• Published 10:07 17.02.12
  • Latest update 12:52 20.02.12

Moving force

Recollections of Martha Graham, the woman who transformed the world of contemporary choreography and accompanied Israel as it underwent the transformation into an international dance powerhouse.

By Dani Karavan Tags: Israel culture

Eighty-five years ago, in 1926, a young dancer ascended the stage at a New York theater. She appeared in the dance "Chorale," which she herself had choreographed, to the music of Cesar Franck. The modest audience did not realize this was the debut performance of a woman who would become the high priestess of modern dance: Martha Graham, who developed a new dance language, at first for herself and later for the eponymous company she founded.

Graham fomented a revolution in dance, mostly based upon the rules of the classical genre. The dance world was not yet prepared to accept her innovations. "No artist is ahead of his time. He is time; the others are just behind the times," she would later say. Jean Cocteau put Graham on the shortlist of trailblazers in 20th-century art, along with Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Chaplin.

Graham - 2.2012

Graham in Judith

The works choreographed by Graham, who died in 1991 at age 97, are fundamentally narrative in nature, based upon ancient myths, descriptions of life and American culture. She commissioned works from composers so that they would fit her creations, instead of using the existing musical repertoire. The composers she worked with included Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, William Schuman and Mordecai Seter. She would have live orchestras accompany her dances. Furthermore, she commissioned sets from artists, architects and sculptors such as Isamu Noguchi and Ming Cho Lee, whose works were later exhibited in museums. Her dance company spawned numerous dancers and choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, Pearl Lang, Donald McKayle, John Butler and Bob Cohan, and the Israelis Rena Gluck, Rina Schenfeld and Ohad Naharin.

I had the privilege of working with this woman, and collaborated with her in choreographing four dances. It was 1964, after Batsheva de Rothschild - who had rescued Graham from a financial crisis - approached her, seeking to establish a new Israeli dance company. The baroness wanted permission for the company, Batsheva, to perform works from Graham's repertoire, something never done before.

Graham came to see Sara Levi-Tanai's Inbal dance company, which was making a name for itself internationally. Many choreographers were then making the same pilgrimage to see this unique Yemenite-inspired dance troupe. Levi-Tanai had asked me to create a set for her new work, "The Book of Ruth," set to music by Ovadia Tuvia. It was my first set ever for a dance performance, and without a doubt I was influenced by Graham's works and the way she integrated sets into the dance.

The performance ended, the curtain came down, the stage door opened, and Martha Graham, escorted by Baroness de Rothschild, walked up to me and said, "You have created great theater, and I want to dance in your theater." Maybe I appeared to be questioning what she said, so she reiterated: "I am saying to you that you have created great theater."

About a year later, Seter and I received a synopsis of a dance that Graham intended to choreograph, based on the story of Judith and Holofernes. She didn't ask for anything specific, and didn't provide any instructions. Everything was left open. Only at a meeting in Rome did Graham give me a few little hints, in the form of a few gifts: 2,000-year-old artifacts from Luristan, in ancient Iran. The hint was low-key, but I was charmed. We began corresponding. I sent her dozens of sketches, until the time came to build a model for the set.

The premiere of "Legend of Judith" was set for Tel Aviv's Habima, the same theater where in the 1950s I had witnessed Graham's first performances in Israel. Before the premiere, Graham asked me to take her from the airport straight to the set workshop, where she could see the parts I'd commissioned from set builder Ze'ev Halperin. She came with the baroness, removed her shoes, and there, in the crowded carpentry shop, danced and leaped between the piles of wooden boards. We were nervous she might fall or step on a rusty nail, but she didn't. Graham loved the set.

Martha Graham - 2.2012

Martha Graham

The next day, I installed the set in the basement of the building where the Inbal company rehearsed. I was nervous about the dancers' first encounter with my scenery, but it turned out to be a wondrous moment of total integration. My set dovetailed perfectly with the unique style of Graham and her troupe.

Formative moment

During rehearsals at Habima, Seter and I saw how a great artist deliberates, tries different options, makes repeated changes. We were sitting in the hall, and Graham kept pacing around the stage. What would happen? How would it end? Gary Bertini, the conductor, led the orchestra through songs based on her requests, and she repeatedly thanked it as she consulted with her dancers.

Suddenly, the formative moment of creative inception came. It was a one-of-a-kind moment, and I have never experienced another one like it. All of the parts - the movement, the costumes (which she herself had created ), the music and the set were suddenly transformed into one composition, a single indivisible body.

The premiere of "Legend of Judith" was a great success. The curtain came down, the audience erupted into furious applause. Only one dignified individual - who was sitting in front of me - stood up, and instead of clapping his hands, shouted: "Boo! Boo!" Apparently some people still considered her work an affront to the holy of holies of dance.

This was a correction of sorts after a traumatic experience Graham had told me about. On her first tour of Europe after World War I, she appeared at the Spring Festival in Florence. When the performance ended, many audience members jeered and whistled derisively. She walked out on stage, arm in arm with her company members, and shook her fist at the audience. This is the fate of those who are ahead of their time.

I wasn't surprised that after the premiere my friends asked me, "What, really, did you do? It looked like everything was designed by Martha Graham." It had been my dream ever since I began to draw sets (now they call it set design ): I had always wanted to be part of a total creation.

That is what attracted me to theater, a creation that contains all of the arts and is transformed into something new. It did not happen to me before or after my work with Graham. This is work that fills you up, that hovers above as you converse, that lights up your world, that appears in the fascinating stories you tell - an experience after which it is very difficult to work with anyone else. I spent a long time standing on stage with her, not realizing my good fortune in working with one of the great ground-breaking artists of the 20th century.

Graham brought the work to Broadway, and afterward commissioned a new work from Seter and me: "Jacob's Dream." Again, we went through the same process, the same vacillations and misunderstandings. "Do whatever you feel like doing," she told me, which sounded to me like "Walk on air, on nothing at all."

Once she approved the photos of the set model I'd built in Israel, I sent it to New York and then came to supervise the installation. I'll never forget that Sunday morning, the day after I arrived in New York for the first time. I walked through the empty streets alone, soaring with the skyscrapers that touched the blue skies. I got to 62nd Street, a little east of Second Avenue, with the keys to her studio in my hand. I opened the door to the studio, and there on the wood floor was my set for "Jacob's Dream." Next, on Broadway, the Mt. Olympus of the theater world: The curtain rises on my set and the audience applauds.

In my honor, Graham added "Legend of Judith" to her new routines, "Jacob's Dream" and "The Witch of Endor," the latter of which was set to music by William Schumann and with sets by Ming Cho Lee. Graham was no longer in good physical shape. Her movement had become limited, and she had trouble watching her young dancers perform her choreography. She would annoy them, lingering on the stage, and force them to take oppressively long breaks between dances.

A few years later, she contacted me again and commissioned a set for a new dance she had created: "Holy Jungle." At my last premiere with her on Broadway, seeing her was painful. She had had to give her parts to younger dancers. She sat wrapped in a coat in the corner of the dark hall, watching in pain as Ethel Winter danced her part in "Appalachian Spring." Immediately after the rehearsal she vanished into her makeup room, and when she emerged she bumped into Winter, who asked, "Martha, how was I?" To which Graham replied: "You were wonderful! But it hurts me."

I also met Rudolf Nureyev behind the curtain when Graham decided to invite him to join her company, thus extending a hand to classical dance after years of opposition.

"The Ladder" was my final collaborative work with her, choreographed by her especially for the Batsheva dance company. The only work she ever created for a company that was not her own. This time, the choreography was commissioned by Lea Porat, the director of the Council of Culture and Art, after the Baroness abandoned the company that bore her name. By taking the job, Graham thus voiced sharp criticism of her close friend, who had shifted her support to dancer and choreographer Jeannette Ordman and her company Bat-Dor.

Here, at the end, I go back to where I began: with the establishment of the Batsheva dance company. At the dress rehearsal, held in a wretched, cold Herzliya movie theater in the early 1960s, Graham was watching the new company that she had helped found. Even then, she had a hard time watching other dancers performing her parts. She paced up and down, sipping "chicken soup" from a mug that smelled like whiskey; Graham often used it to drown her pain and doubts.

After the rehearsal, Baroness Rothschild came up to me, extremely impressed. "It was wonderful," she said, "but we don't have a public for dance [in Israel]. For whom will we perform?"

Apparently, she was worrying for no reason: Thanks to the baroness' ongoing support and Graham's years of encouragement - for Batsheva, plus numerous other dance troupes and promising young Israeli choreographers - it turns out in retrospect that this particular work marked a turning point: the beginning of Israel's transformation into a formidable international dance powerhouse. Furthermore, its performance proved that Graham's spectacular choreography could indeed be performed by another company - as long as it was full of strength, youthful vitality and creative intensity.

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    This story is by: Dani Karavan

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