INSPIRATIONAL ADVICE FROM DANCE LEGEND MARTHA GRAHAM By Maryann Wright

Published on 17th May, 2011

INSPIRATIONAL ADVICE FROM DANCE LEGEND MARTHA GRAHAM By Maryann Wright

Sometimes a little inspiration can go a long way, and often comes when you need it the most. Below is an inspirational ‘letter’ that I came upon via Broadway actress, Leigh Ann Larkin, who came upon the note via her pal, Laura Benanti. It’s written from a dancer to a dancer but I think the sentiments are applicable across the whole of the performing arts.

To set up the story, here is a little history.

Martha Graham is widely considered as the Picasso of modern dance. She was the first dancer ever to perform at The White House, the first international cultural ambassador for dance in the US, and the first dancer to ever to join a long list of ‘movers and shakers’ such as Mother Theresa and Stephen Hawking as a recipient of the Medal of Freedom.

Growing up in a family who didn’t want her to pursue a career in the performing arts, Martha Graham was a dancer until the day she passed at 96 years of age in 1991. The Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America.

Agnes de Mille was a lifelong friend of Martha Graham. She wanted to be an actress but was told she wasn’t pretty enough, so she pursued dance. Her parents also disproved of dance as a career path so Agnes taught herself from watching movie stars on Hollywood sets where her father worked as a director.

De Mille went on to choreograph the dream ballet sequence in one of the first Broadway musicals, Oklahoma!, in 1943. She revolutionised musical theatre by combining her love of acting with choreography that conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters, instead of only focusing on a dancer’s physical technique.

Both were inspirational women who embraced who they were and let their heart be their guide and their individuality be their triumph.

Yet, like everyone, there were times when self-belief was lacking and they too needed inspirational words to spur them on in their journey.

After the success of Oklahoma! in 1943, Agnes de Mille was sipping soda at a restaurant with Martha Graham. After years of neglect for work she thought was fine, she found success in Oklahoma!, which she felt was only “fairly good.”

She told Graham:
“I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. … I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.”

De Mille records in The Life and Work of Martha Graham that Graham responded, very quietly:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

These words have had a deep resonance with performers around the world for decades. They speak to the artist who knows they have a spark within them but need the courage to light it and let it shine.

May Martha Graham’s advice to Agnes de Mille half a century ago provide consolation to the artist who is on a lifelong mission to achieve fulfillment through their craft.

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