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A Tactile Tour of Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham’s 1940s Dance Sets

Martha Graham in 'Cave of the Heart' (photo by Philippe Halsman, courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance)
Martha Graham in ‘Cave of the Heart,’ with a set piece by Isamu Noguchi (photo by Philippe Halsman, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company)

For over three decades, Martha Graham danced her most compelling choreography on and around the abstract sculpture of Isamu Noguchi. In their first collaboration, the 1935 “Frontier,” she was consumed in a massive western landscape, a location suggested by just a simple fence and two stretched lengths of rope designed by Noguchi. The artists had a mutual attraction for the mythic and visuals abstracted just enough to bring out bare emotions, which progressed through pieces like 1944’s “Appalachian Spring.” There, Noguchi’s sharp interpretation of a Shaker chair balanced against Graham’s dramatic gestures and Aaron Copland’s moving score.

Bertram Ross in 'Appalachian Spring' (photo by Arnold Eagle, courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance)
Bertram Ross in ‘Appalachian Spring’ (photo by Arnold Eagle, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company) (click to enlarge)

For “Cave of the Heart” in 1946, Noguchi gave her wrathful Medea a bronze, exploding sun balanced on a snake, which transformed into a dress that doubled as a weapon. In the 1944 “Hérodiade,” he reduced a mirror, chair, and clothes rack to stark, white tangles of shapes for the room of a woman waiting for her “mysterious destiny.” And in the 1947 “Night Journey,” an interpretation of Oedipus from the mother Jocasta’s point of view, Noguchi built a skeletal marriage bed of conjoined lovers, its discomfort summoning their doom.

Martha Graham Dance Company is reviving “Night Journey,” “Appalachian Spring,” “Cave of the Heart,” and “Chronicle,” another Noguchi collaboration, as part of its 90th anniversary season from April 14 to 18 at New York City Center. On February 9, the Company opened a rehearsal of “Night Journey” to supporters of its current Kickstarter campaign, with a walk-through of three Noguchi sets: “Night Journey,” “Cave of the Heart,” and “Hérodiade.” PeiJu Chien-Pott was Jacosta, with Lloyd Knight as Oedipus and Ben Schultz as the disruptive blind prophet.

Rehearsal of 'Night Journey' by the Martha Graham Dance Company (photo by Brigid Pierce)
Rehearsal of ‘Night Journey’ by the Martha Graham Dance Company (photo by Brigid Pierce)
Rehearsal of 'Night Journey' by the Martha Graham Dance Company (photo by Brigid Pierce)
Rehearsal of ‘Night Journey’ by the Martha Graham Dance Company (photo by Brigid Pierce)

It was more of a “walk-on” the sets, as these are tactile objects, meant to be balanced upon and touched. From a distance, the glyph-like pedestals of “Night Journey” appear like granite, but up close you can feel their hollow wooden bodies. The bony edges of the bed are sinewy and rugged. These are thoughtfully designed obstacles that add physical challenges for dancers, helping to give the pieces their visceral energy so many decades later.

Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in 'Night Journey' (courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance)
Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in ‘Night Journey’ (courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company) (click to enlarge)

“She wanted pathways, she wanted different levels,” Janet Eilber, Martha Graham Company artistic director, said at the rehearsal. She noted that before her work with Noguchi, Graham, like most dancers, choreographed for an empty stage.

Graham used the sets “as extensions of her own anatomy,” as Noguchi put it. And the sculptor, likewise, was interested throughout his career in making art that was an interactive microcosm, such as his playgrounds and industrial design.

“They were both very good at concentrating power,” said Dakin Hart, senior curator at the Noguchi Museum in Queens. Hart added that they shared a “dreamy futurism,” and that around the same time he met Graham, Noguchi also became acquainted with Buckminster Fuller, who influenced his elemental shapes that don’t force any particular action.

Noguchi worked with other choreographers, like Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine, but his relationship with Graham is one of the most prolific between dance and visual art, resulting in around 20 sets. Many required restoration and rebuilding following flooding in the Martha Graham Center’s Bethune Street basement from Hurricane Sandy, making the sets’ continued use all the more special. Graham died in 1991, and Noguchi in 1988. Through the current dancers, the two artists are still collaborating, with Graham’s choreography for the joys and agony of human expression colliding with Noguchi’s hard, primordial forms.

Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi set for ”Cave of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
The bed by Isamu Noguchi for ‘Night Journey’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
The bed by Isamu Noguchi for ‘Night Journey’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi set for ‘Herodiade’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi set for ‘Herodiade’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi set for ”Cave of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi stepping stones for ”Cave of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi set for ”Cave of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Isamu Noguchi sets
Isamu Noguchi sets at Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Martha Graham Dance Company performances of “Night Journey,” “Appalachian Spring,” “Cave of the Heart,” and “Chronicle” will take place at the New York City Center (131 W 55th St, Midtown, Manhattan) April 14–18.

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