Picks and Pans Review: Blood Memory

updated 10/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Martha Graham

Scene from a Martha Graham rehearsal, as recalled by a dancer who had failed to please the great choreographer: "She stood behind me, grabbing my head by the hair and snapping my head back...I thought my neck had been broken, and I saw colored spots."

At other times Graham screamed, threw things and slapped, bit or scratched her dancers to get the results she was after. In return all she asked was total obedience and an almost religious devotion.

Graham was the kind of artist who seemed able to create only by turning herself into a monster—albeit a magnificent one. Colleagues and benefactors were subjected to any tantrum or wile that would keep her troupe going. In the late, rather paranoid years of her extraordinarily long career (she danced until she was 75 and choreographed right up to her death in April at 96), longtime employees and supporters found themselves banished for imagined lapses in loyalty.

Though passionately intense, Graham held herself aloof. Her one marriage—to lead dancer Erick Hawkins, 15 years her junior—ended after two years. When a friend urged her, during one of her many affairs, to make a commitment to love, she said, "If I were to take that step, I would lose my art."

Maybe, maybe not; but at least about the art there was no question. As performer, teacher and choreographer, Graham invented a revolutionary vocabulary of movement—angular, earthy, sensual—that defined modern dance in America. She made, writes De Mille with forgivable overstatement, "a greater change in her art...than almost any other single artist who comes readily to mind."

De Mille's vivid, lively account (Random House, $30) is not quite a formal biography, but it is written from a close-up perspective that will never be matched by more comprehensive future books: that of a friend, disciple and fellow choreographer (De Mille's credits include Rodeo as well as the dances for Broadway's Oklahoma! and Carousel). As an affectionate admirer, De Mille sometimes gushes, but as an informed professional, she makes cool appraisals. During the 1960s and early '70s, she writes, when Graham had captured the public imagination as an ageless physical and spiritual icon, she was in fact racked with a knee injury and arthritis, and was such an alcoholic that she was often "sodden with drink" both onstage and off.

Threatened with death, Graham stopped drinking and, past 80, emerged in her final, incongruous incarnation as a superstar, swathed in Halston gowns. She began marketing her artistic legacy as assiduously as her personality.

In her autobiography (Doubleday, $25), Graham takes herself as seriously as she expected others to. At times the reader feels he's sitting in a Graham class, at the foot of the oracle ("Theater was a verb before it was a noun," she writes). At others he feels present in a drawing room where she is holding court ("I never ask people about their religion, whether it's politics—which is a religion—or sex, which is also a religion").

Looking back, Graham seems to remember every rave review and adoring fan. She has good stories to tell (like the one about conductor Leopold Stokowski trying to seduce her), but far too many sentences start out something like, "The famous French poet St. John Perse said to me...." She is best on the symbolic meanings of her dances, and most affecting on her happy, bourgeois childhood in Pennsylvania and California. Her father, a physician interested in the ways that the body reveals character, taught her that "movement never lies," a principle that became fundamental to her.

Ultimately, writes De Mille, Graham felt she did not choose her destiny but was a vessel chosen by higher forces. "Lunatics, of course, feel exactly the same way. How does a genius know he is not a lunatic? He knows." That was the thing about Martha Graham: She always knew.

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