There was a point in the mid-1970s when Martha Graham should have written a memoir. By then she had choreographed scores of works and performed for more than a half century. She had survived a couple of devastating physical breakdowns and appeared to have stopped drinking. But instead of looking back, according to Agnes de Mille’s Martha, Graham ”decided to become a superstar.” She emerged as a kind of arty adjunct to the Studio 54 crowd, swathing her dancers in Halston, creating a ballet for Liza Minnelli, and posing for Blackglama ads. Work on the memoir would have to wait until shortly before her death, earlier this year, at age 96. The result, Blood Memory, is a book that feels as if it were dictated a few minutes at a time and left largely unedited. For the Graham story readers will have to turn instead to Martha, a substantial biography 25 years in the making by a distinguished writer (Dance to the Piper) and Broadway choreographer (Oklahoma!, Carousel).
Graham’s life, once her Presbyterian background as the daughter of an Allegheny, Pa., physician was shed, was nothing if not exotic. From her childhood nurse she imbibed Catholic ritual. From her first key teacher, the modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, she absorbed Eastern philosophies. Graham’s longtime lover, the composer Louis Horst, introduced her to the Native American rituals of the Southwest. Despite these influences, her intense sensuality and phenomenal creative drive seem to have been hers from the start.
Graham’s autumnal preoccupation with celebrities blurs but does not efface her artistic contributions. From her early years in Greenwich Village came such successes as the anguished solo dance ”Lamentation” and the myth-filled ”Primitive Mysteries.” During the second half of the 1930s her artistic focus became as native as it was exotic. American themes continued to proliferate during the 1940s, culminating in ”Appalachian Spring.” Set to a score by Aaron Copland, the piece may be, along with de Mille’s dances for Oklahoma!, the most beloved choreography ever done by an American.
If Graham’s pace slowed in the ’50s and ’60s, there was still occasional memorable work, as there was even during the glamour years, when the outline of Graham’s legacy began to emerge. Given the precarious nature of choreographic transmission, that legacy may have less to do with individual pieces than with the movement technique that Graham developed. This method is taught all over the world and can be glimpsed in the work of such modern-dance masters as Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor — both former members of Graham’s company. De Mille is right to stress another key element of the Graham legacy: her impact on arts other than dance, especially theater and music. Whether Graham’s achievement in this regard is, as de Mille writes, ”equivalent to Picasso’s,” is debatable. That Graham was a legend — a force of nature — is not. B