Criterion Sunday 406: “Martha Graham: Dance on Film”

There are three films in this collection, each around half an hour in length and made for American public television at a time when this kind of programming was possible. The first, A Dancer’s World (1957) is intended as an introduction to the Martha Graham Dance Company and her place in American dance, something I appreciate given my lack of knowledge of this major area of cultural work. Dance always seemed rather forbidding to me, and even if it’s more often seen on-screen nowadays in its contemporary street dance varieties, it still has a beauty and sophistication that is only amplified by the ballet-like compositions seen here. Graham narrates while fixing her make-up and costume in the dressing room; she introduces her company who enter the dance studio to illustrate some techniques, but it’s presented as a sequence with only the barest commentary. Instead, it’s the dancers’ limbs and actions that provide the context, with Graham delivering in his imperious way the diktats of her craft: control over the body, the elevation of the genius through a decade or more of practise. And in the end, for all her own resistance to filming it, and the fact this was made for public TV, the effect is rather cinematic after all, elegant yet mysterious.

The other two films are productions of her work presented without commentary (or any contextualisation or, indeed, any speaking at all). I don’t know how Appalachian Spring (1958) ranks as a film; it’s clearly a filmed piece of staged dance theatre and while certainly the blocking has been done with an eye towards its reproduction on screen, it’s still essentially a stage piece. That said, this is the kind of thing, a strange curio that stands somewhat to the side of the film history, which intrigues me, because it mainly exists to showcase the work of pioneering dancer, choreographer and artist Martha Graham to a wider world. She’s technically too old to be playing this role of a new bride (having entered her 60s), but avoiding close-ups alongside the modernist staging means it works perfectly fine. The language of dance, though, quite aside from the language of cinema, is its own thing and is rather opaque to me, but it seems that within these movements and this choreography, the motion of bodies, the gestures and contortions, there’s an entire world of feeling. There’s a certain awe to watching the long loose limbs of Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, so elegant (glamorous even) and so aware at every moment of how her motion will affect her clothing or how she interacts with those around her, or the gentle little skips of Bertram Ross’s Preacher, and soon enough it’s all over because this is still just 32 minutes in length, but it’s a lovely 32 minutes.

The final of the three is Night Journey (1960). I found this filmed performance less successful than Appalachian Spring, though I remain as yet without any significant status as a dance expert. There is so much that is mysterious to me about the form, but somehow this piece, derived from the story of Oedipus and Jocasta via Sophocles, seems a little bit more mannered, or perhaps Graham’s movements feel a little stiffer — though that may be as much to do with the subject matter, the studied formality of the tragedic mode. But then the group of chorus dancers come in, and somehow they create a sense of wonder, seemingly floating above the stiffness of the tragedy, so long and thin and with such easy movements. However, it certainly makes an impression as part of a trilogy of three films about Graham and her work.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a large number of extras which contextualise the work of Martha Graham, which is just as well for me. Perhaps the most illuminating on the first disc is a comparison piece by dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt, which contrasts the 1958 filmed version with a silent 16mm film made in 1944, starring Merce Cunningham as the Preacher. Jowitt is very good at detailing how the gestures and movements are supposed to come across, and what changes were made for the filming, and it becomes rather engrossing, bringing out details that my untrained eye was unable to detect the first time around.
  • Another extra is a short few minutes’ excerpt from a TV programme (perhaps from the 1970s or 80s) in which composer Aaron Copland touches on Appalachian Spring and his work with Graham.
  • Aside from Graham, the other important figure in these films is producer Nathan Kroll, who negotiated with Graham to get her on screen, and who tells the story of working with her to realise this three-part project. We only hear his words, but they are illustrated by stills and clips from the films.
  • There’s a bit more about Kroll in a 12-minute interview with Ron Simon, who discusses Kroll’s important place in television. His work with Graham was just part of an interest in masterclasses with key cultural figures (like cellist Pablo Casals, or opera singer Luciano Pavarotti), showing a deep and abiding interest in how masters of their art teach students. Kroll himself was it seems a thwarted violinist and wanted to imagine himself via these surrogates as an expert of sorts.
  • The first disc is rounded out by interviews with the two editors who worked on the three films, Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham, who speak about their work on the films and also touch on why women were so frequently found as editors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 14 March 2021.

A Dancer’s World (1957)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writers Martha Graham and LeRoy Leatherman; Starring Martha Graham; Length 31 minutes.

Appalachian Spring (1958)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writer Martha Graham; Starring Martha Graham, Matt Turney, Bertram Ross; Length 32 minutes.

Night Journey (1960)
Director Alexander Hammid; Cinematographer Stanley Meredith; Starring Martha Graham, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor; Length 30 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS at home, Wellington).