Keep the Channel Open

Agnes de Mille. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham.  New York: Random House, 1991.  xviii + 509 pp. $30.  ISBN 0-394-55643-7. 

You can’t read this book without falling half in love with Agnes de Mille, who must have been one of the kindest, most forgiving biographers who ever lived. And without wondering why a lot of people in the 30s and 40s simply didn’t punch Martha Graham out.

Graham’s legendary prickliness comes across on every page, but it is outshone by de Mille’s generous sympathy for the sources of her friend’s angst.  It’s a marvelous book, thirty years in the making, lauded and praised when it first appeared in 1991, and a book you have to read if you want to understand modern dance. 

I don’t claim to understand modern dance, but I know it was prominently on display, in the broad sweep of twentieth-century modernism, alongside Stravinsky’s music, Picasso’s art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, Joyce’s fiction, Louis Armstrong’s jazz, and Pound’s poetry. It’s clear, too, that Martha Graham certainly wouldn’t have taken a back seat in such company. Perish the thought.

De Mille’s account at times reads like a Who’s Who of American dance since the beginning of the twentieth century. She was Cecil B. DeMille’s niece and she became a major Broadway choreographer in her own right. She knew everybody, she went everywhere, and she hung out with Graham in the earliest days. It adds up to an encyclopedic, almost year-by-year tour of the American dance world.

The coverage of ballet during the same period is not stinted, either.  De Mille keeps the reader up-to-date on developments  in ballet in the U.S. with George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.  Graham had productive interchanges with ballet during the latter stages of her career.  Remarkably, as late as 1987 she staged a production of one of her signature pieces, Appalachian Spring, with “Rudolf Nureyev as the preacher and Mikhail Baryshnikov as the husbandman dancing opposite Terese Capucilli in Martha’s role as the bride.”  Such ecumenicism speaks for itself.

I especially recommend de Mille’s chapters on the period between the wars, when Graham and her friends and dancers and supporters were young and struggling, living in Greenwich Village and burning the candle at both ends. It’s a wonderful evocation of the bohemian life, and of the sharing and encouraging and sacrificing that goes on – and also the backbiting and feuding.

Far from being a gorgon, de Mille’s Graham, born in Pennsylvania but essentially a West-coast import, gradually develops into a visionary artist, a tireless crusader, an innovative costume designer, and an inspiring  if sometimes merciless teacher. If you copied out all of the maxims and aperçus attributed to Graham and her acquaintances in this volume, you would have a useful handbook on what it means to be an artist, and how to cope with the stresses involved.

I’m particularly fond of Graham’s insistence that one should “never tell anyone he has no talent. That you may not say. That you do not know.  That is the one absolute prohibition laid down.”  There are also some great wisecracks. In 1945, Merce Cunningham, no longer able to put up with Graham’s dictatorial ways, left the Graham Company and struck out on his own, in company with the avant-garde composer John Cage. “I wanted Dada, not Mama,” Cunningham quipped.

Graham’s longtime colleague and significant collaborator, Louis Horst, was no less curt about artistic dedication.  “Dance for yourself,” he told the frequently wavering de Mille. “If someone else understands, good. If not, no matter. Go right on doing what interests you, and do it until it stops interesting you.”

Such single-mindedness comes with a price, of course. All the more remarkable, then, in the middle of the book, when de Mille has achieved her first genuine success – choreographing nothing less than Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943 – that she remains plagued by self-doubt 

Martha takes Agnes to Schrafft’s for “a soda” – all the hard drinking would come later – and proceeds to deliver one of the most remarkable credos in the history of American art.  This particular piece of advice has been reproduced widely, but it is still worth quoting and considering carefully. According to de Mille, “Martha said to me, very quietly,”

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have a peculiar and unusual gift, and you have so far used about one third of your talent.

De Mille protests, claiming that in spite of her recent Broadway success she is not pleased or satisfied with her own work. “No artist is pleased,” Graham replies.

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” Graham “cries out passionately,” according to de Mille.  And adds: “There is only a queer divine satisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

How strangely this contrasts with advice currently handed out to aspiring artists in every field – be admitted to a graduate program, lockstep through the courses, cultivate those who can smooth your ascent,  beef up your résumé, do whatever it takes to climb the ladder toward the holy grail of tenure. And then you’ll be an artist. Or at least everybody around you will pretend that you are.

A young person convinced that this was the only path to careerist success would probably run from the room if given Graham’s advice – “You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware.”

But Graham’s credo is very much a product of its time, and as such, can yield significant insight into that period between the wars.   “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening,” she says in her pep talk to de Mille.  We note, first, the underlying hydrodynamic metaphor and, second, the accompanying notion of a “channeling” of psychic forces.

Intellectuals and divines alike had been struggling since 1859 to identify  some non-material dimension or force that could account for human uniqueness.   Traditional  notions of “soul” and “spirit” endured hard times during that period, but by the early 1900s two strains of thought had come up with tentative alternatives.  Graham’s credo reflects both.

Henri Bergson, following both Hegel and Schopenhauer and their theories  of “world historical spirit” and  “will to power,” opined that in spite of all the mechanistic explanations and scientific discoveries, there was still an élan vital at the heart of human endeavor.  At about the same time Freud and his followers delved into the unconscious and came up with the id,  which was assumed to exist in some sort of hydrodynamic relation with the ego and super-ego.

This basic Freudian metaphor – never spelled out by the master, since it has since been made fun of as an explanation best understood by plumbers – held that various sublimations and displacements took place within  one’s  psyche.  What is repressed here pops up over there.  Push this impulse or memory down, and it will resurface somewhere else, changed and usually troublesome, but still traceable to the professional eye. 

In this Whack-a-Mole system, the patient is helpless on his or her own.  Everything has to be interpreted by someone who has already been psychoanalyzed.   The worst outcome is blockage – mentioned by Graham – an alleged condition which made most analysts wealthy and gave all of them something to talk about with their patients  for the next hundred years.

The hydro concept seems odd, coming from Graham, who was never a Freudian and in fact was more of a Jungian.   She once had dinner with Jung in the 1930s, and was quite susceptible to some of his more far-out theories.   But Freudian hydrology was in the air, so to speak,.  In the 1930s everyone breathed it in and didn’t think too much abut it.

Another concept that was in the air is  indicated in Graham’s remark to de Mille about a “medium” through which the life force could exert itself, which she goes on to identify as a “channel” that must be kept “clear.”  These are terms popularized by spiritualism and proponents of clairvoyance in the salad days of Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Krishnamurti, and dozens like them.   Enthusiasm for Westernized gurus  had been gathering steam since the 1890s and was  doing quite well in the 1920s when Graham was starting out.   

Such far-flung esoterica were most recently and amusingly analyzed in Peter Washington’s study, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, published by Schocken in 1993.  Graham was certainly no psychic and never held séances – well, maybe once or twice she attended one – but the point is that again, as with life-force concepts,  she borrowed the metaphors and adapted them for her own ends.

This is not the least unusual.  None of the progenitors of modern dance was a systematic thinker – who is, by the way, these days? – and both Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis talked and lectured endlessly about ancient Greek mystery cults, theosophy, the Vedas, yoga, and Indian philosophy – all perfectly legitimate esoteric traditions.  But those same traditions underwent peculiar transformations when they got to southern California, then as now the  capital of fruitcake cults and dubious therapies.   Graham fit right in with her fellow dance pioneers, since she, too, had no overarching theory and was essentially a magpie when it came to justifying whatever she happened to be doing on stage.

This is not to say that she was not intelligent or well-read; she was both.  But her tastes were eclectic.  One of her constant advisors was Joseph Campbell, who fed her all sorts of notions about myth, which she eagerly incorporated in her thinking and in her choreography.  But myth is a slippery concept; all too often it ends up being whatever you want it to be.   

If you combine both of these notions, however – psychic displacement and clear channels – you arrive approximately at what seems to have been Graham’s lifelong fixation when it came to creating dances.   For want of a better word I would sum it up as penitential.   The penitent is one who, finding him- or herself in extremis, turns up the heat metaphorically, and sometimes literally.

Graham created a large number of dances built around historic or imaginary characters who were under extreme duress – Joan of Arc, Mary Queen of Scots, Lear, Clytemnestra.  All were doomed in one way or another, and by accepting their suffering and rising above it, all triumphed in the end. 

Graham didn’t just imagine these scenarios; she lived them, and expected everyone else around her to follow suite.  The Graham dancers lived cloistered, ascetic lives; the atmosphere during rehearsals was positively inquisitorial; everyone suffered – spouses, lovers, even the pianist.   Putting yourself through the contortions of the Graham technique was essentially a rite of purification.  Of atoning for something or other, although exactly what was never spelled out.   It was all so – so – penitential.  There is no other word.

In Graham’s day it would have been heresy to suggest such a thing, but her day is past, and we are long into an era of post-modern dance, when Graham’s fixations and methods seem almost archaic.   Part of this was inevitable, part of it came about because the lady simply lived so damned long.  She was born in 1894 and died, a few weeks short of her 97th birthday, in 1991.  Remarkably, she was choreographing, teaching, and still trying to dance, almost to the end.

Part of the book’s fascination is to be found in the incredible display of will Graham summoned to keep reinventing herself as her physical powers began to wane.  She had been an electrifying. unforgettable dancer right into her 50s and 60s, and she later said that the only reason she began choreographing was because she wanted to get the good roles for herself.

But there comes a time, as  every athlete knows, when you have to “hang it up.”  A time when your aging body will no longer obey you as it did in the past.  Professional athletes dread this inevitability and deal with it in various ways.  Most deny it, and end up embarrassing themselves.  Very few “great ones” choose to retire when they are still at the top of their form.  One thinks of the golfer Bobby Jones, the pugilist Rocky Marciano, the sprinter and broad jumper Carl Lewis.

Graham knew this as well as any other athlete and yet when she was in her 70s, to the horror of her friends and the amusement of her detractors,  she was still casting herself in various productions.   Some athletes past their prime go into coaching; still others join management.  Graham had been doing both all along.  But unlike Michael Jordan or Brett Favre, she refused to hang it up, and kept – in effect – competing with herself.

The end was not pretty — the last twenty years.  She kept coming back from near-death illnesses, kept reinventing herself, kept finding new angels and receiving more awards.  But she became brittle and remote, her face an implacable mask.  Today we can look back on such behavior – on  the advertisements in which she posed for Blackgama furs, for example — as something to be regretted.  And there were many such instances toward the end.  Yet she kept it up, becoming one of those rare artists, like Titian or Hardy, who is still producing  in the ninth decade.

There was only one Martha Graham, however, and while she had followers and patrons, she had few friends, and, for all of her teaching, no real inheritor. The Graham technique lives on, as does the Graham Company.  But not Martha.  Still, in retrospect she seems, at least to this reader, not only a giant of modernism, but also a throwback to some of the towering figures of the nineteenth century. 

Her work ethic rivals Rodin’s; her radical vision is on par with that of Cezanne; her unswerving standards remind one of Flaubert. Above all, she was not afraid of risk – of risking all on the unprecedented, the heretofore unimaginable.  In this I think she resembles some of the brightest of artistic lights, such as Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Rilke, and Mandelstam.

Having said all this, I realize I would not have lasted fifteen seconds in her presence. She would have booted me out the door without so much as a fare-the-well, as she booted so many others. This is a curious side of Graham – her propensity for physical aggressiveness.   I think  it may be a key to her entire oeuvre, and part and parcel of the penitential propensity mentioned earlier in this essay. 

She was forever grabbing, pinching, and slapping other people, usually but not always her students. Friends, admirers, people presenting bouquets, men and women – if Graham was displeased, she would smack them in the face. Even during her performances she sometimes surprised her partners and supporting dancers by unexpectedly bopping them about. 

It was in World War Two that George Patton got into big trouble for slapping a couple of soldiers, and it was more recently that Bob Knight got into similar trouble for choking one of his players. Woody Hayes’s coaching career ended over a similar incident.   Not long ago a Jets assistant coach, standing on the sidelines, tripped an opposing player; that coach was sent packing.  In what passes for civilized culture today you cannot go around physically attacking other people just because you feel like it, or because they disagree with you or have somehow displeased you.

Certainly it happens, but invariably it is unfortunate, and universally frowned upon. Which is why de Mille does not report that anyone ever slapped Graham in return or hit her back. Everybody around her tolerated this weirdness and excused it on the basis of her supposed genius. But it seems strange that she was a given a free pass all that time, while others – usually males – still get pilloried for even the slightest hint of similar behavior.

Throughout the book, as Graham slogs upward toward greatness, her onetime partner and only husband, Eric Hawkins, is journeying downward into mediocrity. His decline resembles that of Hurstwood, in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, who ends up in a flophouse while Carrie is ascending to the bright lights of Broadway. Late in life Hawkins does come into his own and receives recognition for his contributions to dance, but de Mille makes it clear that he was never even remotely on the same level with Graham.

Which takes us back to what might be called “the Graham mystique,” and why, as stated earlier, I have no real understanding of it, even after having read this fascinating book.  Others have speculated, however. One of Graham’s early dancers told de Mille that “I really think Martha attracts highly neurotic women.”  Whoa there!

De Mille herself seems even more kooky when she starts speculating about what makes for different kinds of successful people. “Statesmen, for instance, often have come from happy homes; playwrights almost invariably from broken or tumultuous ones.” 

O.K., this is pop psychology, and to be taken with a grain of salt, but she goes even farther and says that dancers – “women, at any rate” – come “from frustrated mothers (and I think both mother and daughter tend to use dancing as a substitute for sex).”

Whoa there, again.  You might write that sort of thing, inadvertently, as recently as twenty years ago, and it might be overlooked, especially if you’re a woman and a famous choreographer and a successful author. But it wouldn’t be overlooked today.  Which is a measure, perhaps, of just how distant Martha Graham and her apologists have become for those of us who have managed to make it into the twenty-first century.

If you’re one of the few mortals who becomes the center of a cult while you’re still alive, you’re bound to be treasured by the cultists and less appreciated by the non-cultists.  This happened to Martha Graham, as it has happened to other cult figures – Judy Garland,  Sinatra,  Bobby Fischer. But when the cult figure is gone, the  cult is over.   After many a summer dies the swan

When it ends, as Graham’s cult has,  everyone is left wondering, how was that possible in that first place?  How did it ever come about?  Wouldn’t it be inconceivable today?  Why did all those different people cut her so much slack?  Answer: we’ll never really know.

There are certain artists who remain enigmatic. Both Paganini and Liszt were the greatest performing virtuosos of their day. We have testimony about their greatness, but no first-hand experience. When it comes to understanding a virtuoso, there is only one way: you have to have been there.

Leave a Reply

Pop-Out Banners