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Rejecting Artifice, Advancing Art: The Dance Criticism of John Martin Siobhan Burke

American modern dance was in the vulnerable, defensive stages of its early development when John Martin began writing for The New York Times in 1927. The fearless pioneer and future legend Martha Graham had given her first performance just one year before to an audience that Martin described as closed-minded and indifferent. In the following two years, Graham, along with Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm—who collectively constituted the historical "Big Four" of the 1930's—debuted to similar disapproval. In the familiar, colloquial tone of his oral history, which, in subtler shades, enlivened much of his criticism, Martin recalled that "the press and everybody else didn't know what it was all about." He remarked,

They thought it was another crazy art fad, or 'what will they think up next.'. . . The people said, 'Oh, for heaven's sake, why struggle with Martha Graham? Go and see Swan Lake.' It was easier . . .. You didn't have to struggle; . . . It wasn't an austere art; it wasn't a protest; it wasn't acceptance; it was entertainment. [1]

Martin was not interested in entertainment. Spending his early career in experimental theatre, he had eschewed the realm of "show business" that in his view was threatening to devour the art of drama. Something similar was happening in dance, but with a significant difference: the art of dance was not being demolished, it was only being born, and it would require Martin's patience, devotion, and intricacy of thought to sustain it.

Martin arrived at the dance section of the Times—an afterthought, in those days, to the music section—by way of his passion for the other performing arts. Born in 1893 in Louisville, Kentucky, he studied classics at the University of Louisville and violin at the Chicago Conservatory. [2] His active involvement in progressive theater, first with the Chicago Little Theatre and then in New York, foreshadowed the tradition-defying role he would play in dance. In the 1920's the performance theories of the avant-garde director Konstantin Stanislavsky were just taking root in the United States. The "vital link" between the Russian Stanislavsky and the American theater scene was Richard Boleslavsky, the founder of the Laboratory Theater in New York, where Martin served as executive director from 1924 to 1926. [3] Taking a vital interest in the Stanislavsky approach to acting, which defined emotional memory as the basis of physical expression, Martin perceived similar methods in the work of New York's fledgling modern dancers. When he learned through a mutual friend that Olin Down, a music critic at the Times, felt overworked from reviewing both dance and music, Martin put in an application to cover the dance reviews. Down asked him to help out for six months, and Martin stayed for thirty-five years. [4]

As the first dance critic to develop practical theories of performance, composition, and spectatorship—and to voice them in print—Martin helped to bring the "esoteric" modern dance into the skeptical public light. [5] Constructing his support for the form in opposition to Europe's "decadent" ballet tradition, particularly during the first two decades of his career, he established its legitimacy as a purer, more "American" art, an embodiment of the national spirit. [6] In his emphasis on "the organic," however, Martin would encounter one of his greatest shortcomings as a critic, a racial essentialism that excluded the black dancing body from his "universal" theories of art.

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Siobhan Burke is a senior at Barnard College. She is working toward a B.A. in American Studies with a concentration in Dance.

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