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Noguchi and Graham: A Pas de Deux

ART TIMES March, 2005

Bertram Ross, Matt Turney, Yuriko, and Glen Tetley w/Noguchi set for "Embattled Garden" 1958 (Sam Frank Photo, Courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance).

For the performer, to dance is an exhilarating process that transforms her or him. To dance accompanied by music deepens the experience. To be able to sculpt the movements of the body around or in relation to a magnificent piece of sculpture not only intensifies the creative experience, it can, at its best, eliminate the boundaries between art forms. Dance and sculpture, after all, share a sense of weight, of three dimensionality, of texture, of the kinetic participation of the viewer and of the ability to do without words.

The sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the dancer/choreographer Martha Graham collaborated on nineteen productions over forty years and enjoyed an even longer friendship. The results of this partnership, which explored and changed the use of space for both artists, may be seen in the exhibition “Noguchi and Graham: Selected Works for Dance” at the Noguchi Museum in Queens until May 1. Some of the dances may be seen at City Center when the Graham Company performs, April 6-17.

Both the visual artist and the choreographer transform space. When they collaborate they are transforming – or in some instances actually creating – a performance space.  In all the theater they created together Noguchi and Graham worked on shaping the environment in order to communicate to their audience. This exhibition features his contributions to nine of her dances and has been arranged to display his sets as distinctive works of art. They are arranged according to the elements of Noguchi’s aesthetic. In the last gallery there are photographs and complete videos of the nine dances, showing the performers, among them Graham, and their interaction with the sculpture.

This close collaboration was a high point in the evolution of modern dance. Graham once said, “Without Isamu Noguchi I could have done nothing … Always he has given me something that lived on stage as … another dancer.”  Their relationship, usually agitated and rarely peaceful, reached a point where there was no real contact between them for several years. But as Francis Mason, chairman of the Board of the Graham Foundation, said, “She always wanted something more, he something less.” Together they changed her approach to dance as theater and his role as a sculptor who crossed over many design borders.

Often his creations or his arrangements of them on stage made her think differently, sometimes resulting in the elimination of choreographed movements and the search for a fresh approach. Both could be creatively flexible and often fed off each other, making discoveries and changes along the way. She would tell him her approach or philosophy in a piece and he would create the sets. Sometimes she would rearrange them, turn them around or implement them with items from another work he designed. She tried to give him freedom and the result was often a piece of sculpture to which she would then have to adapt her dance — a task she willingly undertook. His sculptures helped express the ideas behind her dances and her movement gave his work another life on stage.

Noguchi’s designs suggested an abstract location and created an environment in which the sculpture and the dancers could interact, thereby introducing a style that became an integral part of Graham’s theater. It may also be seen in his numerous other sculptures. Their partnership had a spiritual and psychological component regarding the relationship of the moving figures to the objects and props on stage that both they and the performers felt.

Martha Graham in "Frontier" ca. 1935 (Barbara Morgan Photo, Courtesy Willard and Barbara Morgan Archives).

“Frontier” (1935) was the first product of the almost symbiotic method employed by the two artists and the first piece where Graham used a set. The small split rail fence, mounted on two A frames, is anchored from behind by two thick ropes that extend upward toward the audience. This effectively outlines the space, sending it soaring into infinity rather than closing it in. This was described by Noguchi as  “ the point of departure for all my subsequent theater work; space became a volume to be dealt with sculpturally.”  

The dance is an abstract solo in which the performer gazes into some far off horizon. The powerful lines of the movement initially seem to come from the horizontal strength of the set, although each has an existence of its own. Graham wrote that from this first time she would give Noguchi an idea and he would create a work that had “something of a strange beauty and other worldliness.”

An example of how Noguchi defined space with his sets is the bed in “Night Journey” (1947). This bed looks like no other bed. Seen at an angle, it was inspired by the contours of a woman’s pelvis. The dance, based on the Oedipus tale, is told from Jocasta’s point of view at the moment she is about to hang herself with a rope that, in a flashback, is also an umbilical cord. At one point she and Oedipus climb in and out of the different negative spaces in the bed, which has a very organic quality and a roundness, although it looks hard.   Here, the sculpture is almost an extension of the body. There is also a small throne and a series of different shaped steps that increase in height as they span the stage, representing the journey of Oedipus into Thebes. The sensuality, strength and despair expressed in the movement seem to come out of and go back into the sculpture.

The “Embattled Garden” (1958) is Eden, but in Graham’s version it is not idyllic, innocent or loving. The four characters – Adam, Eve, Lilith, the Serpent – inhabit a multicolored, raked platform with as much empty space as support, sharing the stage with a striped tree of knowledge. Noguchi described this as “… a reduction of a garden … like an apple cut in half … One dances within the apple where these weeds are sprouting. They shake.”

The “weeds,” extending upright from the platform and horizontally from the tree, are rattan rods that move and shake in response to the movements of the dancers as they stalk or writhe among them or climb the tree. This is a stunning work of carnal knowledge.

Noguchi’s sets, meant to be danced in, on and around, are a challenge to dancers. Janet Eilber, a former Graham dancer, writes of their power as obstacles that could be “bone-achingly uncomfortable,” requiring flinging, perching, scrambling, writhing and balancing, that serve to intensify the dancers’ ability to communicate certain emotions. She says, “It takes considerable energy and artistry to share the stage with and match the power of a Noguchi masterpiece. Inspired by his genius, each dancer strives to create a presence that is equally evocative and potent.”

As in these and the other six works shown, each dance is displayed in a defined space of its own. The signage is excellent, giving relevant dates, composer, lighting designer and the number of dancers. There is also an illustrated explanation regarding each of the objects in the dance, including jewelry, plus a few comments, usually from either Graham or Noguchi. To be able to see the photographs and the videos completes this rich and moving experience, because, although the sculptures are wonderful by themselves, they were intended to be seen on a lighted stage with dancers. The young dancers in the current Graham Company face an inspiring challenge.

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