DEEP SONG: The Dance Story of Martha Graham by Ernestine Stodelle

DEEP SONG: The Dance Story of Martha Graham

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The subtitle here suggests the strengths and limitations of this earnest, oftenflowery, largely uncritical biography: Stodelle does a solid job of tracing the remarkable Graham career, with close-up discussion of major dance-works--while the life-story remains shadowy and superficial. A brief chapter on Graham's background and childhood suggests a few early influences: Calvinistic family, psychiatrist-father, Catholic nanny, the California landscape. At 17 the serious, intense girl saw Ruth St. Denis perform; three years later, after her father's death, she decided to pursue a performing career. (""Her sadness contained a powerful undertow. Destiny had spoken."") Studies with Denishawn led to composer/dance-theorist Louis Horst--""taskmaster, godfather, critic, sage, lover."" And, after dancing in B'way and teaching at the Eastman School, Graham began developing her own style, technique, and troupe in a N.Y. studio: ""straight-lined instead of curved, forceful instead of pretty."" Stodelle conscientiously follows the development of the Graham oeuvre--the ""probings into the netherworld of the psyche,"" the stripping down of costume/scenery to the essentials, the Bennington years, the Noguchi collaboration; important dances, from Frontier to Letter to the Worm to Clytemnestra, receive detailed discussion. But, while there are frequent references to ""emotional crises,"" the links between Graham's life and work are never really explored: the intense Horst relationship remains enigmatic; likewise the affair and brief marriage with Erick Hawkins, who ""awakened her to the dance potential"" of Greek tragedy. (Their separation was ""the inevitable result of deep-seated conflicts between two strong-willed personalities. The pain of that separation would take its toll on Martha for many years to come."") And, though Stodelle does note the ""emotionally damaging"" nature of Graham's manipulative role-playing with company-members, the portrait of Graham in later decades--performing till 75, compelled ""to conquer each day anew the Minotaur of encroaching time""--is blurred with rhetoric and unsatisfyingly sketchy (ending in 1973). Still, thanks in part to new interview-material from Graham and major supporting players, this is a sturdily informative survey of an epic career--with 48 pages of photographs likely to be as strong a drawing-card as the text.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Schirmer/Macmillan