Dancing · fitness

Fit, feminist and almost 100: the Martha Graham Dance Company in motion

Last weekend, while we weren’t riding short distances or getting coffee, my friend Norah and I saw the Martha Graham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, a dance center in western Massachusetts. The Martha Graham Dance company is the oldest modern dance company in the US, founded in 1926. You can read more about the company here on their website or visit here for an online exhibit of images, text and video about Graham herself (who died in 1991).

I love modern dance. I admit I don’t always get the themes or narrative threads of some of the works, but I’m always struck by the beauty and power of the bodies in motion and stillness. And in the case of the Martha Graham dances, it’s the women– often in groups– that move in ways that are athletic and rigorous, but also evoke teamwork and community. Take a look.

In all these images, we see women in groups, either captured in motion or stillness, all doing the same shapes. These shapes are simple and geometric. But they are are very demanding on the body. In one part of Graham’s famous Appalachian Spring, a group of four dancers stood with their backs to the stage, their arms rounded over their heads, with hands overlapping. They stood there for what seemed like forever, not moving. Committing to being in your body, with others, for a shared purpose, in ways that work that body– that is impressive and inspiring to me. That’s what these women do.

Learning the Martha Graham technique is a special subgenre of modern dance. You can see a video of how deceptively simple the movements are, and how strong and powerful a foundation they create for making art through movement.

I really liked this video, as it shows how everything comes back to regular practice. It’s true in writing, it’s true in sports, and it’s true in art.

Below are two black and white images of dancers in technique class. The second one includes Martha Graham herself teaching class. The third one is a class preparing students for knee work.

The last photo is my favorite. You can see all the dancers in their individual bodies– different shapes and lengths of limbs, all united by their shared commitment to a group creation. And they do this every day.

There’s a lot behind and about the work of Martha Graham. My friend Debra Cash, a dance critic and historian, gave a talk before the performance we saw, and offered us some of those interpretations and themes that enrich our experience of watching modern dance. However, she agrees that much of their power comes from their embodied selves, working together over years, and bringing that to us on stage.

Women working together in groups, over time. Laboring. Moving. Waiting. Helping. Entering and leaving. Over and over and over and over again. In life. In physical activity. In art. In pain. In beauty.

Yes, that’s it.

2 thoughts on “Fit, feminist and almost 100: the Martha Graham Dance Company in motion

  1. Love this, especially the comment and link about daily training and practice! The human body as a tool for making art is something often in my thoughts especially in relation to aging. Lots of questioning about making art in my ‘vintage’ body machine. Even the act of learning how to care and maintain my body so it can continue to perform is feeling like part of a bigger whole.

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