Skip to Content

When I Want Live, I Want Live

Naomi Fisher

Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, and the Martha Graham Dance Company in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Courtesy the Library of Congress
“You can no longer find the original instruments to play Mozart on,” said Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company and a former principal dancer directed by Graham in her lifetime. “Mozart sonatas are still wonderful on contemporary instruments,” she said. She had been asked how Graham’s choreography has changed with the increased athleticism in the dance world. Graham loved and incorporated the new, witnessing so much change in her lifetime. The key was to hold on to the emotional message, and not be distracted by “tricks.”

The Martha Graham KickTM was performed amazingly in “Diversion of Angels,” which premiered in 1948. In “Errand into the Maze” (1947), dancers moved about in circles so you could see each sequence and the shape of its movement from every angle. Choreographed before online streaming and well before The Matrix–like camera techniques, every angle of complicated moves are seen, consciously, intentionally moving in cycles around the stage. One kick after the next, skirt flowing, hiding then showing, a foot one second, an abstract painting the next.

At a recent Martha Graham Dance Company performance at the Duncan Theater in Lake Worth, the audience audibly gasped each time a difficult jump was caught with precision and ease. A sigh crept over us as the lead dancer bent backward so far it seemed unfathomable that she had a spine. Gasp. Cry. Sigh. Only in live performance. Wake you from the stupor of YouTube videos, of observing through screens.

Yet now, back at the laptop, I look back at my own #MarthaGraham Instagram post from that night. What else shares that hashtag? Dancing balloon people bending around impossibly. #MarthaGraham. A girl in pointe shoes with an inspirational quote. #MarthaGraham. A shot of the theater with a hotel hashtagged with every conceivable spelling. Is this their sponsor? #MarthaGraham.

Many viewings of performance happen online, through screens, after the fact, rather than live. Both methods are valid, which is telling of where we are today. But there is nothing like sharing the experience of watching live performance with an audience. After returning home from the Graham perfor- mance, to keep the dance vibe going, a friend and I put on Wim Wenders’s 2011 film, Pina, about the contemporary choreog- rapher Pina Bausch. It’s such a different experience. Graham dancers are precise instruments, each Pina Bausch dancer feels like a performance artist in his or her own right. What is a Pina Bausch dance without the performer it was originally made for? I wish I saw the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last season, thirty years after the company’s debut at the same venue. Even one of the most legendary contemporary choreographers, one of the first men to be allowed into Martha Graham’s all-female company, Merce Cunningham, had his company dissolved after his death.

But Graham survives. Precision, records, and Graham living for so long and restaging the same works with different dancers created enough archival material to make toolkits for rebuilding around fifty of the 181 dances she created in her lifetime. Each work is performed like a time capsule. We are still able to see what Graham wanted us to see, a sculptural variation repeated at many angles, an impossible leap punctuating a sequence. Large male hands like a crown behind a woman’s head. The importance of structure. She is directing us to see, from a specific angle, with specific lighting, in a proscenium stage.

Within the art world, dance is entering the museum in a way people are still figuring out. Contemporary art is embracing performance as a medium into spaces not designed for dance. Bad floors, no proscenium. Yet it is thriving and growing. Is the art world embracing dance without understanding context? Theater and choreography are very different things from performance art.

Graham’s sculpturality makes me think of Maria Hassabi, a contemporary choreographer I follow closely who performs both on the stage and in the museum. Hassabi is colder, more complicated, her chosen movements are a fissure in the logic board. Watching Premiere performed on the street in New York in 2014, the work is so rational in its concept and clarity, but irrational in its endurance. Opening up your brain for more questions, you can walk around it—hell, even through it—or sit on the steps at Bowling Green as if you are in a theater. Hassabi’s recent work is so durational that you almost forget the force it takes for a human body to hold certain poses for so long.

Graham screams a solution. Clarity about love and loss, but from one perspective: yellow costumes for adolescent love, red for sexual love, white for long-term matrimonial love. Graham’s women exude strength, authority. Modernism was a moment for giving answers as industrialization paved the world. Graham gives us big poses, the body as shape, the body as machine. A wheel. A water churn. Industrialization made elegant. The same train of thought as Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and the infinite reinterpretation’s of Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Graham takes love and death in the age of industry to a universal meta space with big, bold narrative gestures.

Gasp at Graham’s acrobatic moves slipped in between formal structures, repeated at different angles so you could catch them all like the bullet in The Matrix. This strip-down-and-repeat methodology is present with Hassabi, but slower, with poses held so long that you could be forgiven if you don’t see the strength. It is not screamed. It lasts so long it could be a magic trick. At the Soft City Festival in Oslo last fall, I watched “Show,” sitting on the floor so close to the performance I could stare into Hassabi’s eyes. Every muscle holding tight is clear, leg hovering above the ground for impossible amounts of time, until the next sculptural moment. Hassabi riddles you with a blissful, answerless state coming out of screen culture. On pause? No, on point.

In an interview, one of Pina Bausch’s dancers says Pina only gave her feedback one time in twenty years and it was to say, “Get crazier.” What is that today when nothing seems shocking? What is “crazier” when intentional normcore seems weirder than a club kid covered in sequins? When every form of expression can be searched and classified with a hashtag?

Is “crazier” now getting in a car to drive an hour and a half from Miami to West Palm Beach to watch a live performance? I could have watched seven hours’ worth of streaming video, when you factor in my commute, intermissions, and so on. I could have looked at every hashtag associated with Graham and made an excel sheet quantifying each type of post.

When I want live, I want live. I want to see the dancers moving, sweating; I want to hear the audience gasp with me. I want the temporality of moving humans sculpting in air, poses, movement, shapes, emotion. History colliding with the present. Bodies, ever aging, ever changing, giving us an experience that can’t be understood any other way.


NAOMI FISHER is an internationally exhibiting multimedia artist and director of the artist-run space BFI (Bas Fisher Invitational), Miami.