Graham’s Footsteps Graced Goodhart’s Stage!

tech bourrees

There are always ancestral footsteps behind me, pushing me, when I am creating a new dance, and gestures are flowing through me.

(Blood Memory)

When I began my research for Mawr Steps I gathered information on Martha Graham, her dancers, her technique, her body of work, the politics that this dance referenced, etc. But I also sought to learn something about the history of dance at Bryn Mawr College. Because it is not just Graham’s legacy that this project is involved with, of course, it is our legacy too.

I was surprised – and incredibly excited – to find that these two great legacies have been intertwined for decades!

Below are pages from the March 1, 1939 edition of Bryn Mawr’s College News.

(Here is a PDF version of the paper in its entirety.)

The review continued on Page 3

The review continued on Page 3

Front page: "Martha Graham Evokes History In New Dance"

Front page: “Martha Graham Evokes History In New Dance”







(via BMC Special Collections Repository)



The front page headline reads: “Martha Graham Evokes History In New Dance,” reported from Goodhart Auditorium on February 23, 1939. So, 75 years ago Martha Graham herself performed on the same stage that Steps in the Street will be performed on tomorrow and Saturday nights. What’s more – Graham was performing works at Bryn Mawr (in 1939) created during the same period of her career as Steps (1936).

The serendipitous parallels are truly uncanny.


Preparing For Powerful History…

Dancing "Steps" on Goodhart's stage during the tech rehearsal today

Dancing “Steps” on Goodhart’s stage during the tech rehearsal today

“We have seen strange things today,” said the big bull to the others of his herd. “The man we trampled to death is again alive… Now…we shall teach you our own dance and song, which you are never to forget.” For these were to be the magical means by which the buffalo killed by the people in the future would be restored to life…

(Myths To Live By)

The dance that is being passed from buffalo to man is one that creates life by recreating death – that is, by performing a once-lived experience. This process of dynamic recreation is multidimensional: it necessitates an engagement with history; a negotiation between then and now.The performance then provides a portal, a brief opportunity for unrestricted travel, to disparate moments in space and time.

An apparently ghostly moment during last night's tech rehearsal

An apparently ghostly moment during tech rehearsal


Itchy wool, the smell of wet wool, trying to reshape a stretched out sweater – or worse, trying to stretch a shrunken one… When I think of dancing in a near floor-length dress made of wool these are the thoughts running through my mind.

In 1936 Martha Graham and her dancers were wearing costumes made of double knit wool. Thankfully, in 2014 Bryn Mawr and Haverford dancers will be wearing cotton jersey. Though it is still a somewhat heavy fabric to dance in (compared to the super-technology we now have in athletic gear) it is undoubtedly lighter than its 1930s counterpart – more of a second skin, less of a pelt.dress movemnt

Synthetics notwithstanding, these costumes are true to Graham’s 1930’s stipulations and to the nature of Steps in the Street – they are both determinedly solemn as well as deceptively complex. I would describe the costumes, at first glance, as: long black dresses – they are intended to just brush the top of the foot. The bodice is fitted, with cap sleeves and a square neckline – and with two princess seams running down its length, from where the neckline meets the sleeve (almost under the arm), over the bust, to a low dropped waist. Attached to this is a full skirt with overlapping material that forms a slit, which is not visible without movement.

These costumes are on loan as part of the reconstruction arrangement Bryn Mawr has with the Martha Graham Dance Company. The Graham Company suffered the great misfortune of losing many of their costumes, and sets and props, in a storage facility that was ruined during Hurricane Sandy. The costumes we are using this Spring are therefore reconstruction costumes that had to be reconstructed themselves post-Sandy and Bryn Mawr’s cast will only be the second to wear them.

A few weeks ago the dancers had their first rehearsal in costume. At that rehearsal I had an opportunity to speak briefly with Heidi Barr, who has done costuming for Bryn Mawr College’s Dance Concerts for a number of years. Heidi will be fitting and altering the costumes for our production of Steps in the Street.

Through our conversation Heidi brought into focus aspects of the costume that I, with my untrained eye, would not have immediately considered. Below, some examples are illustrated by photos of the dancers rehearsing in costume!

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Jennifer Conley: Form and History

I’ve been reading people remark upon how her dances from the ‘30s, her earlier dances, don’t have the sleekness of her later dances, which were informed by more balletic shapes and gestures. These early works were really about the power of the mass, the unified group of women—and her company was all women at that time—so, when you reconstruct at other schools is it always an all- female cast?      I always have a female cast for these early works. I’m not opposed to having men in the piece—I mean at the Graham Company the men always wanted to do Chronicle, which is the bigger piece that this is a section of— they wanted to do a male version of it—but, not yet…

…Well there’s a certain authenticity, I guess—the costuming would change, the male body has a different presence—Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman were working alongside Martha, in another part of New York but at the same time, and they were doing the male-female-equal thing—the no struggle for dominance of one over the other but trying to exist harmoniously, cooperatively, and creating this sort of Utopian society of men and women, and Doris choreographed for the women and Charles choreographed for the men—so there’s an egalitarian sort of feeling that was in the air—it affected them and it affected Martha too.

A lot of Martha’s dancers actually were involved in something called the New Dance Group, which was a radical dance collective that really thought that dance could incite social change, their slogan was, “Dance is a weapon to incite social justice,” and they were really into dancing on the picket lines, and helping with the unionization movement that hadn’t quite formed yet—Martha wasn’t that closely tied with it, but she knows the headlines, she knows what’s going on, she knows who her dancers are and where they’re coming from—from Russia, from Germany, from all these different places, a high Jewish percentage of women in her company, who grew up in the tenement housing on the Lower East Side, working class families—so she’s aware, consciously, of what’s going on.

So when these fears are swelling, among the people on the east coast, with regards to what’s happening abroad, it’s real for this generation of artists—they didn’t see themselves as separate from this, they saw themselves as part of it—and so how is my art going to reflect that? And there’s such humanity in the work of the 1930s.

They call them “The Greatest Generation”—it’s a different spirit, it’s a different sense of mankind and our relationship to one another, than we have today. I don’t think there was any apathy—things did not come as easily, in terms of information, or even food for that matter, or jobs (though we are having a downturn in our economy right now in terms of jobs – )…but, yeah, it was such a different time and it wore on the people differently. So the way they moved was different.

Yeah. I was just thinking, the way they moved in terms of the way their bodies were informed by their surroundings—and by their own thoughts and personal and political motivations—but also thinking about the food that they’re eating and the clothing that they’re wearing, whatever is available—                                          Double knit wool!

[Laugh] Right. I guess they refer to this as her “long woolens period”—           That’s right.

…thinking about your material goods and how that is affecting your performance—and your body and the way that you’re living—yeah, dancing in wool…                     It’s before lycra, it’s before nylon—and it’s also a time too for women—America is still waking up from the Victorian protocols, expectations on women, and there’s this quickening of city life, because these artists were all living in New York City. The skyscrapers were going up and you’re seeing these bold geometric lines, like the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, which went up around the same time these dances were happening.

There’s a similar “economy of means” they like to say when they are analyzing these buildings, in that there’s some simplicity there.  And we’re not looking at the ornamental nature of, say, Grand Central Station, which is one of my favorite buildings in New York City, with the Baroque curlicues…  We’ve completely gone into something very stark and very minimal.

The stark and minimal strike pose seen repeatedly throughout "Steps"

The stark and minimal strike pose seen repeatedly throughout “Steps”

Yes—the strong defined lines of this dance, the geometry of it, is something—just now watching it appear on stage for the first time—that I was able to appreciate in a whole new way.  It’s that same aesthetic you’re talking about.  And this also brings to mind something else you mentioned during our first weekend of rehearsals: how this dance is about unity but not conformity.                                       A balance of the individual and the community.

So, as both a dancer and a teacher, can you say anything about what that physical experience is like for you—of tapping into that spirit of the legacy?                    There is something ancestral about the experience when I am doing it.  I have a consciousness of those that have come before me and done this piece.

Is it like a conceptual consciousness? Or is it manifested in your body in any way? I know that’s a difficult thing to put into words—                                                                I think the consciousness translates physically.  I think the physicality affects the consciousness.  It goes both ways.  I don’t think it’s imposed.  I feel like it emerges in the experience and, without getting too metaphysical, you can feel the presence.  It’s like traveling through time somehow. …and it can be kind of transcendent in that way.

I think any dance experience can achieve that.                                                             It’s like a prayer.  It’s like an honoring, an offering.

You can understand why for centuries, across cultures, movement has been used in religious rituals and rites …the “trance state”…                                                   Right. And you think of maybe a fertility rite or puberty ritual and you dance this and twenty years later your daughter is doing it, or you see your granddaughter doing it and you remember.  You can remember and recall that experience but now you are seeing it from a different sphere of perception.

And do you feel that way when you watch the students you taught dancing it?           I do. Yeah, because I’ve been in this environment too, in college learning this dance.


Graham Technique & Me

In her autobiography, Blood Memory, Martha Graham wrote:

In those early days a favorite of mine, the critic Stark Young, said to a friend, ‘Must I join you at Martha’s dance concert tonight? All that percussive angular movementI am so afraid she’ll give birth to a cube.”

It’s true that the shapes made through Graham’s choreography are not the demurely graceful ones of classical ballet and the quality of movement created by her early technique is not classically feminine – that is, silken and smooth – either.

photo (7)

photo (4)During those first few weekends of rehearsals with Jennifer Conley, she spoke to the dancers about “shaping the space” with their bodies. This would be done through a focus on equal and opposite forces. I now know this to be an integral part of Graham technique, which involves isometric exercises designed to highlight and enhance the strength and power of the physical body.

I had no experience with Graham technique – and very limited experience with modern dance in general – before becoming involved with this project. Though I knew, conceptually, who Martha Graham was and what modern dance looked like, I had zero kinesthetic knowledge of this dance form. Therefore, to inform my documentation of Mawr Steps (and for my own edification and enjoyment!) I took part in the warm ups that Jennifer began each rehearsal with. These consisted of standard Graham technique floor work interspersed with exercises tailored more specifically to the choreography of Steps in the Street. I also took an Advanced Modern class during the first half of the semester, in which Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch was teaching Graham technique.

What did I learn about Graham technique through these experiences? The complexity of simple movement! Made so by those equal and opposite forces I mentioned earlier. Martha Graham developed her technique around the relationship between breath and emotion, which is embodied in her method of contraction and release. Breathing in is a release and breathing out, a contraction.

Carrie emphasizes to Dana Nichols the stillness of the torso in this exercise

Carrie emphasizes to Dana Nichols the stillness of the torso in this exercise



Articulation is through the torso in this language. The pelvis and the head must be the heaviest body parts – they work in opposition to open space and drive the movement.

The dancers in Carrie's class practice balancing/shifting weight while maintaining still, upright torsos

The dancers in Carrie’s class practice balancing/shifting weight while maintaining still, upright torsos





Graham wrote, in Blood Memory, of her first days in New York:

I walked to the Central Park Zoo and sat on a bench across from a lion in its cage…Finally, I learned to walk that way. I learned from the lion the inevitability of return, the shifting of one’s body.



In Jennifer’s words: “The goal of the contraction is expansion.” I found this prompt to be most important to the articulation of emotion and most challenging to physically accomplish.

There is more information about Martha Graham’s technique and the history of modern dance on the resources page of this blog as well as on the Graham Company website. Briefly, however, my experience of the Graham contraction after my first several days warming up with Jennifer and the dancers:

When the dancers begin moving across the floor I gracefully remove myself from the herd to watch in awe and surreptitiously practice my contracting and releasing while taking notes. Dancers, if you’ve noticed my observer’s look turn into one of consternation it is only because I am attempting to: engage new-found pelvic muscles, “scoop out” my abdomen AND effectively contract my sternum (what? yes.) without bringing my shoulders up to my ears. All of which I’m doing on an exhale, trying 1 – not to hold my breath and 2 – to actively expand my torso, opening up space between my vertebrae.


“…a newcomer, the Modern Dance.”

Below is a page from the Bryn Mawr College Yearbook, Class of 1939,  remarking upon the success of Bryn Mawr’s first Modern Dance classes:

modern dance class bmc1939y

via Bryn Mawr College, Special Collections

After a few weeks of laughter at the contortions and resulting aches of its devotees, the college began to be interested. …the Modern Dance is now given for credit, is self-supporting, and has an hour and place all its own.  Without doubt there is something fascinating about controlled but strenuous rhythmic movement.

(Special Collections Repository)


And from the same year, 1938-39: a film of Bonnie Bird, an early Graham Group dancer, demonstrating the beginnings of what would become Martha Graham’s codified technique.



Jennifer Conley: Technique

Jennifer and Hannah in a high release

Jennifer & Hannah Klein in a high release

…Continuing with the idea of legacy you also, when you were first introducing the dance, mentioned the concept of “tapping into the spirit” of the dance. I really felt that happen—I mean I saw it happen, that first full weekend—                                     They’re great! They’re really just open and willing, they’re not resisting at all. They’re just eating it right up.

Well that brings up a question I was going to ask later but this is a perfect segue. Can you say a little about your experience here at Bryn Mawr? Anything unique?     Well it’s a little different—in the process what’s a little different is that Mady [Cantor] has set it up so they’re going to get technique during the week, with Carrie [Ellmore-Tallitsch]—

I thought that was part of the “reconstruction package”—                                            No, no she wanted them to have the technique as well, in addition—and have it be available to people who aren’t in the cast as well, who want to just have some Graham classes—so there’s like a Graham residency going on—And I think that’s important, especially in this age, how far removed we are from Martha, that you get multiple voices on the technique.

…Are there only certain dances from her repertoire that are available for reconstruction?                                                                                                                The [Martha Graham] Center has a pretty clear idea of what translates well outside of the [Martha Graham Dance] Company—because the company is so well-versed in this very specific dance form—they are trained in it so that they can roll right into all of the aspects of the repertory.  Not everything translates onto bodies that aren’t trained with that same force.

These dances in the ‘30s are so accessible for people who aren’t trained in Graham because the dancers themselves, of the 1930s, they weren’t going to conservatories and training all day. They were working women. And Martha didn’t have years and years of a codified technique.  They were creating it together, so each of those dancers was contributing aspects to the technique and aspects to the pieces.  That’s the communal part of it.


Jennifer Conley: Spreading the Legacy

Jennifer guiding dancers through swirls of movement and history

Jennifer guiding dancers through the blur of movement and history

On Jennifer Conley’s last day of rehearsing with the dancers at Bryn Mawr I had the opportunity to sit down with her to talk about the process of “Mawr Steps” from her perspective — including her experience as a reconstructor and her own relationship with Steps in the Street as both a teacher as well as a dancer.

I plan to post our transcribed conversation as a series of (loosely themed) excerpts. The following is the first of these!


…So, I’m thinking about the process of reconstructing a Graham work and you as a ‘certified reconstructor’—how are you trained to do that?                                            That’s a good question. There’s no training.

Really?                                                                                                                                No, to be a regisseur with the Martha Graham Center is sort of an honor that’s bestowed on you—where there’s some kind of recognition that you’re capable of being articulate about the work, and capable of re-staging the work, because you’ve done the work. And you’ve done the work well. …Just because you’re a fantastic dancer doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be really good with the learning exchange that has to happen in the studio. It just so happens that I’ve always really been interested in that learning exchange, I’ve felt at home in that place, and the more I did as a performer, the more I felt I had to offer in the studio.

And the work—when you’re learning the technique and teaching at the school, the technique is so codified …with these titles like “exercise on six twos” or “the deep stretches in fours” …But that’s kind of ironic because Martha herself never set out to create a technique. The technique was there to serve the movement she was creating, to serve her choreographic vision. And so when she first started they were doing a lot of walking, and a lot of falling and a lot of skipping.

And you have been instructed by the people who had that experience firsthand—so you are only ‘once removed’ from Martha herself?                                                       Absolutely.

The first day that we met you used the word “torchbearer”— I was wondering how you feel in terms of the privilege and the responsibility of carrying Graham’s legacy forward, and also how you’ve experienced this from your own teachers.                  There is a great responsibility, and it is a privilege and I am honored to be able to stage the work. To know that Mady [Cantor] contacts the Martha Graham Center and then the Martha Graham Center contacts me—that my name gets offered…

I don’t think of myself as a torchbearer. Pearl Lang, she danced in the company for 15 years, she danced a huge breadth of roles, she taught at the school for ages—I mean, when I engaged with her she was already in her 80’s, so there’s a certain—I reserve a certain level or stature in experience, in life experience, to be a torchbearer, so I may be a torchbearer in training—[laughing] I carry a very sturdy candle—

Because there is some unique role that you are playing, spreading the legacy— Yeah, absolutely, and there’s—I like the torch metaphor because you’re talking about igniting something in the minds and hearts of others. So that they can carry it on, illuminate something in their own lives in some way.

So from Day 1 I like to let people know that this work exists because of the chain of people who have continued to be interested in it. Otherwise it would have died with Martha when she passed away. It would have died with her when she stopped dancing if she could have had her way.

Right! Can you say a little more about that?                                                                 She wasn’t interested in these old dances. This was the past to her and like most visionary artists they’re focused on the now and what’s next. So the effort to do these reconstructions of the dances from the 1930s really came about by those who were closest to her in the 1980s…

And [they were able to] bring in some of those [original Graham Group] dancers – like Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley – to sit there and say, “Well I remember doing it this way!” …”Well no it was never like this, it was like that!” …with body memories that are coming up from the 1930s, [dancers] who are remembering what it was like to dance this dance… 50 years earlier.

And that’s that historical lineage and fabric that we are now a part of—I’m a part of it, and now I’m working with you and now you’re a part of it too.


Riegger’s “New Dance” and the Patterned Whole

As I reflect further on last week’s rehearsal – the first we’ve had in the auditorium of Goodhart Hall – I realize that the beauty of the “wholeness” I appreciated in watching Steps in the Street performed on the stage was derived in part from my experience of the rhythms and patterns of the work in this new, elevated (both literally and figuratively) context.

Over the course of the day the dancers rehearsed the piece in its entirety with the music many times, becoming more closely acquainted with the mixed meters of Wallingford Riegger’s modernist composition. Because the form of the musical score makes counting each measure more complicated the dancers have learned to rely at times on the sound of each other’s steps to cue transitions in movement (as opposed to the beat of the music), so an entrance may fluidly follow the preceding exit. The way the dancers have made adjustments together, as an ensemble, to negotiate this dissonance – between the rhythmic patterns of the sound and those of the movement – highlights, once again, the themes of interdependence and relatedness that exist within this piece. The dancers’ reliance on one another exposes the way in which each entrance relies on an exit in order to continue the dance.

Without having my attention drawn to these structural details, I wouldn’t have seen the delicate balance that exists through Steps in the Street – the elegant way its unique parts together create a cohesive whole.

Listen to Riegger’s musical score and then imagine keeping time to this music while contracting all of your muscles and spinning backwards on tiptoe!


The End of The Beginning

This past Saturday marked both the first opportunity the dancers had to rehearse on the stage of the McPherson Auditorium in Goodhart Hall, where the performances will be held, as well as the last day they will spend rehearsing with Jennifer Conley before she returns for the performances at the end of April. My greatest take-away from this “end of the beginning” was an experience of wholeness – I guess it could be considered the spirit of the mass more completely accessed right before my eyes. By this I mean I felt a strengthened bond between the dancers of the ensemble that was evident in their movements. I also found a new appreciation for the dance itself as a complete entity, instead of a series of deconstructed parts – and this was, I’m sure, influenced by both the unity of the dancers and the way my view was framed by the stage.

After the warm-up Jennifer had the dancers focus on some of the more challenging entrances – moments that are difficult due to a combination of exacting form, limited time and complex staging. So, they lined up and moved across the stage, row by row, back and forth.

Here they come - Sofia, Alexandra Adams, Joie, Michelle - rehearsing spiral lunges. The next row is prepared to follow, with arms in place and hands cupped.

Here they come – Sofia, Alexandra Adams, Joie, Michelle – rehearsing spiral lunges. The next row is prepared to follow, with arms in place and hands cupped.


The dancers rehearse the "zombie walk" while Jennifer [far right] uses Joie to demonstrate the sensation of opposing forces this movement should conjure. Here, the dancers are pushing forward through air thick with remembered sorrows.

The dancers rehearse the “zombie walk” while Jennifer [far right] uses Joie to demonstrate the sensation of opposing forces this movement should conjure. Here, the dancers are pushing forward through air thick with remembered sorrows.

Below, the beautiful bourrées (for which I provided a portion of the staging map here), which require the dancers to twirl backwards in an interweaving pattern across the stage, covering a significant amount of space very quickly.

Preparation (anticipation!)

Preparation (anticipation!)

And then but a blur.

Then but a blur.

And quickly following:




And go!

And go!