Creating Contemporary American Identities Through Movement: Martha Graham’s American Document

Indian Episode from American Document

Martha Graham’s dance theater piece, American Document (1938), featured text written by the choreographer. It was revised by Graham in 1989 and inspired a new work of the same name created by the Martha Graham Dance Company and Ann Bogart’s SITI Company in 2010. All of these iterations sought to ask “What is an American?”

Classroom Activities

Read: Read aloud excerpts from the text accompanying Martha Graham’s 1938 dance American Document.

Discuss: Talk about what becoming “American” might mean for immigrants arriving in the United States, in the past and in the present. Ask students to comment on the different perspective of the First and Second Episodes.

Write: Free-write a response (5 minutes) to the American Document text, asking students to pay particular attention to their experiences of becoming “American.” (How) Do they identify themselves as Americans? Does the history present in American Document resonate with them?  List documents, events, attitudes, social and cultural practices such as holidays, material goods and the like that contribute to that identity. Do they know people who have come to America as immigrants?  What about their own families? Discuss their experiences.

Move:

  • Break into groups of four or five and share a movement learned based upon their own cultural identity (See Jawole Willa Jo Zollar).
  • Teach the movement phrases to the other members of the group and discuss how the movement phrases relate to their sense of identity.
  • Share the ideas created during free-writing. Does anything in the writings suggest movements or text that might contribute to a dance about American identities?

Expand:

  • Keeping in mind the lists created during free-writing and discussion during your in class work, find text that defines your “American-ness.”  This might include excerpts from documents such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, advertising slogans, poetry, or excerpts from novels and speeches.
  • Read Mona in the Promised Land or another novel dealing with identity and the immigrant experience.
  • Students might research and analyze any of the documents from the text of American Document. The full text of American Document is available in Needham, Maureen ed., I See America Dancing, 206 – 215.

Final Project

  • In their previously established small groups, students review the movement phrases they worked on and the materials brought into class.
  • After agreeing upon a theme, students collaborate to create a movement study, using compositional techniques such as call and response, theme and variation, or phrase accumulation, and integrate the music, spoken text, design, or whatever artwork inspired their theme into the choreography.
  • Students present their studies to their peers.
  • Through free writing, students respond to the experience of embodying their distinctive American identities.  In writing, they compare and contrast their own movement studies with themes and movements in any of the dances that they have studied: Martha Graham’s American Document, Steps in the Street or Frontier; Pearl Primus’s The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Strange Fruit, Hard Time Blues;  Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Walking with Pearl.
  • Students share their responses in a final discussion.

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