After Graham: Thoughts on Martha Graham’s Approach to Art

I am a dancer.

I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.

To practice means to perform, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living. Even as I write, time has begun to make today yesterday –the past. The most brilliant scientific discoveries will in time change and perhaps grow obsolete as new scientific manifestations emerge. But art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man.

These iconic words, which open Martha Graham’s autobiography Blood Memory maintain their incredible vivacity, their deep emotional power — just as her choreography continues to inspire and challenge dancers today.

This is because more than anything, Graham believed in the absolute eternality of art in general – but particularly dance. Not that art lasts forever, not that art does not go out of style, not that art does not speak to particular points in history, but that instead it is always intrinsically present. That art exists in the act of living, in very moments of creation, of performing, of viewing.

This is what makes her words so powerful today. In a world that is increasingly past and future oriented, where social media tends to distract from the present moment in order to sustain memories to look back on, where we look with excitement towards the future of science and technology without taking the time to consider where we are now, the societal, the cultural, the ethical highs and lows that we have.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to see the Martha Graham Dance Company for the second time in a little under a month. This was a privilege I had never been able to experience before – seeing the same repertoire twice in such a short span of time. The first performance (in Pittsburgh) included: “Dark Meadow Suite”, “Woodland”, “Lamentation Variations”, and “Diversion of Angels”, while the second performance (in Philadelphia) included: “Dark Meadow Suite”, “Errand into the Maze”, “Lamentation Variations”, and “Appalachian Spring”. Both were fantastic performances, but what stood out to me most was my changed perspective when I saw “Lamentation Variations” again.

“Lamentation” is one of Martha Graham’s earlier works, that gained renown both for its ugliness and for its strength. These “Lamentation Variations” which were inspired by Graham’s original performance, were created in commemoration of 9/11 and each considered the theme of grief and loss.

The first time I saw the three works I found the first to be beautiful, powerful, full of meaning. However, the second time, I viewed it in light of a recent local tragedy and it transcended being merely an exhibition of what it feels to grieve. Instead I saw in the bodies of the dancers grief itself, in all its pain, anger, and sorrow. Yet, beautiful, elevated – it revealed the tragedy of grief while simultaneously understanding the inevitability of suffering and gave brief glimpses into the hidden goodness in the act of grieving. Not that the pain is good in itself, but in the way it brings people together, in the way it empties the spirit to be filled again.

This is the sort of power that Martha saw in her art. Art, especially dance, is not meant to look pretty (though it can be pretty) nor is it meant to be comforting (though it can be comforting) it is meant to be powerful, it is meant to speak, and it is meant to reveal the “hidden language of the soul”.

The work of art is more important than ever. In our world of extreme globalization and multiculturalism it can be difficult to impossible to find a common good between people who hold different beliefs. It can be tempting to view those who are different as evil or stupid. No matter what you believe it is easy to dismiss those who are different as non-persons.

Art helps bridge this divide. If used well it can encourage people to come together, it can be used to create dialogue between two disparate parties, it can heal wounds and find common ground. It brings together, but it also challenges. It doesn’t allow us to just sit back, comfortable in our own way of thinking, instead it draws us to confront both the shortcomings of our beliefs and the  power of other beliefs. Yet, art should never force. It highlights, it suggests, it pushes, but never forces. Because there should always be art that comes around on the other side, tempering one belief with another set. In art everyone should have a voice.

Now, that doesn’t mean a voice cannot be wrong, or mean-spirited, or uneducated. But it does mean that these sorts of artistic voices are still given opportunity to speak, it treats the creator as a person. Misguided, perhaps, but possessing of a mind and of feelings that deserve respect, even if part of that respect is dismantling the problem of their beliefs.

It also doesn’t mean all art is good art. The quantitative and the qualitative measures are still in place. But again, it does not shut down the voice that is speaking. Bad art is still art, just done badly. It is important to recognize the artist as a person who is trying to say something, while still recognizing that their art is insufficient, and, when possible, helping the artist grow into a good artist.

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Ultimately art is about speaking out the beauty and the ugliness of the world around us in such a way that we come alongside our fellow humanity, despite our divides and despite our differences. Whether revealed in grief (as I saw in “Lamentation Variations”) or joy, art’s grounding in the present creates an eternal dialogue that must be communicated or be lost.

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