John Martin at UCLA 1965-1970

In the formative years of Modern Dance during the late 1920’s to 1940, John Martin was the most influential dance critic in America, writing for the New York Times from 1927- 1962.  He received his By-Line in 1930 after he wrote a review of Mary Wigman that caught the attention of a night editor, who removed it, only to have Sol Hurok buy space in the paper to publish the entire review.  John Martin coined the term “modern dance” to describe the development of American dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris and others.  In 1965, following his retirement, Martin taught courses at UCLA for the next five years, exploring ideas that were at the foundations of the art of dance.  Gary Bates vividly recalls his experience being a student in Martin’s classes from 1966-1970 and again at Florida State University in 1972, along with many hours of conversations over the years. This is a revised excerpt from his Master’s Thesis on John Martin, 1976.

My introduction to John Martin came in February 1966 as a student in his casual discussion group at U.C.L.A. called Dance Perspectives.  It was my first semester as a student and his second session.  He had been invited the previous spring to teach this class by Dr. Alma Hawkins, Chair of the recently formed Dance Department.  Seated at the head of a long table he let loose his often witty chatter, designed at predictable moments, to explode each of our rather shabby myths and preconceptions.  His sleight-of-tongue remarks, teasing us one moment, jolting us the next, would do just that, making us aware of the vast emptiness of our conclusions.  Yet it was not our nature to give in so easily to his gentle manner, nor his, to our reluctance.  We fought.  We laughed.  We swore.  With increasing enthusiasm and eagerness he stood firm his ground – outlining the terms that gave birth to Modern Dance – laying the groundwork for the future from the seedy remnants of a recent past which he had viewed passionately at first hand.  His anecdotes were always fresh; his memories clear and to the point.

His classroom seemed the perfect place for the exchange of ideas and opinions that so excited our own process of development.  As John expressed Doris Humphrey’s approach to dance being “the arc between two deaths”, so he felt that the two most certain deaths of learning were not wanting to know and thinking you do know.  At the point where conclusions became a certainty, he would turn the corner, circumvent the answer and rest his question in the balance of our convictions and disbelief.  He was playing with the arc between our own two deaths.  It was so simple and it was not so simple.  Ever the gentle actor captivating his audience of nonbelievers, (which had been his profession before he came to the New York Times as the first full time dance critic in the United States) he began probing simultaneously the inner visions of dance and dancer.  He knew the personalities of the dance would be fascinating to new eyes.  Yet, it was not in the interest of looking backward that he wove his tales, but in the hope of nudging us toward the future.  He intended to reignite the passion that became the force which gave birth to Dance in America.  More importantly, it helped lift dance into the exalted realm of fine art, a place of honor it had failed to attain throughout its history.  Until the 20th century, encyclopedias and dictionaries failed to list dance as one of the Fine Arts, which included architecture, sculpture, poetry, music and painting.

The lighthearted, chatty enthusiasm with which John spun his tale (for the experience was indeed like listening to a bard of old) left us with curious impressions.  We felt an odd sensation of witnessing a myth in creation.  The whole thing seemed too easy, indeed!  What was he getting at by employing this method?  Why were his techniques, interesting though they were, so disarming?  His manner, so “off-the-cuff,” seemed incongruent to the depth of understanding behind his remarks.  His apparently impersonal nature was betrayed by the sparkle of delight in his eyes.  What was John Martin, the teacher, all about?

Each morning John would meet his class carrying a little folder.  Out of this folder would slip a smallish envelope containing scraps of papers, an old laundry ticket, a grocery sale stub, the back of another envelope.  On this patchwork of scraps was scribbled a note or two for future reference.  At the appropriate moment, a pause, a hesitant shuffle through the innocuous little heap of notes, the sign of recognition – then on to the particular point this reminder would inevitably clarify.  Apart from the suppressed giggles which this display elicited, we never stopped being disconcerted by it.  There, in that pile of rubbish, lay the fabric of an aesthetic woven out of seventy-odd years experience in the world of theater and dance.  The very essence of the struggle he had witnessed seemed reduced to absurdity.

John was employing tactics to snare us and hopefully stimulate our curiosity in the subject we had come to U.C.L.A. to investigate.  His techniques were designed to throw us off those well-worn logical trails, scintillations as it were, to spark our own otherwise active imaginations.  He was absorbed in connecting with that fundamental wellspring of emotional experiencing in his students that would motivate a real kind of learning, a wanting to know in them.  A student’s desire to dance or to know about dance was uppermost in John’s mind, and he was significantly aware of how all of us had come to a kind of shorthand of experiencing where the symbol-of-the-thing has replaced the thing itself.  He was concerned about this loss of individuality of things around us resultant from the practical demands of life.  Language with its ability to represent the thing itself had helped to hide this individuality by codifying, for speedy and more practical use, its “thingness.”

When any art communicates, the artist can elicited certain emotions about a particular situation.  The artist’s intention is to move us from one habitual feeling about something “… to a new reaction which has an awareness of life in it and is liberating and beneficent” according to his statement in Introduction to the Dance.   To John, the art experience was essential for everyone, and vitally necessary to break down this inertia of symbolized life and remove the “Tarnkappe” (cloak of invisibility) produced by it.  Most often his discussions and our responses centered on the meanings of particular words and how these meanings had crystallized into the rules and formulas that had inhibited us from seeing into and through the experiences that produced them.  Terms such as art, artist, Fine Art, classical, modern, form and content were investigated, reduced to a fundamental meaning and then expanded again, thus freeing them to be understood.

By piercing through our preconceived attitudes about dance, the shields of symbolic armor with which we had surrounded ourselves, John was preparing us to reach the source of our impulses to discover dance and build a free channel for communication.  This was only the first step, however, in reaching and developing those urges and impulses, for they must develop in order to function in learning.  Now we could begin to cultivate imagination, to select and refine our concepts and benefit fully from the learning experience.  John developed a keener sense of style in the university classroom dialogue more in tune with his own concepts of creativity.  By this means he and the students could “delve into experience and unearth its truths” anew.

We learned that in speaking of the dance we must not confuse the act of dance with our investigation of it.  John helped us realize that if we must investigate dance through words, then the act of investigation should parallel the act of exploration we employ in the studio.  Whether through words or movement, we are dealing with the flow of expression, a working out of those initial impulses of discovery so that they may be understood.  The art of communication is essentially the same in any medium because it implies the process of fluid forming.  That is why confusion arises when we “talk about dance” or “dance out symbolized concepts.”  According to John there are no substitutions for artistic expression.  There is still room for exploring and understanding the inherent values of a particular medium of expression or to investigate the differences that make each medium unique.

Behind John’s lighthearted humor and gentle persuasion was a deeply felt eagerness to guide us toward the truths of our experience.  He wanted us to be aware of essentials as a place to begin, and felt that the fundamental reduction of a thing was the point to build rather than rest upon.  For art to John is the act of illuminating experience created by our needs.  It is the bridging of the gap produced by our own two deaths – of thinking we know and not wanting to know.  It is the fulfillment of our need to formalize the impulse to say something, the impulse often being much stronger than the initial means of expressing it.

Writing in 1939 in his book Introduction to the Dance, John formulated this thought in another way:

Good art speaks directly from the creator’s emotions to our own, provided that our native response mechanisms are in working conditions, and this kind of contact constitutes the only real experience of art.  The proviso, however, is a fairly large one, for the response mechanisms of a great many of us have become pretty well clogged up with extraneous theories and the rust of disuse.  Since theories are largely matters of words, words are perhaps the best possible means for exploding them. Thus a verbal attempt to clarify the spectator’s approach to the dance becomes largely a clearing away of the underbrush of erroneous theory so that the free channels may function.  (p. 14)

“Open, open, open” we would hear John saying.  “Open, open, open,” he would repeat, and then again, until we, the idea, and even John had been whittled to the quick; sliced to the raw nerves. Only then, having endured the excision of our shabby myths and preconceptions, we could begin to create a concept, a foundation for the understanding of an art experience.  Reducing the accumulated defenses that kept us from experience was his motive.  He left us searching for the seeds of our own recent past and the awareness of the means by which to plant and nurture them.  Reunification brought the whole self into being, able both to produce its own future and adapt to another’s.

Since art is a means of communication, the medium of expression must by-pass those habitual theories that keep one from communing with life.  The reiteration of that kind of experiencing only deepens our well-trodden paths, which reinforce our defenses, establishing a minimal concept of art.  From there, the theory easily slides into an affirmation of art as decorative or entertaining, ultimately less important than our so-called “useful arts.”

For John this was a crucial matter of concern.  The arts are as critical to our functioning as are the biological processes.  According to him, a significant part of the art experience is an outgrowth of the biological function.  It operates through the senses, coming to play in the autonomic and central nervous systems, ordered (but not created) by the intellect and finally expressed in our own bodily action.  The flow of experiencing is revealed through intuition, affected by chance, ordered in the intellect, and directed with will.  From the interaction of the residue of memory and the basic impulses of desire and fear comes the stuff of creativity.  This is the eternal spring source.   In the association of ideas – the already ordered symbols of experience – comes the ability to invent and control.  Because we act as a whole, the intuitive-biological process and the association of ideas are in constant dynamic play.  Our perceptions provide continual nourishment for this procedure.  Perception is a felt-whole, not at all linked to the symbolic realm of ideas.  He went further when he said,”… we must use the eye and the ear simply as channels through which beauty, art, rhythm, form are conveyed to the perception.

As John continued to remind us in class, “there are only two things in the universe – you and everything else.”  The undiluted perceptions which continually cause our stirred-up states out of the conflicts of the “you and everything else” produce the urgency of resolution.  It is not something exceptional, but a ceaseless activity of man as such.  Man possesses the world only in the form of representation, and only knows it by his ability to create it.  This state of knowing is not limited to the individual self but connects to that notion of universal self.  Here then is the bond between artists and their audiences, for in everyone’s ability to know lies his channel of response.  The act of creating is the revelation and illumination of experience.  It transcends our will to be and feeds our will to grow, to become, to continue connecting and feeling whole.

The root word for art is from the Latin, ars-artis, meaning skill, and since the word is a verbal noun it implies activity.  A Martin maxim from the classroom is “Art is skill under urgency.”  This definition leads John to surmise that we “make art about what we need, not about what we have.  Thus we can infer that any artifact produced through urgency is useful and further that all art is useful.

Italian aesthetician Benedetto Croce believed in the capacity of man as continually creative.  Yet, as Henry Bergson and Roger Fry realized, John Martin saw that it is only those who attain that openness of sensing who can begin to reveal the extraordinary riches hidden behind the more common signs and labels of our everyday life.  These disciplined perceptions give us a glimpse of that intimate universe which the artist has created to illuminate experience.  Not everyone has the need to reorder this universe or to reveal it; but one can respond to the expression of that need in others.  When one does have the ability to bring into balance that which is perceived by others as disordered, this person is capable of an expression of great value – of producing art through this fictive universe.

Each quarter John opened his class with a request that we not take notes.  What we deemed important would stick with us; what didn’t stick was useless anyway.  During the interchange of ideas and opinions, more often than not we were goaded into discovering our inner resources.  The necessity of constructing new defenses, however flimsy, seemed imperative; but in spite of our efforts he continued to expose to us the need to open ourselves to sensing, to discipline our perceptions, and to reveal the richness of our expression.  Beginning to recognize the value of this process, the facts took on new meaning as they illuminated our own urgencies, our own unformed questions about the “how and why” of dancing.  Out of our shredded defenses he rewove the diaphanous armor of equipoise.  We were learning to learn!


© Copyright 2012  Gary Bates  All rights reserved