The Life in the Work

By Mark Franko

Oxford Univ. 231 pp. $29.95

Choreographer Martha Graham is modern dance’s so-called high priestess. In the 1930s and ’40s, her unique brand of angular movement, dramatic narratives and unapologetically strong female characters redefined an art form.

Given her towering presence in the field, many authors have set out to chronicle her life and account for her influence. But in “Martha Graham in Love and War,” dance scholar Mark Franko aims to answer a narrower and less tired question: How did someone so innovative approach the creative process?

The four Graham works that Franko highlights are not necessarily the ones he considers most seminal, but rather the ones that changed her methodology. Through letters, notebooks, interviews, photos and other research, he retraces Graham’s journey as she assembled these works and uncovers the artistic and personal impulses that drove their conception.

’Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work’ by Mark Franko (Oxford University Press)

For example, Franko argues that a rarely seen 1953 work titled “Voyage” marked a major stylistic shift from grand-scale storytelling to raw, personal self-exposure. He attributes the evolution to Graham’s newfound interest in psychoanalysis and a tough breakup with longtime artistic and romantic partner Erick Hawkins. Franko also shows that to deconstruct Graham’s dances is to understand what she meant for us to see in them.

As she worked on “Appalachian Spring” (1944), Graham jettisoned some of the characters in her original plan, including those she dubbed the “Indian Girl,” the “Abolitionist,” and the “Slave.” But these absent characters, he theorizes, are still encrypted in the finished product. “The panic of the Slave and the fury of the Abolitionist mutated into, and were painted over by the self-exorcism of the Revivalist,” he writes. Furthermore, Aaron Copland’s music for the piece was never altered to accommodate the deletions, meaning those characters’ imprints remain embedded in the score. It’s a fascinating and well-argued notion, one that is apt make even the most seasoned observers of dance want to see the classic again to find out if they now interpret it differently.

Though Franko’s analysis is provocative and deeply researched, it’s not terribly accessible. He assumes his reader is already a dance connoisseur, and he omits context that would make this book appeal to a wider audience. And some of the prose is weighed down so heavily by ivory tower jargon that it becomes difficult to follow.