The most ecstatic books about dance and dancing

Neil Baldwin Author Of Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern
By Neil Baldwin

Who am I?

The most important words of advice my incisive editor at Knopf, Victoria Wilson, gave me while I was laboring upon my biography of Martha Graham – coming out in October, you can pre-order it now – was to say that “she was not a goddess, and you don’t want to worship her.” Yes, I had the nerve to take on this formidable and forbidding figure as a result of bearing witness to her anti-War masterwork, Chronicle, on a winter evening fourteen years ago. Yes, I believed that modern dance was the missing link in my long exploration of American modernism. And yes, I believe that I have proven my point, painting Martha Graham’s portrait as a person – rather than an icon.

I wrote...

Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern

By Neil Baldwin,

Book cover of Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern

What is my book about?

After a lifetime of writing about primal forces of American modernism in culture and industry I had an epiphany ten years ago to seize upon this legendary dancer and choreographer who propelled the art form into the modern age. Time magazine called Martha Graham “the Dancer of the Century.” Her technique became the first alternative to the idiom of classical ballet. Her pioneering movements—powerful, dynamic, jagged, edgy, forthright—combined with her distinctive system of training, were the epitome of American modernism, performance as art. 

At the heart of Graham’s work: movement that could express inner feelings. And at the heart of my long obsession with her – seeing through the looking glass into the fiery orbit of an irrepressible, indefatigable meteor whose imagery still lights up the stage three decades after her death. 

The books I picked & why

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The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories

By Jacqueline Shea Murphy,

Book cover of The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories

Why this book?

When I began researching Martha Graham’s multifaceted life, I was intrigued to learn that she spent several summers in the 1930s at the Pueblo communities in New Mexico, where she was fascinated by the ceremonial and ritualistic dance elements of their lives. Entire villages of all generations would gather together on feast days at the center of the pueblo to watch the feather - and shell - and evergreen-costumed pageantry unfold, pounding steps on packed earth, cries to the heavens for rain and good harvests, and prayers for a harmonious year ahead. Graham insisted that she would never “copy” these dances – rather, she took the inspiration gathered in her imagination and mindfully infused it into her own pieces. Thus did Jacqueline Shea Murphy become my very first teacher in the roots and ways of indigenous American dance practices.

The Last Guru: Robert Cohan's Life in Dance, from Martha Graham to London Contemporary Dance Company

By Paul R. W. Jackson,

Book cover of The Last Guru: Robert Cohan's Life in Dance, from Martha Graham to London Contemporary Dance Company

Why this book?

In 1946, Sir Robert Paul Cohan CBE (26 March 1925 – 13 January 2021) became one of the first male dancers to join Martha Graham’s company – and stayed for twenty-three years. He went on to become the first Artistic Director of the Contemporary Dance Trust in London and Artistic Advisor to the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. I had the greatly entertaining privilege of interviewing Sir Robert in the Graham studio at their Westbeth home in NYC, where he regaled me with warm and acerbic vignette memories of “Martha,” her rigorous demeanor, her abrupt critiques, her searching analyses of his movement, her extreme demands as a partner – and her dire yet lyrical sensuality. The book is built around interviews skillfully and subtly conducted by Paul Jackson, principal lecturer in Choreography and Dance at the University of Winchester, UK.

My Body, the Buddhist

By Deborah Hay,

Book cover of My Body, the Buddhist

Why this book?

In the fall of 2016, Deborah Hay came to the Montclair State University campus, where I was professor of theatre & dance, to stage her new work, "Figure a Sea," performed by the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden and featuring the music composition of Laurie Anderson. During her time in residence at the university, I talked with Deborah at the Kasser Theatre about her life and work. Hay was one of the founders of the postmodern Judson Dance Theatre in NYC in the early 1960s and she has pursued an iconoclastic, independent, headstrong, and mystical path ever since, which is why I loved chatting with her so much. Her appeal as a teacher in the studio with our students was equally shape-shifting and mind-bending. And this book creates the same ambiance in the reader’s head – it is a synthesis of memoir and physicalized ‘auto-body-ography,’ to subvert the term! Dancers speak of “embodiment” as the vehicle through which they express their whole selves, and Deborah Hay explains it all in her inimitable fashion.   

Ballet: Bias and Belief

By Lincoln Kirstein,

Book cover of Ballet: Bias and Belief

Why this book?

The life and career of Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) fits – sometimes ideally, at others idiosyncratically – into so many appealing categories that I don’t know when to stop: “Our Crowd” Jewish preppie; poetry lover; art connoisseur while still a teenager (favorite: William Blake); hiker; denizen of Harvard Yard and inveterate dormitory “bull session” instigator; literary magazine editor (Hound & Horn) and art gallery proprietor while still an undergrad; cosmopolite and boulevardier of Manhattan; party-giver and goer; sexual experimenter…and, most pertinent to my journey with Martha Graham, he was the discoverer and “importer” to these shores of the genius George Balanchine, and inventor of the American Ballet Caravan, Ballet Society, and the New York City Ballet. A skeptical critic, Kirstein’s first encounter with Graham was somewhat grouchy – however, he came around to accept her new technique, and his seal of approval gave a timely boost to her reputation. Kirstein’s provocative and opinionated writing always manages to ignite ideas in receptive “culture-vultures” like me (and, hopefully, you too).  

The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance

By Joseph Campbell,

Book cover of The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance

Why this book?

I am sure many of you already know this visionary philosopher from his ground-breaking The Hero With a Thousand Faces. You may not be aware that Campbell was married to Jean Erdman, one of Martha Graham’s principal dancers in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Campbell’s initiations to modern dance came at Sarah Lawrence College when witnessing Erdman as Graham’s student; and then at Bennington, where Erdman performed with Graham’s company. His own learned background in the archetypal ethos of C.G. Jung made Campbell a prime candidate for Graham’s deeply-digging, Nietzschean/ecstatic archaic/abstract movement vocabulary. The choreographer and the professor spoke the same kinaesthetic language, Erdman remembered. There were many late nights when “Martha would call Joe on the phone” with some arcane question about her mythographic pieces in progress – Night Journey and Errand into the Maze. Many of Campbell’s essays in this book were first published in Dance Observer, the journal founded by Graham’s music director and accompanist, Louis Horst.   

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