Tea and cakes with Martha Graham

November 18, 1974:

You hesitate to ask Martha Graham how old she is, but it’s 82 or 83, and she didn’t stop dancing until a couple of years ago—and then only reluctantly, forced to by the pressures of health and age.We drink tea and eat chocolate cakes. She is a marvellous person to be with, immensely alive, consumed by a sense of wonder. She fills the room with enthusiasm. “It is still unbelievable to me that I can’t dance,” she says. “I believe, well, I will dance tomorrow. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of a dream about dancing.”

She has a man beside her whose sole task seems to be to make sure the facelift scars at the upper corners of her forehead stay tucked away under the bandeau she wears around her hair: he keeps reaching across the table with the tenderest of touches. It broke her heart, she tells me, to give up dancing. “It was a faculty as important as speech: it was my speech, and I didn’t take to losing it lightly.”

She and her company are here for the week, and giving us a first-hand look at some of her greatest works, elegant and economical metaphors that use the human form to speak about the great abstractions: love, jealousy, hate, joy: Cave of the Heart, Appalachian Spring, Night Journey, Clytemnestra. It’s a concentrated dose of Graham at its purest and, at its most epic, it establishes her as an artist on a level with Shakespeare, Milton, Wagner, the Greeks.

Edwin Denby wrote of the ardour of her imagination, the scope of her conceptions, the intensity of her presence. Will that abate when she dies? “I hope the stimulus will go on to others,” she says, “but the actual works, I can’t tell what will happen to them. I always said I would like the memory of me as a dancer to endure, but dancer and maker of dances are interrelated. What will endure is the legend, which became much more than I ever imagined it would in my lifetime.”

April 1, 1976

Lunch again with Martha Graham, I should be so lucky. Well, not exactly lunch: she eats a Danish pastry and a large fruit torte, with very sweet iced tea. The girl at the restaurant is all smiles. She used to study with Graham in New York, and having the legend here is a special day. “I sometimes think,” says Martha, “that if I am ever granted an audience with the Pope, someone is going to step forward just as I am announced and tell me they studied with me at the Neighborhood Playhouse.”

She has the spirit of eternal youth about her and bubbles with ideas, with references, with enthusiasm and vitality. Her laughter is robust, her eyes twinkle. She talks in sentences packed with sly wit and the most surprising references and she expects her listener to pick up her witticisms and humorous asides without prompting. If you are in tune, the experience is a rich one, like her choreography.

She hates to look back, she says. “That was the problem with Orpheus: he didn’t have enough faith not to look back.” She prefers to see everything for the first time: “I’m interested in a terrific clap of thunder that startles one. I want always to be in a state of turbulence.”

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