Keeping Artists like Martha Relevant, Alive

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[dropcap]It’s[/dropcap] a curious thing, what motivates us to choose a certain path in life. Why do we make the choices we make? Spiritual choices, career choices, relationship choices, artistic choices. Martha Graham said in her letter to Agnes de Mille:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.”

I interpret this to mean that, for some — maybe — we don’t really make the choices, but rather a life force moves through us and chooses us.

Martha Graham believed that she was chosen to bring modern dance into the world. She looked at dance as an exploration, a celebration of life, a religious calling. She — her body and her persona — was the art form. I think she believed that if she didn’t do it, the art would be lost. Graham was a genius at connecting the physical movement of the body with emotion. She could make visible — through her movement — what she wanted to say that just cannot be put into words. This play (Martha) explores the depth of that passion, that connection in art, between the physical and the spiritual. It reveals her unwillingness to give up, against all odds. Which makes for a great deal of humor at times.

And it is that tenacity that makes Martha so relevant today. She was a troublemaker. She refused to represent America at the Olympic Arts Festival in Berlin in 1936 because it meant dignifying the regime of Hitler. She gave artists of color center stage in her company during a time when they were only seen as “exotics.” In 1962, her legendary dance “Phaedra,” which explores the damaging effects of the sexual transgressions of mothers and stepmothers, depicted sex through her choreography. It was expressed so unsparingly that it was denounced in Congress as being obscene. Graham’s movement was her voice. She had things to say, and she believed that only she could say them. She was a feminist, a rebel, and a storyteller. In a time where it seems such voices are not as welcomed, we need them now as much as ever.

When Martha Graham came onto the dance scene, nobody had ever seen anything like her. Her movements were angular, masculine, visceral, unconventional, and confrontational. In a world that was captivated by the beautiful and lyrical lines of a ballet dancer, she turned the world upside down with her raw, emotional unique style of dance. Her medium was her body, through which she conveyed stories of life and love and passion and loss. And she dared to convey those stories with strength, power, and a technique that was uniquely hers. She dared to be “ugly,” angry, and angular in her movement. She believed that movement never lies. Her dance told stories in a way that others had never done before.

But being a woman with a myopic vision, driven by a passion so intense she was willing to risk everything, does not an easy life make. It’s why this story needs to be known, and why it is especially relevant for today’s generations and the ones to come. Graham was temperamental and fierce. She believed if she could ever commit herself fully to love, she would lose her art. She was alone, a lot. She suffered from alcoholism in her later years. But her life is an inspiration because of that willingness to risk it all. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age just how revolutionary she was.

We need to keep artists like her relevant and alive. To remind ourselves to never stop creating, never stop listening to the voices in our soul that call to us to reach beyond our creative comfort zone.

NOW PLAYING: MARTHA at the Whitefire Theatre, through April 26, 2017.

Martha, by Ellen Melaver, reveals the struggle an artist endures as the ravages of age can make continuing one’s career difficult, and nearly impossible. When is it time to say…”when.”

Christina Carlisi

Christina Carlisi

Christina is an LA-based actress.