Judge Jesse Ataide puts on his dancing shoes.
"A dancer is not a phenomenon, he's not a phenomenal creature. In other words, I think he is a divine normal. He does what the human body is capable of doing."—Martha Graham
I have a desire, like most people with more than a passing interest in the arts, to possess a well-rounded knowledge and appreciation of all art, whether it be film or literature, popular music or opera, the visual arts or theater, or the many other ways that the creative pursuit manifests itself. And while I've come a long way—I can say I have at least a passing knowledge in most of these topics—I have to admit, there's one major branch of the arts that remains elusive, and that is dance. Perhaps because there's a certain ephemerality to dance and a quality that seems to demand that it be experienced in person that has caused dance to remain one of the art forms seemingly removed from the masses and mass media in general, unless of course we're talking about Tchaikovsky's Nutrcacker Suite, packaged in a family-friendly holiday bow. But that's a different matter entirely.
If pressed, the professional dancers I can name of the top of my head could be counted on one hand—there's Baryshnikov, of course, and Alicia Markova and several of her contemporaries who I was introduced to through the wonderful documentary Ballet Russes. And then there's Martha Graham, the oft-parodied pioneer of modern dance, who until now has remained little more than a name and pigeon-holed reputation encountered in passing. The opportunity to expose myself to what I'd been told was one of the most important artistic legacies of the 20th century is one of the main reasons why I jumped at the chance at taking a closer look at the Criterion Collections's remarkable two disc set Martha Graham: Dance on Film. Because really, is there a better way to acquaint oneself with an artist than through the work itself?
Facts of the Case
In the late 1950's Nathan Kroll, an influential producer who had made it his personal mission to bring the arts to the American public via the burgeoning medium of television, approached legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham with an idea to develop a film around her and her dancing. Despite initial resistance and from all accounts a disastrous first attempt at filming, Kroll and Graham made A Dancer's World, a short film clocking in at just over a half hour. The film, which presented Graham in her dressing room preparing for a performance, explaining her thoughts and artistic philosophy while the camera cuts to footage of her troupe of young dancers performing short dances she had choreographed, proved to a breakthrough in the way that dance was captured on film.
After the fruitful collaboration on A Dancer's World, Kroll persuaded Graham to recreate Appalachian Spring and Night Journey, two of her most famous and influential works, for the camera. Despite being in her mid to late 60's, Graham starred in both, not only allowing for a close-up view of the artist in action, but a tremendously valuable visual record of a master artist in action.
A Dancer's World, which is listed on IMDb under the less evocative title Martha Graham: An American Original in Performance, still serves its original purpose as an illuminating crash-course on Graham's style and innovations. The decision to use Graham's dancers as a visual demonstration of her verbose views is tremendously effective, and even if many of her innovations have since become clich?, it's not hard to grasp what it was that made Graham's style so provocative and thrilling—I was shocked to discover how a sudden, unnaturally angled movement of a dancer's foot was still capable of eliciting an unexpected visceral thrill in me. Graham is credited with bringing Modernism, the defining art movement of the first half of the 20th century, to the realm of to an art form previously monopolized by traditional ballet, and there's something about watching her innovative movements and contortions of the body that inspires the same rather inarticulate shocked and awed response of first being confronted with the bold colors and shapes of a Picasso or a Kandinsky, the atonal blasts of a Schoenberg, or the evocative, boldly clipped lines and phrases of an Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams or Marianne Moore.
But for all the skill and capability on display by Graham's talented troupe of dancers, Graham herself is resolutely the star and central force of A Dancer's World. Through her aging, distinctive mask-like face, husky, deliberately-cadenced voice and verbose way of expressing herself she instantly establishes herself as the center of a universe she has meticulously created. Intended or not, Graham brings to mind a high priestess toiling at the alter of her chosen religion (and indeed, during one of the bonus features the comment is made that dance was Graham's religion), at once as regal as the Greek queen Jocasta she is about to play in one of her dances and as grotesque as Norma Desmond, an unintentional parody of the artist on the precipice of decline. One way or the other, Martha Graham the person proves to be an absolutely fascinating, hypnotic presence, and as a result A Dancer's World serves not only as an explication of her dance techniques, it's allows for an extremely unique person to be fully showcased.
Admittedly, my main draw to this set was the opportunity to see the Appalachian Spring performed by its creator. The first of several dances specifically scored for Graham by Aaron Copeland, Appalachian Spring is not only my favorite work by one of my favorite composers, I consider the marriage of modernist musical techniques and an obvious indebtedness to traditional American folk music to be one of the supreme achievements of American music. Since first hearing the Pulitzer Prize-winning score several years ago I've always had a burning desire to see how the music would be translated into dance.
Graham conceived the work as a celebration of the pioneering spirit of the early Americans, centering specifically around a young, newly married couple as they move into their new home. A "pioneer woman," a preacher and a corps of "worshipers" are also featured in the dance, which takes place in a minimalist set evoking the rough-hewn lines of a developing homestead. The narrative of the work is difficult to follow, for as Joan Acocella says in the essay provided in the set's accompanying booklet, "Graham was a modernist, and her work, as in Proust's or Joyce's, is seldom straightforward. It is a collision of past, present and future, not necessarily in that order." Regardless of the story being nearly impossible for the casual watcher to follow, many of the movements expressed by the dancers are evocative, and one can pick out a marriage ceremony, the birth of a baby and other events. That said, Graham's presence is unfortunately distracting: playing the giddy young bride at an obvious 65 years old, it's difficult to stay focused on what's important—the opportunity to observe Graham perform one of her signature roles—and not just on the slightly uncomfortable Norma Desmond feeling her duets with the young man playing the husband elicit.
Fortunately, Graham's age is much better suited for the role she plays in Night Journey, the second and final work Kroll turned into a film. As Jocasta, the ill-fated queen of the Oedipus myth, Graham uses her battle-worn, expressionistic face and body to convey the devastation of a woman who has discovered the incestuous nature of her marriage and is witnessing her entire world crumble because of it. Beyond the dramatic dancing itself, Night Journey is fascinating simply as filtering one of the world's most well-known stories through the feminine perspective of the only major female character. Springing between the past and the present, Night Journey, also features the disorienting narrative technique found in Appalachian Spring, though in the scenes depicting the early stages of Jocasta and Oedipus's marriage there's a very carnal view of sexuality being flaunted, enhanced by the male dancer's fabulously skimpy costume and movements that very clearly suggest sexual acts. In both its choreography and its use of costumes and set Night Journey is extremely theatrical and dramatic in nature, and as a result is the most immediately gripping and pleasurable of the three films.
While the three short films—A Dancer's World, Appalachian Spring and Night Journey respectively—are the crown jewels of this set, Criterion has filled two discs with a bevy of extras that further delve into the life and art of Martha Graham. Extras on disc one include a brief interview with Aaron Copeland on the creation of the score for Appalachian Spring, a new interview with Ron Simon, curator of Museum of Television and Radio, on the legacy of Nathan Kroll, and new interviews with the two editors of the Graham films. But for me, the most valuable extra was a comparison of the performances found in the film version of Appalachian Spring with soundless archival footage of the work dating from nearly two decades before. Narrated by dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt, this feature not only demonstrates how Graham changed the choreography of the work over the years, but in her description of the moves being performed by the dancers, she reveals how dense and precise each movement is and how it is meant to convey the story being told. The scholarly knowledge Jowitt provides is fascinating and illuminating and reveals facets of the work virtually impossible for the neophyte to recognize, and it made me wish that actual commentaries had been provided for the films.
The main extra on the second disc is the 1994 PBS documentary Martha Graham: A Dancer Revealed. I'm not usually one for the rather lightweight documentaries often showing up as bonus features on DVDs, but in this case that was exactly what I wanted—a relatively succinct overview of Graham's life and legacy. Extremely informative, the documentary helpfully placed a lot of what I observed in the films into the broader context of both Graham's life and the historical moment she inhabited. The other main extra, and probably the most valuable extra on this disc, is a set of new interviews with no less than six of the dancers seen in the films. But instead of approaching them as six separate talking heads, all of their footage is combined with archival material in a half hour featurette which really serves to reinforce many of the former dancer's sentiments that working with Graham was a collaborative effort. There is also a 1975 "filmed technique demonstration" performed by Graham's troupe and some footage from a European tour Graham undertook in the mid 1950's. Also included is the aforementioned a booklet, with a really insightful new essay written by dance critic Joan Acocella.
I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the image and sound quality of the three films are. Even though television was in its early stages when these films were made, the fact that these projects were approached as bona fide films is readily apparent, and Criterion has also treated them as such. The image quality of the films are absolutely beautiful, with no image defects that I was able to discern. The audio track is also extremely clean, which is important considering the important role that music plays in the films (and in one of the interviews it is confirmed that the one time during Appalachian Spring that seems that the dance and music seems out of synch it is actually a flaw with the film itself, and not a mistake made on Criterion's part). As for as I can tell, subtitles in any language are not included in this set.
Even though this set of films wouldn't be near the best I've reviewed during my time here at DVD Verdict, I can't think of another DVD that gave me as much pleasure to simply sit down and spend my time with. I really applaud Criterion (and other similar companies) for making sets like Martha Graham: Dance on Film available—they can't be considered that much of a financially lucrative proposition, but for those of us interested, from dance fanatics on down to the merely curious, this is a really invaluable opportunity to discover a legend and begin to appreciate one of the greatest artistic legacies of the 20th century on a much deeper level. I for one enjoyed nearly every minute of it.
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Scales of Justice
• Comparison of Appalachian Spring with archival footage
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