When asked whether she wanted to be remembered as a dancer or choreographer, Martha replied, "As a dancer, of course!" And so I will refer to this as the memoir of a dancer who, by her own description, did not "choreograph," but simply made up dances. She did not set out to be the great innovator she became, but wanted to express things inexpressible with then-available techniques, so she had to make her own technique. "Choreography," Martha writes in this book, "is a big word that can hide a lot of sins."
What an incredible life she lived! Honored on almost every continent, described by some Japanese artists as having developed a dance technique perfectly suited for the Asian body, received the French Legion of Honor medal, a grove of trees was recently planted in her memory in Israel's national forest, and Martha is the only dancer in US history to receive the highest national honor for civilians - the Medal of Freedom, and compared by many to Picasso. And yet she never let any of the fame and praise distract her from her one true love: dance. Such a varied life and long life (she lived to 96) is hard to describe in the setting of a linear autobiography, which thankfully this is not. This book is not broken into chapters, but simply divided with inventive border use and beautiful pictures. Being mostly a collection of memories, musing, and anecdotes, this book perfectly illustrates what Agnes De Mill wrote in "Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham", that Martha wanted to leave behind a legend rather than an accurate biography. But it is an interesting legend that she leaves, and the stories, musings, and anecdotes are beautifully written and often illustrated with accompanying pictures. Martha most likely had no concept of linear, but being an artist she probably lived in a circular world where beginnings were endings and endings were middles. "Life happens in spirals," Martha had said to a dance student in reference to her floor exercise of the same name. And this was years before spiral shape of the DNA structure was discovered.
My favorite story is about the time Martha and her sister Gertie, both of whom were members of the legendary Denishawn dance school and company, were thrown off of a train. Unbeknownst to the train conductor, the Denishawn company was famous for their exotic dances. Still in costume, they had been mistaken for gypsies (this was early in the 20th century). They tried to explain to the conductor that they were dancers, but he did not listen. Before they left the train, Martha writes, "Gertie gave a savory Irish insult, 'I spit on you.'"
One of the interesting things is the revelation that Catholicism had a deep impact on Martha Graham's work. As a young girl, Martha had a Catholic governess who took her to a few masses. Joseph Campbell, author of "The Power of Myth," says that rituals are the enactment of myth, and some of Martha's signature dances are the re-enactment of classical myth, mostly Greek. But I can't help but think the pageantry of Catholic ritual had an impact on Graham's mind. Interestingly, Joseph Campbell was Catholic and his wife Jean was once a Martha Graham dancer.
This book was a bible of my teen years and even inspired me to attend classes at the Martha Graham school in New York (thanks to the generous scholarship of Diane Gray), as well as considering becoming a Martha Graham dancer. I chose not to become a professional dancer, but this book still retains great memories for me. Martha's memoir initiated many other interests of mine, such as the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the curious subject of intuition - Martha wrote that often her dances came from a type of intuition, or "Blood Memory." And she quoted Emily Dickinson, "Intuition picks up the key that memory dropped."