Autochoreography As Autobiography: Dancing with the pen and Penning the Dance in Martha Graham’s Blood Memory

Abstract: By introducing. a new concept autochoreography, the article seeks to unravel how Martha Graham has penned her autobiography through her performances on the stage. A major concern is how body is used for articulating one’s self A reiterating feature seen in the text is the deep desire to create an alternate body of autobiography existing adjacent to the limits of the proper autobiographical text. This alternate autobiography is inscribed by the movement of the body through times and spaces, over the course of almost seventy years on stage. It is the presence of this alternative form of self-telling or self-knowing that leads me to argue for a consideration of dance or specifically autochoreography as autobiography.

Keywords: autobiography, autochoreography, body, masculinity, identity

One of the seminal tasks of Shari Benstock’s edited collection of autobiography, The Private Self (1988), is to haze over what is conventionally thought of as legitimate autobiography. Probing into autobiography, the collection challenges “male models that privilege only certain forms of life writing, so that the notion of the Autochoreography as autobiographical’ is extended” (173). The Private Self attempts to extend or blur the boundaries of autobiography in order to question its taken for granted status. This article considers the possibility of an altogether different autobiographical text by proposing a form of autobiography that is repeatedly written and reiterated through dance. Using Martha Graham as an example, the general characteristics of written autobiography will be discussed in parallel with her danced autobiography to show how the dancing maps life and turns into what can be termed as autochoreography.


Autochoreography as a term has to be devised in order to fill in the existing gap in the present dance terminology, wherein there is no one word that denotes the entire repertoire of dances danced by a dancer in his or her career. Just as the term autobiography indicates all the lived nuances of one’s life, the term ‘autochoreography’ potentially sums up the entire danced moments of a dancer. On another level ‘autochoreography’ can also be used to point out all those dances choreographed and danced by a choreographer and can be considered as autobiography itself.

‘Movement’ and ‘Body’ are of prime importance for Martha Graham. This is clear from the opening sentence of her memory text Blood Memory, a statement that firmly establishes her identity: “I am a dancer” (3). A loneliness is produced by a separation from her moving body in which she feels powerful and worthwhile. Characterising loss of mobility in terms of loneliness and loss suggests the importance that Graham invests in movement as a means to articulate who she is. Indeed, for Graham, a strong and articulate bodily expression is the zenith of communication. This strong and articulate body is linked to one’s sense of self, one’s being. The above statement cannot be less ambiguous about the character Graham’s existence: declaring being—”I am”—and the distinctiveness and value of that being – a dancer. The value that Graham placed on this physical, emotional identity almost echoes the current popular phrase “I dance, therefore I am,” Thus, her declaration “I am a dancer” is, of all the possible things she can have opened with, the first line of Blood Memory (2). Being a dancer, she believes, “there was nothing more powerful than the human body” (4).

Reading Martha Graham’s Autobiography

Reading Blood Memory one gets a sense of this passion Graham had for her body as a dancer and what she experienced through penning her body on the stage. Published posthumously in 1991 but begun when Graham was in her nineties, Blood Memory apparently is a stapling together of all the danced and lived nuances of Graham’s life and a thorough scrutiny of the inspiration and circumstances surrounding the creation of a number of her works.

Graham’s memoir is written in a way quite different from the memoir penned down by her teacher and mentor Ruth St. Denis. Titled as An Unfinished Life, Denis’ memory text traces her “unfinished life” reminiscing her new life as a Christian, describing the new found hope and light that came along with her ‘Madonna’ performances. She danced her life till the day before her death. For her, the autobiography is a confession of a sinner who suddenly realizes that the sole purpose of her art is to spread the divine love of Christ. Unlike An Unfinished Life, Blood Memory springs out from the loneliness Graham experiences subsequent to her forced retirement from her profession and passion which stole from her, above all, the desire to live. Discussing the emotional difficulty she confronts while attending a technique class in which she cannot fully participate, Graham writes: “What I long for is the eagerness to meet life, the curiosity, the wonder that you feel when you can really move . . . This I miss in class very much. I miss the animal strength, the beauty of the heel as it is used to carry one forward into life. This, I think more than anything, is the secret of my loneliness”(15). Movement and clarity of bodily articulation are paramount in this definition of loneliness; it is not the lack of connection to people that makes Graham lonely but rather her inability to move her body in an intense and articulate way. Autobiography as Performance The stage performances that Graham made throughout her career articulate what she wants to say about herself and in the process, they plot the progress of her life. Marie-Francoise Chanfrault-Duchet (2000) has identified how this type of narrativization aids in producing an identity that coheres with the passage of time, which she calls a “narrative identity” (64). This narrative identity provides a bridge between providing continuity through time and stability of the self. What seems quite resonant in terms of a coherent identity over time in relation to Graham is the robust, influential, and determined female character that she consistently produced and danced throughout her career. Indeed, Marcia B. Siegel sensitively characterizes these heroines as “all non-conformists – artists, doers, women with power beyond” (308).

These powerful females, their pertinent struggles, and the way Graham represents them develop and shift over the course of her career. These heroines can be charted from the beginning of her career with Denishawn as “Xochitl,” a chaste yet fiery Mexican peasant; to her unique portrayal in Heretic (1929) of an individualistic feminine force that is overcome by a female chorus; to her socio-politically charged pieces of the 1930s all portraying a strong central female character; to her acclaimed Greek period where she played some of the most significant and influential female characters in classical mythology. Here the image of a singularly potent central female character, danced almost exclusively by Graham over the course of almost half a century until her retirement, might point to a desire to narrate and produce over time a certain coherent identity, an identity Graham wants to be recognized as coinciding with her own. Her autochoreography, therefore, serves as a means to represent and chart the self, accounting for the self within various moments in her life. Her dances stand as markers along a narrative trajectory, providing a momentary and arrested location in time that, as Marie-Francoise suggests, is “able to express the transformation of the identity as experienced through a lifetime”(Chanfrault-Duchet 62).

Moreover, this repetitive portrayal can be seen as a form of constructing, reconstructing, and sustaining a certain type of identity. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Graham redefined the boundaries of what could be thought of as feminine in dance. Rejecting the seductive and illusory as represented, for example, by the orientalism of Denishawn or the weightlessness of ballet, she revealed the materiality of the body by accentuating effort, weight, and force. This is evident in the 1930 solo Lamentation, where the dancer was rooted to the very earth that appears to have moulded her. Only the face, hands, and feet were visible in the jersey tube in which her body is encased, and the heavy make-up of the eyes and lips was the sole indication that this figure was gendered female.

Graham coined the phrase “house of the pelvic truth” and she believed that the pelvic area of the body, vital for procreation and giving birth, housed the core of all movements. It is in this area deep in the pelvis from which the contraction ‘always originates” (qtd. in de Mille 98). Unlike Duncan who believed that movement originated from the solar plexus of a body, Graham went even lower and professed that the pubic bone was the “seed of the body” (Jackson 53). Anna Kisselgoff eloquently summarizes the visual effect of Graham’s pelvic-centered movement when she explains that, lw}hile [the contractions often gives Graham’s choreography an explicit sexual tension, and the movement itself has broader metaphorical implications” (98).

Autobiography, Body and Sexuality

By replacing conventional feminine allure with bold and robust women, Graham fosters a modern dance that is capable of keeping pace with the drive and dynamism of the American spirit. In gendering modern dance masculine, she takes what might be considered a Freudian position that the absence of phallus makes women inferior. Freud claimed that women felt inferior because they lacked a penis. He wrote in 1925, for example, “she begins to share the contempt felt by men for a sex which is the lesser in so important a respect, and, at least in holding that opinion, insists on being like a man” (407). Graham’s masculinization of her art and of herself as practitioner counters the weakness of a feminine super-ego, which for Freud renders women “less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life and left them too open to the sway of emotional affect respect, and, at least in holding that opinion, insists on being like a man” (411). The masculinized stance that Graham takes override the notion of female inferiority and set her on a path that prevents her from assuming an artistically compliant role, a position that is to bring her into conflict with many of her future collaborators as well as in her romantic relationships. It is also clear that she was intent on repudiating the mimetic, which meant that she resolutely modernist in rejecting past forms and opening up new territory for a contemporary art of American dance.

Graham’s 1930s masculinized aesthetic is aligned with a modernism informed by “a celebration of maleness” (Childs 24), a perspective that points toward the androgyny of Lamentation and the sexual ambiguity of the dances of the later 1930s. Her realignment of female sexuality resonates with the modernist views of Virginia Woolf, in particular Woolf’s assertion that “it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (165). Graham’s 1929 dance Heretic embodies both the masculine and the feminine in the way that the phalanx of women lunge out in explosive bursts of terse movement or thump their heels hard against the floor. They level accusations at Graham, a vulnerable but determined figure whose pure white robe throws the dark-clad wall of women into sharp relief. The movements for this group are perfunctory to the point of being mechanical, and their near-masculine strength contrasts with the suppleness and pliancy of Graham’s yielding backbends.

Feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter further defined Woolf’s androgyny as a “full balance and command of an emotional range that includes male and female elements” (165), and these words aptly describe Graham’s female pioneer of the 1935 solo Frontier. In the character of the lone woman, we find an independence of mind, spirit, and physicality gendered masculine, yet the woman is clearly feminine in the way that she stands “small and female in all this space she has engendered” (Hargrave 57). Louis Horst’s score, written for the dance after it has been choreographed, includes a snare drum and a trumpet, and this music signifies the absence of man since the rhythmic drum beat suggests a soldier going off to war (Ardolino 13).

The correlation between absent fighting man and solitary female guarding the land conflates the masculine and feminine in this one resolute figure. She is masculine when she commands space with a leg perched high up on the wooden fence, or thrusting upwards into the air in kicks that pass shoulder height. She claims and controls the very space she occupies. A rise from the floor accomplished through the mechanism of contraction and release demonstrates the grit and vigor, which conforms to society’s norms of masculine strength; yet, as for women’s rights. “I’m delighted to be a woman,” she said. “I’ve gotten everything I wanted from men, so I don’t see any reason to exclude them or demonstrate against them” (qtd. in Tobias, “Conversation with Martha Graham” 67). Despite these protestations it must be reiterated that during the first decade of her career, Graham excluded men from her artistic world. Her protagonists are most often strong, bold, independent women whose personalities and affairs run counter to society’s expectations. It is more within the domain of female empowerment that Graham displays feminist tendencies. In establishing herself as a pre-eminent solo artist in the new art of American modern dance, she followed in the footsteps of Isadora Duncan, who espoused what she called a “doctrine of freedom” (45).

According to Ann Daly, this principle rests upon “the traditionally unacknowledged pleasure of female sexuality [combined] with the mainstream virtue of raising children” (163-64). Daly claims, however, that Duncan is not a feminist in line with the term as it came into usage in America in 1913 – when it was written literally with a capital “F.” At that point, says Daly, feminism with a capital “F” represented a shift from the nineteenth-century ‘woman movement,’ which called for female involvement in the public spheres of life on the basis that woman’s unique moral superiority obliged her to improve society” (265). She continues: “Feminism, in demanding women’s rights by focusing on this aspect of the myth, Graham highlights Medea’s insatiable fury at the destruction of her sexual supremacy and thwarted desire. To convey the intensity of her outrage, Medea’s first solo features several phrases of dramatic contraction- based movements, such as the knee-vibrations. These figure-of-eight arcs of the legs initiated by the pelvic motions of contraction and release combine with phrases of percussive upper body contractions in an agonising expression of jealousy and hatred. Lying on one side facing the audience, Medea’s torso contracts in ‘sobs’ of emotional anguish as she witnesses Jason’s adultery with the young princess.

If Cave of the Heart is a chilling portrayal of sexual rivalry, then Errand into the Maze, created the following year, concerns a wild sexuality that is both to be feared and tamed. As the curtain rises a woman stands facing the audience. Her sexual turmoil is immediately apparent, as with hands crossed low over her belly her upper body, held taut by the contraction low in her pelvis, contorts in convulsive spasms. It is as though she is both wracked by sexual desire and fearful of its costs.

These fears are represented just as much by the sharp, percussive contractions that pierce the viewer’s gaze as they are by the terrifying bull creature that she confronts. When finally she succeeds in vanquishing the monster, she gains control over the tumult of sexual terror, which threatens to engulf her. Within the final phrases of choreography, the woman is poised in the midst of Noguchi’s wish-bone-shaped sculpture, calmly circling her leg in the contraction-generated knee vibrations. Framed within the stage sculpture, which symbolises the female pelvic bone, it is as though she has banished not only her terror of the beast that assailed her but also the fear of her own sexual lust.

Graham’s dances are thus informed by her modernist approach, for which she uses the device of the contraction to express the essence or abstraction of a situation or feeling. The contraction is not, therefore, a literal demonstration of the sexual response but functions in a similar way to the objective correlative proposed by T. S. Eliot as a way of “expressing emotion in the form of art” (Cuddon 605). Since the contraction, like the objective correlative, is an external representation of an internal state of mind, it is a symbolic device. In Frontier there was associated with a broader and more radical philosophy of equality between the sexes in all spheres of life, including sexual freedom and economic independence. Furthermore Feminism was distinct from suffragism, which focused specifically on women’s enfranchisement” (Daly 162-63).

Graham’s Greek future dance like Dark Meadow represents a narrative of female sexuality and desire. This theme resurfaces in the Greek triptych (1946-1947) Cave of the Heart, Errand into the Maze, and Night Journey — seminal works in Graham’s canon that employ the organising principle of ancient myth to universalise different aspects of female sexuality, the theme that fuelled Dark Meadow. For the first of these powerfully dramatic works, Cave of the Heart, Graham distills Euripides’s tragic drama, Medea, concentrating on the sorceress’s murder of princess Creusa, who has usurped her as Jason’s wife contraction is the means by which the pioneer woman demonstrates her Amazonian strength, in Errand the contraction expresses the heroine’s libidinous trepidations, and in Cave: sexual rivalry and betrayal. If there is eroticism to be found in Graham’s works and in the way that she presented her female and male dancers, it is, she says, in her glorification of what she found to be “the beauty of the body” and in her enjoyment of what the body “expresses about life” (211). The contraction is housed in the pelvic area, which for Graham dancers, male and female alike, is the well-spring or core of physical energy. For women, this is the centre of femaleness, and for Graham it is both the source of all genuine movement and bodily gesture, which, as viewed by her audience and critics within the context of her range of dances, is an energy that is moulded into a formalised method of expressing the intangible and the sensory. Since the contraction is produced from the pubic area of the body, where sexuality is present, it becomes a power that can bestow joy, fulfilment, or the deprivation of desire experienced within sexual encounters. I return, then, to the phrase ‘the house of the pelvic truth’ in order to emphasise that in terms of female empowerment through dance, Graham went further than any of her predecessors or peers in the way that she specifically used the anatomy of the female performing body. In focusing on the area that houses the viscera and in particular the vagina and the womb, she unleashes a type of primal sexual energy, which drives her as an artist and as a woman.

It is little wonder, then, that the Martha Graham Studio was popularly known as the ‘house of the pelvic truth.’ The above analysis is not intended to give any clear intention to Graham’s representation of a strong female character. Rather, it is noteworthy to highlight the regularity with which she repeats this role and how it points to her production and reiteration of an identity, however complex and contradictory. It is this production of a desired identity through the different choreographic works that span her dancing career that suggests an autobiographical intent. In so far as Graham’s choreographic impetus produces a representation of an analogous type of woman, Graham can be said to have produced a representation of a self that coheres through time and space.

While both the interpretations of this female character and the interpretation (and value) of her choreography in general changed throughout her career, it is a figure that Graham continually returned to as a means to articulate herself. Exploring how Graham’s repeated performance of this character can be understood as a form of autobiography, Let me turn to a discussion of how autobiography is underpinned by the dynamics of repetition or performativity. Narrativization provides the necessary illusion that the self remains stable across the passage of time and that the past is recoverable. In this way narrative is about mastery. It masters the problem of loss of self by insisting that through a recounting of a life, the self is coherent through time. The written autobiography, for instance, might be seen to cohere through time in the way it employs and repeats the personal pronoun The ‘I’ in the narrative can come to represent a coherent accumulation of those characteristics already associated with it while also incorporating new characteristics. It is the accumulation of ‘I’s’ that produces the effect of stability, an appearance of a coherent self through time. As can be seen in the use of it is important for autobiography to be able to repeat and reiterate the characteristics of the gendered self. In order for the narrative to cohere there must be a repetition of an assumed stable gendered subject that passes through the times and spaces articulated in the autobiography. Graham’s choreographic can be seen in the type of character she tries to create again and again, yet I also want to consider another effect of how Graham produced this female ‘I’ and theorise how this parallels the dynamics of written autobiography. This has to do with the importance of witnessing as a means of producing self-presence. In Graham’s case, I want to think about her relationship to her audience and how this produced an ‘autobiographical’ effect. This can be further explained with the help of Freud’s concept of fort and da (Freud 14). In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920) Freud interprets the actions of a child who repeatedly sends away and retrieves a toy attached to a string. As the child sends the toy away he says “fort” (away), and as he brings it back he jubilantly exclaims “da” (here) (15). Freud suggests that this repetitive experience rehearses the child’s ability to practice the illusion that he can command the presence of his mother.

This game, Freud suggests, is a form of mastery and a form of enabling illusion in which the child convinces himself that he has the ability to either retrieve or send away the object/mother. Kathleen Woodward (1988), in her consideration of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, suggests that the anxiety and mastery played out in the fort/da game can be understood in relation to the process of narrativization. The trauma of loss of the past is assuaged in the recounting of that past in the form of autobiography. Here the repetition of a life in its recounting provides the illusion of mastering that past. Woodward quotes Peter Brooks, who suggests that repetition is a “process binding toward the creation of an energetic constant-state situation which will permit the emergence of mastery and the possibility of postponement” (101). Graham’s repetitive restaging of a similar contiguous female Character could be understood as using the mechanism of fort/da to secure mastery of the self. The performance event serves as the moment of da. Graham can summon the lost object (her sense of self) into her presence during her time on stage. Away from the stage, during her time in the studio, she enacts the fort. She casts herself away from herself. She does this in order to both indulge in the hope that she can reconstitute this self during her time on stage as well as because she wants to confirm that she can exist at least temporarily without the da the stage provides. Importantly, the ability to perform this desired identity successfully was predicated on the presence of an audience. For Graham, the audience can be said to have provided a witness—a witness to confirm her “being.” In relation to autobiography, George Gusdorf writes, “riln narrating my life, I give witness of myself even from beyond the grave and so can preserve this precious capital that ought not to disappear” (29). Here, Gusdorf intimates that the writer desires to provide evidence that their life was indeed lived. The writer provides proof of one’s self and one’s own existence. Gusdorf also intimates the importance of an audience, even if this audience or witness is the self. A witness is required to substantiate one’s existence. It is the writer’s projected audience that provides the necessary witness. In this way, even if the witness is the self substantiating one’s self – existence always requires an onlooker.

In performance the “role” of witness is central to the concept of theatre. As Peggy Phelan suggests, Western theatre is itself predicated on the belief that there is an audience, another willing to be cast in the age role of auditor. The “act” at the heart of theatre making is the leap of faith that someone (that ideal spectator some call “God”) will indeed see, hear, and love those brave enough to admit that this is a movement that keeps us away from our deaths (or at least permanently dark houses) (31). Phelan’s expression can be interpreted as “a movement that keeps us away from our deaths” as a signalling not only of bodily death as such but also as a trauma that could dislodge the self from “reality” (33) This type of death is produced when there is no perceived interlocutor (be it some idea of God or the self within the self) that can provide the knowledge that one is, in fact, present. For Phelan a way of witnessing that keeps us away from our deaths is similar to Western theatre’s relationship to its audience. This audience provides an auditor and the illusive guarantee that the self is witnessed, that the self is indeed acknowledgeable, and that something called ‘me’ or ‘I’ is indeed present. Certainly it is found telling that Graham attributes, in a slightly different fashion, the same kind of necessity to her audience as does Phelan. Here, as Graham speaking with Walter Terry in 1975, states, “I have a feeling that everyone is terribly lonely. And aloneness is one of our reasons for fearing death. The thing I feel with an audience is that I am not alone. Whether they like me or don’t like me at least they are positive. I’d rather believe they didn’t like me than that they were apathetic” (qtd. in De Mille 276). Graham, therefore, suggests that in the presence of an audience she does not feel alone. In her estimation “aloneness” is the thing that makes us fear death. There is no companionship in death; death is interminable loneliness. But for Graham the presence of an audience is affirming. Graham cannot be lonely in the presence of an audience, therefore the stage defies death. The audience provides the possibility of a mutual witnessing, or, in Phelan’s words, “a movement that keeps us away from our deaths” (Phelan 32). The audience is a positive force even in its potential animosity. Here Graham suggests, like Phelan, that the audience provides the means to give witness to the self. For Graham the audience provides life and self -presence. The audience provides da. Given these considerations, I suggest that Blood Memory was not the only autobiography that Graham ‘wrote’. Indeed, in Blood Memory one can witness the potency of Graham’s attempt to dance with the pen just as she penned her dance once on stage.


Thus, for Graham, Blood Memory is the incredible body-investment she had in dancing and how she penned it on stage. From at least 1935 onwards, with Graham’s burgeoning interest in Jungian psychology, the phrase “Blood Memory” was a key touchstone in Graham’s dance philosophy: the idea of a transhistorical bodily inheritance. She writes in Blood Memory, “for all of us, but particularly for a dancer with his intensification of life and his body, there is a Blood Memory that can speak to us. We carry thousands of years of that blood and that memory” (7-8). During her dancing career, Graham strove to be a communicator of this Blood Memory. She danced an ideal of the body that was physically robust, agile, and, above all, expressive -a body that was timeless and ageless. Writing in her nineties, it does not seem unusual that Graham would entitle her autobiography as Blood Memory because, as it can be argued, it was her attempt to recapture the potency of a bodily form of communicating who she was. Hence, for me Martha Graham’s written autobiography was an attempt, by other means than dance, to maintain her physical self eloquence. Then, a reiterating feature seen in the text is the deep desire to create an alternate body of autobiography existing adjacent to the limits of the proper autobiographical text.

This alternate autobiography is inscribed by the movement of the body through times and spaces, over the course of almost seventy years on stage. It is the presence of this alternative form of self-telling or self-knowing that leads me to argue for a consideration of dance or specifically autochoreography as autobiography. And I believe that either one can replace the other. The process of penning her body – internally lived and also produced on stage (autochoreography) – and as a written memory text (autobiography) eventually turns out to be a process of ‘becoming’ and also ‘reaffirming’ what she believed she was. The act of writing both these autobiographies could have given Martha Graham a sense of ‘wholeness’ (even though the notion of ‘wholeness’ is despised by the poststructuralists), a sense of ‘being’ experienced through the act of ‘becoming.’


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TEENA RACHEL THOMAS. Is Lecturer, Department of ELT Eritrea Institute of Technology, North East Africa.

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Is Lecturer, Department of ELT Eritrea Institute of Technology, North East Africa.

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