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

Mark Franko
© Cynthia Fischer

Dance historian, choreographer, dancer and professor, Mark Franko’s books include Martha Graham In Love and War: The Life In the Work (Oxford University Press, 2012), Excursion for Miracles: Paul Sanasardo, Donya Feuer, and Studio for Dance (Wesleyan, 2005), The Work of Dance: Labor, Movement, and Identity in the 1930s (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics (Indiana University Press, 1995), which received the de la Torre Bueno Prize, Special Mention in 1996, Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body (Cambridge University Press, 1993), and The Dancing Body in Renaissance Choreography (Summa, 1986). Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body also appears in French and Italian translation. The editor of Dance Research Journal and also editor of the Oxford Studies in Dance Theory book series, he has edited two anthologies: Ritual and Event: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Routledge, 2006) and Acting on the Past: Historical Performance Across the Disciplines (Wesleyan University Press, 2000).

Franko has received the Outstanding Scholarly Research in Dance Award (2011) from the Congress on Research in Dance, and several research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Society. His choreography — supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Harkness Foundation for Dance and the Zellerbach Family Fund — has been featured at venues and festivals such as Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival, the Berlin Werkstatt Festival (Germany), the Getty Center, the Montpellier Opera (France), Toulon Art Museum (France), Akademie der Künste (Berlin, Germany), as well as several others in New York and San Francisco.

Currently, Franko is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz where he also directs the Center for Visual and Performance Studies. He will be joining the dance faculty at Temple University in 2013.

Mark Franko Directing
© Cynthia Fischer

You once commented that choreography is an intellectual operation. Would you elaborate further?

I was taken to see dance as a young child. I remember being particularly impressed with Haitian dancing that I saw both live and in the movies. I also had a great interest in Native American dance in the way a child might have a scholarly, that is serious, interest in dance as something to study and learn about.

Each choreographic work worth considering has an internal logic, a poetic that has been conceived based on a history of choices and positions about movement, physical dynamics, and semiotics. Choreography is a complex construction the principle of which also frequently goes lost and cannot be retrieved. For these reasons I referred to it as “intellectual” to differentiate from the notion that it is spontaneous and unreflective.

Your latest book, Martha Graham: In Love and War, is a solid study on Martha Graham with well-researched and analytical takes on four of her most lyrical and politically evocative works. The chapter on myth, nationalism and embodiment in American Document, in particular, explores the influence of archetypal myths in her aesthetics. Why do you think such gravity no longer exists in today’s dance scene?

Well, that’s a hard question. I think you could ask it across the entire art scene as well, no? One is never sure whether such a judgment might mean we are blind to the present and limited by our past. Surely, the same things cannot continue to interest us, and styles must change. Yet, how much do people read and reflect as a part of the creative process? I think the main point is we no longer have a culture that encourages this kind of deep and layered reflection and meditation. Economically, it has become almost impossible to sustain a dance company today unless one is independently wealthy or highly supported. The results are more commercial.

Mark Franko in his choreography
Le Marbre tremble
© Lillian Gee

In the introduction, you note, “Graham built her reputation on the gradual development of an unusual relationship to the audience, a relationship that was also nurtured by the projection of her image in the media, which extended its reach throughout the decade.” How, in your opinion, has the American assessment of Graham’s work evolved since her demise in 1991? And in the rest of the world — Europe for instance?

It is said that an artist goes into eclipse after their death, but then may return. Perhaps it is Graham’s time to have a revival of interest just about now, twenty years after her death. I am not sure whether that is happening or not. I am not at all sure there is any awareness of Graham in Europe at this point.

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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