Dancer and Designer: Martha Graham + Isamu Noguchi

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Martha Graham

Appalachian Spring by Jerry Cooke/Corbis

Of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, three adjectives come to mind:

prophetic, prolific, determined. Graham was the daughter of a psychology doctor who was interested in the ways in which “people used their bodies.”* It seems inevitable that she would dedicate her life in a similar, if not parallel, direction.

As a dancer, Graham was continually evolving and exceeding the boundaries of traditional dance. She was famous for her collaborations with other artists and composers like Pulitzer Prize-winning Aaron Copland and Gian Carlo Menotti. Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was another such notable partner as a set designer for many of her works.

For Appalachian Spring (with a Copland score), Noguchi’s set was based from early notes Graham had made. She said: “I see the framework of a doorway, the platform of a porch, a Shaker rocking chair with its exquisite bonelike simplicity, and a small fence that should signify what a fence means in a new country.”

Martha Graham

Courtesy of the Noguchi Museum

These dance environments were a revolutionary use of stage space, because it was pared down—no frilly landscape backdrops—yet three dimensional, where dancers were able to move about the set pieces. Of working with Graham, Noguchi said, “It was for me the genesis of an idea—to wed the total void of theater space to form and action.”

Last week, the Martha Graham Dance Company commemorated its 85th season at Lincoln Center, highlighting three Noguchi-Graham collaborations—Embattled Garden (1958), Cave of the Heart (1947) and Appalachian Spring (1944). Additionally, up now at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City is On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and his Contemporaries, 1922-1960, through April 24, which highlights his work with Graham, in addition to a slew of other artists.

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