Errand into the Maze: The Life and Works of Martha Graham

Image of Errand into the Maze: The Life and Works of Martha Graham
Release Date: 
January 30, 2024
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“Jowitt has given us . . . a useful reference source for scholars, dance professionals, and devoted followers of Martha Graham.”

Martha Graham is remembered as a major 20th century artist, dancer, and choreographer who separated dance from ballet while placing it in the forefront of modernism in the arts, a period that dates from New York’s 1913 Armory Show. She was a productive and disciplined innovator, and a tempestuous personality, known for outbursts of temper and strong opinions.

Given her status as an artist and cultural figure, it is disappointing to read a biography of her that, despite its thorough documentation of her works, and its appreciation of her artistry and staying power, is lifeless. It reads more like a catalog or a collection of program notes than as a portrait of a remarkable woman.

The fault lies in Deborah Jowitt’s narrative method. The book is strictly chronological and focuses on Graham’s work to the neglect of her personal life and its relationship to her art. Graham’s works are chronicled in painstaking detail according to a predictable pattern: themes and origins of each work are explained, followed by an extensive description of the choreography, the costumes, the set design, and the roster of performers. Then we are given a sampling of reviews by contemporaneous dance critics, most of whom wrote for New York publications. This pattern is followed for 392 tedious pages. Interspersed in the narrative are occasional brief glimpses into Graham’s personal life.

Fiercely independent and strong-willed, Graham envisioned a form of dance that would shed the artifice and ornamentation of classical ballet, with its not so subtle overtones of aristocratic privilege. She sought instead to reveal simpler and more timeless truths of human experience through dramatically spare movement and gesture. This aesthetic led her to draw her material from the myths and legends found in Greek drama and poetry and Biblical stories that express enduring archetypal features carried in humankind’s collective memory.

Much as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring shocked and startled audiences when it was first performed in Paris in 1913, the revolutionary style of Graham’s dances, with their symbolic sets and mysterious, provocative movements, baffled American dance audiences conditioned by Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Graham’s dances did not tell stories; they explored the human heart. But critics were impressed because they recognized that Graham had set dance on a new path that split it off from ballet.

A major problem with Jowitt’s approach to Graham’s story is that dance, like music, is a non-verbal experience that cannot be conveyed or approximated through written language. Jowitt’s extremely detailed descriptions of Graham’s work are rational and logical, but the dances to which they refer are emotional and intuitive. They must be experienced to be felt as Graham intended.

Photographs of the Martha Graham Company performers in their poses, placed to accompany  the text, could go a long way toward correcting this defect. But unfortunately, Errand into the Maze is stingy with photographic illustrations that would give the reader an immediate visual experience of Graham’s style. As it is, visualization of the dances must be imagined from Jowitt’s lengthy descriptions, which is asking a lot of the reader.

Graham was born in 1894 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She had two younger sisters, Mary and Georgia  (Georgia became a dancer in Martha’s company), and a younger brother, William, who died in infancy. Following his death, the family moved to Santa Barbara, California, in search of renewal and better weather.

The first turning point in Graham’s life occurred when her father George took her to Los Angeles to attend a performance by the dancer Ruth St. Denis. This experience put Graham on the path to becoming a performing artist.

Following her graduation from Santa Barbara High School, Graham moved to Los Angeles to enroll in The Cumnock School of Expression, where she studied literature, oratory, performing, and pedagogy. When she was 21, she was admitted to Denishawn, a dance academy in Los Angeles run by Ruth St. Denis and her partner/husband Ted Shawn. She became a regular performer in the St. Denis-Shawn company, often partnered with Shawn, who created roles for her. She also became romantically involved with Louis Horst, a married man who worked as the company’s music director.

When the company performed in New York while touring, Graham was spotted by John Murray Anderson and invited to become a featured dancer in his variety program The Greenwich Village Follies. New York then became the home base of her career for the rest of her long life.

Graham’s career had three principal components: she was a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher. As a dancer, she performed both solo works and as a part of the company that she formed in 1926. She performed in her own productions, as well as in works produced by others, notably Leonid Massine’s The Rite of Spring in 1930. She also performed in theater and choreographed  movement for theatrical productions. And she taught at numerous dance and theater schools across the country. All of these activities contributed to her development as an artist, and grew her audience and reputation.

With the growth of her audience came new opportunities and sources of support. The impresario Sol Hurok arranged an American tour for her company after the end of World War II. In 1954 her company embarked on an extensive European tour that was so well received the U.S. State Department enlisted her and her company as cultural ambassadors to the Far East. In 1959 she collaborated with George Balanchine on a two-part ballet based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. This partnership, arranged by Lincoln Kirstein of the New York City Ballet, joined together the  20th century master choreographer of classical ballet and his counterpart in modern dance.

Graham performed into her seventies and choreographed into her nineties. She enjoyed a regal old age, looked after by caretakers, and “protected” —i.e. controlled—by a devotee who alienated her from a number of her long-term colleagues. She was still choreographing at 96 and attending performances of her work. She died of pneumonia on April 1, 1991.

This biography does not conclude. It simply ends when the chronology stops. Because, as mentioned, Jowitt purposefully subordinates Graham’s personal life to her artistic career, the reader is left to wonder how they were entwined, and what, ultimately, is the meaning of Graham’s life. Facts about Graham’s personal life are simply dropped incidentally into the chronological narrative with little commentary or analysis. And so an important dimension of our understanding of Martha Graham is not explored. The portrait of her that emerges is flat and incomplete.

In Jowitt’s telling, Graham’s principal personal relationships were with Louis Horst, her music director, a married man who was her artistic collaborator; Carlus Dyer, a 19-year-old visual artist whom she took to her bed when she was 43; and Erick Hawkins, 16 years her junior, who enrolled in classes at her school, performed in her company, and married her when she was 54. Their marriage lasted two years, and fell apart because of Graham’s insecurity about her age, and Hawkins’ resentment at being second fiddle in her dance company.

Despite her artistic success and her fame, Graham appears to end her life unfulfilled as a human being. Why? Was it because of her years of alcoholism, which alienated many of her colleagues, but which we only learn about 20 pages from the end of the book? Was it because she took many lovers in a quest for the feeling of immortality she experienced during sex? Was it because she gave all her love to her work?

Answers to these questions that Graham’s life raises cannot be found in Errand into the Maze. What Jowitt has given us is a useful reference source for scholars, dance professionals, and devoted followers of Martha Graham. Those seeking a fully rounded portrait of her will have to look elsewhere, raising the question whether another full length biography of Graham is needed just two years after the publication of Neil Baldwin’s Martha Graham.