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Frieze Week New York 2024

On Point: Martha Graham’s Perfect Partnership with Isamu Noguchi

The choreographer’s centenary season features a focus on her many collaborations with the iconic Japanese-American polymath 

BY Marina Harss in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 01 MAY 24

Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham met in the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village in the late 1920s. Graham was a dancer-choreographer in her early thirties, still in the process of creating her revolutionary dance technique, which would turn the body into an expressive instrument, and her dances into probing portraits of the human mind. Noguchi, ten years her junior, was an American-born sculptor of Japanese lineage, attracted to abstraction but still working in a mode closer to Auguste Rodin than to that of his hero, Constantin Brâncuși. The two artists lived in overlapping milieux. Noguchi was friendly with the Japanese avant-garde choreographer Michio Itō, who was teaching at the school where Graham taught early on, and Noguchi’s sister became one of Graham’s pupils and an early member of her troupe. He was fascinated by Graham’s classes, and the new movements she was developing. 

Below Martha Graham, Errand into the Maze , 1947, set design by Isamu Noguchi. Courtesy: Historical Picture Archive/Alamy
Martha Graham, Errand into the Maze, 1947, set design by Isamu Noguchi. Courtesy Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

They were drawn to each other. In 1930, Noguchi created two busts of Graham for a one-man-show he presented at the Marie Sterner Gallery on East 57th Street. And though Graham wasn’t crazy about them, she kept him in mind. When she decided, for the first time, to use a set in one of her dances, the 1935 solo “Frontier,” it was Noguchi she turned to. For this piece about a strong but vulnerable woman imagining her life in the vast space of the western frontier, Noguchi created an amazingly simple and effective set: a section of wooden fence, and behind it two ropes that formed a V—a kind of abstracted perspective. Both the dance and the setting expressed hope, spaciousness, purpose. 

Like Graham, Noguchi felt like an outsider, forging new ground.

“I realized then,” Noguchi wrote later, “that the sense of vastness could be accomplished through such simple means, by the placement and proportion of things, by the lighting, by the use to which these are put in the dance.” Here, finally, was the abstraction he had been edging toward. This urge to find the most economical, direct and evocative way to express an idea became one of the driving principles of their collaboration. Graham was doing the same thing with movement. Her “Contraction and Release” technique, which carved out the torso through the expelling of breath, was not concerned with presenting the body in a particular way, as ballet is. Rather, it was a physicalized process for accessing the emotion and vibration contained within the body. “There is a moment between contraction and a release that must say something either of joy or of sorrow,” Graham told her students. She was looking for truth in movement. (Or at least, her truth.) 

Noguchi went through a parallel process, developing a spare but symbolically rich visual language. Using just a few elements, he created landscapes in which Graham’s ideas could unfold. In the famous “Appalachian Spring” (1944), which the Martha Graham Dance Company performed in April 2024 as part of the first season of its “Graham100” celebrations spanning three years, the landscape was, once again, an evocation of the western frontier. A fence, the skeleton of a house, a porch, the shell of a rocking chair, a two-dimensional boulder. That was all the dancers needed in order to tell their story. A preacher stands on the tilted side of the boulder, like a self-righteous statue; a straight-backed woman sits on a rocking chair overlooking her domain, remembering, thinking, praying; a young couple dances its hopes and fears in the space behind a fence. The set tells us everything we need to know about who and where they are. 

Opposite Martha Graham, Cave of the Heart , 1946, set design by Isamu Noguchi. Courtesy: Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Martha Graham, Cave of the Heart, 1946, set design by Isamu Noguchi. Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Later, as Graham’s interest in Greek myth and Jungian analysis grew, her dances became more focused on the inner lives of her characters, and in particular that of the main character, usually danced by her. (Graham retired from the stage in 1970, aged 76.) Noguchi evolved in tandem. As Deborah Jowitt puts it in her new biography of Graham, Errand into the Maze, “beginning in 1946 her dances seldom unfurled along a timeline in a specific place, and Noguchi’s sculptures became the furnishings of a woman’s mind.” For “Cave of the Heart” (1946), inspired by the story of Medea, who killed her children to protest against her husband Jason’s infidelity, Noguchi fashioned a structure of metal wires that at first looks like a prickly bush. In fact, after she has done the hideous deed, Medea (Graham) steps into this structure and stands encased within its sharp-pointed lattice. The metal cage becomes an extension of her body, each trembling wire an expression of her seething hatred.  

“Errand into the Maze,” choreographed the following year, is based on the myth of Theseus. In the original story, Ariadne accompanies Theseus into the minotaur’s labyrinth, but in Graham’s dance, Ariadne enters the labyrinth and conquers the minotaur alone. The dance becomes a metaphor for a woman overcoming her own fears. Noguchi provided essential elements. For the minotaur, he created a moon-like headpiece representing the horns of this cross between a man and a bull. A pole held across the dancer’s shoulders represents the minotaur’s broad haunches and chest. But the pole also affects the way the male dancer moves, rendering him strange, almost monstrous. And for the entrance to the labyrinth, Noguchi designed what Jowitt describes as “a V-shaped portal that could be interpreted as a vulva.” Internal and external space became one. 

Noguchi was not the only person Graham struck in a moment of fury.

What rendered Graham and Noguchi’s collaborations so striking and so “right” was that the two seemed to think in parallel ways. They shared an elastic sense of space and time, borrowed in part from their common interest in Japanese noh theater. The narrative in Graham’s works is never linear; the events unfolding onstage might take place in an instant, or over a long period; they might exist within a real place, as in “Appalachian Spring,” or in memory or the unconscious, as in “Dark Meadow” (1946) or “Night Journey” (1947). Noguchi understood this, and created set pieces that were neither realistic nor completely untethered from reality. Like Graham, he had an interest in the mythical and the ancient. Like her, he felt like an outsider, forging new ground. 

The two were kindred spirits, though they didn’t always get along. Graham had an explosive, even violent, temper. Her biographer Neil Baldwin recounts a moment in which, enraged, Graham slapped Noguchi across the face during the creation of “Cave of the Heart.” (Noguchi was not the only person Graham struck in a moment of fury.) Still, they made more than 20 dances together, many of them among her most important works, including “Chronicle” (1936), “Hérodiade” (1944) and “Clytemnestra” (1958), as well as the last dance she appeared in, “Cortege of Eagles” (1967). 

For many in the audience, the aesthetics of these two collaborators have become vitally connected, as if one could not exist without the other. Noguchi was, in a way, Graham’s best dance partner. 

On May 2, Appalachian Spring will be highlighted in the company’s “GrahamDeconstructed” series at Martha Graham Studio Theater, New York, USA. For the full program, visit: marthagraham.org

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “On Point.”

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Main image: Martha Graham, Cave of the Heart, 1946, set design by Isamu Noguchi. Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Marina Harss is a dance writer based in New York, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Dance Magazine, and the author of a biography of Alexei Ratmansky, The Boy from Kyiv, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.