Thunder in Her Head

A new biography of a master choreographer

Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in <em>Letter to the World</em> (Library of Congress)
Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in Letter to the World (Library of Congress)

Errand into the Maze: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Deborah Jowitt; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., $35

Call it 1941. A choreographer, nearing 50, and a small band of women and men appear onstage in costumes that some of the dancers themselves have sewn, using remnants of silk and cloth from the counters of Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They are all part of the New York premiere of a dance piece at the Mansfield Theatre on West 47th Street. It’s called Letter to the World, and it’s about Emily Dickinson, who lived out her life in utter obscurity in Amherst, Massachusetts. The choreographer Martha Graham plays Dickinson, wearing a very long skirt that seems like a semaphore as she whisks across the stage in bare feet, a rare sight on Broadway.

Martha “asked her dancers to think of the floor as a drumhead—a surface from which to rebound,” writes Deborah Jowitt in her stunning portrait of the doyenne of modern dance. And rebound they did, with an almost magical stride. It’s hardly an accident that Martha, a voracious reader, would have delved into Dickinson. “I owe all that I am to a study of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer,” she remarked to one interviewer. Dickinson, too, appealed to her—a woman who worked at her craft in seclusion and became “the master of a universe of words.”

Martha wasn’t interested in retelling Dickinson’s life story in dance steps; she wanted to capture the inner emotion and imagination of the poet. On stage, she cleaved Dickinson into two selves: the One Who Dances and the One Who Speaks. Dickinson’s speaking self recited poems from 1861–62, during the time of the Civil War, while Martha attempted to seize “the inner landscape of her protagonist.” The audience observed moments of rapture and moments of terrible anxiety. “There is a pain so utter / It swallows being up,” the speaker declared, using Dickinson’s own words.

The production itself was fraught with pain and split allegiances. Dickinson’s Lover was played by Erick Hawkins, a young dancer-choreographer with a godlike muscular frame, who was also Martha’s lover beyond the limits of Letter to the World. But Louis Horst, her musical director, a “rumpled, potbellied” man, had been her companion and sometime lover from the moment Martha began to choreograph in 1926, working laboriously on piece after piece, reinventing the art of the dance. “I was her whetstone,” Horst noted. “I gave her form and discipline, because she was a wild one. I was the tail to her kite.”

But the “tail” soon got entangled, since Horst and Hawkins didn’t get along. Horst later quit the company, and in 1948, Martha married Hawkins. “I have gone into jungles with you where I have never been before,” she wrote, caught in his spell. Still, the marriage didn’t last. Erick was 15 years younger than Martha, and she grew jealous of any woman who came near him. Yet the rift was much deeper than that: Erick wanted a more prominent role in Martha’s company, but somehow she seemed unable to choreograph roles for him with the same intensity and magic as she did for herself. Also, domesticity did not really suit her. She was as much of an isolata as Dickinson, sheltered in her very private domain of dance, where a husband of any kind—as much as she loved Erick—was an intruder. He expelled himself from her life, and her dance company.

Her fame grew.

Martha had an uncanny knack for finding the right collaborator. She worked with Aaron Copland on Appalachian Spring (1944), for which the composer earned a Pulitzer Prize for his score. It became Martha’s most celebrated dance piece. Appalachian Spring is a much grimmer version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town; Martha’s personae are members of a primitive Pennsylvania community who spend their lives in seclusion, staring at a wilderness that cannot be witnessed from the stage. Even darker was Errand into the Maze (1947), in which a monster in a mask chases the protagonist—Martha—through a labyrinth that might very well be the turbulence of creativity. The title comes from “Dance Piece,” a poem by Ben Belitt:

The errand into the maze,
Emblem, the heel’s blow upon space,
Speak of the need and order the dancer’s will.
But the dance is still.

Martha was drawn to the myths of wild, strong-willed women, such as Medea, Phaedra, and Clytemnestra, and she composed dance pieces about them. But she turned to alcohol for consolation as her career declined. She had three facelifts, completely destroying her “skeletal glory.” She stopped composing, then composed again. Famous for her batwing sleeves and wide skirts in her dance routines, Martha became a spectral creature. She required nurses day and night, trapped as she was in a body that had betrayed her. She died of pneumonia in April 1991, a month before her 97th birthday.

Jowitt has written a powerful testimony to Martha Graham and modern dance. Martha understood that movement was melody. Her insistence that she was creating art rather than a diversion often bewildered audiences, who wanted to be entertained and couldn’t make the imaginative leap into her landscapes. She and her company of women and men leapt about at precipitous angles, creating an aura of vertigo, with “staccato runs, sudden stops, abrupt kicks.”

“Ugliness,” she said, “may be actually beautiful, if it cries out with the voice of power.” This is what we find in The Witch of Endor (1965). Martha portrays the witch, who after encountering King Saul, plunges the audience into a world of dance never seen before. At least in Martha’s notes, the witch—“pushes Saul / rides Saul / stands on Saul.”

The sight of Martha Graham in her 70s riding King Saul was a monumental moment, a vision no other dance maker could have conceived. And as Jowitt enables us to look back at dance history from the vantage point of our own time, we come to realize that Martha was one of the great choreographers of the 20th century, with her own wildness and sparse compositions. Even after she dined and danced at the White House in 1937 and was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as “probably the most modern expression of the dance we have,” Martha was often penniless and had to borrow money from her own dancers. Yet for her, poverty was merely a vantage point: Martha was beholden to no one. She bargained with rag merchants on Orchard Street to get the material she needed for her company’s costumes and often performed in the auditoriums of Manhattan high schools. But she choreographed more than 100 dance pieces in a period of 65 years and imposed her will on a country and a world that had, until then, looked on modern dance as a minor art. Martha was, as her fellow dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille described, a woman with thunder in her head. That thunder remained throughout her long career, as Jowitt so aptly illustrates.

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Jerome Charyn's most recent novel is Ravage & Son. A new novel, A Dangerous Diva, about Maria Callas, will be published in 2025.


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