Glen Ridge biographer dives into the life of Martha Graham

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GLEN RIDGE, NJ — “Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern,” a biography of the seminal 20th-century dancer and choreographer, and a 14-year undertaking by Glen Ridge resident Neil Baldwin, began for Baldwin with probably the same experience as anyone else experiencing Martha Graham choreography for the first time: an epiphany. 

Baldwin, an emeritus professor of theater and dance at Montclair State University and the author of numerous biographies, including on William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in “Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate,” was in an MSU audience one day in January 2008. Martha Graham Dance Company instructor Denise Vale had come to campus to teach dance students how to prepare and perform in the manner embodied by Graham. The work chosen was Graham’s “Steps in the Street,” which had premiered in December 1936 and was created by Graham to alert audiences to the rising threat of fascism. 

“Denise started putting the students through their paces,” Baldwin recently told The Glen Ridge Paper. “They were cutting into space, moving their bodies in abstract ways. It was heavily rhythmic and asymmetrical, as if being created on the spot. I thought, ‘Wow!’ This flipped a switch in my mind.”

Leaving the performance and braced by the chill, Baldwin, who did not have another writing project planned, said Graham jumped into his open mind. He told himself his “next move” would be her story. He could not stop thinking about this. Indeed, in his introduction to the biography, to be published Oct. 25 by Alfred A. Knopf, he called modern dance the “connective tissue” of American cultural identity. After the student performance, he said it was another four years of research before he felt ready to tackle the project.

A luncheon date with Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, helped. Baldwin said it took some courage to discuss his ambition, and, although Eilber supported him, and his interest in the arts was lifelong, the formidable Graham was another matter.

“She was a huge subject,” he said. “She was hovering over me.”

Graham, 1894-1991, was never an easily accessible subject to biographers. Baldwin considered the obstacles Graham perpetuated in archival recordings and through forthcoming, but cryptic recollection of collaborators as analogous to his experience when he wrote his Ford biography. The auto manufacturer espoused anti-Semitism in the weekly newspaper the Dearborn Independent and even received a commendation from the Nazi Party. Consequently, with such an inflammatory subject, editors resisted Baldwin’s history of the Model T baron. 

“They wanted a straight-up biography,” he said. “And there were many attempts to write Graham’s biography. I came into that environment.”

Nonetheless, several Graham biographies have been written, including the autobiography “Blood Memory.” 

But compounding an inscrutable persona was Graham’s elliptical way of instructing, which left her dancers no margins except to react viscerally. Once Graham saw their reactions to her command, Baldwin said, she would select certain movements, discard the rest and build from there. Or she would begin the next day’s work by starting over. 

Baldwin was confident he covered just about everything dealing with Graham and believes he prevailed against her resistance. He acknowledges, however, that there is still room for scholarship. 

“As a biographer, I try to keep an arm’s length from my subject,” he said. “Graham is very opaque, in the way she spoke and wrote, and her manner in the dance studio.”

While writing the book, Baldwin got to know and like dancers. They practice all day, he said, and then someone says, “OK,” and their bodies have to be reconciled to recreate that performance and only that.

His biography is not just a book about dance or for only those interested in dance, he said. Graham overcame many obstacles, and Baldwin could identify with that.

“I would like people, after reading this story, to know that she was someone who carried on and believed in herself on almost a sacrificial level,” he said. “She had a problematic love life, very little money and lived in small rooms in Greenwich Village. I want people to admire and respect her.”

Baldwin is still working on the book even though it is in a warehouse somewhere awaiting distribution.

“I haven’t seen it as a physical thing,” he said. “I hope it’s on some reliable transportation making it here. It’s a fraught time.”

Baldwin will present a talk on Thursday, Oct. 27, at Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairview St., Montclair, at 7 p.m.