Dancing to Documents: An American Heritage

by Gretchen Eichberger

What do you know about your heritage? For many Americans, they will begin their answer with their place of family origin, recalling some handed-down lore, wondering at what they don’t know and perhaps even recall some local history—their own as far as they know. They will leave it at that. When you cast your vote in this upcoming election, will you reflect on your American heritage? Does your vote keep up with the legacy that your ancestors intended, or has it changed? How does dance relate to these questions? Can it? I submit to you that attending American Document a dance–drama inspired by the legendary choreographer and dancer, Martha Graham, would might give you pause and cause all of us to re-evaluate the value and meaning of our American heritage and citizenship.

Martha Graham was a major force in the American art of modern dance. Her influence can be compared to that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s on architecture and Pablo Picasso’s on painting. From the mid 1920’s until her death in 1991, Graham experimented endlessly with basic human movement, beginning with contraction and release—a legacy that is still felt throughout the world of dance. Using these principals as the foundation for her technique, she built a vocabulary of movement that would increase the emotional activity of the dancer’s body. Her works were inspired by a wide variety of sources including modern paintings, literature, the American frontier, religious ceremonies of Native American tribes, and Greek mythology. Graham’s innovative ideas integrated philosophy and technique into the academic world.

Premiering in 1938, her piece entitled American Document was a tribute to Graham’s own American heritage. The central questions posed throughout the dance were “What is America?” and “What is an American?” It was the first dance work that incorporated spoken word. Texts were drawn from actual historic records such as the Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, and the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as lesser known documents, including words from Puritan minister John Edward’s fire and brimstone sermons and the sorrowful speech of Chief Red Jacket of the Seneca tribe.

Graham indicated that these documents contained the essence of our nation: “Our documents… our legends, our poignantly near history, our folk tales.” She intended for the work to reflect “Americana that is neither political nationalism nor chauvinistic credo, but, rather, a statement.”

While environmental and financial disaster engulfed our country in the 1930’s there was a subsequent surge of new human expression in the form of modern dance. Martha Graham and her American Document embodied that struggle. Although, modern dance is not familiar to all audiences, dance is simply movement, and therefore as fundamental as any other form of artistic expression. To regard it as “high art” and only for the avant garde is to discard it.

Adapting a Masterpiece – A Process and a Challenge

Why and how is this work being performed in Northwestern Lower Michigan? During an intensive week at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City, I attended a performance of American Document by the SITI Theater Group and the Graham dancers. I learned that the Graham Foundation was preparing to launch a nation-wide invitation to all civic and student groups interested in creating their own American Documents under the project title, The Political Dance Project. If I began promptly, my adaptation of American Document would be the first civic version in the country, and upon my return to Michigan last year, I immediately began the preliminary steps to launch the project.

Personifying my own American heritage in such a production seemed like it might ring true for other Michiganders. My father’s family settled in the Detroit area making their living from the emerging automobile industry that provided for so many immigrants in those days. My mother’s family settled in Grand Traverse County, farming acres of land on the Old Mission Peninsula and Garfield Township. In retrospect, I believe that the understanding of my own American heritage with its immense opportunity for prosperity and abundance of natural resources had brought me to the dilemma that sits in the minds of so many of us. I fear for future generations and I can only hope that the same prosperity, and now, the concern for the basic right to clean water, soil, and air will be available for them. Those are the feelings that I and the other dancers have attempted to portray in the choreography of this American Document.

A civic adaptation seemed an ideal opportunity to incorporate the texts by Michigan writer, Bruce Catton. Upon his mid-life pursuit of becoming an author, he was awarded a Pulitizer- Prize for his civil war novel, The Stillness of Appamatox but it is his boyhood memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train contains a poignant series of remarks that were a true beacon for our American way of life and what it has become.

Now, nearly seventy years later, during this great shift in climate – both environmentally and socially, the prediction of what is to become of the planet seems to be on the minds of all conscious citizens. We find ourselves wondering if our great American civilization is destined to fail, for as history repeats itself, all great civilizations have failed. Catton summarized his prediction for our grand civilization in Waiting for the Morning Train, by reiterating that we were “a generation that lived by applying a steadily increasing knowledge of ingenuity to the exploitation of the earth’s boundless resources; and it was reaching the gates of the golden age only to discover that the boundless stores of resources was beginning to run out.” It is quotes such as these that are incorporated alongside dances in this work.

By the People

After adapting the script for our place and time, I was faced with the task of finding and securing a dance troupe, actors, and musician who were not only willing and able, but who had a social conscience, and could thereby embody the intense emotion so characteristic of a Graham work. Northwestern Lower Michigan does not host a plethora of contemporary dancers, nor it is versed in the technique of Martha Graham. Nevertheless, this was to be a civic production, “of the people, by the people and for the people”. To have obtained a diverse group of dancers, each unique in their own right and background as kinesthetic artists, was pure luck. The Interlocutors, (a term given to the main speaking characters in a minstrel show, and which the piece is based around) seemed a fitting role for not just an actor but a true patriot, a person who works tirelessly for the good of all. Holly Wren Spaulding, a writer, poet, designer, and activist immediately stood out in my mind for her work to bring awareness about the dangers of water privatization and importance of water rights. Musician and craftsman, Tim Joseph, a recent recipient of the Don Jennings award for political activism and significant service and achievement, lives to make a difference for the common man. To me, this duo represented our Michigan values, and are both
deeply rooted in a sense of place. They were cast as interlocutors and will appear in the upcoming production alongside the dancers. Well-known folk musician Rick Jones of the internationally- acclaimed quartet Song of the Lakes will also be featured as an accompanist.

Between the readings, a series of dances portray historical events which at the same time depicts Americans amidst their daily quandries, fears, and notions; reacting to promises not kept; embracing new opportunity; feeling powerless as well as accomplished after overcoming strife; witnessing great atrocities and surmounting the unthinkable. These sensations inform the dance, as they also inform our real lives as Americans right now. Though this is an historical work, it is also rooted in the present moment and is meant to stir reflection on our place in history, our heritage, so that we may move forward, using our bodies as well as our minds to create a humane and decent future for all.

Presented by ISLAND (Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design), American Document will be performed at the City Opera House on Saturday, Oct. 23 at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $15.00 for adult and $8.00 for students (including NMC) and seniors. Click the link to order tickets or call 231- 941-8082.

Gretchen Eichberger is a director, dancer-choreographer, educator, musician, and historic preservationist. She and her family reside along the shores of Lake Michigan in Benzie County.