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Martha Graham

Stories from The Horse's Mouth, September 15, 2007

             Bare Your Incisors!Janet Eilber

    Janet Eilber. (Photo: John Deane) When Martha was directing, she rarely discussed the details of your own emotional performance. She had plenty to say about physical power onstage like:  "When you exit, take the piano with you!" or "Stiffen your spine until you bare your incisors!"
      She was about 90 and I was showing her the opening of Night Journey, just after Jocasta has discovered that Oedipus is not only her husband [but her son!]    I began flinging myself around the studio in what I thought was a manner appropriate to the situation. Martha stopped me and came over very close and said:
     "Darling, you're not talking to yourself. You have to talk to yourself the whole time. Now when you come to this spot you say to yourself, ‘But this is where he took me as a lover.'
      And you can't stay. You can't stay. and you arrive at the next place and you say, ‘And this is where I weaned him as a babe.'
     And you can't stay, you see, Jocasta is not going anywhere. Darling, she's leaving. You have to talk to yourself the whole time."
     This was a lightning bolt to me, a revelation about internal monolog and articulating the specifics of my dramatic performance.
     As Martha went back to her chair I heard her say, really to herself, "I think I used to do it automatically," as if she'd never really thought about it before.

Dorothy Berea Silver. The first time I took class from Martha was during the June Course, 1946. Halfway through we were doing prances in place when I felt someone close to me. Martha.
     "Dot, you dance from the ankles down!"
      I must have improved because six months later when Martha was preparing for her Broadway season at the Ziegfeld Theatre, she decided to revive Primitive Mysteries, the first time in 10 years. She needed extra girls for that dance and I was one of the extras.
      It was a dance built on sacred themes and divided into three sections. As a Roman Catholic I felt at home with them: Hymn to the Virgin, Crucifixus, and Hosanna.
      On opening night, I was in the dressing room with the other dancers in my costume preparing hair and make-up, but absolutely terrified. Someone called out, "Dot, Martha wants to see you."
      I trembled my way to Martha's dressing room, found her sitting in a chair in the middle of the room facing the door.
      Come here" she said. "Turn around." I did.
     "Your hair is not shiny enough. Kneel down." I knelt in front of her. She reached for a bottle of Suave hair cream, took some on her hands and smoothed her hands over the top of my head.
     "That's better. Now go on."
     I rose, turned around and walked serenely out of the door, on air. I had been anointed forever by the great Martha Graham.—

Chiara Dello JoioNorman Dello Joio composed music for Diversion of Angels and The Triumph of St. Joan. He wrote the following story and asked that it be read by his granddaughter, Chiara, photo at right.
      Some 70 years ago, I lived in a one-room hotel. One day the phone rang and to my surprise the caller said, "This is Martha Graham. Is this Norman?" Stunned, I admitted it was.
      She continued, "I think it is time we did a work together, can I come over now to discuss this with you?"
      I concluded this was no dream. She came. I was flustered. I could offer her for seating my one chair or the bed. She chose the chair.
      The subject – young love – its perils, its joys, and variations. Was I confused? she asked. Maybe a little. But I knew I could write her a love letter in sound because I knew and loved her work. It eventually became the score of Diversion of Angels.
       I might add that Martha never fussed over her scores. She respected the composer's imagination. We all knew a great lady.—

Barbara BennionBarbara Bennion February, 1950. We were on an eight-week bus tour, one-night stands, Philadelphia to California and back. The bus was very cold and most of us wore woollen leg warmers and scarves. We'd been passing a bottle of kaopectate around and somewhere in Oklahoma I began feeling really sick... some kind of flu with fever and chills.
      I went straight to bed in my hotel wondering how on earth I was going to dance that night. The touring company was only nine members plus Eric and Martha and I was in every number, no understudy. I was the Girl in Red in Diversion of Angels, an older sister in Deaths and Entrances, also in Every Soul Is a Circus, and Lear.
     Martha was worried, came to my room, and sat next to my bed. I'd never been alone with her before. She began acting like my mother, which she could have been because I was 21 and she in her mid-fifties. She took my hand, stroked it and talked to me in that low mysterious voice of hers but it didn't help.
      Then: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ..." and recited the entire 23rd Psalm from memory. That night I got up and danced.—