"It hasn't got a story line, and it's not Greek," says Martha Graham about "Acts of Light," the new dance work she has created for her company's current Kennedy Center Opera House engagement, which will have its world premiere at tomorrow's night's gala performance.
Graham's celebrated choreographic recastings of Greek mythology -- such as "Night Journey," on the Oedis legend -- have constituted one of the bolest phases of her creative journey. Other Graham "classics," like "Appalachian Spring," a portrait of an American pioneer couple, or "Seraphic Dialogue," about Joan of Arc, have no Greek connection but nevertheless contain a narrative kernel. But the new "Acts of Light" is more like still another Graham masterpiece being shown on this visit, "Diversion of Angels," in that both dances encapsulate a poetic idea.
In other ways, however, "Acts of Light" is likely to prove its own fresh departure -- for Graham, at age 86, is still finding new corners to turn. The title derives, she says, from a letter of Emily Dickinson to a friend, thanking her for "her gifts of light." The score consists of three pieces by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and it is, according to Graham, "more romantic" than any music she's used before. "I suppose that's taking a chance," she says, "people are always apt to say, 'you've changed.'"
The point, of course, is that Graham, who has been virtually canonized as the "high priestess" of modern dance, has always defied anyone's attempt to imprison her in her own past accomplishments. The dancer who left the illustrious Denishawn troupe in 1923 to strike out on her own, who founded a revolutionary style of dance theater and a revolutionary technique, who discovered and encouraged such dancers (later prominent choreographers in their own right) as Pearl Lang, Anna Sokolow, Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, was never one for looking back.
It's from this standpoint, certainly, that she approached "Acts of Light."
The dance has three sections. The first, in the nature of a lament, is danced, Graham says, "as a memorial, a memorial to anything -- the passing of a day, the loss of a friend, the death of someone." The second section, an extended duet, Grahm subtitles "a conversation of lovers." And the third section, set to Nielsen's "Helious Overture" and called by Graham a "ritual to the sun," concerns man's quest for the freedom of space. "As our cities close in on us," Graham says, "we have to fight for space, for the limitlessness of life and living things, for anything that stimulates the dream of man as visionary, poet and discoverer."
The costumes for "Acts of Light" are by the designer Halston, a frequent Graham collaborator in recent years. It's wonderful working with him," Graham says. "He has the same fetish I do, that the body must be kept beautiful, not overlaid with ornament and decoration. I can speak my own language with him, that of revealing, rather than concealing, the body. It gives him a sense of release and fantasy, and I think he enjoys working this way. This is not to belittle Seventh Avenue, but it's another outlet for him, and he comes to every fitting, puts every pin in himself."
Graham no longer physically demonstrates the movements when she's devising new choreography -- except occasionally (and she's been known to knock strapping males to the floor in the process). But she's no less exacting about getting what she wants. "I often talk all the way through the dancing," she says, "almost like underlaying a text beneath the 'lines' of the dancers. I don't ask people to portray an emotion -- though in time I may tell the dancers what the movement makes me feel -- but rather to move in a technically clean, clear fashion, and so passionately that you see the essence of the emotion. I do get very angry sometimes, when I feel the dancers are just 'marking' things. 'When are you going to dance? I'll scream. You've got to make your body do every movement, if it's the thrust of a shoulder, as if it were being done for the first time, as if you're listening to the ancestal footsteps. An audience isn't going to be satisfied with less than the full creative act."
The subject warms her up. "There are so many things we forget about the body, like the tiny nerves that activate you when you're perfectly still," Graham goes on. "The only way you can command an audience when you're sitting still on stage is by doing anything but sitting still."
Graham has never been one to ruminate about her past; her creative gaze has been too steadily fixed in a forward direction. Yet she is, at this stage of life, engaged in writing memoirs. "Yes," she says with a slowly broadening smile, "I'm working on them -- slowly. There are some delightful memories, and some painful ones. I'm not, however, by any means writing an autobiography. I believe autobiographies are never true -- we leave too much out. I'm only trying to touch upon things that have quickened my life, to share some things that may have me what I am, some funny, sad, tragic things."
When she began the memoirs, Graham used to write them down, but painful arthritis that has particularly afflicted her hands has led her to tape-recorder dictation instead. She works on the memoirs during visits to a sister in Tuscon, and also late at night.
Graham and her company have been beneficiaries of the National Endowment for the Arts since the agency's earliest days. Of the proposed budget cuts for NEA, she says, "it frightens me a little. I wonder what it will extend to -- I think cutting too much would be dangerous. It's not only armaments that are necessary; there's the value of visions. I'm reminded of a very old saying the Chinese have about a great city whose glory perished. "They had no poet,' the saying goes, 'so they died.'"