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The Martha Graham-Isamu Noguchi collaboration

February 19, 2011 |  6:00 am

Groundbreaking choreographer Martha Graham, perhaps the person most responsible for pioneering modern dance –- a phrase she hated -– could be a tough person to work with. She had all kinds of tangles with dancers, and her work with set designers -– who contributed an important aspect of her creative vision -- was often stormy as well. She had a short, unhappy collaboration with Alexander Calder, and a longer one with designer Arch Lauterer that was underlined with frustration.
 But Graham’s longest and most fruitful collaboration was with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and three of their productions, including “Appalachian Spring,” will be staged next weekend at South Coast Repertory by the Martha Graham Company.
Graham knew Noguchi in part because his mother sewed costumes for her dancers and his sister had danced with her. They worked together for two decades, on roughly two dozens dances.

On Noguchi’s death in 1988 she said: “The works he created for my ballets brought to me a new vision, a new world of space and the utilization of space. Isamu, as I do, always looked forward and not to the past.”
The Orange County performances have an additional resonance: Noguchi was born in Los Angeles (and will be the subject of a Laguna Art Museum retrospective opening in June), and Graham spent an important part of her teenage and young adult years in Santa Barbara and L.A.
“My people were strict religionists who felt that dancing was a sin,” she told Dance magazine. “They frowned on all worldly pleasures…. But luckily we moved to Santa Barbara, California,” when she was 14. “No child can develop as a real Puritan in a semitropical climate. California swung me in the direction of paganism, though years were to pass before I was fully emancipated.”

To read the Arts & Books article on this dynamic duo, click here.
-- Scott Timberg

Photo: Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins and the Graham company in her "Appalachian Spring," with sets by Noguchi. Credit:  the Library of Congress