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The Ancestress figure: Puritanism in Martha Graham’s choreography

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Puritanism, in Martha Graham’s dance work, has been an important conception for the development of her style, but has not been thoroughly analyzed by scholars. The Ancestress, in one of her most interesting and neglected pieces, Letter to the World (1940), embodies a powerful interpretation of Puritanism. The idea of focusing on a single character stems from the resonances it produces on the choreography and on Graham’s production at large.

Letter to the World is about Emily Dickinson’s poetry and personality, and the Ancestress represents the puritanical force of tradition that attempts to stop the growth of the poet’s (creative) life. In this sense, she can be compared to Mother Ann Lee, leader of the Shakers, who preached chastity among her acolytes and to the way William Carlos Williams portrays the Puritans in his book of essays, In the American Grain (1925), a book that influenced Graham’s vision. Puritanism undergoes an interesting transformation this time in one of Graham’s dance’s most celebrated pieces, Appalachian Spring (1944), where the Revivalist sums up what the Ancestress represented with three twists in terms of name, gender and dance.
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Keywords: Puritanism; choreography; dance; death; literature; tradition

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2014

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  • The European Journal of American Culture (EJAC) is an academic, refereed journal for scholars, academics and students from many disciplines with a common involvement in the interdisciplinary study of America and American culture, drawing on a variety of approaches and encompassing the whole evolution of the country.
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