This quote, from choreographer and dancer Martha Graham, speaks to the essence of the performing arts, that curious practice adopted by humans over the centuries in which the temporary adoption of a persona external to the performer seeks to convey something of worth to an audience. Obviously, the discipline of acting is the primary technique used for this end, but dance offers a profound alternative approach, and the three short films found in Martha Graham: Dance on Film, provide some vintage examples from the moment when dance took on a new power, thanks largely to her visionary genius, to capture emotions and experience in new ways and connect with a mass audience as it never had before.
The first film in this set, and the only one I'll review here (sticking to my chronological scheme) is A Dancer's World, the last entry from 1957 that I'll include in this blog. I don't know exactly what day it first broadcast on public television, so I'm just adding it to the end of the '57 lineup. Beyond its intrinsic value as a document containing some lovely and remarkable dance footage, it's extraordinarily important as the first recording of her choreography allowed by Martha Graham herself. First rising to prominence as an innovator of dance in the 1930s, Graham had maintained a belief that her art should only be experienced live and had generally forbidden the use of media to copy her work, with only a handful of exceptions. But the persistent efforts of her musician friend Nathan Kroll eventually got her to change her mind late in her career. Kroll directed this and the two other short films from 1958 (Appalachian Spring) and 1961 (Night Journey) that I'll review when I get to their points in my time line.
Humanity is fortunate that Kroll was able to move Ms. Graham to reconsider her position, because, simply put, A Dancer's World is one of the most starkly beautiful films I've seen to this point of my Criterion survey. For anyone who (like me) regards themselves as a novice to really understanding, as opposed to just marveling at or being impressed by dance, I can't think of a better introductory overview to what the discipline entails or how one of its creative leading lights articulated her aesthetic philosophy after a long time spent refining it in theory and practice. Graham's phrasing and mannerisms may come across as stilted and affected to some, but I think she's a marvel to behold - visually and audibly. She's clearly invested herself so deeply into her art that its fair to say her perception of the world is fundamentally different from the majority of ordinary folks who hardly have the time to think so deeply on the matters she speaks to here.
The format of the film is as elegant and direct as Graham herself. She sits at her dressing table, expanding (beyond the quote above) her thoughts on the motivations and challenges a dancer confronts as she introduces her company to the viewer. You can witness her original and inimitable style for yourself by following this link (embedding disabled) which leads to a five minute excerpt of her speaking parts from the beginning and toward the end of the half-hour film.
After each member is introduced, we see them go through a series of choreographed routines that serve as a sampler of what the Martha Graham Dance Company was capable of. My hunch is that the movements shown here are pretty basic and relatively simple in comparison to the more fully realized works that were still a few years away from being filmed. The setting is likewise stripped down and behind the scenes of what we normally see when we attend a performance, though this isn't a rehearsal either. A Dancer's World orients us to the fundamental building blocks of the dancer's vocabulary - not in technical details, for there's no mention of the formal terminology long familiar in the world of ballet or other styles of dance. Rather, she wants us to consider the unique power that choreographed movement can have to communicate "the fragile matter of a flirtation" or speak to "the heart of man," even to people whose bodies are for various reasons quite incapable of moving in ways similar to what they see on screen!
A Dancer's World also served to enlarge the popular conception of how dance functioned as a form of entertainment. Prior to this time, most of what we saw when it came to dance on film was the fancy footwork of stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, more of a musical comedy approach, lighter fare for the most part. The alternative to this was the focus on classical ballet, such as the Powell & Pressburger films The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Graham introduced an earthier, more erotic tone, and it's worth noting that in many parts of the USA in 1957, interracial dance scenes of such tenderness and intimacy as depicted below were considered serious violations of social propriety or morally indecent.
Graham also wants to impress upon us the amount of dedicated work that goes into becoming a dancer of the caliber she employs in her studio. Members of her company are not supernaturally gifted or "freaks of nature." Rather, she considers them "a divine normal," that is, the end result of ten years or more of sustained discipline and the realization of an inner drive, nurtured and cultivated by those who've gone before. Graham quotes an old composer who once said, "everyone is born a genius, but some only keep it for a few minutes." It's an amusing thought. I appreciate Martha Graham's early recognition of her own genius, and her fierce determination to hold on to it, and share its fruit with the rest of the world, for as long as she did. And I'm really glad she finally conceded just enough to let future generations experience its echoes on film.
Next: Mon Oncle