Sunday, April 24, 2011

Letter: Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille

This is for all the performers out there. A bit of nostalgia and inspiration, if you will.

Martha Graham is widely considered as the Picasso of modern dance. She was the first dancer ever to perform at The White House, the first international cultural ambassador for dance in the U.S, and the first dancer to join a long list of 'movers and shakers' such as Mother Theresa and Stephen Hawking as a recipient of the Medal of Freedom.

Growing up in a family who didn't want her to pursue a career in the performing arts, Martha Graham was a dancer until the day she passed at 96 in 1991. The Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America.

Agnes de Mille was a lifelong friend of Martha Graham. She wanted to be an actress but was told she wasn't pretty enough, so she pursued dance. Her parents also disproved of dance as a career path so Agnes de Mille taught herself from watching movie stars on Hollywood sets where her father worked as a director.

De Mille went on to choreograph the dream ballet sequence in one of the first Broadway musicals, Oklahoma!, in 1943. She revolutionised musical theatre by combining her love of acting with choreography in a way that conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters instead of only focusing on a dancer's physical technique.

Both were inspirational women who embraced their individuality and pursued their passions.

Yet, like everyone, there were times when they lacked self-belief and needed encouraging words to spur them on in their journey.

On one occasion while at dinner with Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille expressed her confusion over why she found success in Oklahoma! (which she felt was only "fairly good") after years of neglect for work she thought was much better.

She told Graham (documented in book Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham):
I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. ... I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.
Graham responded, very quietly:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
These words have had a deep resonance with performers around the world for decades. They speak to the artist who knows they have a spark within them but need the courage to let it shine and keep it burning.

May Martha Graham's advice to Agnes de Mille half a century ago provide consolation to the artist who is on a lifelong mission to achieve fulfillment through their craft.

...and Happy Easter to you all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank-you Martha Graham for your wisdom and insight(which live on). We are indeed unique-one of a kind, all of us,and so we offer our creations be they dance,music,art,writing or other, to one another remembering also that there is only one of us(there is no separation between artist and audience-our energies inextricably intertwined in a weave of many colours.