The choreographer and TEDGlobal Fellow on how Martha Graham’s work sunk its claws into his mind, on choreographing for the Strangers with Candy film and much, much more.
By Zachary Whittenburg|
In this week’s issue of Time Out Chicago, you can read [node:14895257 link=a profile of choreographer and Martha Graham impersonator extraordinaire Richard Move;], who performs on Wednesday 24 at the MCA Stage as part of [node:14776273 link=the fifth annual Chicago Dancing Festival;].
I kept my composure, more or less, while on the phone with Move from his home in Manhattan, but broke into laughter a few times while transcribing our conversation later. Here, for your edutainment, are his generous words in their entirety.
I’m calling for Richard Move. Is that you? That’s me! Hel-lo! So: What are you all about? What are you up to? What’s your angle? What are you trying to get out of me?
A couple of things. I want to know what you plan to do at the Chicago Dancing Festival. I can’t speak to that. [Pauses] I’m kidding.
And also about the Martha character, how she was born and how she’s grown and evolved. Fabulous. It started when I was a teenager in a performing arts high school studying drama, and we were encouraged to take dance classes, as any good drama program encourages or requires, “Movement for Actors” or whatever, and this is when I was growing up in rural Virginia, Stafford, near Fredericksburg. There was one dance studio and they were offering tap and baton and jazz and then something called “modern,” and I was feeling—well, I was 15, 16, so I was definitely feeling “modern.”
I ascended the staircase of [In a deep, Southern accent] the Fredericksburg Dance Studio, on Caroline Street, and here was the most extremely beautiful woman I had ever seen, in the middle of summer, in full black, classic Graham, long-sleeved leotard and turtleneck and full, long, black rehearsal skirt, full face of makeup, bleached blond hair up in a high bun, named Margaret Ann Moss, who was a disciple of Helen McGehee, who was a very important Graham dancer who lived in a nearby town. So I’m in this class and it’s the most extremely difficult technique, taught with the most poetic, almost cultlike, almost religious imagery. I was totally swept up into it.
Graham was so on another plane. She lived in her own hyper-reality and universe that she created for herself, and I loved the extremity of the beauty. Don’t forget…well, I don’t know what we would call it now, because postmodernism is in year, like, 60 or 70 now, so that’s old-fashioned, but everyone was wearing pajamas and doing release technique and improvisations, and I was more interested in harder stuff like [Merce] [node:52503 link=Cunningham;] and dance-theater, Pina Bausch, that kind of work.
What I’m trying to get to is, one of the reasons why I became so obsessed with Graham is because no one would let me near her. She was considered old-fashioned, very passé. [Graham dances] were these historical, archival things, and yet I thought they were the wildest, almost futuristic, Hitchcock-like Star Trek episodes or something.
I was very drawn, and this is very important, not to becoming a company member, or even studying at the [Graham] school, because the Graham technique and the Graham work are all from the woman’s point of view. The woman is at the epicenter. There didn’t seem to be any reason for me to go, because I wasn’t going to be the studly, half-naked man. She was a misandrist, in a way. I was just obsessed with this character and with this persona. The extreme beauty of this oracular, high priestess speaking about the communication of dance and what it means to be a woman and these universal themes of love and revenge and lust and hate and the poetry of her words, is what I really fell in love with.
She’s the quintessential diva. She’s like Maria Callas to opera, like Betty Davis to film, Coco Chanel or Diana Vreeland to fashion. Everyone else just pales in comparison and comes second, or followed her. And also, I was drawn in by this ennui and sadness about her, because she had a kind of Gloria Swanson, clinging-to-youth vitality and beauty and physical power and prowess, even at 96, when she died. She went on a 26-city Asian tour, came back and died a month later. She was turning it out until the very end.
I had my own theater, called Mother. A beautiful, miniature theater with, like, a ten-by-seven-foot stage, red velvet curtains, golden gargoyles and 75 small, golden chairs. I knew that I had stumbled upon, or had been led by her, to let her speak again and dance again, at the peak of her power. Or maybe just at the end of the peak of her power, in this context.
What we’re going to do at the Chicago Dancing Festival reflects the [Martha @ Mother] variety-show format. She was a big star in vaudeville, which she writes about, how her act was followed by a bird act, or once, she went on and did a dance after an act of miniature horses. It must’ve been so great.
I had no idea. A study of Graham is a study of 20th-century art. Her career started in the ’20s and went until the ’90s. Halston was designing for her, said she was the greatest fashion designer ever.
And Isamu Noguchi, and— —and Noguchi, and Aaron Copland—I think Appalachian Spring was one of the most important compositions of the 20th century, and that was all Martha’s idea, to use the Quaker hymn. It was first just called Ballet for Martha. She changed everything. Lighting design. Costumes. She was the first person to use stretch fabrics, all of these things that we take for granted. She developed a vocabulary that’s as complicated as classical ballet’s, which took hundreds of years to develop. She took about 25 years to develop hers. She just rocked it. She was beyond all of us. So, I like to pretend to be that brilliant and that genius in the show, [Laughs] to be that articulate, poetic, gorgeous creature. I really get off on that. [Laughs] Who doesn’t want that for themselves?
Dancers who worked with her during and after World War II began coming to the show and some were performing with me, like Merce Cunningham, et cetera, and younger artists I would present and introduce to the audience. There might be another dance legend, like Mark Morris and Lar [Lubovitch], who was on the program more than once, and Yvonne Rainer and Paul Taylor, who did a reconstruction. Just amazing, amazing people.
Have you, before or since, ever regularly imitated anyone else? No. No one else is as interesting to me. This distinction between imitating someone and channeling them was something I first came across seeing Joey Arias perform as Billie Holiday in the late ’90s. Were you inspired at all by performers like him, or by what Justin Bond was doing at the time? I never thought of Justin Bond as channeling anybody, I guess because we don’t know who [Bond’s former alter ego] Kiki is.… But Joey, oh my God, Joey. To be in the same sentence as Joey as Billie Holiday is amazing. Channeling is a very strong word, a very strong term to use. It’s a little too New Age, Shirley MacLaine, golden chakra or whatever, but I will tell you that I am…not…myself when I’m onstage as her. Particularly during the dances. I am completely taken over.
How do you get there? The process of getting ready, literally the two hours in the dressing room, is the first step. And the second step happens during the physical and vocal warm-up, and in the audience, and then I feel, like, this huge responsibility to quote her properly. I do feel like she’s sort of “there,” to make sure that she makes a good showing. It’s not me. It’s not me! I don’t know what we would call that.
And no one in Graham’s circles pushes back about what you’re doing? Not at all. The opposite, in fact. They commissioned me to create a new work for the company in ’07, and then I performed as Graham on the 80th anniversary of the company. I did a monologue or two, and then we did an excerpt, about five minutes, of a very classic reconstruction of Part Real, Part Dream, a duet, that I did with Desmond Richardson. [The company and I] have a great relationship, and that’s largely due to a younger generation, Janet Eilber taking over as artistic director, et cetera. It’s interesting: The original Graham dancers, the ones who are in their eighties and nineties and worked with Martha in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, loved [Martha @ Mother] from the very beginning. It was the sort of in-between, B-list that gave me grief. [Laughs]
Was receiving the company’s blessing important to you? Oh, I would’ve kept going either way. But I very much like the new relationship and I’m really honored that I got to make a work for them. To perform in that context was very important to me, and I very much like what the company is doing now. They’re going to do the Robert Wilson excerpt [from Snow on the Mesa] on our program [at the Chicago Dancing Festival]. I’m not sure what their program is the rest of the week.
Embattled Garden and Diversion of Angels. Oh! That’s great, that’s so great. Diversion of Angels is such a beautiful, lyrical, light work compared to… Well, “light” isn’t correct. An abstract, lyrical work about joy and love. And then Embattled Garden is this kind of biblical, almost Adam-and-Eve, darker [work], with an edge to it and the Noguchi sets. I try to convey both of those sides of Martha when I perform as her, because I think that people get very caught up in the Greek period. I feel like most people associate her with those very dark, overwrought, dramatic, tragic works, and Diversion of Angels is the antithesis of that. That’s great programming, because it shows her incredible range. She was very funny at times. As everyone knows, she was also an egomaniac, at the center of the universe that she built for herself.
They’re also showing A Dancer’s World as part of the fest, during its all-day film festival. Heaven!
Is that a significant resource for you? Huge. It’s one of the only places where we see Martha just pontificate for 20 minutes or something. That was a huge, huge resource for me, as I was developing the character. I haven’t looked at it now in years and years, but when I first started, that was the resource for me, to see her speak. She really lets you into her world, her cosmology, her…universe. It’s poetic, it’s funny, some of it is very confusing, I think, to people, because they don’t know what she means in some instances, [Laughs] which I think is part of the charm of it.
A Dancer’s World is followed by Graham dancing Appalachian Spring and Night Journey, two of the best examples ever of capturing dance on camera, that I use as examples when I teach dance-for-camera classes [at New York University]. Which is amazing, because they were made in the ’50s, and you’d think that, with all of our new technology, that I wouldn’t need to show things that are 50 years old as best examples. But those are exquisitely executed dance films.
Is this time-travel to when contemporary culture was less fractured, and there were artists like Graham who developed contained, complete schools of movement, part of what’s kept this work satisfying to you for so long? Oh, absolutely. All of her work and her words are completely timeless, because her themes are universal. She transcends time. I personally feel as though there’s nothing more old-fashioned—and I can’t name names, because it’s not appropriate—than what we call “postmodern dance.” You have to realize that that started in the late ’50s, early ’60s.… I also think that we’re at a juncture where people want to see virtuosity, to see strength, effort and technique. This is a broad generalization, granted, but postmodern dance moved away from a lot of those things.
How did you become the choreographer for the Strangers with Candy film? Aaah! I’m so glad you brought that up. That was one of my favorite projects ever. Like most things in my life, it was a friend of a friend who recommended me, and then Amy [Sedaris] and I met, and we hit it off. There were those musical numbers [planned for the film] and, the next thing I know, I’m working on that film, which is, like, a cult classic now. I’m so proud to have been involved. Amy had seen a Martha performance, and she’d come to another performance with my group, MoveOpolis! So she’d come to know my work and knew that that project required somebody with a sense of irony and with a satirical sensibility.
Where are you? New York City. Home, home, home. I live about two blocks from Times Square, which you can probably hear, since I’ve got the windows open.
Eiko and Koma live near there as well. Yes! They live on my block. I see them occasionally.
They’re also a part of this MCA program that you’re hosting. Yes! And I love and adore them, and studied with them, actually, as an undergrad, at the American Dance Festival. I love their work.
Can I ask how old you are? A lady never tells her age.