The other day I came across an old postcard with this photograph of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in Graham’s ballet Letter to the World. It was sent to me many years ago by my friend Claire Glaskin, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 2009. We were then in our twenties and Claire was yet to become internationally known as a choreographer for opera. On the back of the postcard Claire had written,
I’ve just performed this leap with my soul. Most extraordinary. I dread it in the move towards it, am terrified in the act of it and only afterwards know the joy of it. Did Merce Cunningham feel the same way I wonder?
Letter to the World, a biographical dance-drama created in 1940, was based on the life and work of Emily Dickinson, and launched Martha Graham as one of the icons of contemporary dance – before then she was very much the outsider struggling for recognition. At the time of its creation I think Graham felt a strong affinity with the isolated New England poet. She was firmly convinced that the artist must turn away from the world, forgo marriage and children in order to achieve anything. Only then, out of struggle and isolation, could great art be born.
I’ve never been enamoured by the romantic notion that art must spring from sacrifice and suffering. Surely inspiration can be nurtured in the hurly burly of family life, creativity snatched in moments between child-rearing, or tending older parents? I’m not sure the average artist 'suffers’ any more than someone in a nine to five office job? Isn’t he or she in a privileged position anyway to be able to devote all the time in the world to art, albeit in a state of poverty?
There is of course rigour and determination, as well as time, required to master the craft of choreographer or writing, as well as tenacity to push through limitation and mediocrity. There is fear of failure and humiliation, as well as days when we just can’t be bothered with the whole damn thing. But I think in the end the pleasure in making work outweighs all this.
If Claire were still alive, as a mature artist I think she would experience joy mid-leap as well as afterwards, and I’m sure that Cunningham did.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.