Medea and Martha:  The Union of Greek Tragedy and Modern Dance

Medea and Martha: The Union of Greek Tragedy and Modern Dance

March 28, 2011 

An extremely important thing to keep in mind when reading an ancient Greek work like Euripides’ Medea is that what is being experienced is merely the text- a text without its intended theatrical context. These works were written to be performed, not just read; to be experienced as an audience member, not just as a reader. Theatrical context physically manifests the depth of the text, plot, characters, and relationships in a way that can only be done through the vehicle of performance. The historical distance that exists between us and the original theatrical context of ancient Greek works has distorted and diluted this experience of text. Our understanding of the original performance is reliant on the text itself and the assumptions we have about Greek performance in general as applied to specific works. The closest we can come to fully appreciating an ancient Greek work in all of its glory is to experience it as a modern-day performance as interpreted by modern-day artists, while still keeping in mind historical distance and the contextual changes that result from this distance.

There are as many contemporary productions of ancient Greek works as there are translations of the texts themselves, and each presents the original text (or the translation of the original text) in its own way. The various translations of texts by scholars and the interpretations of these translations by performance artists lead to endless possibilities for production- a freedom and potential exploitation that makes performing an ancient work so exhilarating. Taking this a step further, the most revealing interpretations of texts are the performances where text has been abandoned all together: dance. Performances of dance are influenced by a text in terms of characters, plot, and themes- uniquely without relying on the text. Dance is an art form where the most freedom and potential exploitation exist, for the very reason of not having the text itself directly included in the performance. Thus, dance is also an art form where the depth of the text can be especially revealed, for the lack of text means having to compensate by pushing character development, expression, and physical movement to the extremes.

A dance performance emphasizes elements already existing in an ancient Greek theatrical context, such as the incorporation of movement into the Chorus’ role, but does so in a new way- by extending movement to the other characters and removing their spoken dialogue altogether. In doing so, dance emphasizes non-verbal communication between characters and between the performers and the audience members. This not only enhances the value of the movement-based communication and expression in an ancient Greek work, but also enhances the value of dance and movement-based communication and expression at large. This value comes from the depth it can reveal, its independence from the conventional forms of oral and written communication, and its potential to redefine our perspective and understanding of the works, like Medea, that we thought we knew so well. It is often said that when studying a work, one must read between the lines; look beyond the text itself to find true and deeper meaning. Dance reads the text, reads between the lines of the text, and, most importantly, presents the in-between-the-lines to audience members upon performance.

A woman who has gone down in history for reading between the lines- of art, of the psyche, of the human experience- is Martha Graham. A mother of modern dance, Graham is known for showing old things in new ways, and looked heavily to Greek mythology to act as the “old thing” for the inspiration of her pieces. As a producer of modern dance, she represents a two-fold alternative: dance as an alternative to traditional Greek dramatic performance, and modern dance as an alternative to tradition Balletic dance. Until the early 20th century, ballet had acted as the dominant form of Westernized dance and movement-based performance art. Because Greek drama is a Westernized art form, it was only natural for it to be embodied by the like-minded Westernized art form of Ballet- if it Greek drama was even produced as dance at all. Graham, along with other early modern dancers, created and institutionalized modern dance as an alternative to ballet however; its very formation was inspired out of rebelling against balletic dance and balletic ideals about movement. While ballet had turned out positions, pointed feet, and elongated forms, modern dance responded with parallel positions, flexed feet, and contracted forms. In addition to opposing the physical forms of ballet, modern dance was also like other art of the modernist movement in that it emphasizes aesthetics over anything else. For Graham, aesthetics- the physical capacity of dance and its visual potential as it is received by audiences- is where emotionally charged political content originates from. Modern dance first and foremost makes a political statement with its form, and then secondarily makes political statements with its content. The combination of having a double source of politics and being a double vehicle of alternativeness charges modern dance as the perfect medium for revealing the depth within Greek mythology. And there is no one who epitomizes modern dance more than Martha.

On a historical level, Martha Graham is a great example to look to for the embodiment of modern dance because she was such a headliner of the modern dance movement. On a personal level, Martha Graham used modern dance to do justice to the emotion in Greek drama because of her own emotional struggles and identity development over the course of her lifetime. As a choreographer and dancer, she connected to the subjects of her work, and even sought to emphasize the elements of a text or character that especially pertained to her. Graham’s personal connection to the themes and characters of Greek tragedies make her an ideal artist to look to in order to understand these ancient works, for emotional investment is a revealing and liberating component of production and performance- regardless of the performance genre. Upon studying the works of Graham, it is clear that “the statements are there in her dance, Martha’s anguished voice for all of us to recognize, the statements of a woman who was also a very great artist” (De Milles 282). This personal relation to character is an extremely important element of performance art and of dance in general, because it makes the content more authentic and believable. It is also an important aspect of performing ancient Greek drama in a modern context because it allows characters to transcend time and feel relevant to us today. It is when a performer genuinely connects to a character that the emotion of that character is best expressed by performers and received by audiences. In expressing emotion, a performer’s connection to character also enables the timelessness and universality of a work to come across.

Martha Graham is unique in that she not only choreographed pieces based on Greek mythology, but she also danced in them herself- an aspect that sets her apart from many other choreographers and dancers of her time. This enabled her to tap into the emotion of her characters in two capacities, with two roles and from two perspectives. This was especially apparent in her work Cave of the Heart, based on Medea. In Cave of the Heart, Martha choreographed and danced “a lengthy and frenetic solo of devouring jealous passion. It was a dance of such animal anger and frustration as to defy sense and sensibilities” (De Milles 295).  Although this description accurately depicts our understanding of the character Medea, it came from a place of personal anguish for Martha herself; at the time of choreographing Cave of the Heart she had been courting one of her lead male dancers and was overtaken with the need for his recognition. She “wished to make her effect [on the lead dancer, Erick]… She wanted Erick to admire her and her art, to have him glory in her” (De Milles 296). Because she had a personal stake in the role and performance of Medea, Graham was able to deliver a believable rendition of the attention and fame and valor Medea sought upon killing her children and relinquishing his right to a paternal legacy. Graham “was concerned with jealousy and its attendant destruction… [and] Cave was a revelation of terrible distress and a portrait of unalleviated jealous hatred” (De Milles 280)- distress and jealous hatred shared by Medea and Martha both. Our potential to not only directly witness the physical manifestations of such extreme emotions in Martha Graham’s performance of Medea but to also understand the emotional place she was coming from personal accounts of her experience at the time of choreographing and dancing this role allow us as audience members to get a better sense of the original emotional presence intended by the original theatrical context of the work Medea.

In addition to connection to character, Greek drama as portrayed by modern dance utilizes various symbolic elements to get emotional themes across. Graham and her dancers physically manifested their emotional connection to character through movement and choreography; for Graham, all movements are purposeful and symbolic. The movement of one character as she interacts with others on stage forms relationships, which are symbolic in and of themselves as well. Series of relationships as they are staged and create larger formations begin to establish the overall world in which the narrative takes place; this world extends into the audience depending on the actual type of stage and performance space, how performers and audience members are situated with one another in space. The strategic use of props and costumes adds a final theatrical element to a production, enhancing both aesthetics and symbolic expression of emotion. All of these physical components of a performance- starting from the smallest details of movement inspired by deep internal emotion and extending to the walls of the theater space and beyond- combine the emotion of performers, the emotion of the characters, and the narrative of the text in one grand embodied production. In other words, this is how the magic happens- encompassing contemporary political charge within the front of ancient Greek drama.

Symbolism seeps from the pores of Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart. In a clip of Graham’s principle dancer Miki Orihara playing the role of Medea, the rehearsal of a solo danced with a red cloth reveals Medea’s inner struggle upon deciding to kill her children. The solo begins with Medea standing in a stoic and composed position, suggesting her stability and grace. Then, as shaking movements begin, she is revealed to be possessed by something, finally allowing herself to have a moment to break down. As Medea pulls a red scarf from the top of her leotard, she reveals that this red scarf and the evil decision it represents is what is causing her turmoil; the fact that it symbolically comes from within, from the place of her heart, embodies the emotional and painstaking nature of her inner struggle. The entire solo is based around dancing with this red scarf- dancing with her decision about killing her children and taking revenge on her husband. Medea holds the scarf over her head, showing it off with pride to depict her sense of strength and the glory of revenge. Medea wraps the scarf around her body while frantically pacing back and forth, depicting how it binds her and controls her actions. Medea holds the scarf up to her face and caresses it, expressing how she recognizes the gravity of the decision and her need to carefully consider and cherish the sense of pride that will ensue. She places the scarf on the floor and dances to it, simulating a conversation with it- an inner dialogue about her situation. She wrestles with it, literally wrestling with her decision. Toward the end of the solo, Medea pulls the scarf tight between her hands and holds it above her head once again, revealing her final control and security with her plan. Finally, she slows down the pace of her movements and regains composure, coiling up the scarf in her hand and putting it back in her leotard in its place over her heart.

The red scarf itself can be interpreted to symbolize various things. An initial interpretation is that it represents the actual decision of Medea having to kill her children, because of the way it possesses and burdens her. With that said, this particular solo correlates with lines 765-803 of Euripides’ text, where she faces the reality of needing to kill her children. It could also represent her revenge on Jason for abandoning her and marrying a new wife in a more general sense, because of the smirk on her face during the climactic parts of the solo and the sense of satisfaction it suggests. In that case, the solo would correlate with lines 364- 419 of Euripides’ text. A co-creator of Cave of the Heart, Isamu Noguchi, said that for her “Medea dances with a red cloth in her mouth. She is dancing with [a] snake in her mouth. Then she spews it out of her mouth like blood” (De Milles 279). This suggests that the scarf embodies evil itself, in regards to the Judeo-Christian biblical symbol of the snake as corruption and sin. The reference to blood also suggests the symbolism of the blood of Medea’s children, their life and death which are both in the hands of their mother. Another interpretation suggests that “her solo, in which she extracted a long red ribbon from herself, simulated the spewing up of a vile liquid having the corrosive power of acid” (McDonagh 190). This, again, emphasizes the embodiment of the ribbon by the dancer, as well as the very “corrosive” emotion it embodies in and of itself. All of these symbolic options are completely appropriate given the larger themes of the original Medea text, and combine to provide a powerful rendition of the inner-workings of Medea’s psyche. The fact that exact meaning isn’t explicit in this solo and the overall work allows audience members to apply a meaning for themselves. This puts the power of interpretation in the hands of the audience, including them in the journey and the creative engagement necessary in a dance performance. This very creative freedom is what makes the medium of dance perfect for depicting a work of such depth.

In addition to the red scarf prop, the set pieces in Cave of the Heart add much symbolism to the physical manifestation of emotion. Another clip of this piece that shows an actual performance as it was done on stage includes the primary set piece: a giant tree-like cage that houses and anchors Medea, throughout the show. Although it is hard to tell from the video, the base of the cage is supposed to be a pond-like body of water. According to Isamu Noguchi, this is a “snake pad from which Medea would emerge…that derive[s] from the depiction of an emotional state” (De Milles 279). This snake reference again alludes to the Judeo-Christian biblical refernce of a snake symbolizing sin, corruption, and an evil emotional state- all of which are very fitting of Medea during her acts of revenge. Furthermore, “the snake is water. It is the passage from which the gods evolve” (De Milles 279).  This places the snake symbol in the context of water, which represents the origins of the earth and birth itself. This birth reference is an interesting juxtaposition with the overall elements of murder and death present throughout the text of Medea. It presents the cyclical nature of life and death, the presence of opposing forces and the need to have one in order to have the other. Also, the cage itself which has “quivering brass rays emanating from it that Medea took upon herself after the murder” (McDonagh 190) is supposed to depict the presence of the sun. This is very fitting of Medea’s character as the granddaughter of Helios, and her reclaiming of her role as the decendant of the God of the Sun is similar to the traditional deus ex machina ending of Medea productions. Medea’s origination from the water where gods evolve and her culmination as a manifestation of her sun-god lineage both allude to her godliness and the subtle approval of the gods themselves in regards to her actions of revenge. The water and sun references not only associate Medea with her god ancestors and god-like essence, but also with the larger forces of creation- and destruction- she embodies upon taking the life of her children. If nothing else, this symbolism reminds audience members that Medea is hands-down a strong female figure.

This strength of character lends itself to the notion that Medea is a feminist text, contrary to the usual understanding of Greek drama as being misogynistic. Although Medea is seen as an evil character representing the negativity of women, which implies misogyny, her capacity to embody and portray a spectrum of emotion that includes both positives and negatives enhances the feminism of this work. Graham picked up on the strength of Medea in her capacity to do justice to the reality of the human nature and accentuated this depth to the highest degree. In truth, “Graham created one of the most venomous parts in her repertory- a woman driven by jealousy to murderous revenge” (McDonagh 190). Instead of playing into stereotypes of female domesticity and submissiveness to their male counterparts, Graham took Medea’s dark side and ran with it. Danced with it, rather. Martha herself said “Show me how low a person will go… Let me see the depths to which she is capable” (De Milles 280). According to De Milles, Graham “had a deep instinctual need to root out the dark side of any nature… she gave full value to evil” (De Milles 280). Because she didn’t shy away from the darkness in Medea’s soul, Graham was able to do justice to the character in a way that lends itself to feminism, proud and true. Not only does the character of Medea embody a darkness of the human spirit worthy of feminist praise, but Graham also accentuates these elements of darkness by recognizing those same elements existing within herself and the human race at large. Neither Medea nor Martha shy away from this dark reality of humanity, and in doing so, support one another upon expressing this grim reality that must not be overlooked. This is truly a match made in heaven- or hell.

Martha Graham continued the legacy of performing ancient Greek drama by emphasizing plays like Medea in her body of work. She simultaneously changed that legacy by presenting these familiar works from a new perspective: that of the dancer, the feminist, the pessimist, the dark inner-tortured leading lady. Using dancers of various ethnicities, instead of the typical all-Caucasian cast of the day, universalized and offered an even greater sense of familiarity to the work because the work was now being presented by bodies that were physically similar to the multi-racial audiences viewing works like Cave of the Heart both on stages and on screens around the globe. Martha’s reputation and prestige- her own legacy in her own right- gave her the means to tour internationally, which also universalized the work by relating and exposing it to audiences of various national and ethnic backgrounds. More importantly, this exposed citizens of the world to the perspective of dance in performance- of Greek works and works otherwise- and exposed citizens to deeper hidden elements of the work through the vehicle of dance. The fact that “Martha’s Greek studies titillated the dance world and fascinated and influenced many professionals, but they also appealed very deeply to Greek scholars, literary figures, scientists, and savants” (De Milles 355) reveals how influential her perspective on modern dance performance of ancient Greek works was to the world of Greek scholarship at large. Much has and can be said about the legacy of Martha Graham and its impacts on the legacies of other people, movements, fields of study, and works themselves. Much has and can be said about the legacy of Martha Graham and what it offers to the dancer, fellow choreographer, audience member, patron of the arts, scholar, and lover of ancient Greek drama. The beauty of a modern dance piece by Martha Graham, though, is that at the end of the day, not much has to be said; it just speaks for itself.


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