At a distance, Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi seem like very different creatures: The first was the product of a stern, Puritan-accented family from the mountains of Pennsylvania, the second was a Los Angeles-born, Japan-raised sculptor who strove in his work to unleash the energies of nature.
Choreographer Graham was an intense, sometimes-imposing figure who spoke in portentous aphorisms; sculptor Noguchi an often-elegant, even-tempered presence.
However unlikely the pairing, the two ended up sharing an artistic sensibility that led to one of the greatest and most productive creative unions of the 20th century.
"The common thread is their aesthetic," says Janet Eilber, artistic director for the Martha Graham Company. "They both were fascinated with myths and iconic figures and history. And they were both seeking this stripped-down essence of shape that evoked the shock of recognition."
The two were also interested in finding ways to bring the arts together, and they were able to do so in more than 20 sets Noguchi designed for Graham's dance pieces. Three of those collaborations, including celebrated ballet "Appalachian Spring," will be staged in a presentation next weekend at South Coast Repertory by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. (The performances are part of the JapanOC festival the group has been presenting, with Carnegie Hall, since October.)
Most of Noguchi's sets are minimalist, suggesting objects rather than spelling out their details. (Graham said she liked the "astringency" of his sets, in which "everything was stripped to essentials rather than being decorative.")
"What's interesting about the sets is the way they stand as a re-creation of the landscape, but not like the one we inhabit," says Amy Lyford, an art historian at Occidental College who is completing a book on Noguchi.
Some of Noguchi's pieces, she points out, transform as dancers engage with them, like an array of long metallic thorns that a dancer suddenly wears as a dress. Says Lyford: "They open into fantasy and reality at the same time."
The two — Graham died in 1991 and Noguchi in 1988 — never formally broke off their work together.
A bigger picture
Graham saw her sets as more than just decorations for her dances: They were part of a larger aesthetic revolution. "Graham was looking for a style of movement that revealed primal expression," says Eilber. "She took body language and aestheticized it, revealing those human essentials, without decorating them." In their day, many of these works were shocking.
Graham wanted the sets, the music and the dances to create their own world for the audience to enter. In Graham's early pieces, in the 1910s and '20s, she danced in front of a black backdrop, a minimalist gesture that seemed stark compared with the painted backings standard at the time.
Years later, starting in the early '30s, she craved a sense of location and enlisted Noguchi for a piece called "Frontier." She didn't want a simple painted background, says Eilber, "but something that shaped the energy onstage." The set was spare, using a fence post and two ropes that created a sense of a vast western plain.
Noguchi came to these projects after a transformation of his own, says Lyford. The 1930s and its economic turmoil drove many artists to connect more broadly to the social movements of the day. "He was very interested in engaging his work with society in a way that went beyond a lone genius creating a work that's just his own. It was about accessing new kinds of audiences, spanning the distance between a show at the Museum of Modern Art to a mass-produced table." (It was mostly in the '40s and '50s that Noguchi worked for Herman Miller and other firms on coffee tables and lamps that would make him an important figure in modernist furniture.)
Noguchi's work as a labor activist, Lyford says, not only taught him about social issues but reoriented his sense of the artist's role. "It's the recognition of multiple voices and the importance of letting voices speak at the same time."
With Graham's dances, this notion of polyphony is almost literally what takes place, because each dance included an original piece of music by a major composer. "Appalachian Spring" is both a Graham ballet about the early American experience and a score by Aaron Copland. "The Embattled Garden" is set in the Garden of Eden, with music by Spanish composer Carlos Surinach. The score for "Cave of the Heart," a jealousy-themed adaptation of the Medea myth, came from Samuel Barber.
Eilber says these three pieces are quite different from one another and show the range of the Graham-Noguchi collaboration.
"'Appalachian Spring' was a very atypical Graham piece — it's quite pastoral, with less conflict than almost anything else in Graham." Its visual aesthetic comes from square dancing, Shaker furniture and railroad design; "Cave" is more purely abstract, though Noguchi compared it to "the islands of Greece."
The design for "Embattled Garden" is Latin, tropical, with bright colors and costumes that resemble flamenca dancers. Eilber calls this piece, which premiered after troubled rehearsals in 1958, "high comedy," with its tension among Adam, Eve and Lilith (reputedly his first wife). "You can look at it as cocktail hours in the suburbs," she says, "with a lot of tempting and making up."
A difficult partner
Throughout her career, Graham had intense partnerships, many of which burned out her collaborator. In some cases she dropped her connection to other artists when she tired of their talents. She could be kind and magnetic, Don McDonagh writes in "Martha Graham: A Biography," but also "mean, cruel, vicious, and unyielding if she thought it necessary." Some of her partnerships with artists — Alexander Calder, for one — were short or unharmonious.
Even with Noguchi things were not always perfect. "Sometimes there is friction," Graham said of their work together. "More than once I had to order him off the stage. But her work with the sculptor lasted for decades — through 1967 — and remained fruitful: Eilber recalls the two as friendly and comfortable together when she first danced with the company in the '70s. For all their temperamental differences, she says, they shared a commitment to abstraction.
"There was a light touch to what he created, that may have allowed that collaboration to function for as long as it did," says Lyford. "The way the objects blended into the bodies of the dancers. That's not typically the way the way the 'master artist' would work. He let it flow."