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

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Martin's distaste for diversion, spectacle, and superfluity was not a purely aesthetic critique; it was also a critique of the aristocratic, European culture—the "Old Guard," he called it—from which ballet sprang. He firmly believed that in the act of throwing off this tradition, the modern dancers were creating a refreshingly American form of expression and redeeming the art of dance in doing so. As he wrote of Martha Graham in 1931, she had "restored the dance to the high estate from which it fell when it became merely a pastime for an idle aristocracy." [38] It was not their ancestral heritage that defined these artists as American, nor the fact that many, particularly in the 1930's and 1940's, were creating such works as Frontier, American Document, The Shakers, and Appalachian Spring; rather, it was their spirit of individualism, expressed through each one's personal commitment to an unadulterated "point of view," that was shaping the long-awaited development of a distinctly American art.

Why did Martin insist so strongly on the Americanness of modern dance? Perhaps he was following the lead of critics in other genres, such as Van Wyck Brooks in literature, who critiqued the American appetite for European authors and called for a "strictly organic" national culture. [39] As Warren Susman has shown, the 1930's unfolded around a "complex effort to seek and define America as a culture," characterized by "a growing self-consciousness of an American Way or a native culture of value." [40] While such efforts were not entirely new to the era, no other period in American history had seen such a heightened awareness of its own culture—and of "the concept of culture" in itself—along with such thorough attempts "to document in art, reportage, social science, and history the life and values of the American people." As Martin was digging into "the native background" to articulate what was American about modern dance, intellectuals like Constance Rourke, in her 1931 book American Humor, and Brooks, in his 1936 The Flowering of New England, were pillaging the American past for "heroes, symbols, myths, and rituals," clues to "the basic patterns of culture, basic values and attitudes" from which contemporary writers could draw. [41] Indeed, the humbly adolescent American dance, much like the young American literature, had fallen under attack for its "inorganicism," its lack of an inherited tradition, and Martin sought vengefully to redeem it.

In 1931, a polemical article appeared in the Times under the headline "The Dance: An Attack." André Levinson, a leading Russo-French dance critic, had published a biting critique of American modern dance, ridiculing its "amateurism" and its failure as a "national formula:"

As it is practiced in America, the concert dance, in search of a national formula and in the absence of all tradition, pays homage to an amateurism that is sometimes judicious and often ingenuous . . . [The dancers] do not apply themselves to any school: they borrow from all schools whatever outward signs and fixed characteristics are easily acquired. Only a culture that has been evolved and crystallized can produce an organic and original art of theatrical dancing . . .[42]

Levinson was a firm supporter of the classic tradition with its rigid standardization of form. He suggested that in the absence of a "crystallized" culture, American concert dancers should surrender their search for the "organic" and succumb to the "monopoly of the dance by ballet." [43] Dismissing Graham with her melodramatic "gesticulations," he linked her with the school of "American dilettantism" that conspired to overthrow the classical order. In fact, Levinson had never seen Graham in performance, yet it seems that in his prejudiced eyes, almost all of American dance was the same, artistically impoverished beside the elite ballet. [44] As he declared, "[T]he classic ballet, strong in its tradition, in accordance with the spirit of order and discipline which animates the elite of today, will triumph over the conspiracy by the blind and the paralytic, which I will never cease to denounce." [45]

Quoting Levinson at length in the Sunday Times, Martin launched a direct rebuttal, shedding light on the "conflict of classic tradition and modern needs." He maintained that America, far from succumbing to the monarchical rule of the ballet, was "innately a-balletic," that "our spirit of freedom rebels against being told that we can do only thus and so." Even without a cohesive "national formula," he suggested, Americans could lay claim to a heritage, an inherited penchant for resistance that would not endure "such restrictions as M. Levinson would put upon the dance." [46] The nation's early settlers, Martin wrote in America Dancing, had launched "a battle against authoritarianism, a crusade for the building of conduct on the essential nature of man instead of on superimposed codes." [47] Within the realm of concert dance, trailing several centuries behind, the same developments were now taking place, setting into motion what Martin called the "the outstanding American trait" of "anti-authoritarianism." [48]

According to Martin, the cultural tradition available to modern dance was, paradoxically, America's lack of tradition, its self-conscious rejection of establishment. In his oral history, when asked what was the "something about it" that defined American dance, he responded, "that one principle of throwing off arbitrary, traditional heritages that were no longer of any value . . . throwing them away and starting with no premise except the body as the instrument and total requirement for the art." [49] Rather than fixating on America's empty heritage, as Levinson did, Martin celebrated the challenge that lay before modern dance, the imperative to "start from the ground up" without the hindrance of "superimposed codes." [50]

This American, anti-authoritarian impulse, combined with the modernist emphasis on personal expression, gave rise to a democratic plurality of techniques within the realm of modern dance, all diverging from the hierarchical "order" that Levinson praised. Whereas Levinson contended that "the technique of the dancer . . . is the very soul of the dance; it is the dance itself," Martin believed that technical standards existed only in the service of individual artistic vision. [51] The dancer's foremost goal, as we have seen, was to convey a personal point of view through the distorted, abstracted form of the moving body. But such a perspective was never static, nor was it consistent between individuals. Formal technique, therefore, had to remain fluid in order to comply with the endlessly shifting content it was meant to convey. It necessarily resisted pre-established standards. As Martin asserted in America Dancing, "Technique must remain a highly personal and plastic matter, in order to keep it at all times adequate to meet the ever changing demands made upon it. . . . [For the modern artist,] there is no such thing as right or wrong method, there is no academic standard; there is only success or failure in conveying what he means to convey." [52] Martin recognized that this fluidity of technical standards led to "many conflicts of theory and opinion," which posed a particular challenge to the student of modern dance and confounded his naïve search for concrete explanations. Freed from forces of indoctrination, the budding dancer was compelled toward self-exploration, extracting his own means of expression from the theories around him:

The immediate effect [of conflicting theories] is generally one of confusion of the mind of the student, and from this he is able to extricate himself only by dint of his own effort. With the whole field thrown open to him, he is forced to find his own solution to problems which are inevitably also his own . . . He is given every aid, but he has no orthodoxy to lean on, no authoritarianism to tell him what to think. [53]

Sorting through a tangled web of ideas, the student would emerge from a state of confusion with a stronger sense of self, joining a collective search for individual expression and recapitulating the American, anti-authoritarian ideals of modern dance.

Championing the Americanness of modern dance, Martin distinguished the adolescent art from its "authoritarian" European predecessors, maintaining that it was, in fact, an indigenous form of creative expression. In the "absence of all tradition" that Levinson perceived, there was, in fact, a budding expression of the national heritage, shaped by the most intrinsic of American values: the rejection of repressive authority and the embrace of the individual self.

In response to questions of Americanness and modernity, the tension between ballet and modern dance was just one aspect of Martin's criticism. In the late 1930's and 1940's, African-American concert dance became another focal point of this discourse, as black performers left the arena of popular entertainment for the concert stage. Martin expressed great enthusiasm for these emerging artists—particularly "the unmistakable masters" Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus—providing an energetic, almost heroic account of their success in his 1963 survey text John Martin's Book of the Dance. [54] Coming into their own as "creative artists," these dancers experienced "greater equality" than ever before, as they "delved with creative curiosity and profit" into works of "energy and experimentation." [55] At the same time, as with the "Big Four" in modern dance, Martin helped to advance the careers of African Americans through his widely-read Times reviews, bringing another burgeoning dance form into the public eye.

In spite of this praise, however, Martin inadvertently denied "American Negro dancers" the very equality he believed they had attained. In Book of the Dance, he did not place African Americans within the genre of "modern dance." While modern dancers had beneficently "open[ed] the way for the Negro dancer," the two fields had never merged, maintaining instead "a parallel course all the way." [56] One could read these comments as a statement of historical truth: in the first several decades of the twentieth century, it had not been socially acceptable for black and white performers to appear together onstage, perhaps necessarily sending them on different artistic paths. Martin, however, suggests that something else—something innate—placed black artists outside the realm of modern dance. His characterization of their work, while consistently admiring, is rife with racial essentialism, the belief that "the Negro dancer" was just that: the Negro dancer, a racially prescribed archetype with a collective, ancestrally determined "point of view." [57]

The historian Patrick B. Miller has examined Martin's essentialism in his essay The Anatomy of Scientific Racism, noting the critic's "persistent references to the 'intrinsic' and the 'innate'" in relation to "American Negro" artists. Though apparently well-intentioned, Martin problematically suggests that African Americans, united by the "intrinsic" pulse of a "uniquely racial rhythm," all possess the same "innate equipment" for artistic communication. [58] Like their white counterparts in modern dance, black dancers had created "a means for dance expression" based on "the relationship between inner emotional awareness and outward muscular activity," but in their case, the expressive content was necessarily imbued with the "uninhibited qualities" of their race. As Martin contended, ". . . the movement [the Negro] produced thus, without the superimposition of any arbitrary limitations, would differ from that produced by Caucasians, Mongolians or Malayans, and would accordingly release in communicative essence the uninhibited qualities of the racial heritage, no matter what the immediate subject of any specific dance might be." [59] While a white choreographer like Humphrey or Graham could create a distinctive, personal aesthetic—Graham delving into her own female psyche, Humphrey experimenting endlessly with abstract form—African Americans, by Martin's essentialist theory, were denied this same level of agency, by virtue of racial traits that transcended individuality. Furthermore, beyond his innate "emotional awareness," the physical anatomy of "the Negro"—a "racial constant" in the bodily instrument of expression—placed restrictions on the work of black artists, excluding them in particular from ballet. As Martin observed, " By and large, [the Negro] has been wise enough not to be drawn into [the academic ballet], for its wholly European outlook, history and technical theory are alien to him culturally, temperamentally and anatomically. . . . The deliberately maintained erectness of the European dancer's spine is in marked contrast to the fluidity of the Negro dancer's, and the latter's natural concentration of movement in the pelvic region is similarly at odds with European usage." [60]

According to Martin, then, the internal and external selves of African American artists—the sources of both content and form—were defined first and foremost by an allegedly collective racial inheritance. These "innate" characteristics may have been positive—exuberance, rhythm, stamina, speed—but they inscribed limitations on the black dancing body and what it could "appropriately" strive to achieve. Martin himself noted this when he argued against the prospect of a racially integrated company:

The Negro artist, like the artist of any other race, works necessarily and rightly in terms of his own background, experience and tradition. He makes no fetish of it, but on the other hand, like any other artist, he recognizes that there are some roles and categories that do not suit him. Race—exactly like sex, age, height, weight, vocal range, temperament—carries with it its own index of appropriateness. [61]

One could argue that this theory limited the white choreographer as well; Martin referred generally to "race," not to "blackness." But rarely in his writings, if ever, did he remark on the innate whiteness of a modern dancer, nor did he critique whites who dabbled in African American idioms, such as Helen Tamiris in her use of jazz and Negro spirituals. For the American Negro, self-expression was necessarily racial expression, and race the transcendent point of view.

To a certain extent, we can forgive Martin these shortcomings. The popularity of artists like Dunham and Primus surged in the 1940's and 1950's, and they remain legends today. Surely, Martin's critical enthusiasm played a positive role. Still, it is worth questioning the ideological legacy that a critic leaves behind, perhaps unnoticed, but still functioning in covert ways. What precedent did Martin establish by insisting on the innateness of racial qualities? What implications did this have for black choreographers of the 1960's and 1970's, who, like Donald McKayle, moved away from lively emotionalism and toward more serious social commentary, or, like Bill T. Jones and Gus Solomons, Jr., toward postmodernist expressions? Martin's criticism, perceptive and passionate, functioned almost flawlessly within the span of his own career, legitimizing the beloved art that had once seemed hopelessly vulnerable. And since he was one of the few qualified dance critics of his time—one of the few writers documenting the earliest years of modern dance—his theories, his commentary, his account of an era infuse the dance history textbook of today. Martin's rich body of criticism should, of course, retain a place of historical importance, even if its underlying assumptions are no longer accepted. Indeed, those assumptions in themselves hold vital information about the world in which modern dance came of age. In a spirit that Martin might admire, however, we must remember that even the keenest critic is not the authority, and that his views should remain prominent, but not entrenched, in the history of modern, American dance.

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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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