“To me, Martha Graham is one of America’s few authentic geniuses.” – Bette Davis

For Martha Graham’s Birthday:

First: Joan Acocella wrote a wonderful profile of Graham for The New Yorker. I discussed it – and Graham – here. In researching this post, I came across a beautiful piece about the time Helen Keller visited Martha Graham’s studio, and joined the dancers at the barre.

Helen Keller visits Martha Graham’s studio. (1954)

Bette Davis studied with Martha Graham when she was a teenager attending the Robert Milton-John Murray Anderson School of the Theatre. In her first memoir, The Lonely Life: An Autobiography, she wrote about Graham, and Graham’s influence on her work. Well worth quoting in full:

Our instructress for dancing was Martha Graham. Her job was to teach us how to use our bodies properly.

“To act is to dance!”

I worshiped her. She was all tension – lightning! Her burning dedication gave her spare body the power of ten men. If Roshanara was a mystic curve, Miss Graham was a straight line – a divining rod. Both were great, and both were aware of the universal. But Miss Graham was the true modern.

I had already learned that the body via the dance could send a message. Now I was taught a syntax with which to articulate the subtleties fully. She would with a single thrust of her weight convey anguish. Then in an anchored lift that made her ten feet tall, she became all joy. One after the other. Hatred, ecstasy, age, compassion! There was no end, once the body was disciplined.

What at first seemed grotesque to the eye, developed into a beautiful release for both dancer and beholder. To me, Martha Graham is one of America’s few authentic geniuses. I was lucky enough to study with her.

A mutual friend recently repeated this great woman’s happy observation that amongst dramatic actors, I have always expressed an emotion with full body – as a dancer does. If this be so, I would like to remind her that it was she who made it possible. Every time I climbed a flight of stairs in films – and I spent half my life on them – it was Graham step by step.

Bless the soul who put this together:

And finally: anyone who has gone into the performing arts can probably quote verbatim what Martha Graham once said to Agnes de Mille, when de Mille was feeling dispirited about her career and the reception to her work. This was around the time de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, a major breakthrough in the American musical. De Mille recounts the conversation in her autobiography. It is often referred to as a “letter” Martha Gram wrote to De Mille but it was actually said in one fell swoop.

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Ask any artist where the phrase “divine dissatisfaction” comes from and they will probably be able to tell you.

At the 1:40 mark in this long clip, Meryl Streep reads Graham’s words, accompanied by Yo Yo Ma.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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5 Responses to “To me, Martha Graham is one of America’s few authentic geniuses.” – Bette Davis

  1. Stevie says:

    That video compilation of Bette Davis going up and down stairs is incredible. Many of those moments are indelibly etched in my brain already.

  2. Scott Abraham says:

    It took some distance for me to appreciate Graham. The dance program of the university I went to was deeply in the Merce Cunningham camp and Graham was what progress left behind in order to get to the “real thing“. The other big university nearby was completely devoted to Graham technique, so that’s where you went if you wanted hip replacements in your 30’s. I mean, my god, the bitchiness in moderndanceworld was never ending. But the distancing was helpful because when she died, the Graham devotees were shell shocked to the point where you wondered if they were capable of living.

    But what she did for DeMille, for everyone who was next is immeasurable, because really, without her, there is no next. She occasionally expressed saltiness about others using her as a springboard for their own companies and careers, but that’s what happens when you recruit and attract not just the talented, but the truly creative — they burst and cannot be contained, and she had to watch them move on and be next.

    Divine dissatisfaction. I truly resented her for that. Defining that feeling made things too damn clear, dammit.

    • sheila says:

      Scott – wow, Love your insider perspective from dance programs. That’s so interesting!

      // so that’s where you went if you wanted hip replacements in your 30’s // lol

      // Divine dissatisfaction. I truly resented her for that. Defining that feeling made things too damn clear, dammit. //

      I have had mixed feelings about her statement through the years. Sometimes I’ve been like “ONLY dissatisfaction, Martha? I am long overdue for some SATISFACTION, but is that not allowed??”

      Thanks again – I really appreciate your comment.

  3. Clary says:

    Oh, where do you find this things!! Both videos are something out of this world. How stunning they are! The final penguin gestures from Yo-Yo Ma are adorable and so characteristic of him. Real joy. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Isn’t that an amazing clip? I found it when I was falling down the rabbit hole of research. I had always thought Martha Graham wrote those words in a letter to Agnes de Mille – if you Google “divine dissatisfaction” you’re gonna see a million results saying “letter to Agnes de Mille.” I fell down that trap myself.

      Grateful to be corrected!

      Thanks, Clary!

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