The security guard in Christie’s lobby last Thursday told me where to find the pre-auction viewing for The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs & Melvin Jacobs. He motioned to the left, saying “go through the keyhole,” an arched liminal cutout into a mysterious realm, and, when I passed across the threshold, there it was – on the far facing wall.  I flashed back to the mid-eighties, during the hyped-up, dreamlike flux of writing Man Ray – American Artist when I first set eyes upon Le Violon d’Ingres at Roz and Mel’s apartment; I had emerged from the private elevator and yes, there it was, at eye-level, the gelatin silver print mounted on board sheltered by curtains on either side – and now, as then, I gasped at the luminous immensity of its modest size. 

Rebecca Jones, associate specialist and head of sale in photographs at Christie’s, graciously guided me around the exhibition.  Past works by Duchamp, Magritte, Tanning, both Copleys (William and Noma), and Celmins, I revisited the arcane imagination of Man Ray, smiling to myself when I zeroed in on the wall of rayographs, cameraless photographs authenticated in pencil on verso with the artist’s note, in French, that these were unique, one of a kind works.

Indeed, another facet of Man Ray’s persona has coalesced in the developing-tray of my affectionate memory over the decades: his propensity to stake wildly various claims  – to insist, tongue in cheek, that “Photography is not art” while, in the same breath, applying connective tissue between “originals, graphics, [and] multiples.”   

Like Walt Whitman, one of his early poetic heroes, Man Ray “contain[ed] multitudes” crammed into his bricoleur self.

Of all the images of his lover, Kiki, there is none so compelling, notorious and powerful as this one, her smooth, naked curved back adorned with the curlicue “f” – holes of a violin. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Man Ray had certain points of convergence. The painter glorified odalisques, houris swooning langorously. The photographer took equally insatiable delight in contours of the flesh. Like Ingres, his predecessor, Man Ray was chronically eclectic. Both experienced brief formal educations. Both emerged from humble upbringings. And both were victimized by critical assessments that their imagery was too enigmatic.

This magisterial construct of 1924 plays with the idea of photography as the virtuosic Man Ray’s self-deprecating “hobby,” even as Ingres insisted that visitors to his studio attend to his precious instrument. It also plays with the idea of woman, maintaining Man Ray’s erotic obsession with the classic female form.

Naomi Savage, the artist’s niece — who studied photography with him, bearing witness to his darkroom technique, and whose 1959 snapshot of her uncle at his favorite haunt, the Café de la Mairie, across the Place Saint Sulpice from his rue Ferou studio, appears below — recalled Man Ray remarking to her that “The work has already been done.”  

I walked into my study this morning, past one of many bookshelves jammed floor to ceiling with ten years’ worth of research material for my MARTHA GRAHAM biography, sat down at my desk, and resumed work on proofreading the massive pdf of the final version, due back to my editor tomorrow by 5 p.m., breathing a sigh that I was on schedule, because once you are in the production phase of a book (as any author will tell you), there is no more wiggle-room. 

I moved along, (not too quickly, I reminded myself), trying to take an objective point of view toward those hundreds of thousands of words, trying to imagine what The Reader would see and feel, rather than indulge in excessive scrutiny, because, at this point, you are strongly cautioned that you cannot disrupt the pagination with overlong insertions or deletions.

And so it went for a few hours, until I forced myself to take a break, which means, in my case, to stand up and drink a glass of water and pace back and forth, whereupon the question lanced through my mind —   Is this the actual book? Not really, I responded; it’s a pixellated document that came to me through (in?) The Cloud, archived on a huge Random House server somewhere out there. Not really, I further replied, because it is not yet a material thing with a gorgeous jacket and deckled edge paper and over one hundred vintage photographs, exquisitely designed and set in Adobe Garamond. Not yet, I continued, because bound books won’t be available until early to mid September.  

But — I interjected to myself — surely it is a book, in the sense that I have written and input every letter, every word of it, and am immersed in my final “pass,” the last time I will be enabled to respond to the copy editor and make changes here and there.

This feels absurd, I continued; like one more characteristic bout of overthinking in the end-game, the last lap of the long and winding journey, when the author’s voice takes on an internal querulousness. 

Just there, in the far right corner of my writing table, beyond the edge of this screen, sits an imperturbable, printed out copy of the six hundred page “manuscript,” I suppose one could call it. But no — wait! — that isn’t  the book, either, just one step closer toward the analog world of bookstores and reviewers’ copies and libraries and bedside tables… 

 

First movement – The program note written by Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Company, with interpolations and elaborations by NB: Martha Graham created Canticle for Innocent Comedians in 1952, taking the title and inspiration from the 1938 poem by Ben Belitt, her old friend and colleague at the Bennington School of the Dance.  The multifaceted work was built around eight virtuosic vignettes for the stars of the Graham Company, each celebrating a different element of nature: Sun, Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars and Death.  The work was well received, reputed to have been magical; however, there is only a fragmented record remaining, and it is considered lost. This 2022 Canticle for Innocent Comedians is a reimagining of the original.  The choreography is completely new but draws upon Graham’s stylistic blueprint.  The vignettes have been re-made for today’s Graham stars by eight dance-makers from diverse backgrounds.  Fortunately, Graham’s staging of “Moon” was filmed in the 1950s and is included in the new production. A lyrical, percussive, ruminative score has been created by the great jazz pianist, Jason Moran. The lead choreographer, Emmy and Tony award winner Sonya Tayeh, has designed the connective tissue for this eclectic assemblage – in the words of Belitt’s original poem, “that binds the halves of first and last/To single troth, in time” — for the dancers of the Ensemble, weaving in and out of the sections in a manner reminiscent of a Greek chorus, and resonating with many Graham classics. The costumes by Karen Young are inspired by voluminous, swirling shapes that Graham often used for the costumes she herself designed.  They are fabricated from recycled plastic bottles to add to the conversation about the eternal values of nature — and our responsibilities to the planet.

Second movement – NB in the audience at the City Center, Sunday, April 10th 2022, responding to the thing itself: Settling into my seat after Appalachian Spring and the intermission, reflecting upon the eternal classic that renders up new moods no matter how many times I see it, the joy, yes, and also the conflicts, the ambivalence of the fresh-faced Bride and the attendant distance of the Husbandman; the aloft insouciance of the Preacher surrounded by his adoring, fluttering Followers; and the advice and counsel of the Pioneering Woman who can only give so much, after which the young hopeful couple are left to face the future, their own “Prelude to Action”

& the curtain rises on Canticle, smoke-wreathed, intertwining bodies, an underwater organism in translucent gowns, lit as if from heaven, with music for dance simultaneously dance for music, Jason Moran’s soundscape moving in echoes of Claude Debussy to Henry Cowell to Chick Corea, the sheer instinctive reciprocity of his score with the labored-to-make-it-natural patterns of the dancers, an ensemble of individuals, each voice joining the chorus at one instant then soloing in natural harmony with itself, and reaching arms pull up and out while lunging legs find further terrain, and the time-based art, about ten minutes in, sheds conventional duration to become a trackless, wordless incantation, a ritual only Martha Graham can inspire, and the dancers transmute into being less like persons and more like  essences, and the space around me is so quiet, the silence is expectant, hanging on every paced step, awaiting for the next to fall or elevate…

…until we move into a time of indeterminate time, forget we are breathing, and the masks don’t matter — and Canticle does not so much end as evaporate — and the roof of the theatre blows off with cheers, whoops, and ecstasies — and the dancers, in their last performance of the final show of the run, gaze outward, with mixtures of  surprise, relief, and joy…

Third movement – NB emerges, staggering, onto 55th street wondering if New York City is the hallucination and the works of Martha Graham, and her past and present Company are the realities, the technicolor shower that penetrated my skull persisting as I turn left at Sixth Avenue and begin to walk down town, realizing that in the half hour before the show started, I had dropped into the Museum of Modern Art, and was greeted by a huge yellow sign in the lobby announcing in black lettering that CHANGE IS MODERN

P.S. – Dear Readers – When you move on, go here! https://shepherd.com/best-books/dance-and-dancing

 

It was July 12, 2014. I was one among many — young students, seasoned faculty, seated and standing in the hushed audience at the Martha Graham School on NYC’s upper east side, listening to Yuriko Kikuchi, at the young age of ninety-four, talk about her years with the icon, Martha Graham. I soon intuited that reserve, that hesitation, creeping into her mild voice, looking back to the early 1940s when she joined the Company.  I had picked up on that reticence several times before, in long, ruminative conversations with Linda Hodes and Stuart Hodes and Robert Cohan and Marnie Thomas and Terese Capucilli and so many other veteran members of the Graham dance-family. “We were friendly, yes,” Yuriko said of Martha, “but never friendly friendly.”  There were boundaries, naturally, as there are between any dancer and the choreographer setting works upon her. There were delineated boundaries between Martha Graham’s deeply-embodied ideas unfurling out of her blood-memory into the studio where they would be sometimes demonstrated and, at others, inferred; and, yet again, movement was purposefully elicited, derived from  the dancer.  But always, be it superimposed or drawn out, artistic inspiration came from Martha Graham’s distance. She demanded intimacy of energy, wanted to see the effort of others’ strenuous work from a singular perspective, alone, inside her mystical carapace. “Martha never confided anything to her dancers,” Yuriko continued. “We were like her different colors, for her to use as a painter.”  This isn’t meant as expedient, I jotted in my notebook that summer afternoon, eight years ago. If Graham were the painter, then her palette was an infinite melange of hues. And within the span of one dance, Yuriko was a kaleidoscope brought to life.  

 

“It takes about ten years to make a mature dancer,” Martha Graham wrote…and it takes more than ten years (as I have now come to learn) to make a book about a transcendent artist and person.

Martha Graham – When Dance Became Modern will be published by Knopf on October 25th, 2022.

Walt Whitman, one of Martha Graham’s favorite poets, declared “I contain multitudes!”  Indeed, I, too, have been nourished during my journey as an author by a vast, deep constituency of stewardship, allegiance, wisdom, artistry, sophistication, guidance, friendship – and patience.

During this treacherous but hopeful time for our culture, with half a year still to come before the book appears, I want to abstract one moment to express my respect for Martha Graham’s legacy.

My book, reaching beyond modern dance, considers such matters as the advent of the culture industry;  intermingling iconoclastic art forms; the difficulties of collaboration; the trials of being a woman without patrons in the twentieth century trying to forge her own choreographic way;  and the arduous process of art-making when your body is the instrument calling out to be plumbed for inspiration.

An essay that has always been central my life as a writer, still relevant for those who persist in believing in  time-based embodiment in these strange days of NFTs, is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin – 1935/6. I offer his prescient words bearing witness to the ineffable, unique aura of Martha Graham’s embodied art.