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.

She talks in sentences packed with sly wit and the most surprising references (it’s up to you to keep up). Her laughter is robust, her eyes twinkle. “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.”


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