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Left: Pearl Lang in Martha Graham’s “Diversion of Angels,” original costume, 1948. Photo by Chris Alexander. Right: Pearl Lang in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photos courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.
By Pearl Lang
Copyright 1991, 2002, and 2017 Marian Horosko
(Excerpted from Marian Horosko’s “Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training,” revised edition, University of Florida Press, 2002. Our dear colleague, editor, writer, scholar, teacher, and veteran New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera Ballet dancer Marian Horosko died on September 11 in the Bronx at the age of 92. As hard to believe as it was that she was already 70 when I first met her in the offices of Dance magazine — where she was education editor mais pas que — energetically bicycling on a stationary device, only pausing long enough to give a young editor a necessary correction. Marian represented that rare combination among journalists: A skeptic and a true believer. Marian’s other books include the 2005 biography, “May O’Donnell: Modern Dance Pioneer.” Special thanks to DL for the alert. First published on the DI, with the author’s permission, on March 10, 2009, on the occasion of the death of pioneering Martha Graham dancer, teacher, and choreographer Pearl Lang. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. DI subscribers get full access to the DI’s Martha Graham Archives with more news, reviews, and commentary. To subscribe for one year, just designate your PayPal payment of $29.95 to firstname.lastname@example.org or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I)
My mother was a great admirer of Isadora Duncan, and there were photos of her and her various companies in Russia and Germany on our walls. I come from Chicago, and she took me to see Harald Kreutzberg, as well as all the dance companies that played there. I especially remember a performance, when I must have been four years old, of “Hansel and Gretel,” the opera. In this production, when the children went to sleep at night, the angels came down a ladder from the sky two at a time. As they stepped down, each step lighted up and I thought that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I went right home, got my girlfriends together and did my first choreography, walking them downstairs with lights at every step!
I had lessons with a Duncan teacher and later, ballet lessons in Chicago. And when I was about 16 years old, I saw a Northwestern University series of American modern dancers that included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman. I took all their master classes and was invited by Martha and Humphrey to come to New York. I arrived when I was 19 years old.
The traditional Graham class begins with the bounces, but in the last years, in watching the company’s performances, the contraction is just not as apparent as I used to see it and the way we danced it. The contraction is Martha’s great gift to dance. I begin the class with it, along with some of the things that are usually done later in the class. The contraction is the most basic use of the center of the body. There is always a stretch before a contraction, which engages the interior muscles and reacts as in a cough, a sob, or a laugh — all violent physical reactions. In order for the contraction to be visual, you have to have a smooth plane before it can happen. I try to make my students aware of the contrast in these movements. I point out that before a contraction is visible, there has to be a stretch in the other direction to make it happen. Aesthetically, too, it pleases me more to see them sit down and do contractions rather than begin with bounces. Somehow, I don’t think Martha would have minded my changing the order.
Nothing in the system begins in the extremities. All the movements begin in the center of the body and move out. There is an overtone here from Duncan. In her book “My Life” (1928) she wrote that movement begins in the solar plexus, the diaphragm. When Martha devised her system, Duncan training was still around. Martha made a technique of the concept of a contraction beginning in the abdominals, while with Duncan it was a style, a quality of movement. Martha worked at a time when even painters were picturing the body in a cubist style. Picasso painted the body broken up into various planes, and choreographers of the time were emulating that kind of vision.
Martha saw Duncan dance in New York at Carnegie Hall and was enamored with her and absolutely ecstatic when she saw her dance. She wrote in her notebooks that she could hardly breathe during Duncan’s performance and that her own hair, combed into two buns, had become completely undone at the end of the performance. Ruth St. Denis and Duncan were dancing at the same time — two famous and unique dancers who influenced Martha. She never talked about Mary Wigman and probably never saw her dance.
Her early background in the Denishawn company provided her technique with a strong influence in ethnic dance since their repertoire was built upon ethnic dances. St. Denis was famous for her “Nautch Dance,” which bore little resemblance to the original, but ethnic dances were all very fashionable in those days.
I find that students lose sight of a movement phrase, especially at its beginning. Just as you write a sentence with a capital letter, the beginning of a dance has to have some authority to tell us what is going to happen, and it has to have an end. If it doesn’t have that finality, we don’t remember it. I try to convey that when I teach. There are those students who are naturally going to dance and need some technique, and you have those who study technique, technique, technique and nothing more than that ever happens.
I have been saying for years that, in addition to classes in ballet for all the students, male dancers, especially those studying Graham’s technique, should be required to study flamenco dance because Martha’s posture for men was macho.
Martha listened a great deal to Joseph Campbell [company member Jean Erdman’s husband and author of “Man and Myth”]. Martha was a Jungian [Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung (1875 – 1961) founded analytical psychology]. A lot of Jung’s psychiatry was built upon universal archetypes. The behavior of people interested Martha, so when Campbell made parallels to something in Hopi Indians and East Indian mythology, for instance, she absorbed those similarities. She didn’t want to be specific in her characterizations as much as she wanted them to resonate in other cultures.
For instance, Martha was fascinated with the beautiful Southwest, which was an artist colony in the 1930s and where Georgia O’Keeffe went to live and paint. There, the cross-culture of American Indians and Hispanic Catholics influenced her early work “Primitive Mysteries” (1931).
We are, after all, training dancers for the stage, and they have to have life in them. It can’t just be steps and technique. I see so many young choreographers walk to the front of the stage, look out to the audience, and seem to say, “I’m unhappy and it’s all your fault.” Every company director and teacher has the responsibility to develop the possibilities of a dancer. You have to know what those possibilities are and bring them out of each one. After every class I think about what the students will need in the next class. It takes the director or teacher and the student together to make this happen.
Every class is a prayer. Some of the movements are pious; there is a spirituality in dance. Martha claimed the studio was her church, just as the Asians bless the floor on which they perform. There are so many influences in our society that the student has to ignore — the vulgarity on the screen, on television, and even on stage. If a character is vulgar, then you have to play it that way, but when it becomes pervasive in a society, it makes you wonder how you can teach the subtleties, the refinements, and the nuances and beauty within the movements. There is little or no frame of reference for them. And so little time.
By Paul Ben-Itzak, with contribution by Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2003, 2017, Paul Ben-Itzak & Lisa Kraus
PARIS — Why does Trisha Brown have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find a major ballet company to undertake her choreography? Why does New York City Ballet refuse to look below 42nd Street for additions to its repertoire, instead padding its Balanchine and Robbins legacy with filler from Peter Martins and others? I fumed over these questions last week at the Palais Garnier, as I exalted over the Paris Opera Ballet’s breathless interpretations of two newly acquired American masterpieces, Brown’s 1979 “Glacial Decoy,” with photography, sets, and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, and Balanchine’s 1960 “Liebeslieder Walzer,” to Brahms.
To receive the complete article, first published on December 30, 2003, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at email@example.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@@gmail.com .
New York City Ballet’s Ask la Cour with, left to right, Rebecca Krohn, Jenifer Ringer, and Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Copyright 2010, 2017 Harris Green
NEW YORK — City Ballet broke with several traditions by beginning its new season with four weeks of early fall performances (September 14 – October 10). The traditional opening-night gala was delayed until the middle of the fourth week so seats that first evening could go for the special introductory prices of $50 and $25. Repertory included such novelties as the New York premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s recent “Plainspoken” on October 7 and revivals of Peter Martins’s rarely performed “Grazioso” (2007) and “The Magic Flute” (1982). Also out of the ordinary was an aggressive merchandising campaign built around a posh 9-by-12-inch booklet filled with studio portraits of principal dancers which was available for the taking in the theater lobby. Photographer Henry Leutwyler filmed everyone in casual poses and garb a la People Magazine. Most of the men are sporting the scraggly beards the guys insist upon growing between seasons. Daniel Ulbricht, however, is not only clean shaven, but the one dancer whom Leutwyler captured performing an actual step: a soaring 180-degree split leap, with ballerinas Teresa Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin and Sara Mearns seated on the floor behind him. (Yes, seated.) Letters to the editor and postings online promptly deplored the devastation such informality wreaked upon the dancers’ images as golden, gifted beings, so unlike us folks out front. Frankly the only dancers’ images that matter to me are those they create onstage.
To receive the rest of the article, first published on November 3, 2010, including lots more photos, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at email@example.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. Through June 30 it’s pay as much as you can subscriptions. (Minimum $12.)
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on December 6, 2010. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a yearly subscriber. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to email@example.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check. Through June 30, it’s pay as much as you can subscriptions. (Minimum $12.)
In a feeble attempt to counter his being called out by myself and others over his latest cat-calling masquerading as criticism, in which he snipped that New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle, seen in “The Nutcracker,” must be eating too many sugar-plums, Alastair Macaulay has now made it clearer than ever how unqualified he is to be a critic. How long is his shameless employer the New York Times going to continue embarrassing itself and denigrating the high arts of dance and criticism by setting loose this unqualified intellectual feather-weight on a major high art?
In a response to my and others’ criticism published in Saturday’s Times, Macaulay’s attempt to justify his picking on performers for what he considers to be their excess pounds actually backfires, instead revealing his own lack of substance as a critic and total lack of understanding of what art is all about.
“Go to any gallery and you see how painters and sculptors for centuries have made fat an issue,” Macaulay writes. “The nudes of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Renoir show women with curves that are no longer part of any fashionable idea of beauty. Venus or Diana had a belly like that? I love most of them myself, but I have friends who object. Either way, all of us acknowledge that weight plays a part in our response.” What you mean ‘Us,’ white man?
Not content to confine his philistine perspective to one art, Macaulay is now angling to become the Times’s resident village idiot on the visual arts (which is not to insult the village idiot, who would be expected to be less judgmental). This statement has got to be the most idiotic I’ve ever read from the mouth of an alleged critic. It’s almost hard to know which idiocy to start with.
The ‘issue’ for Renoir was not ‘fat,’ but how to use nature (chiefly light), matter (his painting tools), his own technical prowess and aesthetic perspective, and his human subjects to make a work of art. And a critic is not “all of us.” His or her role is to evaluate the work of art — how, and how well, the artist uses the tools of his trade to capture the subject, be it on a canvas or on a stage, how effective the work is as art – and to respond to it, tapping on a range of his own individual intellectual, aesthetic, poetic, and sensory resources.
“Some… have argued that the body in ballet is ‘irrelevant,’ Macaulay goes on. “Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career…. I am severe — but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.” No Alastair: If you can’t tell the difference between appearance and art, between surface sheen and technical virtuosity, do not choose criticism as a career. And the problem with you is not that you are too severe, but that you are so superficial. The only legitimate weight problem here is the featherweight quality of your pen and your intelligence.
New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, with the David Berger Jazz Orchestra in the background, in Susan Stroman’s “For the Love of Duke.” Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski, Joaquin De Luz, and friends in Balanchine and Kochno’s “Prodigal Son.” Photo by and ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Editor’s Note: Later the same year as that in which this review was first published, and after 16 years of dedicated coverage by more than a dozen critics of international renown and our championing the company and its dancers in the face of a strike by its orchestra that threatened to shut down the “Nutcracker” season and against fatuous criticism by the New York Times, the DI’s press ticket access to New York City Ballet performances was revoked by the director of its press department, after we criticized the press department for alerting the New York Times to important company news before notifying other media. A recent appeal to the same director, which included an apology, went unanswered. If you’d like to read about current performances of City Ballet on the DI, as you continue to read about American Ballet Theatre and other companies, contact press director Rob Daniels at RDaniels@nycballet.com . (Be nice.) If we persist, it’s because no one person – be he a hard-working respected veteran press officer or a precipitous editor – has the right to deprive these dancers and this jewel of a company of the type of informed coverage the DI has always provided.)
NEW YORK — Forget what you may have read elsewhere: With Susan Stroman’s semi-new “For the Love of Duke,” New York City Ballet has a run-away hit, that rare jazz ballet which makes ballet dancers look great even as the ballet dancers enhance the phenomenal music, in this case by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Those who complain about clichés in the work, as some critics have done, miss the point, and probably missed Stroman’s transformational Broadway hit “Contact”: The woman knows how to make choreography that connects to this quintessentially American musical form and that, putting it simply, dances jazz — and, in this piece, shows that she knows how to bring out the jazz dancer in classically trained performers, who add a rare quickness, deftness, and dexterity to the mix that jazz dancers don’t always have. Add a textbook lesson in how to interpret an archetypal contemporary ballet role — that of the Siren in Balanchine’s transformational 1929 “Prodigal Son” — such as Maria Kowroski delivered in the ballet which followed the Stroman at City Ballet’s matinee Saturday, and a flawless delivery of the Robbins-Glass urban ballet “Glass Pieces,” and you have stunning proof of a new versatility in this troupe, which well-serves the choreography, when they’re well-served by the choreographers (which was not entirely the case in the Saturday evening performance).
To receive the rest of the article, first published February 8, 2011, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before February 14, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org .
New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering.” Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.
Girl with a Black Mask in a Red Room,” 2005. Acrylic on canvas in handmade metal frame. By and ©Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk, courtesy Woodward Gallery, New York.
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK — After a temporary blip in my bludgeoning, er, burgeoning French theatrical career Friday night — Sam Bernhardt, c’est moi — I was glad to be back in the cultural thick of things Saturday, finding myself sitting next to Meredith Monk at Judson Church on Washington Square for the afternoon’s Gathering in Tribute to (late DI contributor) Jill Johnston, a genuine gathering of the tribes, and School of American Ballet legend Suki Schorer Saturday night for an impeccable “Dances at a Gathering.” Add a Lower East Side interlude at the Woodward Gallery on Eldridge Street, where painter Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk not only made the scene but made her own frames, and there was once more reason to believe that New York is still a many-splendored helluva town and art capital, with a rich past and cause to be confident in its future.
To receive the rest of the article, first published February 1, 2011, including more images, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at email@example.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before February 14, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at email@example.com .