Photographer Peter Cunningham documented a day long reunion of a group of Wesleyan and Connecticut College alums who had shared a pivotal experience in the late sixties with dance guru Martha Myers. Realize Magazine, inspired by Cunningham’s wonderful photographs, asked Ara Fitzgerald to talk about the Lab and the reunion.
Recently appointed as Professor of Dance, Martha Myers arrived at Connecticut College For Women in 1967 under a full head of steam and brimming with some big ideas. Her first move as Professor was to send an emissary to the student center at nearby Wesleyan University to find a few men daring (‘freaky’) enough join the women at Conn. in creating “The Experimental Movement Lab.” Her approach, of improvisation and spontaneous play, capitalized on awareness, change and expressivity of movement, and its effect was to open up a wild new frontier for us. Interest and research in play and creativity are getting buzzword status at the moment but, back in 1967 it seemed radical; our audacious group jumped at the chance to break new ground. (Then again, Huizinga made his case for play in the 30's, and jazz musicians always knew...)
On Tuesday nights we met in the studio to explore far afield from any work the trained dancers from Conn., all buttoned up to plie, had ever done. Egged on by a mix of Wesleyan athletes and a few disembodied intellectuals, we dove to the floor with abandon. Putting the body on the line was a commitment understood by both the athletes and the dancers. Different accents. Same language. We learned from each other and broke the rules of what we thought was dance.
Consider the historical context - the political turmoil of the late 60’s, the birth of the human potential movement... Major experimentation at New York’s fabled Judson Church was brewing; pedestrian movement became an element that was celebrated and the question of ‘what is dance?’ was open for any interpretation.
Martha had also been newly minted as the Dean of The American Dance Festival, the free wheeling, celebrated festival and school for Modern Dance held during the summers at Conn. College. Any given season would find the stars and renegades of the modern dance world in residence. These included Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Nikolais /Louis, Daniel Nagrin, Trisha Brown,Twyla Tharp, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer... legendary choreographers all. It was a time or enormous creative ferment.
In the Experimental Movement Lab, there was a level of invention that felt truly radical; the culture was in rapid transition and we were a part of it. Play. Improvisation. Present moment attention. Exploration of gender roles, class, race, the absurdity of societal norms. Rediscovering the essential elements of listening and relationship, mirroring, quick responses to each other’s impulses. Humor often emerged and a bit of danger - physical and emotional.
Somehow it seemed that Martha and all of us in the Lab knew exactly what we were doing and yet didn't at all. She was making it up as she went along and we plunged in - physicalizing images, intentions she suggested just to see what would emerge and how far we could take it. For the intellectuals among us there were issues of artistic construction to keep us interested - the ongoing investigation into what made something work, which is a kind of observation that is relevant in any medium.
She worked collaboratively with us when we got to making pieces which were to be performed publicly. We discovered movement and Martha shaped it. In "Ropes" we flew on looped straps that hung from a grid, much to the consternation of the tech director and ‘glee’ of the college audience as a loud live rock band played just off stage.
Martha was a rebel, but a gentle one. She posed questions and challenges. What do you see? Think? Feel? And Why? She invited us to join in a dance of dynamic changes and observations of our very human natures. This way of working with a director/choreographer, who asks questions and discovers material in the process of seeking answers through exploratory practice, was brand new and it has had a lasting impact on us all.
At the reunion, connections were vibrant as folks recalled the creativity and pleasure of working together. Martha remembered this as an innovative and exciting time for her creatively. We like to think we were a special group... and, well, we were her first Experimental Lab and a feisty bunch, much to her total enjoyment - then and now.
We don’t run full speed and dive at each other anymore. But the raw presence and openhearted delight of movement discovery - however limited the range - seems to be the enduring wisdom of the Experimental Movement Lab. Martha imprinted each of her students with a source and perspective that we carried into our various fields - law, architecture, songwriting, teaching, business, dance, diplomacy and photography.
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Martha Myers Bio
After 30 years as a professor of dance at Connecticut College, the dance studio was named in Martha’s honor. Often ahead of her time, Martha removed herself from a genteel and conservative Southern upbringing in the 1950’s to pursue her education and begin her commitment to work for civil rights.
She was an early TV anchorwoman and in 1960, with Jack Venza, created the first dance series on PBS, “A Time to Dance” which was historic in its contribution to developing the idea of dance as a serious art form. At The American Dance Festival she initiated seminal research in dance medicine and somatics bringing doctors, body workers and dancers together to investigate the integration of dance, sensory awareness and health. This was all brand new at the time and in some regard a development of the spirit of investigation she brought to Experimental Movement Lab. After her retirement from full-time college teaching, she continued to mentor young and established choreographers in her Choreo-Labs in NYC. She is also a poet.
The tradition of experimentation in modern dance goes back to its beginnings in Isadora Duncan. But all modern dancers are by nature iconoclasts, each one reinventing the form in his/her own image as an individual artist. Dance is in many ways an oral tradition that is passed on from teacher to student and you could and still can trace your lineage fairly readily. Martha has roots in the work of Hanya Holm (German Expressionism) and Alwin Nikolais/ Murray Louis who used improvisational practices in their teaching of composition.
These are a few of her accomplishments. There have been honorary degrees given her and scholarships created in her name. At 87, she continues to attend openings of current dance and theatre in Manhattan and to inspire artists who seek her wisdom and clarifying eye.
Ara Fitzgerald is a choreographer, performer and inveterate improvisor who is a Professor of Dance & Theatre at Manhattanville College (www.mvilledth.org)