For the Public Library, Martha Graham is the missing link

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For the Public Library, Martha Graham is the missing link
Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in Appalachian Spring. With (left to right): May O’Donnell, Marjorie Mazia, Yurkio, and Nina Fonaroff. Photograph by Arnold Eagle.

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Why don’t we have Martha?”

When Linda Murray became the curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts in 2015, that was her No. 1 question.

She meant Martha Graham, though in dance circles — and even beyond — this choreographer, who transformed modern American art, requires no last name. Last month, her company, the oldest in the country, celebrated its 94th anniversary. On Monday, her birthday, the library announced that it had acquired her archive.

“For the dance division, it really was the only significant gap left that we had in telling the story of early American modern dance,” Murray said. “We’ve had material belonging to Martha Graham in the archive for a very long time, but Martha herself, throughout her lifetime, had always said that she didn’t want there to be an archive.”

Genevieve Oswald, the founder of the library’s dance division, had talked to Graham about it many times. Apparently, “she always sort of laughed and demurred,” Murray said. “She didn’t want anybody to ever know anything about her.”

Graham (1894-1991) was complicated; like many artists, she didn’t want to look toward the past. “The only thing we have is the now,” she wrote in “Blood Memory,” her autobiography. She added: “Looking at the past is like lolling in a rocking chair. It is so relaxing and you can rock back and forth on the porch, and never go forward. It is not for me.”

But was it true? Janet Eilber, the company’s artistic director and a former dancer, said Graham was involved with documentation of her work on film in the 1950s and also reconstructed her dances and directed company members in the classic roles. “So she was very much involved in perpetuating her own legacy,” Eilber said. “But the other stance is so much more theatrical and provocative.”

And no matter what Graham said, she did pay attention to her past. The archive, which consists mainly of paper-based material, photographs and films — the company’s sets and costumes, most of which are stored in a warehouse in Yonkers, New York, are still in use — includes rare footage of Graham dancing at the height of her power in works like “Appalachian Spring” and “Hérodiade” (1944); her script for “Night Journey” (1947), written to its composer, William Schuman; her handwritten notes for “American Document” (1938); and Isamu Noguchi’s set drawing with his notes for “Seraphic Dialogue” (1955).

Noguchi, a frequent collaborator, was synonymous with many of Graham’s dances; his sculptural, austere set pieces feel like they’re in a physical relationship to Graham’s bold and daring movement: sharp, angular and taking root from the pelvis.

The library’s dance division, for Eilber, was a natural fit. New York was Graham’s home for nearly seven decades. “But larger than that, public access was top of the list for us,” Eilber said. “It’s not just, ‘We can keep your films in a refrigerator.’ It’s, ‘We can do so many multifaceted things with these archives,’ which is what we’re all about.”

Both Eilber and Murray like to explore ways that archives can stimulate other artists. In the case of the Graham company, it has used archival materials to produce new work, like Annie-B Parson’s “I used to love you” (2017), which was inspired by archival footage of “Punch and the Judy”; and Anne Bogart and SITI Company’s “American Document (2010),” created from filmed excerpts, photographs and Graham’s handwritten notes for that dance.

In our socially distanced world, the company’s excellent Martha Matinees, an online viewing series, are pulling from the archive; on Wednesday, the focus is “Hérodiade,” including a complete silent film of the dance, featuring Graham and May O’Donnell, from around 1945.

Eilber has found the archive’s films particularly helpful, she said, seeing them as instructional in keeping the company’s performances “refreshed,” with original details and intentions. (The films were remastered, and images and documents digitized in a three-year project funded by the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)

Eilber recalled going with Graham to the performing arts library in 1975 to watch a film of “Lamentation” (1930). This searing solo, performed by a dancer sheathed in a tube of purple jersey, is now a classic portrayal of grief. What did Graham think of the work, seeing it at the library? “She was pleased and kind of amused,” Eilber said. “I think she went thinking that it really wasn’t going to be worth much.”

Around that time, Graham was also “accepting her role as living legend,” Eilber said. “When Jackie O. came to the studio and Andy Warhol, and Halston was sort of dressing her, she had a new stage in a way. And part of that was preserving her legacy because that celebrity was based on her legacy.”

“She thought if she couldn’t be on the stage her life was over,” Eilber added, “but it turned out she just had a different stage.”

Over the years, the Graham archive has had its own share of drama. In 1998, Ron Protas, the trustee of her estate, sold a portion to the Library of Congress. In 2002, after a legal battle with Protas, the Graham Center was granted the rights to nearly all of the choreographer’s works.

Eilber said that early in her tenure as artistic director, in about 2006 or 2007, she and LaRue Allen, the company’s executive director, started having conversations with a couple of institutions about the company’s archives.

There were piles of film canisters and boxes of photos; the company was working on getting the archive in order when Hurricane Sandy hit, just three months after the company had moved into its Westbeth headquarters in the West Village. Both its Westbeth basement space and a New Jersey storage facility were flooded, leaving costumes, set pieces and paper records, some dating as far back as the 1930s, damaged.

Those waterlogged documents were freeze-dried, but many costumes — 5,000 stood in floodwaters for a month — were discarded. The photos and films were safe; they had been moved to a second-floor space at Westbeth for restoration work and inventory. That digitization and restoration had started in 2011.

“When you remember that kind of saga,” Eilber said, “you can imagine our relief that it finally has a home where it’s going to be taken care of at the absolute top level.

And where, for Murray, there is ample opportunity to make connections between the Graham collection and material in adjoining ones belonging to figures like Louis Horst, Graham’s influential musical director, and Agnes de Mille, the choreographer and writer.

“They were legendary frenemies,” Murray said of de Mille and Graham. “I know we have letters in Agnes’ collection from Martha, so I’m wondering what’s on the other side? There are relationships that we don’t yet know about that will start to become clear to us when we get into this archive.”

The paper-based material will probably take about eight months to catalog, Murray said. The audio and moving image material is a more laborious process. “There’s more than a thousand files, so I imagine that will take about two and a half years to do,” she said.

But no work can start until the library reopens after it was closed by the pandemic. In the meantime, the Graham company has access to the material; it has digitized everything. Once in a while, Eilber said she even runs across an image of herself.

“That’s the other thing about our archives: It’s a family history, it’s not just an artistic legacy,” she said. “I see a picture of May O’Donnell. I danced all of her roles. I interviewed her late in life. I see Pearl Lang — one of my teachers, one of my coaches — every day on film as I turn over ‘Letter to the World’ excerpts to today’s dancers.”

Having her dancers learn excerpts from that 1940 work is just one of the projects Eilber has given the company during quarantine. “It’s a generational thing,” she said. “It’s our Graham family history.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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