My old friend Tim Page, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, came to New York last night to cover the opening of New York City Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne. We hadn’t seen one another in months, so we had lunch at Good Enough to Eat today. Like me, Tim is a man of many interests, and in an earlier part of his life he developed a passion for Dawn Powell, one which eventually led him to write her biography and edit her letters and diary (which he discovered) and the Library of America’s two-volume set of her comic novels.
Tim is, in other words, the Big Powell Guy, and seeing as how I’m a Little Powell Guy–the first essay in the Teachout Reader is about her–he saw fit to bring me a stupendous present this afternoon. He handed over a manila folder inside of which was a tattered but still intact pen-and-ink caricature of Martha Graham drawn by none other than Powell herself. It’s a Thurberesque full-length portrait in reddish-brown ink, captioned “Martha Graham: Analysis in Wonderland.” Modern-dance buffs will immediately recognize the inverted triangle before which Graham is standing as the set piece Isamu Noguchi designed for Frontier, choreographed in 1935. The expression of loony anguish on Graham’s face, by contrast, is all Powell and a yard wide.
Needless to say, I nearly fell out of my chair when Tim presented me with this wonderful souvenir of one of my favorite writers. It was especially appropriate because I already own a Graham-related piece of comic art, an assemblage made for me by Paul Taylor. Not long after 9/11, I wrote an essay for the New York Times called “The Importance of Being Less Earnest” (it’s also in the Teachout Reader) in which I poked fun at the humorlessness of such iconic figures of modern dance as Graham and Isadora Duncan:
What Duncan sowed was soon reaped by a generation of modern-dance choreographers for whom humor was, to put it mildly, a superfluity. To flip through Edwin Denby’s collected reviews of dance in New York in the Thirties and Forties is to be struck by how dour he makes their dances sound. Though he made a point of being fair, he also believed deeply in the inestimable value of lightness, and so it is instructive to watch him grapple with Martha Graham, whose clenched-hair psychological dramas did so much to shape the emotional landscape of dance in postwar America. (When Randall Jarrell wanted to spoof modern dance in Pictures from an Institution, he made up a perfectly plausible-sounding piece called The Eye of Anguish, not realizing that Graham had used that same title four years earlier.) On one occasion Denby described her company as “bold about being earnest, but timid about being lively,” which neatly sums up what many balletomanes find unsympathetic about Graham’s painfully sincere art.
I contrasted their portentousness with Taylor’s miraculous ability to say dark things with a light touch:
It’s surprising (well, no, it isn’t) how many dance buffs are still suspicious of Taylor, mainly because his work, though serious, is never ponderous. Having seen a lot of art of all kinds since September 11, I’m impressed by how many of the things that spoke to me most strongly, from Urinetown to Ghost World to the exhibition of Ben Katchor’s “picture stories” currently on display at the Jewish Museum, were either wholly comic or partook of the sweet-and-sourness found in Paul Taylor’s best dances.
Taylor danced with the Graham company for a number of years, by the end of which he was thoroughly fed up with her high-minded self-importance. What I wrote about her in the Times obviously tickled his funnybone, for he put together a Joseph Cornell-like shadowbox incorporating a clipping of my piece, which had been illustrated by an old picture of Duncan. On the clipping Taylor mounted a butterfly, and on top of that he placed the business end of a rusty old flyswatter. He titled it “Gotcha Both,” put it in an envelope, and sent it to me. “Gotcha Both” now occupies an honored place in the Teachout Museum, and I plan to hang “Martha Graham: Analysis in Wonderland” below it as soon as it comes back from my framer.
I’m especially pleased by the juxtaposition because it happens that I also made admiring mention of Dawn Powell in “The Importance of Being Less Earnest”:
Small wonder…that the children and grandchildren of Isadora, Martha Graham foremost among them, dominated native-born American theatrical dance for so long. They were right at home, particularly during World War II, when American culture, already sick unto death from the political pieties of the Thirties, came close to choking on its own high-mindedness. Dawn Powell, a cruelly funny woman who had no use for such nonsense, skewered the spirit of the age in her 1942 novel A Time to Be Born: “The poet, disgusted with the flight of skylarks in perfect sonnet form, declaimed the power of song against brutality and raised hollow voice in feeble proof. This was no time for beauty, for love, or private future…This was a time when the artists, the intellectuals, sat in caf