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Anne Bogart and Martha Graham Hand in Hand Across America

SITI Company and Martha Graham Dance Company
'American Document'

by Rosella Simonari

Published November 2010
(based upon a performance on June 11, 2010 at the Joyce Theatre in New York City)

For its 2010 New York season, the Martha Graham Dance Company embarked on a collaboration with theatre director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company. The idea was to recreate Graham’s landmark 1938 piece, “American Document”, a work that represented a radical change in Graham’s dance approach, both in terms of form and content. In the 1930s, Graham’s style was abstract, synthetic, and her Group was made of women only. With “American Document”, it became more theatrical and men were welcomed in the Group.

In particular, for this piece, Graham used the problematic structure of the minstrel show, a variety show with white men in blackface. The minstrel was characterised, among other things, by an interlocutor who spoke words during the performance and a walk around of all the characters at the beginning and end of the piece. At the time, Graham was looking for a new frame to create a North American dance language and found in the minstrel a suitable structure, in spite of its racist stereotype. As Susan Manning has noted, “Graham’s performative strategies (…) staged race in contradictory ways,” because, even though she did not use the device of blackface for her white dancers, she had them represent different ethnic groups like Native Americans and African Americans. The piece was, in fact, divided into sections dedicated to various aspects of North American culture such as the Declaration of Independence, Puritanism, Slavery and Native Americans. Each section was enriched by words elaborated by Graham herself in collaboration with literary critic Francis Fergusson and by passages from historical documents like the Declaration itself, preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards’s sermons, the Song of Songs, Red Jacket of the Senecas’ discourse and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The effect produced was quite idiosyncratic as, in Kimerer LaMothe’s words, dance appeared “integral to the process of interpreting American documents.” Thanks to the use of words, Bogart found herself at ease with “American Document,” and her collaborator, playwright Charles Mee, well recreated the idea of the 1938 piece, by using extracts from the writing of Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, Betty Smith, Sinclair Lewis, and a series of Internet blogs. Bogart loosely borrowed the minstrel structure from the 1938 piece with interesting results.

For example, the Interlocutor, played by Stephen Webber, was not the only speaking character. He sometimes had a dialogue with an actor or dancer, or he even remained silent while some other members of the two companies spoke. In this sense, it was interesting to listen to Graham dancers speak, and nice to see SITI Company actors dance some Graham steps, as it happened in the opening walk around, during which, together with the dancers, they walked across the stage with their arms up and slightly bent, and their hands cupped, in pure Graham style.

Bogart also mingled the spoken words with the dancing, by having the Interlocutor, and the other speaking characters, walking on stage. In Graham’s piece, the Interlocutor usually stood aside. Furthermore, sometimes the words were literally taken out of a briefcase carried by actor Kelly Maurer. In one instance she took out a piece of paper and spoke a monologue on the discrimination of Muslim women, standing with her back to the audience. The briefcase was the first thing the audience saw on stage and it evoked gloomy associations in connection with the 2008 global financial crisis which is still badly hitting the world economy. However, Bogart’s message was of hope, because she turned the briefcase into a well of inspiring words.

In Graham’s “American Document” there was no irony, while Bogart’s piece made a witty use of it. One of the funniest scenes in the piece occurred between dancer Tadej Brdnik and actor Leon Ingulsrud. The latter danced around, speaking Kerouac’s words, and the former corrected his movements. Theirs was not a real dialogue as it took place on two parallel planes. It recalled the Puritan duet in Graham’s 1938 piece, a duet between Graham herself and Erick Hawkins, her partner on and off stage. In that duet, the Interlocutor alternated lines from the Song of Songs with those from Jonathan Edwards’s sermons. The former lines spoke of sensual love, while the latter ones of its denial, so that a contrapuntal pattern was created. The video of this duet is the only frame that has been preserved of the entire piece; it was reconstructed for Bogart’s work and beautifully performed by Samuel Pott and Katherine Crockett.

In Bogart’s "American Document", the Graham technique looked different. It was almost ethereal and lacked Graham’s visceral depth. This was also due to James Schuette’s costumes, pretty colourful dresses for women, jeans, tank tops, and open shirts for men. They were perfect to represent the identity of a common North American, but they were not thought through with Graham’s technique in mind, especially with regards to women. Graham always paid attention to her costumes, and, at the beginning of her career, she even created and sewed them herself. When she decided to use period costumes, as it happened with “Letter to the World,” a specific attention was paid to outlining the female dancers’ hips, because of the so called pelvic movement which is at the basis of her language. In Bogart’s piece, the female dancers’ hips were hidden by the skirts of their dresses and any pelvic thrust lost its intensity.

In one section this aspect was secondary. It was the moment dedicated to the Iraq war. Fragments from soldiers’ internet diaries were spoken while dancers and actors walked forward forming a line. The Interlocutor hit the drum on his lap as if it were a gun shooting bullets in a war trench. Some of the dancers and actors fell as if mortally hit, while one of them took turns in uttering the soldiers’ words. It was a dramatic scene, and the dresses did not alter its effect.

Graham was always critical of wars and their inherent violence. One of her manifestoes, in this sense, was “Chronicle,” created in 1936, in response to the rise of Fascism in Europe. Parts of this piece were reconstructed by Terese Capucilli, Carol Fried, Yuriko, Sophie Maslow, Diane Gray and Graham herself, and retitled “Sketches from Chronicle.” It represented the ideal closure for the evening. It has been the closing piece in many seasons of the Company and not by chance. It is such a powerful piece it leaves its mark on the audience’s mind long after the actual performance. It is close in time to Graham’s “American Document”, but is very different from it as its style is abstract and essential. Divided into three parts, ‘Spectre 1914,’ ‘Steps in the Street’ and ‘Prelude to Action,’ it features an army of women fighting for their survival.

The first part is a solo which was impressively danced by Blakeley White-McGuire. It is revelatory of Graham’s use of costumes. The protagonist wears a very long and wide skirt open at the back and whose color is black outside and red inside. As she grabs and throws it in the air, in a gesture recalling Loie Fuller, she almost becomes a flag which stands for the horror of any war. The second part is a group piece made of many kinds of walking. Particularly striking was the opening walk, done backwards with a bent arm close to the dancers’ chest. The third part marks a crescendo, a “possible answer” to the pain and madness of war, as Graham Company artistic director Janet Eilber said in her introduction to the piece. The beforehand suffering army of women was here guided by a white dressed White-McGuire in high-paced phrases. Unity gives people strength to face any difficult situation.

This was an exciting and thought-provoking evening. Bogart managed to delve into Graham's world with excellent results, and her experiment represents a catalyst that lets us see Graham with new eyes.

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