If you think dance is difficult to do, try writing about it. And if you think writing about dance is hard to do, try selling a collection of 1950s television broadcasts centering around the art of dance to Criterion’s resident demographic of hard-line cinephiles, most of whom just barely give passing attention to the angular thrusts of Bob Fosse and the tappa-tappa of the golden age of musicals. Martha Graham: Dance on Film is one of the most specialized releases in Criterion’s already pretty exclusive legacy. It contains a trio of half-hour programs originally meant for arts television but which certainly qualify as cinema. Even if you don’t know a fouetté from a Frappuccino, you could also look at this disc as a move toward understanding the role of Nathan Kroll and, by extension, a number of other TV impresarios from an auteurist perspective.
By showcasing his uncompromising, high-minded TV work in the disc’s bonus features, Criterion posits Kroll as a sort of “best case scenario” for the boob tube. That said, this is Graham’s show. In 1957’s A Dancer’s World, Graham appears rigid, almost querulous as she sits in front of a dressing room mirror and deliberately dons her costume as Jocasta. (Indeed, she probably was beyond querulous, as she was coaxed back on set at the last minute after getting camera shy and bolting for her real dressing room.) Graham waxes philosophical about the nature of dance, performance, movement, and flexibility while members of her dance troupe execute floor exercises and routines. If it sounds a tad dry and pretentious, it is, but both Graham and Kroll have to be given credit for not trying to dumb down their approach. If they’re preaching to the converted, it also allows them the freedom to revel in the artistry of their respective crafts. The result is a lot closer to pure cinema than most narrative features I’ve seen, but the collaboration between Kroll and Graham continued with two subsequent short films, each presenting one of Graham’s redoubtable, touchstone works of choreography.
They also feature Graham in the Norma Desmond era of her career, blithely playing the ingénue role in 1958’s Appalachian Spring of a young bride of the Old West. If Graham’s work as a dancer doesn’t quite match up against her reputation, the choreography is as undeniable as Aaron Copeland’s pastoral score. The spare presentation and minimal art direction serves three important functions: it homes in on the audience’s attention on the dancers, it speaks on behalf of Graham’s bride character in her tentative attitude toward her impending motherhood, and it suggests the wide open expanses of the untamed countryside. If Appalachian Spring occasionally lapses into cornpone Americana, 1961’s Night Journey is unremittingly serious-minded. A ballet interpretation of Oedipus Rex, the Kroll-produced TV version of Graham’s piece could’ve easily been no more than an example of how the early days of mass media led to attempts to form a Time-Life canon of the classics. But the roving cinematography, William Shuman’s ominous musical accompaniment, and Graham’s wildly sensual, hyper-modern choreography resist easy categorization. Even today, Night Journey is terrifying and sexual, a combination that befits Graham’s technique of “contractions,” in which the bodies of her dancers are in constant flux between tension and release.
My hunch is that all three films haven't had much residual life in reruns, so it's not particularly surprising that they all look basically pristine, given the low-budget constraints of the format. They're all pictureboxed, which bugs me now that I have a TV set that eliminates overscan, but that's about the worst thing I can say. The music isn't as successful, predictably. Appalachian Spring has probably never sounded more cramped.
Fans of both Graham (many) and Kroll (likely few) will find much to pore over in this double-disc set. There's a veritable ton of extra features here, more than listing will do justice, but I'll highlight one of my favorites: a comparison of Appalachian Spring against an archival performance featuring Graham in her prime, with helpful commentary from dance critic Deborah Jowitt noting the many subtle differences between the two versions. Also of note is a collection of present-day interviews with many members of Graham's troupe.
If you don't see cinema in these three short films, go take a flying jeté.