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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD Review: Martha Graham - Dance on Film

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#1 of 3 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted September 22 2007 - 11:14 PM

Martha Graham - Dance on Film
Directed by Peter Glushanok

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1957-1961
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Subtitles: SDH
MSRP: $39.95

Release Date: September 18, 2007
Review Date: September 23, 2007

The Film


From the depression era until her death in 1991, Martha Graham fashioned a school of dance that was uniquely American and uniquely her own. She revolutionized dance with modern, free form movement as precise as classical ballet but with endless variations. Some of her work is still often performed, but amazingly very little of it has been captured on film, especially with Martha herself dancing the leads in pieces she crafted for herself and her company. This new Criterion release has collected three astonishing pieces of her work as produced by legendary arts documentarian Nathan Kroll along with a mountainous array of other features all extolling the genius of one of America’s true dance originals.

The three dance films are A Dancer’s World, Appalachian Spring (undoubtedly her most famous work), and Night Journey. My undoubted favorite is the first piece in which Martha introduces the eleven members of her company, narrates her views of dance as the company performs some short dance pieces tied to a particular emotion or reaction. Because it’s set in Graham’s dance studio and the dancers are not in costume but the ladies in leotards and the gentlemen in polo shirts and tights, the simplicity of the setting and attire allows the dancers’ incredible grace, control, balance, and extension to be shown in full flower. Graham’s watchwords were always simplicity and spontaneity, and this first film in particular shows those attributes with startling frankness.

Appalachian Spring is Graham’s renowned ode to the rebirth of vitality that spring heralds. The mesmerizing music by Aaron Copland is a bubbling, rapturous explosion of emotions from joy to concern to love, and the dancers are all in their primes, that is, except Graham herself who was 65 at the time of the filming and yet still dancing the role of the young bride. She looks amazing but certainly not youthful, and the lack of zest in her step and some less than high kicks and stiff extensions of her legs keep this from being the definitive film of the dance it might have been. (In fact, in some of the bonus features, it’s lamented by more than one member of the company that it was a shame the filming hadn’t happened five to ten years earlier.)

Night Journey is the Oedipus story (son who ends up killing his father and marrying his mother without knowing what he’s done; on learning of his ghastly mistakes, the mother Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself) told from the point of view of Jocasta. Once again, Graham dances the leading female role, but here her age (68) makes more sense, and her less than nubile movements seem appropriate to emphasize the age difference between mother and son/husband. She still dances superbly, and the very modern, stylized accompaniment serves as a vivid counterpoint to the ancient tale.

How lucky we are that these three short films (each about a half hour in length) have been preserved for future generations to see a dance movement from the person who created it and knew its tenants best!

Video Quality


Each of the three films is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. I don’t know where these films have been residing for more than 40 years, but the quality is astounding. Apart from one slight scratch at the very beginning of Appalachian Spring and some light grain in A Dancer‘s World, these films are immaculate. The grayscale is among the best I’ve ever seen, and sharpness and detail are staggering. (You can actually see seams in the backdrops and indentations where nails have been driven into the walls.)

Audio Quality


The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is clear and features no audio defects. What it lacks is richness and fullness. A Dancer’s World contains only piano accompaniment, so the lack of body in the music isn’t harmful to the emotional response; in fact, the simple sound enhances the visuals since it matches it in simplicity. But the other two films have orchestral scores, and a richer soundtrack could have given added weight to the moods of the two dances.

Special Features


Disc one offers quite a number of bonus features. First up is a video comparison of the 1958 performance of Appalachian Spring with a 1944 stage performance which was filmed for Graham’s study purposes. Dance critic Deborah Jowitt compared three sequences in the dance moving skillfully back and forth between the side-by-side mock-ups of the two filmed pieces. Of course, the 1944 performance was shot from a light booth with a single camera angle and is in soft, grainy shape, but it is remarkable comparing the two interpretations and seeing the alterations Graham made in the piece during the intervening years. This featurette runs 13 minutes.

Composer Aaron Copland discusses his work on writing the music for Appalachian Spring in excerpts taken from a television show with interviewer Paul Jenkins. The featurette is presented in 4:3 and runs about 6 minutes.

Kroll: In His Own Words offers a look at the Emmy and Peabody winning-producer Nathan Kroll in a 6½-minute audio discussion about producing these three landmark films illustrated with stills and video clips from the films.

Ron Simon on Nathan Kroll is a 12-minute tribute to the films’ producer by the curator of the Museum of Television and Radio. This featurette is presented in anamorphic video.

The Editors is a 13-minute anamorphic interview with film editors Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham on the difficulties they encountered editing these three dance films. Hamerow’s interview in particular is remarkable as she describes the sync problems she ran into while editing Appalachian Spring, something noted by several of the dancers in a later interview on disc two.

Disc two begins with Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed, a 54-minute episode from the American Masters PBS series. Divided into 10 chapters and presented in full frame, the documentary shows more rare footage of Graham dancing her own work as well as other dancers interpreting roles she had made her own.

The Dancers is a 30½-minute anamorphic interview session with six longtime members of the Graham dance company: Yuriko Kikuchi, Stuart Hodes, Ethel Winter, Mimi Cole, Mary Hinkson, and Linda Hodes. They talk about the low pay, the joyousness of their work, and their memories of Martha Graham in very candid discussions.

The Martha Graham Technique, 1975 is excerpts taken from filmed dance class exercises with Graham providing running commentaries as to the moves and positions of the dancers in the series of exercises. This full frame feature runs 15 minutes.

The Company on Tour, 1954 offers 11 minutes of 16mm silent home movies taken on the company’s European tour in 1954. Captions have been added to the film to identify the various participants.

The enclosed 18-page booklet offers complete credits for the three filmed pieces as well as stills of the various dancers and a lengthy discussion of Martha Graham’s life by dance critic Joan Acocella particularly focusing on filming these three landmark dance pieces.

In Conclusion

5/5 (not an average)

Lovers of modern dance are going to be thrilled that these three rare films have been collected together in one source. The tremendous selection of extras on the set’s two discs gives this Criterion release greatly added value and a complete look at the remarkable person of Martha Graham.

Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC

#2 of 3 OFFLINE   Eric Vedowski

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Posted September 23 2007 - 01:36 AM

Matt-Thanks for your thorough and knowledgeable reviews of stuff most DVD sites ignore. I'm sure I'm not the only one who really appreciates it.

#3 of 3 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted September 23 2007 - 02:57 AM

Thank you, Eric. It's MY pleasure to contribute these reviews, and your appreciation is icing on the cake.

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