Errand into the Maze

The errand into the maze
Emblem, the heel’s blow upon space
Speak of the need and order of the dancer’s will
But the dance is still. [1]

Martha Graham in Errand into the Maze (1947)

Errand into the Maze is a dance choreographed by Martha Graham in 1947 inspired by the legend of the Minotaur. Like many other of her pieces performed during the 40s, Errand received many accolades for its exceptionality. As Janet Wolff puts it, art is a collective and historically specific product: Errand is the outgrowth of Graham’s fame and happiness that she was experiencing during those years, combined with the renewed confidence that was overtaking America after the Great Depression and World War II. I have chosen to elaborate on five determinants that are prominent in constituting the success of this dance piece—the influence of Greek mythology, feminism, Graham’s curiosity towards the subconscious, her philosophy on dance and movements as well as the social background that was evolving in America.

Influence of Greek Mythology

Errand is a piece that is predominated by Greek mythology which, throughout her dance career, has always been explored by Graham. She recalled, “My parents read mythology to me and I remember how it filled me with wonder and fright. The tales fed my imagination. Take the tale of Achilles’ heel, for instance. I wanted to know why his heel was left to become his only vulnerable place. Things like that fascinated me, so I made dances about them.”[2]

Her interest in myths did not just spark from her family; it continued to be cultivated and blossomed when she was dancing with the Denishawn dance troupe which specialized in novel and exotic styles, including Greek pageants. In addition, Graham studied the expressionistic dances of Isadora Duncan whose works were densely influenced by the Greek culture. Graham furthered her knowledge in Greek mythology through works of the renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell.                                      

Graham’s connection with Greek mythology reached the pinnacle when Erick Hawkins stepped into her company and her life. He was a ballet dancer and a graduate of classical studies from Harvard. In fact, the Graham Company was revolutionized by Hawkins, who injected a new philosophical and aesthetic bent to the Graham dances. Together, they created numerous dances based on Greek mythology.     

Feminism            

Graham was never reserved about her strong advocacy for feminism. The majority of her dances have leading female roles whereas the male dancers were merely there to complement their female counterparts. Errand, like many other Graham pieces, is essentially about Graham herself, who epitomized the qualities of a strong and unrelenting woman. As she famously put it, “A long time ago, I decided that my place was front and center. That’s where I choose to be, and that’s where I remain.”[3]          Errand depicts the journey of a heroine from challenging her apprehension to finally conquering it. In the dance, Ariadne is menaced by a bull-headed man, whose hands are held in a yoke that lies across his shoulders. “The yoke was an unusual device to harness the man’s menacing energy. Though he could still rush around the area, he could not hold onto the woman”.[4] The prevalent message here is the powerful but not overpowering presence of man in relation to woman. Graham drives home the point that man’s dominance can be subdued and put to proportion if woman exerts her own strength of character. It is challenging yet possible for a woman to go against all odds and conquer her enemy, more importantly, her own shortcomings and fear.

Curiosity towards the Human Subconscious

            Another crucial determinant of Errand would be Graham’s curiosity towards the subconscious and consequently, the fear that is constantly lurking behind women’s minds. She was perpetually intrigued by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Carl Jung’s analysis of the unconscious. Hence in Errand, she blended abstracted gestures into psychological states, reflecting the individual psyche through the tremendously dramatic and charged movements. Errand is especially noted for its tension and unsettling qualities; as one of the critics, Anna Kisselgoff wrote, “It is this chord of recognition of universal desires and repressions that Miss Graham hits with unsurpassed truth in her work and brings to the surface.”[5] Graham once said that:

“If I had to present one ballet to a child of six or eight – and choosing one is no easy task- I would choose Errand into the Maze. This dance exemplifies, through the use of rope on the floor and the object in the air, the strange place you are venturing into, something a child might understand. It is a conquering of fear- to find that one place onstage where the bird that makes you want to dance lives.”[6]

“Read allegorically, the dance had little to do with the story of Ariadne, but was a representation of the unconscious fear”,[7] which is our real enemy that is holding us back from the unknown, from reaching heights we never thought we could. Through this valiant dance, Graham digs down into the subconscious—the source of women’s fear and shows how the apprehension can be vanquished by facing it courageously.

In fact, the effectiveness of Errand in expressing how one can conquer one’s fear is so pertinent that in real life, Graham recounted how in a prolonged bout of turbulence on an airplane, she had actually run through the dance mentally several times to quell the fear of crashing.

Graham’s Philosophy on Dance and Movements

As Graham famously puts it ‘Movement never lies’ and in Errand just like all her other works, she presented her inner self to the audience in the purest form. Dissatisfied with commercial dance, Graham reckoned that “dance should provoke, inform rather than entertain and that dance is a form of high art”.[8] This resulted in the movements of Errand being “elemental, involving the virulent rise of fear”[9] and more importantly the famous Graham style of contraction and release permeated through the entire piece.

In Errand, Graham utilizes simple and primitive movements — walking, running, and skipping, but not without her quintessential explosive “theatrical expressions, angular stances and stylized gestures in the limbs”.[10] The dance starts out with rigid and stiff movements to portray the fear and tension of Ariadne; but as it proceeds, the music starts to pick up and the actions get larger and more forceful—Ariadne has started to battle with her own fears. A critic commented that “It looks to be a devilish piece to dance, full of musical exactitude and long-phrase strength as well as frequent textural shifts”.[11]

Social Background of America in the Forties

During the forties, Graham was already well into her thirties and she had become less nationalistic. Instead her works became increasingly private. She choreographed Errand by looking into her own subconscious; it was almost as if Graham had become rather oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the American scene that was evolving during that time:

Americana is sweeping the concert stage over in a gust. Companies like Ballet Caravan and Balanchine’s Ballet Society emerged. [Meanwhile] prohibition pushed the cabaret entertainers into the movies; the meteoric rise of dancing stars such as ginger Rogers made movies the favourite entertainment of American and a world-wide export. Movie star dancers created a new category for dance—musical theater. [12]

Yet, amidst all this explosion of dance entertainment, Graham rose and established her own independent legacy in modern dance. Perhaps she felt that Americans were escaping the oppressiveness of the Great Depression through mass entertainment. That was exactly what she rejected in dance. She wanted dance to be authentically a form of human expression, not some rhythmic movements that were merely pleasing to watch.

Without the influence of Greek Mythology, without the feminism movement that was evolving during the late forties, perhaps Errand would not be born. Even so, Graham’s own interest in the subconscious and her philosophy on dance has a huge part to play in contributing to Errand. Last but not least, it is vital that we take into account the social background in America that Graham was being enveloped when she created Errand. Relating all five determinants of the dance Errand into the Maze to Janet Wolff’s argument, we come to the conclusion that indeed, a successful work of art cannot be attained independently; instead it is only possible when numerous aspects in the life of the artist come together to ignite that very spark of inspiration and creativity of expression.


[1] Don McDonagh, Martha Graham: A Biography (United States of America: Praeger Publishers, 1973) 68.

[2] Agnes De Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (United States of America: Random House, 1991) 52.

[3] Marian Horosko, Martha Graham: The evolution of her Dance Theory and Training 1926-1991 (United States of America: Chicago Review Press, 1991) 28.

[4] Marian Horosko, Martha Graham: The evolution of her Dance Theory and Training 1926-1991 (United States of America: Chicago Review Press, 1991) 30.

[5] Anna Kisselgoff, “Exploring Myth to find the Contemporary Psyche” New York Times 144. 49842 (7 October 1994): C3.

[6] Agnes De Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (United States of America: Random House, 1991) 53.

[7] Leroy Leatherman, Martha Graham: portrait of the lady as an artist. (New York: Knopf, 1966) 35.

[8]Marian Horosko, Martha Graham: The evolution of her Dance Theory and Training 1926-1991 (United States of America: Chicago Review Press, 1991) 28.

[9] Anna Kisselgoff,“Exploring Myth to find the Contemporary Psyche” New York Times 144. 49842 (7 October 1994): C3.

[10] Marian Horosko, Martha Graham: The evolution of her Dance Theory and Training 1926-1991( United States of America: Chicago Review Press, 1991) 29.

[11] Leroy Leatherman, Martha Graham: portrait of the lady as an artist (New York: Knopf, 1966) 33.

[12] Agnes De Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (United States of America: Random House, 1991) 52.

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