Martha Graham: In Love and War — Dance Historian, Choreographer and Dancer Mark Franko

Martha Graham in Love and War

Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work
BY Mark Franko
(Oxford University Press, 2012)

The Work of Dance

The Work of Dance:
Labor, Movement, and Identity
in the 1930s

BY Mark Franko
(Wesleyan University Press, 2002)

Dancing Modernism/ Performing Politics

Dancing Modernism/
Performing Politics

BY Mark Franko
(Indiana University Press, 1995)

How do you feel about the book’s reception? Would you like to comment on feedback about the book as a serious biography for learned readers of dance studies? I ask because you have specified that it is not a biography, while critics seem to read it that way. Do you think readers unfamiliar with dance theories, but nonetheless interested in Martha Graham might feel alienated?

The book has been fairly well received thus far in the mainstream press. I think there is this tension in the mainstream press about intellectualism in the arts. The reviewer makes the assumption the audience is extraordinarily naïve, which is not always so. This is part of a more general anti-intellectualism that pervades the American dance world, and American culture more generally. I am generally pleased with the book’s critical reception although I don’t see a lot of depth in the discussion (apart from the Chronicle for Higher Education piece). There has not yet been time for serious scholarly feedback, which usually takes a year or two to emerge.

I don’t think the general reader should feel alienated: this is an opportunity to learn something (even perhaps to look up a word), and the Graham story as it emerges is to my mind gripping in the way she combined a host of literary sources and psychoanalytic ideas with a complex ritual negotiation of her life. I have tried hard to write the book in accessible prose, through I realize there are some theoretical concepts that remain. But what is wrong with that? The point is not to be accessible by trivializing the subject and one’s approach to thinking. After all, Graham’s concept of the archetype was far from simple. Doesn’t this rejoin your other question about a lack of complexity in choreography itself?

What inspires you most about Martha Graham – both in her life and art? Are there aspects about her you can identify with?

I am not sure I can say Graham inspires me. I was sort of brought up on Graham and always felt there was much more to understand in the development of her work. I identify with her tragic nature as seen in her personal relationship with Hawkins where the mentoring role, the emotional dependency upon him, and the resistance to that dependency clashed and, in a sense, blew up.

Martha Graham believes that her creation and work as a choreographer stems from the identity as a dancer above everything else. Is this the case for your work? Is your writing and commitment to scholarship also a result of a need to dance?

No, my work was never entirely centered on my own dancing. I was very interested, and still am interested, in directing other dancers. With my company NovAntiqua I worked with some wonderful dancers who responded to my work in a special way. This fall I have been giving a solo of mine to Fabian Barba — here in Stockholm. This process of transmission confirms my interest in having other dancers do my work – even work I originally choreographed on myself. I was never as narcissistic or self-centered as Graham. Nevertheless, I miss dancing. My commitment to scholarship is not a response to the loss of dancing. It is somewhat connected, however, to my identification with the artist against the critic. Since I began dancing I imagined the dancer as having his/her own voice rather than facing the critic as “a supplicant before history.”

Writing about dance is difficult, almost impossible. Dance disappears, and to borrow your words, “I write as if these dances had disappeared and must be discovered even though my knowledge of them in many cases relies on later performances. They actually have disappeared in their original form.” This is both revealing and poignant as an observation and a realization. How do you handle nostalgia and personal memories when you write about such disappeared dance performances?

Although dances may disappear, they also reappear. I don’t think we should exaggerate the nostalgic aspect of the loss of dances. What happens is something like the recent book by Jennifer Homans in which the author is so nostalgic for a particular kind of ballet that she claims ballet as an art form is finished. Too much engagement with loss becomes mourning and melancholia. Discussion of what may be missing, and why, is more interesting and makes for better dance criticism. Also, there is a great deal of information that can serve to allow for the return of dances in some degree. So, in the end, I do not feel writing about dance is almost impossible. Personal memories, on the other hand, are precious and should be recorded. I feel there is a certain kind of scholarship and scholarly procedure that can help to restore performance. In this sense, it is a hopeful process.

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