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Martha Graham’s Letter to the World: A dance adaptation of Emily Dickinson

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Letter to the World is a choreography Martha Graham created in 1940 and revised in 1941. It is dedicated to Emily Dickinson, one of her favourite poets. However, it is not a biographical account, but an introspective work, that, in Graham’s words, investigates the New England poet’s ‘inner landscape’. The protagonist is split into two: the One Who Dances who performs the most demanding dance phrases and the One Who Speaks, who utters lines from Dickinson’s poems and letters. The other characters embody emanations of the poet’s personality. The main narrative rotates around the struggle between the One Who Dances and the Ancestress, who embodies the poet’s Puritan tradition and death. The combination of dances and spoken lines provides a unique portrait of the poet.

In this article, I intend to analyse Letter to the World as a dance adaptation of Emily Dickinson. The method through which I will conduct my analysis consists of cultural and dance history, adaptation and narrative theory. First, I will focus on the notion of dance adaptation itself; then, I will present a reconstruction of the piece and proceed to explore the material Graham consulted for her work; after this, I will analyse it in terms of narrative highlighting the way the dances and spoken lines contribute to shaping it; I will conclude with a reflection on the reasons that brought Graham to focus on Dickinson.
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Keywords: dance; dance adaptation; dance history; literature; narrative; poetry

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Independent scholar

Publication date: June 1, 2019

More about this publication?
  • Adaptation, or the conversion of oral, historical or fictional narratives into stage drama has been common practice for centuries. In our own time the processes of cross-generic transformation continue to be extremely important in theatre as well as in the film and other media industries. Adaptation and the related areas of translation and intertextuality continue to have a central place in our culture with a profound resonance across our civilisation.
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