by Lissa Tyler Renaud*

MTWOOD

On Facebook—that de facto arbiter of up-to-the-minute relevance—every mention of Marnie Thomas Wood evinces cascades of comments that feature, along with the requisite “awesome!,” such words as: amazing, beautiful, inspiring, wonderful, fantastic, exciting, happening; knowledge, thanks, love, sharing, honored, blessing.

Along with these, there is information on Wood’s recent activities in New York. Here she is, dancing in a 2016 music video by popular singer-songwriter, Samantha Urbani. Here, she is giving sought-after 2015 master classes at the renowned Paul Taylor School. And here (as of this writing), she has a show coming up in April 2016 at Joe’s Pub, the venue that hosts performers on everybody’s who’s-hip list, and the one that was declared one of Rolling Stone Magazine‘s 10 Best Clubs in America.

And here, further afield, Wood is lecturing, speaking, and teaching, at Oxford University, England and U.C. Berkeley, California, both in 2014; in Madrid, Spain, in 2014 and 2015, and in Athens, Greece, in 2015.

And while this might sound like the busy career of any professional dancer today, it has a different feel when you know that, as a teen, Wood studied in Switzerland, in a two-week summer dance program, with the great Mary Wigman (b. 1886)—and that was in 1953. Indeed, Marnie Thomas Wood has had such legendary longevity in the profession, that between her own performing, her teaching, and her myriad other dance-fostering appointments and undertakings, she has had an impact on at least three generations of a large swath of the dance profession in America and beyond.

By her own account, Wood was three when she knew her life would be about dance. So it’s not surprising that, having just graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1958, Marnie Thomas joined the Martha Graham Dance Company. Graham, of course, is considered to be the dance equivalent of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Frank Lloyd Wright in painting, music and architecture respectively. Simply put, she changed what it meant to dance. Wood not only toured and performed with Graham’s Company, she also taught at the Graham School. When Martha Graham (b. 1894) began to choose dancers who could carry on in her own earlier roles, which included performing her own famous solos, Wood was among the first successors she chose.

In 1968, the University of California at Berkeley was catapulting to worldwide attention as a hub of political and social awareness. That was the year Wood relocated there, with her husband and partner David Wood, and their three children, to establish and develop a brand new dance major. During what she calls her “California years,” in addition to choreographing, teaching, and administrating for the dance program, Wood went on to serve the University as both Chair of the Department of Dramatic Art and Chairman of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Arts. She was also honored with no fewer than three coveted Isadora Duncan Awards for her contributions to the professional dance scene in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

During her decades on the West Coast, Wood continued her relationship with the Graham organization on the East Coast, and, upon retirement from the University, she returned to New York City to serve as Director of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance from 2003 through 2006. From that time till now, while pursuing every chance to further the field of dance, Wood has been a consultant, as well as reconstruction and rehearsal coach for the Graham Company, and a revered faculty member of the Martha Graham School.

It was great fun to interview Wood, who is articulate, very frank, and somewhat bemused by the rush-rush culture of today. Seeing the dance world with the long view that Marnie Thomas Wood offers us, we have a privileged glimpse of what we have to celebrate now, and also perhaps something of what we have lost.

Marnie Thomas Wood. New York studio photo, mid-2000s. Wood Collection
Marnie Thomas Wood. New York studio photo, mid-2000s. Wood Collection

How has the role of dance changed in the cultural life of our nation?

Dance is the last art form to be appreciated as a vital part of America’s culture. It is just beginning to stake its claim alongside literature, painting, sculpting, and music as a valid source of inspirational expression enhancing our foundations. The twentieth century revolutionized the art form through the introduction of uniquely American forms of contemporary dance, spawned by great artists emerging with innovative approaches to meet an era racked by two world wars and progressing with breakneck speed. Dance spoke to that moment. It reacted to current issues and took on cultural significance shaped by the way it reflected present concerns. That role continues to affect the cultural life of our nation.

Yes, thank you! So, what are our present concerns, and how are they reflected in today’s dance?

Dance speaks to our times in several ways. Because the instrument of expression is the human body itself, today‘s “Adidas” prowess brings a physical focus beyond the traditional, graceful aesthetic, offering—and in some cases insisting upon—a much more athletic point of departure. In tune with that is the increased number of un-pointed toes, loose limbs and inelegant costumes that complement the sweat pants identified with everyday living. Today’s concerns are expressed somewhat in “lack of concern” approaches. . . . Don’t be too dramatic, too psychological, too attached to old-fashioned causes or heart rending revelations.

Are there present day concerns dance can’t address? Is there ever a feeling of censorship, or self-censorship?

There do not seem to be forbidden territories to explore. Nudity, same sex love, aloneness, full out airing of racial issues are all valid matters to pursue, but one needs to handle them with just enough removal to prevent being labeled outdated twentieth-century indulgence. “Keep it cool.”

Today, with the advent of film and video, dance has gained the significant dimension of “preservation beyond the moment of the curtain closing,’’ and has become an art form that can be recorded and realized with a past/present/future in the same way that a printed book or a museum’s treasures add depth to our perception of the other arts.

Playback session, music video for “U Know I Know,” by Samantha Urbani. Pia Vinson, choreographer (standing left); Marnie Thomas Wood, dancer (kneeling front). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=317LgVuagBo, uploaded Feb. 8, 2016. Photo: Andy Boyle
Playback session, music video for “U Know I Know,” by Samantha Urbani. Pia Vinson, choreographer (standing left); Marnie Thomas Wood, dancer (kneeling front). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=317LgVuagBo, uploaded Feb. 8, 2016. Photo: Andy Boyle

Very important. And how does it change the experience of choreographing to know that dance is no longer the “ephemeral art” the performing arts all used to be? And what does it change for the dancers?

Film and video have served dance as the printing press served literature or musical notation served music. There is now a way to “preserve and publish” dance, which did not exist before the invention of these media. The fact that film and video are also exploding art forms in themselves impacts dance as well, as they become partners in the invention process for dancers to incorporate into the creative development of their work.

Dancers usually relish the addition of opportunities to film their work.  As documentation, it helps in the later reconstruction and rehearsal process, and when included as part of the choreography itself, film can broaden the performing dimension of a work, appealing to the current audience that wants all the diversity that mixed media might offer.

Because dance involves sound as well as sight as well as articulation through human expression, it has gained special advantages from the explosion in new technology and theatrical invention.

Sound—a marvelous point!

Dance touches more than one sense . . . sight, sound, emotional engagement . . . plus, the actual instrument conveying the message is the human form itself. This creates a deep and demanding challenge for this art form to register on all of these levels of engagement. If a dance is to reach this audience, it needs to meet the criteria of the current mindset that will only be moved if the sounds, sights, story, etc. match the viewer’s own exposure to all of these sensations. Today’s audience is used to neon lights, electronic noises, fast moving shifts, and constant change. How does each new dance performance deal with that?

Do technological advances change what it means to become a dancer?
Are there new technical challenges for the dancer?

When the added technical achievements in the complementary arts are built into performance, it broadens the chances for dance to register with current experience. For example: recorded traffic sounds in a running and bumping dance sequence, perhaps . . . and/or visual flashes of car wrecks shown across the backdrop . . . costumes attached to elastics preventing the dancers from progressing like a traffic jam . . . recorded voices reading off accident statistics . . . sounds coming from behind the audience rather than from the stage. Today’s audiences will feel quite at home with this kind of accompanying invasion by special effects hitting every sensory organ as it reflects the onslaught of daily life on more levels than just movement phrases performed to measured music.

So audiences have changed, and dancers change along with them. What about changes in dance training or education?

Dance has now become a subject for scholarly exploration; it has academic credibility. In addition to training for performance or choreography, one can presently major in Dance at many American universities with a focus on scholarship, and go for a graduate degree—a Masters and/or PhD. One can develop a career as a scholar or teacher at the university level, or have a future in writing or arts management.

Who is attracted to training as a dancer today?

Dance is no longer considered a sporting amusement for kings or an entertainment between operatic arias. It continues to evolve as a valued part of our cultural life.

What valued part of our cultural life does dance play now?

We have some clear indications that dance is of increasing value: First, dance artists, choreographers, performers and dance companies are recognized by name and reputation, critiqued and celebrated in the press along with artists and events in other disciplines. Second, dance companies are supported by civic and national agencies promoting American Arts. In addition, libraries now have whole sections dedicated to Dance, with volumes written by dancers and about dance attesting to the many aspects of its continued development. Lastly, film and video artists, set designers, and composers continue to collaborate with dancers, choreographers and performers maintaining an interaction amongst leading arts generators.

Compelling signs indeed. Now l’d like to turn to your own work. What is new for you in the way you teach now? Or, has your teaching changed over the years?

Teaching continues to change radically as the ever-increasing speed of communications, technology and access to information contribute to the need to meet current minds, eyes, ears, and bodies. Students have access to an extremely broad range of choices coming from a wider exposure to methodologies, and often tend to want instant satisfaction, rather like answers that can be fetched up on cell phones.

In addition, current educational trends that “reward one just for trying” can undermine some of the effort to work longer and harder to accomplish greater achievements. Teaching today requires drawing upon resources that stimulate a student to push beyond the comfortable, to abandon finding easy answers with an appetite to dare to take on the greater challenges that time and hard work reward.

Marnie Thomas Wood teaching Graham Technique; poster for November-December 2015 master class at Paul Taylor School in New York. Photo by Lawrence Scott
Marnie Thomas Wood teaching Graham Technique; poster for November-December 2015 master class at Paul Taylor School in New York.
Photo by Lawrence Scott

Does your teaching change in different countries (recently, for example, in Greece and Spain)?

Teaching abroad is usually easier, I find, as students from other cultures are less eager for instant results and tend to come from dance disciplines out of a conservatory mentality, which prepares them for investing themselves for the long haul.

Marnie Thomas Wood: Graham Technique workshop at Escuela caraBdanza, Madrid, Spain. November 2014. Photo by Carlos Caravahal
Marnie Thomas Wood: Graham Technique workshop at Escuela caraBdanza, Madrid, Spain. November 2014. Photo by Carlos Caravahal

How has your own experience of, or thinking about, dancing changed over the years?

Basically, dance has been a major focus of my life since I was three, when I decided that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Those first decades were about discovering how to reach out and communicate with an audience and perfect the way to articulate my message. Now, dance is about what I have discovered about myself and using all I have learned to support and enjoy the rewards of making it all add up.

Marnie Thomas Wood with Kim Jones. Graham Studio improv event, “Excavation Site: Martha Graham USA,” with artist Michael Klien. January 2016. Photo: Graham Studio
Marnie Thomas Wood with Kim Jones. Graham Studio improv event, “Excavation Site: Martha Graham USA,” with artist Michael Klien.
January 2016. Photo: Graham Studio

What is your perspective on making changes to an original dance? As in: “updating” and/or “adapting.” The dance equivalent of Shakespeare on roller skates. . . .

Coming from a career-long experience of working with Martha Graham, who lived solely “in the moment” and relentlessly changed choreography—sometimes even night to night in performance—I have no qualms about updating, refreshing, and reinventing original movement ideas into fresh sequences. The ability to change is crucial, but knowing what and how to change is definitely harder to capture.

The issues that confronted Shakespeare are no different from today’s concerns, but how does the artist make his or her statement continue to register in the moment? Finding out how to update and what to change is crucial.

If you intend to make a “contemporary” statement in dance, you’d better be able to resonate with current technology, audience appreciation, current body types, and so on. Your message needs to meet the minds and fit the bodies of this moment, and you need to know when that moment is spent and you’d better move on.

One purpose this journal can serve is to open a dialogue between critics and practitioners. What kinds of comments from a critic are especially useful to you? Do you have anything you’d like to say to the critics?

The dance critic can offer helpful recognition for dancers and can be significantly destructive as well. In some of the publications across the U.S., the critics understand their role to be commentators on performances, but can tend to have fairly narrow areas within their own exposure to current approaches, and that influences their consideration of genres they are less familiar with.

Dance companies receive major support through agencies that use examples of critical notices as a major part of funding allocation. Critics play an important role in this process. Constructive critique mentioning negative as well as positive aspects of a performance can be really helpful. Critique that focuses harshly on negative aspects alone tends to produce only negative results. Critics are quite aware of this factor, and finding a balance could make enormous differences in the part their evaluations play.

These are valuable perspectives. Before we close, I’d like to fully understand the “foundations” remark you made at the start. How are you using this word?

Foundations or “fundamentals.” I think of these as the combined basis of all the Arts upon which museums, libraries, galleries, and performances are built into a civilizing force within our culture.

Inspirational. Thank you.

“Flower Fiction”: Duet created and performed by Marnie Thomas Wood and Ellis Wood. New York, 2013. Wood Collection
“Flower Fiction”: Duet created and performed by Marnie Thomas Wood and Ellis Wood. New York, 2013. Wood Collection

Lissa Tyler Renaud

*Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A. Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training (1985- ). She has been visiting professor, master teacher, speaker and recitalist throughout the U.S. and Asia, and in England, Russia, Mexico, and Sweden. See her invited chapter in The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, 2013. Renaud was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009/2011); under Yun-Cheol Kim, she was founding editor of Critical Stages, 2007-2014. Renaud is senior editor for the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China, and a longtime Senior Writer for Scene4 international magazine of cultural arts.

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“A Civilizing Force”: Interview with Marnie Thomas Wood