When modern dance finally gets its due at Mount Rushmore, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham will be among the first to have their features carved into the granite. These great American choreographers, whose companies will appear in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater next month, are already national heroes looming over the dance scene.
In a century of rapid change, Graham, who died in 1991, and Cunningham, now 89 years old, developed radical new approaches to movement, subject matter and composition. While their careers overlapped (Cunningham danced in Graham's company from 1939 _1945), the striking divergence between their styles and methods points to the individualism at the heart of America's modern dance tradition.
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1894, Graham inherited a taste for psychology from her father. George Graham practiced a form of therapy then called "alienism," and he taught his daughter that "movement never lies." This was a philosophy she developed further through her own study of myth and Jungian archetypes.
What made Graham's style "modern" were its angularity and tension, and the way its barefoot practitioners seemed at home on the floor. Founding her dance company in 1926, Graham invented a technique rooted in the deep contraction and release of the pelvis. Works like Lamentation, with the solo dancer's figure encased in stretch fabric, recalled abstract expressionism; and Graham collaborated with composers and scenic artists, notably sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose experiments reinforced her own. Although Graham's style was always more abstract than representational, 1930s dances such as Chronicle and Deep Song reflected contemporary events like the Spanish Civil War.
While looking forward, Graham drew images from the past. She identified herself with America's pioneer myths so that dances like Frontier and Appalachian Spring became metaphors for her own wide-open future, and attempts to stake out territory.
Graham aimed at universal themes by revisiting the legends of ancient Greece from a psychological perspective. Delving beneath the surface, she defied the prudery of a mid-century America still denying the pervasive influence of sex. Her characters' dramatic passions may be tightly wound in a shroud of habit that leaves them ignorant of their true selves, or trapped in situations that drive them wild with anger or unfulfilled desire.
Two of her best known "Greek" works portray voyages of self-discovery. In one, the principal character releases herself from the grip of panic through a dogged self-examination (Errand into the Maze). In the other, she suffers the terrible consequences of remaining willfully blinkered (Night Journey). Although Graham would return to this kind of interior quest again later, it might be argued that the culminating work of Graham's "Greek cycle" is this year's revival of Clytemnestra.
Created in 1958, the evening-length Clytemnestra once again offers a personal retrospective in which the title character: from her posthumous perch in the Underworld: comes to terms with her life. This dance, as usual, supplied a vehicle for Graham's outsize personality and subtle theatrical craft. She performed it at age 64, surrounded by a cast that included the young Paul Taylor. The set is by her frequent collaborator, Noguchi, and the subject of this two-hour dissection taken from The Oresteia is a woman's motivations for revenge, next to which the bloody mayhem of the Trojan War fades into insignificance.
In contrast to Graham's emotional intensity, many of her successors took a different tack. Nothing could be further from her aesthetic, for example, than the work of Cunningham, her former prot_g_.
Cunningham must have learned a good deal from Graham, but untangling the knotted ropes of human experience did not interest him. Fully abstract, his mature choreographies reflect a Zen-like freedom from desire. Cunningham is modest and unassuming, and his works point to the insignificance of the individual in the cosmos.
A native of Washington State, Cunningham benefited from a progressive education at the Cornish School, in Seattle, where he first met composer John Cage, the man who would become his life partner and a key artistic influence. Simultaneously with Cage the choreographer developed a working method that permitted him to sever the chain of causality at the root of all dramatic action. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company came into being in 1953, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Cunningham prepared his first work using chance procedures, Suite by Chance.
In this compositional process, Cunningham makes some choices by flipping a coin, or by tossing hexagrams and consulting the I-Ching. The choreographer must adapt to the dictates of chance, producing a dance that reflects subatomic activity rather than a consciously ordered and simplified picture of the world. Cunningham has spoken humbly of chance procedures as a means of soliciting divine intervention.
The role of chance is enhanced in Cunningham's dances through his peculiar collaborations with scenic designers and composers. Each artist works separately, ignoring the others, so their creations overlap on stage rather than relate in the conventional way. Cunningham has worked with many well known visual artists, most notably Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
Overcoming the temptation to see planned correspondences, or to "read" a human narrative into the dancers' actions, supplies viewers with a constant challenge when watching Cunningham's works.
Still one can observe the choreographer's dazzling craft in the organizational principles operative at any given moment. Different types of action (jumping, balancing, or holding hands) may dominate particular segments of a dance, while other factors such as dynamics, the number of dancers onstage, and the place the dance occupies on stage can shift to create variety. Cunningham's many works share stylistic traits, yet each maintains a distinct and characteristic atmosphere, from somber Winterbranch to the zany vaudeville of Scenario. Whether because of chance procedures or because of his genius at arranging what Providence supplies, they are breathtaking in their invention.
Cunningham's innovations did not end with chance procedures. He took advantage of opportunities to present his company in museum galleries, designing dances so they could be watched from any angle. He re-combined portions of existing dances temporarily, creating Museum Events.
Cunningham has been at the forefront of efforts to employ new technologies, working in film and video, employing the Danceforms computer program to generate choreography, and incorporating Motion Capture technology into scenic designs.
The Kennedy Center program takes a historical perspective, showcasing the development of his work with the 1960 dance Crises, a straightforward series of duets between a man and three women, alongside the evolving 2006 _2007 work eyeSpace, in which audience members listen to one of three interchangeable musical scores, one of which is supplemented by iPod loaners (the version being performed next month does not include the iPods). In addition, the troupe will perform XOVER, from 2007, Cunningham's final collaboration with Rauschenberg before the artist's death.
Whether offering the tightly wound psycho-dramas of Martha Graham, or Merce Cunningham's serene landscapes of acceptance, the Kennedy Center's dance series will display modernism of heroic proportions.
The Martha Graham Dance Company performs Dec. 9-10, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs Dec. 12-13- both at the Eisenhower Theater.
For tickets and information, visit The Kennedy Center.
Robert Johnson is staff dance critic for The Star-Ledger, in Newark, New Jersey.