aka “the Maze,” through an expert tour of her dances.

“The Marionette Show” by Martha Graham, for her trio (from left) Thelma Biracree, Evelyn Sabin, and Betty Macdonald (November 18, 1926). Image from Errand into the Maze by Deborah Jowitt

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Early on I was struck by her speculative approach to Graham’s early experiences with dance. In recounting the Ruth St. Denis performance that supposedly sparked Graham’s “desire for a life in the theater,” she accounts for the power of the whole experience that going to the theater was then. The young Graham persuades her father to take her down to Los Angeles for the performance, and instead of a journey by train, they take a schooner down the coast from San Francisco: “The outing—as well as the corsage of violets Dr. Graham had bought for his daughter—must have seemed exciting from the start to a girl approaching her seventeenth birthday.” She inspires a similar first-touch kind of wonder when describing what Graham’s experience backstage in the vaudeville circuit must have been like:

“Graham’s early days as a performer could be considered grueling, but they were hardly atypical. She faced one-night stands, long train rides, grubby dressing rooms, and backstage spaces that on the vaudeville circuit might be shared with comedians, musicians, and novelty acts. She would have been responsible for taking care of her own costumes. Makeup came from tubes of greasepaint patted down with powder. Mascara took the form of black chunks, which had to be melted in a spoon held over a dressing room light bulb or a lit can of Sterno; brushed onto the lashes, it often ended in tiny drops that gave it its name: ‘beading.’”

Jowitt has always pushed into the profound with her sensitive, descriptive writing. This knack for pulling the magical out of the mundane, as in the description of how mascara used to be applied, also lends itself well for her imagining what Graham might have seen or done, and how those potentialities influenced her as an artist. In this book she uses her skills to imagine, as well as analyze, Graham’s life in art. This tactic feels so revolutionary because it dethrones the modern dance giant, if only for a brief moment, and offers us Graham as a human. Her conspiratorial tone, that makes use of the second person and direct address of the reader, can make you feel as if you are right in the midst of Graham’s more humble beginnings and later, her ambitious creative process. 

“Dancing in the Follies may not be considered an upward step in Graham’s career, but the experience could provide lessons of many sorts to one as intellectually alert and as avid for discoveries about performance as she was at thirty,” writes Jowitt, noting that during that season Graham saw performances by the celebrated actress Eleonora Duse, who may have impressed the dancer with the eloquence of her simple gestures, and may also have caught the Moscow Art Theatre performing Chekhov’s plays. We learn about the philosophers Graham and her Denishawn contemporaries, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, were reading and how, for instance, Nietzsche’s “discussion of Apollonian and Dionysian elements” would contribute to Graham’s amplified breath work and budding technique of Contraction and Release. These insights extend a notion Jowitt leads with: “Many of the dances that later made her famous drew on the dualities of restraint and freedom, decorum and wildness that molded her bisected early years.” 

Along the way there is an abundance of wit and palpable fun on a sentence level. For example, in reference to Louis Horst, Graham’s lover and early creative partner, writing that he “had a little tiff” with Graham that required some physical distance (he sailed for Europe), Jowitt asks, “Could one have a ‘little tiff’ with the woman who was reputed in two separate anecdotes to yank a telephone from the wall when angered?” Graham’s infamous temper and Jowitt’s droll speculation punctuate a passage about a negative review: “It is not reported how much crockery Graham broke upon reading this or how long it took Horst to pry her out from under the bedclothes and get her back to work.”  

These quips let Jowitt allude to such anecdotes without getting bogged down in them. Her style frees her up from being consumed by the known drama of the famous woman and allows her to plumb the many evolutions of Graham’s work. It is also a complete delight to read. 

Martha Graham and Ted Shawn flirting in a Spanish dance (Shawn’s duet, Malagueña) in 1921 (Photograph by Albert Witzel. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the New York Public Library)

The close reads of Graham’s dances are something I know I will return to again and again, for they are their own masterclass in evocation. From her fantastic blow-by-blow of fabric manipulation in “Lamentation” to a two-page recreation of the Graham class, Jowitt keeps the reader in the present tense of that moment. (This immediacy also lets her place some of Graham’s less savory moments of appropriation, minstrelsy, and Orientalism, in the context of those specific times.) Jowitt excels in reimagining elements of lost works that only exist in images or notes, and repeatedly, in her effort to distill Graham’s vast canon, she crystallizes that which is most ephemeral. 

In a passage about “Dark Meadow,” she writes:

“The movements that Graham devised for these celebrants, if performed by only one couple, might look explicitly sexual; with four pairs moving in unison, they become sacramental—formal and beautiful—the dancers’ limbs interlocking with angular clarity. The men lift their partners onto one shoulder as if they’re plunder to be carried away, but they also sit and, swaying slightly, anchor the standing women who lean away from them, aslant like ships’ figureheads, then fall back to sit on their partners’ bent knees.” 

Later, in writing about “Diversion of Angels,” she grapples with the Woman in White, that “seems to be recalling the earlier phases of love in her [Graham’s] life,” in a direct appeal:

“Consider this. The man lies on his back, and supported by his lifted arms, the woman kneels on his bent knees to hover over him. When she rises, he rolls onto his belly, raising his flexed feet behind him and arching his upper body off the floor, his hands locked behind his head. She steps carefully onto his thighs and sits on the stool created by his feet, gazing around her. This image (surely arduous for him to maintain) implies that he’s on a boat on which she may consider taking a journey. But she steps off to gaze at something in the distance, and the dance goes on.”

I have seen Martha Graham Dance Company perform both of these passages in recent times and have written about them in this publication. No matter. Reading these words delivers two simultaneous thoughts: one, that perhaps I have not really seen them at all and two, I am anxious to see them again.

Martha Graham in Leonide Massine’s version of “Le Sacre du Printemps.” Photograph courtesy of Martha Graham Resources

Jowitt also gives broader context to reviewers’ responses to Graham’s work while also asking questions where voids exist. For a dance maker who was sometimes knocked for not speaking out overtly on political matters of her day, Jowitt muses on how the topical was woven into her epic and mythical dances: “What seems remarkable to those who have come through the political and social battles of the 1960s and 1970s is that in these group works, Graham made her all-female company not only stand for an entire society but also express some larger issues in it. And no one whose opinion is on record appears to have found it strange.”

The book is largely chronological but focuses more on the development of Graham’s artistic vision than her personal life, unless related directly to a new direction in dance making. Jowitt pays mind to Graham’s use of the chorus, the shifts in her approach to narrative in her work, her literary inspirations, and the influence of Jungian archetypes. Space is given to Graham’s research and collaboration with designers and composers—and later, when she is no longer able to show movement, her dancers—and her relentless revisions. But she gives little more than a passing mention to Ron Protas—who befriended Graham late in life, became her designated heir, and later caused much drama and legal strife over the ownership of some of Graham’s work—and just a few pages to acknowledge Graham’s struggles with alcoholism. We learn more of Graham’s relationship and breakup with Erick Hawkins, as it tracks more specifically to an evolution in her roles and a certain vulnerability in her onstage persona. 

Martha Graham never stopped working and danced into old age. Jowitt credits the influence of Japanese Noh theater and its structure of a hero looking back into past as providing a template for Graham to remain performing even as her body, inevitably, began to be less supple and cooperative. In works like “Clytemnestra,” Graham reappeared “as a ghost among the living” and began to cast company members in the roles of a younger protagonist.  

Similarly, Jowitt has never stopped. Following a decades-long career as a dancer, choreographer, dance writer, and educator, no one seems better suited than Jowitt to take all of the previous books, letters, interviews, numerous reviews, and even her own experience of critiquing Graham’s work, and weave them into this unique and concise portrait that somehow fills in the gaps that others have left out. Jowitt, now 90, can conjure this sympathy with Graham and sort through the almost meta-task implied by the title, because she holds that embodied knowledge and impressive longevity inside the dance field within herself. The convergence of these two dance champions, Graham and Jowitt, is so special as to make this book nothing less than a fully realized gift.

Candice Thompson

Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.



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