RECOGNIZED AS a major force in modern dance for 50 years at least, Martha Graham has been the subject of discussion, scrutiny and review, of adoration, vilification and all points between. Despite Graham's acknowledged place in theater history there has been only one major biography of her -- Don McDonagh's, written in 1974. Further, nobody has as yet bothered to translate the monumental study written in French by Bethsabee de Rothschild in 1949.
Graham herself has complicated the task of defining and comprehending her long, illustrious life. After her mother's death in 1958, she destroyed all their correspondence, and as Louis Horst's executor she did the same. These actions were part of a pattern which included Graham's persistent refusal to revive early works and caused her to use film only sparingly (although continual poverty probably had much to do with the latter). It would seem she had almost embraced the doom pointed out by William de Mille to his daughter Agnes -- "A dancer ceases to exist the minute she sits down."
Ernestine Stodelle, a writer and former dancer, has now given us another biography, Deep Song: The Dance Story of Martha Graham. What does this contribute to the canon? Regrettably, not a great deal. Stodelle has compiled an impressive bibliography and comprehensive list of works, she has painstakingly documented almost every conversational quote, she has given us some striking photographs of the very young Graham -- many of them taken by Barbara Morgan, one of the many artists who recognized Graham's talent early on. Morgan devoted much of her talent to recording, as well as still photography can, the essence of Graham's art.
Despite all this care, Deep Song is disappointing. Although Stodelle follows Graham's career chronologically, she is much less coherent than McDonagh, and her book is written in such mannered prose that it sometimes is painful to read, especially when she launches into descriptions of Graham's ballets. In an attempt to be lyrical and dramatic she only becomes florid. We are aware, from her reverential tone, that something important has happened, but we really don't know exactly what. What vitiates these attempts at description is precisely the reverential approach which led her to try.
Stodelle is also both vague and coy about Graham's personal life. Graham is 90, and in a life of almost continual artistic and personal conflict, has survived a lot worse than having her love life scrutinized. Further, this is 1984. If Isadora Duncan could tell us all about herself at the turn of the century, surely Stodelle can be candid about Graham today. Besides, one has only to read McDonagh's book to have a much clearer idea of both the accurate chronology and the nature of Graham's relationships with two very important men in her life -- Eric Hawkins and Louis Horst. Horst's relationship to Graham is central to any understanding of Graham's place in theater dance of the 20th century, while the presence and influence of Hawkins came at a pivotal time in Graham's career, and undoubtedly gave it a push towards the less weighty style associated with her later works.
THE GRAHAM style did change, and when she finally consented to revive some of her earlier masterworks they had to be taught to her younger dancers not only by pattern but by technique. Stodelle's account of this process is the most interesting and best written part of her book. She relates how former Graham dancers gathered from across America; and how, slowly and painfully, "Primitive Mysteries" emerged again, after lying dormant in their brain cells and sinews for over 30 years. This is moving and wonderful to read. And it is written in plain, simple English.
This muddled book is in crying need of severe pruning and firm editing, which might have gotten rid of terms such as "Horstian- like," and embarrassing bits in which Stodelle describes the Olympian gods themselves participating in Martha's creations. Careful editing and proofing (rare these days) would also have avoided such minor errors as the use of "perpetuated" for "perpetrated", and the statement that Emily was the eldest of the three Bronte sisters. But Stodelle herself must take responsibility for not having thought out her intentions: for having commenced a biography and finished a eulogy.
Stodelle's wish to both describe and celebrate Graham's work is to be respected, although she has not done so with outstanding success. She has given us some fascinating anecdotal nuggets, and has been especially generous in pointing out the value of the work of Graham's many superb collaborators. As a dancer who appeared with another giant in the field, Doris Humphrey, Stodelle is obviously sensitive to the claims of those who stand sweaty and panting behind the acclaimed genius.
But those who wish to study Graham's life and career should start not with Stodelle but with McDonagh's biography and his Complete Guide to Modern Dance. A very fine analysis of works of the '40s is Robert Horan's short study, The Recent Theater of Martha Graham, and there is a brilliant chapter devoted to Graham in Agnes de Mille's Dance to the Piper. As an incisive brief study it has not yet been equalled. Deep Song replaces none of these. It is a deeply felt but flawed personal tribute to one of the most important creative artists of our time.