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Discovery & Process

Ed.D. New York University (1985)

Doctoral Dissertation: Graham's Dance, Steps-in-the-Street (1936)


 and Selected Early Technique: Principles for Reconstructing Choreography from Videotape"

 

How The Project for the Dissertation Began...

In 1982, while driving back from a dance conference heading to NYU,  one of the four passengers in the car asked me what my plans were in preparation for my doctoral dissertation.  The woman asking the question was a celebrated dance historian, Selma Jean Cohen.   Honored by Cohen's inquiry I nervously  exclaimed, "the early years of Martha Graham's choreography and technique".  She turned to me and said, "when you get back to NYU look up Allegra Fuller-Snyder, dance educator and visiting guest lecturer in the film department, at NYU.   Cohen continued to say how she remembered  Fuller-Snyder, sharing an interesting but vague story about some old 1930s film of a dance she had seen, at a documentary filmmakers office.  The film was a documentation of unidentified dancers in what appeared to be fragmented excerpts of a what appeared to be an unknown dance. Cohen further explained her fear that the old footage was in jeopardy of dissolving because of its age and the fact it was filmed on celluloid material.  She strongly encouraged me to try and get in contact with Fuller-Snyder (if possible) and talk with her, for a possible interview.  Ironically, as intimated by Cohen earlier in the car, Fuller-Snyder was a guest lecturer conducting research for a personal project.  Her office just happened to be in the same building where my office was located!   Her suggestion to speak with Fuller-Snyder was strongly encouraged. 


In returning to NYU

I got out of my department chairs car (Dr. Patricia Rowe, who was driving) and ran into the building where my office was located, in the Department of Dance and Dance Education.   I searched for Fuller-Snyder's whereabouts.  I found her!  I immediately called her and discussed my interests for my dissertation.  I was elated when she invited me to her office, that same day, so that we could exchange information.   I was impressed by Ms. Fuller-Snyder's  friendly greeting and interest in sharing any information that might be helpful for my research.  Unfortunately she wasn't able to identify ever seeing the dance in her earlier career. 

However it left an impression she believed was worth investigating.  She described what she had witnessed when viewing the film.  Although it was of little interest to her  professional work, she believed it might be something of value to another researcher.  Fuller-Snyder, interpreted the film as "snip-its" of dancing.  

Unfortunately the film did not include the original music composed by Wallingford Riegger.   Therefore, the film was in  silence.  I researched for a possible recording or written composition but nothing could be found.  I located Riegger' daughter (who was 94 at the time), who gave me permission to get the "Onion Script" of the original music which (she believed) was in The Library of Congress.  Again to my dismay, nothing could be found.


The film did include identifications; with titles, names and identifications of a few sections of dances from CHRONICLE, and to my surprise it successfully captured a dance called, Steps-in-the-Street, in its entirety.   As if the filmmaker knew this dance would eventually be reconstructed in the future, †he filmmaker documented dancers close-ups of; feet, faces, bodies, entrances, and exits. Throughout the filming of the dance  he focused on the dancers bodies in different areas of space on the stage, which identified choreography of various sections and the dancer's physical relationships between one another.  Most importantly there were written credits identifying titles, sections of the dance, and the choreographer's name, Martha Graham.  She, herself,  was not in the work but was seen in another section of CHRONICLE, Solo Spectre-1914.


That was the beginning of my journey for my dissertation on the modern dance legend, Martha Graham.  Fuller-Snyder's experience viewing the film took place nearly 20 years prior to our meeting, in New York City.   By now the filmmaker was deceased and there were no records of the families whereabouts.  Fortunately, she remembered the filmmaker's last name.   


After intensive research I was able to locate the family. The filmmakers son was in possession of his father's estate.  (From here on in, the son will be identified as, " Patron").  Because of a disturbing experience Patron encountered years earlier (before we met) with the Martha Graham management, Patron was adamant that his personal and family name be kept undisclosed and anonymous.  


I was thrilled when I located Patron.  While conversing with Patron, on the phone, it was clear he was receptive to my inquiry about the old film footage. Patron invited me to his office to (possibly) view the footage.   After arriving to his office he opened a vault on the wall and and took out a large film canister and handed it to me.  He said he could try and play it for me to see if there was anything I might be interested in using for my dissertation work.  The film illustrated Martha Graham, and her group of women dancers.  My adrenaline rocketed.  I wondered how I could possibly utilize this priceless find.  Without hesitation Patron  handed the reel canister to me which included the (rare) film footage identified with the word "dance".  Patron handed the reel to me and said, "take it"!   I was overwhelmed and surprised by his offer.


I expressed my gratitude and shared that I didn't feel comfortable of taking ownership.  He offered to make a videotape copy for me to work with and I embraced the opportunity and offer.  With this copy of rare historical identification I was able to begin the reconstruction on my chosen students of dance, including a few professional dancers. 


In the film, the all women dance ensemble were demonstrating Graham's early dance technique and, her 1936 work, Steps-in-the-Street  The film also included Graham's  work, FRONTIER (1931), illustrating a 37 year-old Graham dancing her acclaimed solo, which was filmed in vivid technicolor.  Considering a doctoral dissertation is supposed to illustrate evidence of a unique subject matter, it had to be worth researching, and inevitably presenting something of extraordinary value never before documented.  There was no doubt that this discovery of Martha Graham's, Steps-in-the-Street, was of great importance and would be my  focus of for a proposed project. 


I explained to Patron that if there was anything I could use for my research I would certainly acknowledge his family's identity and generosity.  He insisted that I keep any acknowledgement anonymous. 

Suspicious of his request I inquired why he felt so strongly about being anonymous.  Patron made it clear that If I followed his wishes he would assist me in any way possible.  I respectfully agreed. 

   

Apparently, several years earlier Patron met with Graham and her manager to offer the film canister which held the original rare footage of Martha Graham's choreography of several works.   He believed his gift might be a valuable addition to Graham's current repertory.   As he attempted to hand over the reel to Graham, she adamantly refused to have anything to do with her past of earlier works.  The manager demanded that Patron hand over the canister to him as the property of ownership belonged to Graham.  However the canister and its contents belonged to Patron and his family's estate.   The contents in the canister was now in "public domain" and Patron had every right to refuse the manager's demand.  The manager commanded that if he (Patron) ever shared the film with anyone he would take legal action and sue him. Surprised by the negative behavior and threatening remarks demonstrated by the manager, Patron left the meeting confused and angry, clutching the canister which held the film. Patron was not at all interested in having any future dealings with Graham or her manager, regardless of the significance and importance of Graham's artistic contributions.  


Several years later (1982), I came on the scene.  Patron was elated to know that I would be utilizing the film for "educational purposes" and did not want anything in return.  I investigated with legal counsel on how to proceed with my interest in reconstructing the dance work, and revealing a finished reconstruction of Steps-in-the-Street, in a formal  concert presentation.  I was legally protected because of a "one time only" law to present an artist's work for "educational purposes only" without receiving any "financial profits".


My journey was initiated that day in 1982 when I was a passenger in that car ride traveling back to NYU, from a dance conference.  It all began from word of mouth, to another person's word of mouth, which led to the evidence of discovery.  


Louise Nevelson, Sculptor, was a neighbor of Martha Graham's on E. 9th St. in NYC.  Nevelson was now my neighbor in Little Italy and she shared with me what she had written in her book, DAWN & DUSKS, regarding her neighbor, " When Martha Graham came on the scene, it was like the earth had been rained on and everything was clear and she was ready"!


I was now ready! 

There were many factors involved in preparing a two-partial evidenced  completion for the Ed.D. degree.  My endeavor proposed was met with approval by the department chair  to have a written documentation and a performance of the completed physical reconstruction. Therefore my mission was to make sure that my intended (and required) goals were satisfied.


1) I had to secure personal "permission" from the artist, Martha Graham.  It was forbidden, even unethical to replicate an artists work while the artist was living.  The written dissertation was not in question for legal protection.  However, in partial fulfillment for completion of the doctorate degree it was imperative to present the finished reconstruction in a live performance. One week before the premiere in the theatre at New York University, I was directed to meet with the dean of the school.  I was informed that I could NOT allow a performance of my finished project (because the living artist did not  give permission for such a showing).  I was further informed that he (NYU) would make sure that police would barricade the theatre preventing the the dancers to appear on stage, let alone enter the theatre.  I was under the impression that I was proted for such a showcase.  I adamantly insisted that I would get permission. I did!  After speaking to legal counsel I was informed that I was protected by law to prepare for a live demonstration in a theatre of the completed reconstruction/re-creation of Steps-in-the-Street, under one condition.  A presenter could could only showcase the original living artist's work in the concert arena, open to a public performance, as long as there was no admission for free admittance.  No commercial profit from ticket sales was permitted.  There is a clause that protects the viewing of the original artist's work by others for a "one time" presentation for "educational purposes" only.  


 2)  I knew an undertaking of such proportions  would put me and my reputation in questionable  and negative discussions with many dance professionals and devotees.  On the other hand there were a few who (secretively ) supported my project and were vital for such an endeavor to come into fruition. These distinguished supporters honored the privacy of my intention and goals for reconstructing a dance for posterity purposes.  After-all, the work had been absent from Graham's repertory in nearly 50 years, and no one even knew that there was any evidence (other than Graham and an administrator) of an existing documentation (from the 1930s) of her experimental experiences.  Fortunately, those supporters involved were very curious to see a final production. Others who were negative, clearly expressed anger,  even expressing jealousy. I was lambasted for my efforts with derogatory and demeaning remarks. Who was I to take on such a project? I was only a devoted student of Martha Graham.  I was not (or ever) a dance company member (past or present), so how was I qualified  to for such an undertaking!? I was only a scholarship student and an unofficial apprentice with the company.  


 3)  It wasn't a secret that Graham wanted earlier works in the 30s to be destroyed ("burned" as she's been often quoted) and thus excluded from her repertory for any future performances.  Many years earlier she was offered the original film and opposed physical ownership and was adamant about the film to never been seen by anyone!  The offer came from the son of the filmmaker. Because  he was not treated with respect, nor interest in his free offering, he left her studio clutching his father's celluloid   documentation never to return.  Graham dictated the film be destroyed.  Fortunately †he son (who was now in ownership of his father's business) defied graham's request. 

 

4)  A copy was later secured by me, and inevitably by the Graham foundation several years after my finished reconstruction was premiered for a public presentation.  Understanding her wishes (at the time, 1970s), I proceeded to investigate this historical and artistic decision by interviewing the original dancers who were illustrated in the original 1937 film.  The need to respect Graham's wishes was a dilemma but not the deciding factor to proceed.  My intuition to go further in producing an important artistic contribution by Graham from the 30s, was paramount for posterity exposure for future generations to experience.


The film maker was the husband of a friend of MG's, who too was a dance professional who taught dance in an upstate New York college.   Graham's friend's husband was a professional filmmaker of documentaries.  


The original film did not include the music created by Wallingford Reigger for Graham's,  CHRONICLE. It was prepared in silence.  Music Doctoral candidate, David Sanders, also from NYU, voluntarily composed an original new score for Steps-in-the-Street. Sanders composition was aided by implementing sounds from instruments that were documented in a concert program used in the original production in NYC. Sanders expertise was working on the Mooge Synthesizer.  So replication of the documented instruments were more accessible than creating a group of musicians with instruments. 



The  reconstruction process for documenting steps and spatial patterns of the dancers in the work, presented a problem to capture one of Graham's creative intentions for the dance.   The film was put onto video for the process of reconstruction.  Inevitably  a successful reconstruction and concert performance was realized with historical significance.  First time being demonstrated since its inception nearly 50 years ago, after its creation by Martha Graham.   While my intention was to recreate a lost masterpiece from the Graham repertory, a laborious task was deemed necessary so that the project could closely relate  towards original authenticity of Graham's choreography, as identified from the film/video, which was extremely necessary.   An accompanying written dissertation was included into The Library of Congress and The Lincoln Centre of Performing Arts Library: DANCE COLLECTION, for public perusal.

 

Within a years time the Martha Graham Dance Company recreated an edited  reconstruction version  work under the artistic direction and approval by 

Martha Graham.   This effort was prepared four years AFTER the NYU doctoral reconstruction. 



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The Reconstruction Begins

A Vision for Dance History

A reconstruction process for this project was a goal to bring back to life an important lost choreographic masterpiece of Martha Graham's early repertory, Steps-in-the-Street (1936), so that future generations of dance may have a personal opportunity to experience a pioneer's style of dance technique in the studio, and possibly perform a historical masterpiece by one of the most important modern dance pioneers, Martha Graham!

    There were many factors in the development of such an endeavor.  It involved a series of interviews from the original Martha Graham dancers that were in the 1937 film, or original 1936 choreographic premiere.  Naturally this was dependant on the former dancers if they were still living. I also wanted to use dancers for the reconstructive project who were either proteges or students of the original dancers who participated in Graham's 1936 work.  Intensive researching for evidence of relevant concert programs, reviews, articles, costume designs, music compositions and individual musical instruments was established. Fortunately, because all the musical instruments were documented in an original 1936 concert program, a new original score might be created. A doctoral candidate in music at NYU, volunteered to be an integral part of my project.  His area of expertise was with the Moog Synthesizer.  He was able to replicate the sounds of each instrument notated in the concert program, and with a metronome created an original score.  Gertrude Shurr, an original dancer in Martha Graham's Steps-in-the-Street, came to a few rehearsals of my reconstruction process and shared very important information.  She explained how the music sounded and where emphasis was placed in various sections of the choreography.  Two years later Ms. Shurr, along with other original company members who performed the dance, attended the premiere of my reconstruction at NYU.  Their feedback was heartfelt with overwhelming compliments.  


Piece de Resistance

One dancer, Dorothy Bird, described the experience and reconstruction as the, "piece de resistance". Another dance professional, invited guest, Norman Walker, dancer and chair of dance at  Adelphi University, personally greeted me after the performance sharing his gratitude for witnessing an amazing historical event. 


Martha Graham's Permission

    One very important factor was to premiere the final and completed reconstruction in a performance venue to the public, as evidence of the dissertations project endeavor.  To do so I had to first secure personal permission from the artist, Martha Graham.   After which I would be able to conduct a performance of the finished reconstruction.   It was unusual, even unethical, to replicate an artists work while the artist was living.  I knew an undertaking of such proportions  would put my reputation in questionable  and negative discussions with many dance professionals, critics, historians and devotees.  On the other hand there were a few Graham dancers who (secretively ) supported my project and were vital contributors for sharing important information on their personal experiences with Graham, especially working with her and dancing in the dance in the film. These distinguished dancers and supporters honored the privacy of my intention and goals for reconstructing a dance for posterity purposes.  After all, the work had been absent from Graham's repertory in nearly 50 years, and no one even knew that there was any evidence (other than Graham and an administrator) of an existing documentation from that early period of her experimental period in the 1930s.  Fortunately, those supporters involved in my research were very curious to see a final production.  Dancers in the original production (and film) were extremely interested in viewing my video copy to see how they looked many decades earlier in the 20th century.  Outsiders  were negative, clearly expressed anger, even jealousy. I was lambasted for my efforts with derogatory and demeaning remarks such as,  "Who is he", Who does he think he is"?  How did he get this (film)"? "What qualifies him to reconstruct a Martha Graham dance"?  Afterall I was never a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.  However, I was a devotee and dance student of Martha Graham's at her studio (school).  


From Juilliard to Martha's~ 

While my time at Juilliard, during our daily lunch period, I used to walk crosstown through Central Park, from the west to the east sides of Manhattan so that I could visit the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.  Once arriving at the school I would watch a dance class taught by Martha, from the hallway lobby while eating my lunch.  Although honored to be a student at The Juilliard School, I was missing the intensive training offered at the Graham school.  I decided I had to leave Juilliard.  In the Juilliard cafeteria I saw my dance teacher.  I told her about my feelings to leave Juilliard and go over to Martha's.   The teacher (a former Graham dancer), shared with me a surprising remark in regards to furthering my career studying at the Graham school.   "Graham is dead" she pronounced! I knew what she meant.  That Graham's choreography and technique was no longer an interest or a relevant style of dance that was embraced in the dance community.  Although heart-broken, I was determined more than ever to prove her wrong.   Then, the chair of dance (Martha Hill) at Juilliard, encouraged me to go to Graham's school instead of staying at Juilliard.  Which was exactly what I wanted to hear.  So, I withdrew and ran directly over to the Graham school on East 63rd Street.  Within a week I took as many classes as I could, especially the ones by Martha.


At the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance

On a snowy evening during my first week at the school, around Christmas time, I was looking out a small window onto the street from the entrance doorway of the school.   I thought I was alone in the building when suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a soft voice behind me asking if I was Barry Fischer. It was the legend!  She continued to tell me that I would be on scholarship the following day. She whispered , you have nothing to worry about".  From then on my life changed drastically. Rumors through the hallways were spreading that the only reason I received a scholarship was because people thought I was in a romantic rendezvous with Martha's personal manager at the time.  One preposterous remark after another was not only hurtful but wrong! I trained, I danced privately for Martha, I met privately with Martha, and I helped with any menial task that was needed for the school. I even organized a Christmas party for the entire school.  In the large studio I handed Martha some eggnog.


Within a few months, after learning some repertory, I became an unofficial apprentice to the company.  Dreaming of someday possibly being an understudy for their upcoming Broadway season.  Unfortunately, because of those rumors I was ostracized as a possible performer and became (voluntarily) a "gofer" backstage.  That didn't stop my passion to be part of Graham's history.  I was just as pleased to get a dancer, or stage hand, a tuna sandwich on rye, so I could remain backstage and watch the performances.  Ironically, as the manager's love partner passed me (by while I stood at attention in the designated corner backstage), I was told, "watch out" for Ron!  Apparently he (Ron, the manager) didn't care for the rumors. Within minutes a principal dancer came over to me and said, "how would you like to be Martha's guest backstage watching the performance"? I laughed, thinking he was pulling my leg.  Then he laughed and said, "I'm serious".  Then the managers partner came between me and the dancer and said, "he can't go anywhere"!  Chaos began. The dancer, who was angry at the manager's partner's attitude, exclaimed, "he can go wherever Martha wants him to"!  So I went. Saw Martha, and I sat on the floor, stage left, while Nureyev was warming up before meeting Pearl Lang on stage in, EL PENITENTE. 

After the concert ended the company exited backstage, passing me by as I stood (where I was told) in the corner, I noticed the manager was directing Martha's exit.  As she and he passed me by, she discreetly looked quickly at me and...winked, quick enough so the manager didn't notice.

The next day I was alone (I thought) backstage waiting for the company to enter for the matinee.  As I stood waiting in my "corner" I heard a knock at the door. Entering was Martha Hill, my former Chair of Dance at Juilliard. She had a package for Martha and asked if I could give it to her.  I had no idea where, or if Martha was around in the theatre. Bill Carter (an amazing ballet soloist and now a Graham dancing guest) happened to be in the theatre and he said he thought Martha was upstairs in her dressing room.  Wo!  Could I actually do this? I had to knock on the door three times, even though I heard Martha say, "Who is it?" I knocked a fourth time and heard, "Come in".  When I entered I felt like I was walking in slow motion, while holding Martha Hill's package in arm's length forward. I saw Martha resting on a red velvet lounge, covered by her Halston wrap and surrounded by colorful roses.  She had to turn her head to watch me enter.  I kneeled to her lounge and said, "thank you"!  She responded, "Barry my dear, I knew how much this meant to you in your life, that's why I wanted you there"!  Silently freaking out, we embraced.  I left, only to find out I had to do a delivery to the Graham school.  So off I went.  At the school's office I shared my story to office staff , one particular staff member responded how fortunate I was to have that acknowledgement because she (Martha) hardly did acknowledgement to company members! I It was a rare moment that I appreciated I was a civilian (LOL).


Back to the Reconstruction...When they said, "NO",  I said, "Yes"!

It wasn't a secret that Graham wanted her earlier works destroyed ("burned" as she's often been quoted).   The need to respect Graham's wishes was a dilemma, but not the deciding factor to proceed.  My intuition to go further in producing an important artistic contribution by Graham from the 30s, was paramount for posterity for future generations to experience.   

The physical reconstruction began once I placed the video of Steps-in-the-Street into the VCR, pressed the "play" button and the monitor exposed the ghost of a Martha Graham masterpiece that was about to come back to life.  Inevitably  a successful reconstruction and concert performance was realized with historical significance.  A prepared performance of the completed reconstruction of Steps-in-the-Street, would finally be presented on stage at The University Theatre, at NYU.  This was the premiere of a newly created reconstruction that had not been seen in a live performance arena in 48 years.   HIstory was made successfully on that evening in 1985. Little did I know that in less than four years, after I left NYC, for a university teaching position, STEPS-IN-THE-STREET was reintroduced back into the Graham repertory.  But not because of my first reconstruction.  The Graham administration heard of my historical concert and immediately prepared their own version of Steps-in-the-Street, under the artistic direction of Graham and a protege. Performances began by the Martha Graham Dance Company, receiving outstanding acclaim! News traveled fast in the dance world about Graham's latest reconstruction.  I was not surprised that my  research and work was never acknowledged or recognized by the Martha Graham establishment.  While it's true the version of the dance was edited with a more modern style, the essence of Graham's original intention was demonstrated.  I didn't get to see the newer version until several years later.  The new accompanied music implemented was a work by the same composer, Wallingford Riegger, but was a different composition.  Ironically the composition chosen for the 20th century version of Steps-in-the-Street, was music originally created for Graham's contemporary and rival, Doris Humphrey, for her work, NEW DANCE.    Although Riegger's composition was not the original music for the work, the NEW DANCE music was a remarkable and powerful fit.  The synthesis of Riegger's music with Graham's choreography is complementary and brilliant.  


1985 Dissertation completed

Inevitably my endeavor was achieved as an educational tool for an artistic experience and historical posterity.  The project would benefit the Martha Graham Dance Company's repertory, and for future dance generations to possibly experience an early choreography of Martha Graham's on their personal bodies.  In the end, my work along with Graham's reconstruction, proved that Graham's genius was meant to survive a five decade abandonment, and be reimagined in its entirety by the NYU performance in 1982. 


Today

 Steps-in-the-Street  is performed by the exquisite virtuoso talents by the Martha Graham Dance Company, to enthusiastic audiences around the world~

Their execution  illustrates a bravissimo exposing the extraordinary talents of the company members execution of Graham's  artistic aestheticism. 

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(This article is a work-in-progress for a book,"Diversion of Angles")


UPDATE:   Recently to my honor, I was informed that my efforts would be recognized for future lecture demonstrations and a recognition in performance programs, for my doctoral reconstruction. 

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Had it not been for my doctoral dissertation discovery & project, Steps-in-the-Street, may not have had the re-introduction back into the Martha Graham repertory. 


My personal project and work had no affiliation with the Martha Graham Foundation, The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance or The Martha Graham Dance Company.