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

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John Martin, even at the height of his critical passion, stayed true to one basic, pragmatic truth: if modern dance was to survive past its adolescence, it would require the general interest and financial support of a broad audience. Ten years after Graham's debut, when Martin published his 1936 book America Dancing, he claimed that contemporary dance remained "the source of nothing but tittering and bewilderment to the average man." [7] Most spectators, hungry for glamorous spectacle and narrative suspense, found neither in modern dance. Throughout the 1930's, they continued to react with the "common accusation" that there was "no power of beauty" in the form. Martin, however, firmly denied this claim, drawing attention to the flawed "aesthetic sensibilities" of the viewer:

The misapprehension arises from a narrow application of certain essentials of art—form, rhythm, beauty. The man whose aesthetic sensibilities are slight, either through natural disinclination or underdevelopment, looks for one of two things when he approaches a work of art—either an intellectual rationalism expressed in literary allusions as a rule, or sensual satisfaction. Neither of these has anything to do with the functions of art. [8]

The perceived ugliness of modern dance, then, was merely a symptom of the limitations of "individual minds," which preferred easily-digestible narrative ("literary allusions") or vibrant spectacle ("sensual satisfaction") over less "literal," less "beautiful" modern works.

Writing for the general public, and deeply moved by the art they so frivolously rejected, Martin took it upon himself to remedy this "misapprehension," to mediate between the presumed inaccessibility of "new dance" and the unfortunate crudities of popular taste. As he recalls in his oral history, "Once I became intrigued by the modern dance I was all for it . . . . I thought it was a great art manifestation, and I felt that it was my business . . . to build an audience for this art." [9] Dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen reaffirmed this when she wrote, "Martin had a mission: to 'open the eyes' of the audience, to get them to see the significance of this new dance that was often not pretty and that often told them truths they did not especially want to hear." [10]

In pursuing this mission, Martin never lowered his critical standards, nor did he encourage artists to cater to public sentiment; rather, he aimed diplomatically to elevate the popular sensibility toward a deeper understanding of modern dance. Challenging the notion that the art was impenetrably difficult, he insisted on the innate interpretive capacities of each viewer and provided the theoretical tools he thought necessary for a full appreciation of dance. America Dancing contains two "Layman's Guides" with the aim of building an enlightened spectatorship: "How Not to Look at Dancing" and "How to Look at Dancing." Here, and elsewhere in greater intricacy, Martin developed a complex theory of receptivity that broke down the intellectual hierarchy between artist and spectator, placing them on level planes of human experience and suggesting that they could, indeed, relate to one another. The modern dancer was not the spectator's antagonist, but at the same time, the spectator could not remain a passive or gluttonous recipient. Martin believed that the act of viewing dance, just like performing it, required work. Perhaps most interesting was his belief that this type of labor relied less on the everyday, rational processes of the brain and more on the emotional awareness of the sensual, material body.

According to Martin, art was not "a high achievement that the lowly people must be led to . . . . The artist is also a member of the general public, and his experience is a common experience." [11] The role of the artist, he believed, was to convey a universal human experience through the lens of a personal "point of view," which would reveal to viewers "some new, unintellectualized truth" about a collectively familiar subject. [12] As he wrote in his 1939 Introduction to the Dance, "It is [the artist's] purpose . . . to arouse us to feel a certain emotion about a particular object or situation. He wants to change our feeling about something, to increase our experience, to lead us from some habitual reaction . . . to a new reaction which has an awareness of life in it and is liberating and beneficent." [13] This is what Martin meant when he asserted, more succinctly, that "good art speaks directly from its creator's emotions to our own." [14] Essentially, art should communicate something meaningful and real between artist and spectator. But how, exactly, did this transference of emotion take place? This was one of Martin's major critical concerns, which he addressed through the concept of metakinesis.

Martin believed that the process of retrieving "meaning" from dance required two people, that is, two material bodies, each with a unique emotional past: the performer and the spectator. To interpret a choreographed work was not a process of mental, intellectual rigor but one of naturally-occurring kinetic transfer, the transmission of "movement sense" from body to body. As he wrote in Introduction to the Dance, "not only does the dancer employ movement to express his ideas, but, strange as it may seem, the spectator must also employ movement in order to respond to the dancer's intention and understand what he is trying to convey." [15] Martin theorized that the viewer of dance engaged in an "inner mimicry" of the movement onstage, essentially internalizing the dance into his own neuromuscular system. The initial act of perception took place through the external senses, a passive absorption of spectacle and sound through the eyes and ears; this evolved, however, into a feeling deep within the spectator's own body, through what Martin called the "sixth sense" of "muscular sympathy." [16]

Relying on the belief that movement was the basis of all human experience—that our emotional memories were, at their core, muscular memories—Martin hypothesized that the inner mimicry of the dancer's movement would necessarily evoke an emotional memory, or "associational connotation," in the spectator. This is what gave meaning to a dance, allowing the viewer to relate emotionally to the action on stage, to look back at the work of art through his own lens of personal experience. Summarizing this theory in America Dancing, Martin wrote:

What, then, is the means of contact between the dancer and the spectator? When we see a human body moving, we see movement which is potentially producible by a human body and therefore by our own; through kinesthetic sympathy we actually reproduce it vicariously in our present muscular experience and awaken such associational connotations as might have been ours if the original movement had been of our own making. The irreducible minimum of equipment demanded of a spectator, therefore, is a kinesthetic sense in working condition. [17]

The spectator, Martin suggested, could put an end to his mental struggle with the allegedly confounding, inaccessible art of modern dance. Art was to be experienced not through the mind, but through the "irrational" parts of the physical self, for while the brain was a "marvelous machine," only the body, the instrument of giving and receiving emotion, was capable of translating movement into meaning. [18]

Much of Martin's criticism focused on the artist's capacity to communicate emotion through movement, to penetrate the audience's emotional history and "liberate" the viewer's understanding of life. The art that achieved this was expressional, while that which failed was spectacular. [19] The epitome of spectacle, and the object of Martin's harshest early criticism, was the academic ballet. Showcasing dancers' technical virtuosity over their capacity for emotional expression—with the support of dazzling costumes, lighting, and set design—ballet appealed to the senses on a purely superficial level. Viewers "react[ed] to the personal beauty of the executants, the story . . . being told, the music, the costumes, the scenery." Similarly, "the dancing itself with its difficulties of execution" was merely a blur of dazzling physicality. Gratifying the spectator's search for "sensual satisfaction," it did not demand that visceral, muscular engagement with the artistic medium—the material body—but existed merely as an object of the aesthetically-limited, pleasure-seeking gaze. [20]

For Martin, spectacular dance was problematic because the human body, as "the very element in which we live," was necessarily "an instrument of expression," with every gesture carrying the emotional connotations of human behavior. [21] As he wrote in Introduction to the Dance, "No movement of the human body is possible without definite relation to life experience, even if it is random or inadvertent . . . . The body is totally incapable of becoming an abstraction itself." [22] Ballet, however, had attempted to artificially abstract the body into "an instrument of pure design," presenting movement without meaning, form without function. The ballerina—bending into the "unnatural" shapes and lines of a prescribed technical vocabulary—had become "an engine" for the movement of expressionless geometrical forms. [23] As Martin saw it, the technique imposed upon her body, with its strict codifications, was merely "an invented code of laws, quite unrelated to natural impulse and subjective experience and in no wise concerned with the illumination of man's relation to man or to his universe." [24]

It was only the narrative structure of the ballet, once superimposed on the abstract movement of the dancer, that offered relevant meaning to the average, aesthetically misguided viewer. As Martin wrote mockingly, critiquing "literary-minded" popular audiences, "If the dancer does not come out dressed as some specific character—a sailor, a country maiden, a mocking-bird, a cloud—and climb imaginary yokel, or sip the honey from imaginary flowers, or float through the imaginary ether, he is incomprehensible." [25] As his tone suggested, Martin deplored the genre of the story-ballet, with its easily decoded, pantomimic sequences. Combined with the abstraction of form, the literalism of ballet's content failed to breach the viewer's emotions. At the same time, representational movement, being fully "translatable into words," undermined the expressive potential of the dancing body. If the message of a dance could be communicated through mere words, Martin reasoned, what use was there for movement? [26]

In Martin's view, modern dance was ballet's antithesis. The highest expressional genre, it succeeded in communicating "directly from its creator's emotions to our own." One key to its success was its rejection of ballet's pantomimic representationalism in favor of "distortion and abstraction." "Abstraction" in this sense did not refer to the deformation of the ballet body that Martin had critiqued earlier; rather, it was the strategy of taking a literal gesture, something we might see in everyday life, and altering it, defamiliarizing it, into a less recognizable but more thought-provoking form. As Martin observed:

Dancing in its best sense . . . distorts its movements away from representationalism to give them wider range, abstracts them into the essence of experience to extend their powers of awakening memory and to intensify their impact . . . [A good dancer] sets up, along with the familiar patterns, such departures from them as to give them a new cast, a new meaning, in accordance with his original intention. [27]

Through distorting and abstracting everyday movements of the body, the most effective expressional artist would dig deeper than "realistic gesture" and beyond "the illustration of a literary idea," getting to the core of "the very primitive, elementary business of translating emotion into movement first." [28] In doing so, the artist would live up to Martin's ideal, revealing a "hitherto unrealized truth" about "the stuff of common experience." [29]

It was the expressive potential of distortion and abstraction that drew Martin to the works of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, the subjects of his highest praise whom he credited as "the creators of modern dance." [30] In his chapter on Graham in America Dancing, Martin wrote that "Her movement is based at its significant best upon purely communicative impulses; it is the stuff of gesture abstracted into greater universality of application." This extraction of "universal" meaning from non-representational movement had been her "greatest contribution" to modern dance. According to Martin, Graham's only rare disgraces occurred when she neglected her gift for expression in favor of "gymnastic virtuosity," treating her body like the athletic machine of a ballerina rather than her own demonstrative instrument. [31]

Humphrey, even more than Graham, succeeded in distorting movement and awakening emotion. She distinguished herself, in Martin's eye, with her "emotionally stirring" works that, paradoxically, grew out of her "cold, technical" approach to creating "functional" design. Unlike design in ballet, the product of artificial "invention," Humphrey designed her works based on physical principles of fall and recovery, of the body's sequential surrender to and resistance of gravity. Because such principles were related "immediately to life," Humphrey's work achieved the "metakinetic element" of good art, "evoking a natural, sympathetic response." This was particularly true of her Drama of Motion, which, "though it was as nearly abstract as a dance composition could well be . . . sounded a deeper emotional note than anything that had preceded it." Martin commended Humphrey for upending widespread notions of abstractionism which conceptualized the body as "pure design in space;" she demonstrated that pure choreographic form, with no basis in pantomime or impersonation, could still possess great meaning, substance, and the essence of emotion without the artifice. [32]

Most of this theory and commentary derives from Martin's more scholarly texts America Dancing and Introduction to the Dance, which may not have appealed to the same general audience of The New York Times. Still, the voice of Martin the critic was not far removed from that of Martin the newspaper reviewer, as his theory clearly informed his practice. What good was a "Layman's Guide" if the layman was not reading it? Although Martin saw the reviewer as inferior to the critic (newspaper reviewing was merely "spot criticism" and "inspired snap judgment," whereas criticism required "perspective"), Martin did not cheapen his critical voice when he wrote for the general public. [33] In fact, his theories of composition and receptivity found their way lucidly into the Times as he struggled to bridge the gap between "esoteric" dancer and popular audience.

With his tireless emphasis on emotion-through-abstraction, Martin was responding directly to popular critiques of the early modern dancers, particularly the "sensual, highly emotional" Graham. With slurs like "esoteric and abstract," "ugly," "angular," and "obscure," the public, confounded by her newness, could not relate to her work on an emotional or physical level. [34] Martin, on the other hand, was swept away by her genius. In his oral history, he reveals that he felt a deep commitment to Graham, an intimate connection with her artistry and the fiery sense of self behind it. Recognizing the emotional and intellectual challenge of absorbing her work, he maintained that it was a struggle worth enduring:

Inside of her was this stormy center, and it was her own personal center of feeling . . . Everything she did stemmed from a very strong feeling of human experience . . . . She kept demanding more of you; you had to follow her through a narrower channel, but her strength grew always greater and greater. In her career she finally found a center which, in a sense, was permanent—she knew where she stood at last. From the center she unfolded, always in dramatic fashion. [35]

Martin was genuinely concerned that members of the public also experience Graham's work in its full emotional depth, that they feel seized, pulled along, and swept under, like he did, by her riveting style. It was simply a matter of educating the layman. "You have to have two things," he declared in his oral history; "you have to have the artist and the spectator—the audience and the creator. They must go side by side." [36] Nowhere was this truer, it seems, than between the powerless spectator and the over-powering Miss Graham.

Martin made this clear in 1929, with an impassioned Times review headlined "One Artist: Martha Graham's Unique Gift and Steady Development." Uniting critical theory with the reviewer's practice, he incorporated sophisticated principles of metakinesis and formal abstraction—that distillation of "essences"—into a fervent defense of Graham before a deeply suspicious mass audience. In two paragraphs, he prepared "the layman" for what to expect from Graham's performance, and most importantly, for the emotional work it would require. Martin's heartfelt tone, which infused so much of his best writing, makes his argument worth quoting at length:

Audiences who come to be amused and entertained will go away disappointed, for Miss Graham's programs are alive with passion and protest . . . She does the unforgivable thing for a dancer to do—she makes you think; yet it is a thinking of a peculiar character, for it is less of the brain than of some organ absent from anatomical charts that reacts to esthetic stimuli. She leaves you upheaved and disquieted and furnishes afterthoughts not calculated to soothe such a condition.

Miss Graham leads more and more to essences. She boils down her moods and her movements until they are devoid of all extraneous substances and are concentrated to the highest degree. She gives less and less of the full dimensions of her meanings; she indicates, she suggests, she leads you on with her. And because she is so sparing it is not difficult to follow along; there are no sidetracks and byways. [37]

This was not diversion, Martin warned; it was real, disquieting art. Without the receptive body-brain of the open, willing spectator, it would disappear, as public sentiment ordained, into obscurity and miscomprehension. His hope was that with the firm but patient help of the critic, growing appreciation for modern dance would dissolve such imminent threats.

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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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