How I teach a Graham contraction
Marni Thomas with Fanny Gombert at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance
Marni Thomas teaches the Graham technique with an unparalleled intensity and animation. As a master teacher at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City, Thomas boasts more than 50 years of teaching experience and a deep understanding of the Graham syllabus gained from dancing, assisting and teaching with Graham herself. Thomas’ greatest gift, however, is the ability to bring life and vigor to each movement for her students.
Before launching into a demonstration of the Graham contraction and release, Thomas explained that other Graham teachers may have varying approaches to the technique depending on their generation, as Graham herself continued to update and alter her movement vocabulary. “From 1926—when Martha Graham started teaching and choreographing—until now, there have been generations of us teaching her technique, and we’re not all the same,” Thomas says. “So neither the teachers before nor after me are going to do exactly what I do.”
But in spite of any pedagogical deviations, the core message of Graham technique remains. “Martha wanted to create movement that people could use to express how they felt,” Thomas says. “She wanted to get at what goes on inside people; what she called ‘their inner landscape.’” Thomas explains that the contraction and release—the core of Graham’s technique—is an organic way of speaking through movement and breath. “When Graham began working on contraction and release, there were no facial expressions that went along with the movement; emotion was articulated by the torso only.”
In class, Thomas stresses that students find their own contractions—not imitate or mimic another dancer’s movement shapes. A Graham contraction is not a pose that can be built from the outside, in, Thomas says. “It’s an action.” It has to come from the inside, first.
Here, Thomas teaches two Graham contractions: the soft, “Lyric” contraction, and the dramatic, “Percussive” contraction.
Marni Thomas, a member of The Martha Graham Dance Company from 1958 to 1968, was a demonstrator and teaching assistant to Martha Graham for 11 years. She was among the first generation of young women to perform Graham’s original roles. In 1968, Thomas and her husband David Wood established the dance major at the University of California, Berkeley. Thomas later moved back to New York City and directed the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance for four years from 2003 to 2006. Since then, Thomas has continued to set repertory and teaches Graham technique at the Graham School, now directed by Virginie Mécène.
Dancer Fanny Gombert, originally from Rodez, France, is an advanced student at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She is currently a Graham II company member.
Photo by Ramon Estevanell