Errand Into The Maze

Errand Into The Maze | The Life and Works of Martha Graham

Errand Into The Maze | The Life and Works of Martha Graham
By Deborah Jowitt
Farrar, Straus & Giroux publishers

Over her seven-decade career, Martha Graham resisted attempts by writers to document her life. choreographer Agnes DeMille spent 30 years working on a biography of Martha, which was published the year after Martha’s death. DeMille quipped, “Martha only wanted to leave behind a legend, not a biography.” Despite that, there have been many other attempts since. The most recent being ‘Errand into the Maze’ by esteemed dance writer Deborah Jowitt.

Jowitt covered dance in New York and beyond for 37 years for the Village Voice and authored several books including an excellent biography of choreographer Jerome Robbins. But, Jowitt admits in her introduction to ‘Errand’ that prospect of writing a portrait of Martha gave her pause.

In ‘Errand’ Jowitt whisks through Graham’s childhood, growing up in Pittsburgh (Allegheny), the youngest of three daughters. Devoted to her parents, and especially close to her father, a physician. The Graham family relocated to Los Angeles and there Martha exotic dancer Ruth St. Denis perform. Soon enough Jowitt tracks Graham’s dance training and her early years in New York.

Graham started her in her late 20s but was so driven that she soon was the polestar of modern dance in America. Jowitt vividly conjures the ragtag scene of the era, with dancers being unpaid, rigid training, and resorting to gig work on the grungy vaudeville circuit, and in Marha’s case, a stint as a headliner in the Greenwich Village Follies.

In the of the work-a-day- dance world that was pieced together in New York describes a competitive, but creatively exciting time. Jowitt dives into Graham’s collaborations with the dance modernists of the early 20th century (post Isadora Duncan and pre-George Balanchine) with Graham’s contemporaries Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, Charles Wiedman, et al, bringing new techniques, concepts, and architects of modern vocabulary.

Jowitt delves into one of Graham early masterpieces and the lore vis-à-vis Graham’s mission to define distinctly American dance in form and content. And for Graham, an intense period of direction and signature achievements. Jowitt’s description of Martha’s early premieres of seminal works ‘Heretic’ and ‘Lamentation’ in 1929 – 30 is rich in detail of its influence and impact on the arts scene in New York and abroad.

One aspect of these early years of forming the Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) that strikes as a missed opportunity is Jowitt’s scant information about The Group- Graham’s fearless all- female company- remarkable in their own right as dancers. An ensemble so devoted to Martha, that they did personal chores for her and often rehearsed nonstop and performed without being paid. many of the dancers who stuck by Martha through thick and thin, deserved more attention throughout the book.

In 1930 Philadelphia Orchestra director Leopold Stokowski chose Graham to dance the role of ‘The Chosen One’ in the US premiere of Stravinsky’s score to Le Sacre du Printemps, Nijinsky’s ballet that scandalized Paris in 1913, that choreographer Leonide Massine co-opted in 1920 for the Ballets Russes. Graham had her own ideas about how to dance the role, despite Massine’s objections, and onstage her rebellious performance electrified audiences.

Ted Shawn recalled a run in with Martha after he asked for a flat fee of $500. From Graham and other Denishawn artists who wanted to use his methods and choreography. A request which “made Martha very mad and I think affected the whole history of modern dance. Because she flared up with that famous cobra like hiss and reared back and said, ‘I will never again teach anything I ever learned from Denishawn. I will create all of my own material from now on.’

And Graham was true to her word. Jowitt barely mentions Graham’s research into dance ritual among Native Nations is largely ignored in ‘Errand.’ (Neil Baldwin’s 2022 bio devotes a chapter to this vital understanding of Graham’s aesthetic) Graham’s time in the Southwest and her engagement with Indigenous communities, and the concepts of creating ‘American’ dance vocabulary. 

By the mid-thirties, even in the midst of the Depression, Graham’s company was so renowned that Hitler’s German Ministry of Culture invited Graham to perform at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Graham was unequivocal in her public refusal stating “ I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time, she wrote. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted…” adding “ By accepting the invitation with the regime that has made such things possible. She also made the point that several members of the company being Jewish, would not be welcome in Germany.

Yet, even as Graham denied her work was political, she was a champion for humanitarian causes. Performing at charity events. Her 1936 response to the rise in fascism in Europe was echoed in her ballet ‘Chronicle.’

Graham explained in her writings that her initial mission to strip decorative elements of dance was established and that she could reintroduce content in a more contemporary aesthetic. She delighted audiences and critics with comedy and satire in ‘Every Soul Is A Circus’ and ‘Punch and The Judy.’
Jowitt’s chapters on Graham’s most famous body of works that follow- ‘Appalachian Spring,’ ‘Clytemnestra,’ ‘Errand Into The Maze,’ ‘Night Journey,’ ‘Canticle’, et. al. But often, many of Jowitt’s descriptives of Graham’s choreography strike filler within the body of the main text. Such forensic study, however, expertly itemized, would be better served in an appendix or digital archive.

But she is at her best debriefing on the creation of a Graham’s ‘Letter to the World’ a dance portrait of Dickinson’s life and work to honor the poet’s fearless lineage Graham initiated for dance in America in the 20th. Much of Graham’s latter career is sped through in ‘Errand’ and ignored are such works as the transcendent ‘Acts of Light’ score to Jean Sibelius.

The creative circumstances in creating her most defining repertory is engaging and insightful throughout the book. Her work with composers Aaron Copland, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, among others, is vital dance and music history. But getting the short shrift is composer, company composer-pianist Louis Horst, a married man but with whom Martha had a relationship with for many years.

There are also fascinating portraits of Martha’s collaborators in the book, such as Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Her dance co-choreographer Michio Ito in is rescued dance history. Her creative kinships with everyone from German modernist Mary Wiggam to famed burlesque dancer Sally Rand who Graham greatly admired.

As Jowitt reports, Martha wasn’t all work and no play. In 1937, Martha met artist Carlos Dyer, who was commissioned to paint a portrait of Graham for President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) . Graham’s relationship with the Horst, was “fraying” and he was not in the best of health. The artist fell in love with Graham. He recounted the tale of his first night alone with Martha. She was 43. He was 19.
Graham’s intense relationship with Erick Hawkins is navigated by Jowitt with admirable restraint (DeMille is much more forthcoming in her book). Hawkins was the first male dancer she hired to be in her company, whom she later let choreograph and became a full partner in running the company, alienating such stalworth company members as choreographer Anna Sokolow and Pearl Lang. Jowitt though dispels the scandalous lore spun about Hawkin’s control over her and Graham’s injury in Paris that supposedly prompted their breakup and Martha’s breakdown.

Past that, Jowitt’s portrait of Martha’s personality emerges in all of its complexities, dualities, and magnetic, if cryptic, persona.

Of Graham’s indomitable personality, Jowitt reports that a student of Graham’s at Bennington College summed up her character “…most of them seemed to take her temperament in their stride…Martha was always very intense and if things didn’t go right, she’d get angry, very angry, and there’s nothing more exciting than to see Martha Graham angry.”

Little is detailed about Martha’s struggles with alcoholism, aging or her self-rehabilitation and devotion to teaching, well into her 80s, wracked with health issues, but soldiering on.

There is a sketchy account of Graham and patron Baroness de Rothchild establishing the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel in 1964. Also glossed over is the questionable trust Graham put Ron Protos, an interloper who turned up at a Graham performance in 1967, a devotee, and alleged dance photographer who insinuated himself into her life, personally and professionally, and one who alienating many long time Graham staffers and confidants who left the company because of his interference. And in the end Graham named him exchequer of her artistic estate and after her death, he grotesquely barred the company from performing her works for several years.

At its best, Jowitt crafts a dimensional prose portrait with insight and vigorous biographical craft, meantime there is a repository of distracting minutia the mar the narrative flow at key points. It is hard to criticize Jowitt, she is a towering dance writer and advocate for the field. And indeed, for students, dancers and choreographers, this book is worthy for so many reasons, but there are sins of omission for a ‘comprehensive’ biography as it is billed.

Jowitt seems to get lost, in her own maze of all things Martha. Full disclosure- I got lost too.

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