Edinburgh Festival: Martha is dead; long live Martha

High priestess of American dance, Martha Graham, died in 1991 but her company lives on. Choreographer Robert Cohan talks to Louise Levene about her legacy
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The Independent Culture
In 1938 someone suggested to Sam Goldwyn that he get Martha Graham to choreograph The Goldwyn Follies. "What kind of dance does she do?"; "Modern dance." To which Sam replied, "Not modern dance. It's too old fashioned." Martha Graham's dance company are mining the archive to bring two programmes of work to the Edinburgh Festival. The newest is 48-years- old and the earliest was created when the Kaiser was still in power. Modern it ain't, but Graham devotees are eager for this meaty retrospective. The only question is whether the memories that the Graham company evoke when they perform Lamentation and Appalachian Spring will invite odious comparisons with the great lady herself, even though she last put in a professional appearance in 1970 and has been dead for the past five years. To be fair, Graham herself found it painful to watch her roles revived by others. "It wasn't until years after I had relinquished a ballet that I could bear to watch someone else dance it. I believe in never indulging in nostalgia. Yet how can you avoid it when you look on-stage and see a dancer made up to look as you did 30 years ago, dancing a ballet you created with someone you were then deeply in love with? I think that is a circle of hell Dante omitted."

Few people under 40 have ever seen Graham in action and even her one- time co-director, Robert Cohan, has sense and imagination enough to see that Graham's position on the throne of contemporary American dance was secured not simply by her searing interpretations but by the choreography itself. Not everyone spotted this. The normally excellent judge, Ninette de Valois, considering the matter back in 1937, certainly thought Graham's talents ephemeral and assumed that her style, like Duncan's, was too personal to constitute a system of dancing: "Such an ego, however brilliant, is without solid foundation." However, Graham's dances were not written on water as Duncan's were and Cohan reminds us that her successors have more than memory to go on as "Martha's work was more heavily choreographed".

As it turned out, Graham's determination to bypass ballet and shun the tap-happy frivolities of Broadway enabled her to forge a whole new way of dancing that could be transmitted to fresh generations eager to learn from the woman Agnes de Mille considered "the greatest performer that ever trod our native stage".

Cohan is equally unstinting in his admiration. "Martha was a genius and not only as a choreographer and image-maker but as a performer. It was very difficult for the women to step into her roles, even when she was there showing them. That said, there are some extraordinary dancers who can step into the roles. For those of us who know the work it looks like archive material; I might sit there saying, 'I've seen this done better', but to young people it's a revelation." But can a company continue for ever in this way without new blood, without the example of its founding choreographer? Cohan doesn't see why not. "There are more works in the repertoire than you could possibly perform. Martha did around 200 works and all of them were good."

Yet despite this prolific talent, Graham's charm was slow to work its magic in Britain. Her first London visit in 1954 was poorly attended by a select band of converts but by 1963 her company made its Edinburgh Festival debut and British dance-goers were making up for lost time. The Observer's "Alexander Bland" raved that "to encounter her work for the first time is one of the most stunning experiences the theatre has to offer".

The biggest difference between the Graham company of today and the dancers of the Thirties and Forties is that Graham's original team had to work harder, lending to the effort and weight that characterises some early Graham. Dancers today with their precision-tooled bodies don't convey that sense of effort which Graham never attempted to conceal. Graham's original men were very big boys. Cohan recalls, "I was the shortest man in the company - and I'm six foot." He remembers the whole-grain nature of the work with fondness: "The dancers were purposely more raw. They weren't rehearsed to death. There's a certain kind of slickness now, we had much rougher edges." Furthermore, unlike the present company, Cohan and his contemporaries had the thrill of seeing the works take shape. The first role Graham created for him was in Diversion of Angels in 1948. "Martha was in an extraordinarily happy period of her life, she had been to the South-west with Erick Hawkins [her partner and husband to be] and she was so happy. It was about joy, about two people falling in love, it was like a mountain wedding, we were all flying that summer."

Cohan has shown her influence clearly and proudly in works such as Stabat Mater (recently revived by Rambert). However, his latest venture, which will be premiered by Scottish Ballet later this month, reveals his late- flowering love affair with the ballet pointe shoe which has prodded the 70-year-old's creative impulses. "I find that when you choreograph for a long time you find it difficult to form new material for your own body and fall back on physical patterns that you've used before. At this moment I'm fascinated with how you can combine the dramatic earthiness that Martha originated with the pointe work." The new work uses Vivaldi's Four Seasons, a composition that has confounded choreographers before. "I thought Vivaldi was going to be relatively easy and foursquare to work with but not on your life. This is a collaboration with a dead composer - and he's winning," says Cohan. Graham's spirit will be glimpsed in many passages. "In the work for the men in Summer there's no doubt that you'll see the Graham. It starts as classical, then goes into Graham, then back into classical." Her critics always assumed that she abominated ballet but this was never the case. For Graham, who worked with Fonteyn, Nureyev, Plisetskaya and Baryshnikov, the important thing was quality: "She said there were only two kinds of dance; good and bad."

n Martha Graham Dance Company perform at Edinburgh Playhouse, 18-21 Aug. Robert Cohan's 'Four Seasons' for Scottish Ballet opens at Theatre Royal Glasgow, 27 Aug then touring (0141-332 9000).