Monday, December 31, 2012

#406: Martha Graham: Dance on Film

(Nathan Kroll, 1957-1961)

Watching Martha Graham's works filmed here, Appalachian Spring and Night Journey, before I watched the documentary made first, A Dancer's Life, might have made me dismiss them as something I wasn't very interested in. Even watching these TV shows in chronological order (though the plays themselves are actually from the 40s), I was most taken by the behind-the-scenes look. But having been introduced to the process these dancers went through, their performances were really something very special. Although - similar to my feelings about other stage work - I'm not much of a dance enthusiast, there is a hypnotic rhythm to watching a dancer perform that is unlike any other artform - even singing. It might be the freest form of expression there is - which makes watching someone perform it at times almost as exhilarating.

What most struck me about these films was the time period they came out of. This was the 1950s, the supposed land of conformism. These are our grandparents now, the ones who led an artist's life when being an artist wasn't just another form of commodification, but an active rebellion against the social norms. Sure, being a modern dancer today requires a certain level of sacrifice - mainly because of how many people want to do it and how difficult it is to succeed. But in the 1950s, there wasn't a stepping stone to mainstream acceptance for these dancers. Yes, Graham danced at the White House and the company toured all over the world. But this was a pioneering accomplishment, one that led to the eventual embracing of modern dance within the mainstream art world. I'm not saying that there aren't artists today that challenge our assumptions or work against the mainstream. Rather, I think the very nature of becoming an artist was once social rebellion, but no longer.

Graham's two pieces here are quite impressive. The movement and stark, minimal stage design is immediately modernist, but the pure emotion of both the performances and the music prevent it from feeling dated. Though modern dance has obviously moved even further away from ballet than what is seen here (something Criterion is making more apparent by releasing Pina), this work still feels hyper-relevant and revelatory. Of the two pieces, I definitely liked Appalachian Spring more, both because of Copeland's now-classic score and the lighter (relatively) touch of the story and dancing.

The disc in general is impeccably put-together. Along with the three collaborations Graham did with Kroll, there are a host of extras, most impressively a documentary on Martha Graham made for American Masters and modern-day interviews with many of the dancers who are featured in the films. These people have excellent insights and are a joy to listen to, but they are primarily a reminder of how happy you can be when you follow your bliss. Their demeanors and general nature make it totally apparent. I'm not the audience for this set, so if I can get wrapped up in what's happening, I feel pretty confident that anyone with a passing interest in dance would be enthralled by this underrated and forgotten spine number.

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