Arts & Culture

The fleeting nature of performance

6 min read

Radcliffe Fellow Dakin dances works by longtime mentor Martha Graham

Sunlight through high windows. Fresh air. A potted fern.

Christine Whitney Dakin’s little third-floor dance studio on Concord Avenue is a model of simplicity and clarity.

Deep sink, wall hooks, table, slender black lamp.

Dakin, a New York City contemporary dancer and protégé of Martha Graham, is a Radcliffe Fellow this year — the first dancer ever in the program. She’s busy writing a book, making a film, and preparing a Harvard class for next spring.

The studio is a space for doing what Dakin — gamine, athletic, and expressive — believes in: integrating mind and body. The two powers come together in dance, the art of motion.

Gleaming wide floor. Tall mirror. Ballet bar.

Last fall, she rehearsed in the studio for her role in a December program with the Harvard Contemporary Dance Ensemble. Now she’s rehearsing for a Fellows’ Presentation — a collage of dance and film and the spoken word — on May 12.

Dance and other performing arts, said Dakin, require an interaction with the world that is physical and not just visual.

The humanities — too often exclusively cerebral — need a course correction toward the expressively physical, she said. “Intellectual pursuits are in service to the whole human being.”

Her presentation this month will mix mind and body, starting with 10 minutes of dance — Dakin performing two Graham solos, “Lamentation” and “Deep Song.”

She’ll use film clips from the 1930s to illustrate Graham’s radical leap from traditional dance to her stark, rigorous, interpretive movement techniques — “the break she made with the past,” said Dakin, “just to become the artist she was.”

Dakin will also use clips from her film-in-progess, to show how the Graham technique has made a transition into the 21st century.

Graham (1894-1991) was a choreographer and dancer renowned for spare and powerful works inspired by classic literature and art. She is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

Dakin began dancing in a Graham apprentice company in 1971, and in 1976 with the Martha Graham Dance Company itself, which she co-directed from 2002 to 2005.

She teaches now at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in Manhattan, and does dance work, teaching, and performances with companies and at festivals in Mexico and Italy.

A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Dakin is the child of a mother who sang and a father who acted. (Jean Crump was a homemaker. The late James I. Crump was a renowned University of Michigan sinologist, who taught Chinese to military interpreters at Harvard during World War II.)

Dakin finished three years toward a degree in French and Russian literature at Michigan before turning to dance. “I started in college and just fell in love with it,” she said. “I fell in love with dance and loved it all, but I fell in love with [Graham’s] work the most strongly.”

If Martha Graham were to walk into the room right now, “you would feel it in the back of your nape,” said Dakin. “I describe her as a force of nature.” (One New York Times critic said that Graham — tiny and willful — had “the passion and fury of several armies.”)

Explaining a force of nature is not always easy. In her presentation, Dakin will use “Deep Song” to illustrate Graham’s layering of art and technique.

Dakin performed the other presentation piece, “Lamentation,” at the Dec. 7 Harvard dance concert. Friends begged her to reprise it.

First staged in 1930, “Lamentation” became one of Graham’s signature pieces. A solo dancer, tormented, writhes on a bare stage. She’s encased in a tube of fabric, using it to push out, pull in, and ripple with naked anguish. The work illustrates, said Dakin, “that movement communicates in direct physical ways.”

She will explain the kind of training Graham demanded of her dancers — and the Graham aesthetic, which required a different set of physical challenges than classical ballet.

Dakin will also touch on the fleeting nature of performance — a quality that she said applies equally to live theater. “That moment when the dance passes from the dancer to the audience is when the dance exists as art,” said Dakin. “The rest of the time, it isn’t anywhere.”

Martha Graham still has a lot to teach the dance world, audiences included, said Dakin, who worked side by side with the legendary choreographer for 17 years. For a start: Believe in your body, and its power to express emotion. And believe in the deep, ancient, and elemental nature of dance.

Graham is part of history, but only “in the way that Beethoven and Picasso are,” said Dakin. “We should not lose the greatness of the past as we create and enjoy contemporary art.”

Part of that past is the groundbreaking technique that Dakin hopes to unlock and reveal in her book; in her coming film “The Body Speaks” (shot in December in Mexico, with dancers and musicians from Mexico and the United States); and in the Harvard class next spring, “The Rite of Spring: The Nexus of Art and Ritual.”

Graham created exercises drawn from the world: skips, marches, jumps, and “walking techniques” that involve turns and arm movements.

And she invented “the fall” for dancers, said Dakin, a demanding technique that replicates the physics of downward movement in its slow-motion beauty. (She remembers Graham saying, “My dancers fall so they may rise.”)

How things fall drew Dakin to one of her closest friends among this year’s Radcliffe Fellows, Cornell University physicist Z. Jane Wang. Wang mathematically models intricate winged insect flight by studying the way thin plates fall — leaflike and languid — through water.

“The two of us have comparable reactions to complex movement,” said Dakin of her scientist friend. “Why? It’s beautiful.”

At Radcliffe, months of conversations have shown Dakin the many ways disciplines overlap, she said — a lived communal experience that has left her with “a more integrated sense of what knowledge is.”

Among this year’s 51 fellows — most of them scientists, historians, and social scientists — Dakin is one of 12 “arts fellows.” (Five of the others are writers, three make music, two make films, and one is a new media specialist.)

“It feels mind-expanding,” she said of the Radcliffe year, now nearing its end. “Practically psychedelic.”

Christine Dakin will present ‘The Body Speaks: Capturing Martha Graham’s Dance Art’ at 3:30 p.m May 12 at the Harvard Dance Center’s Studio One, 60 Garden St. It’s free and open to the public, as part of the Radcliffe Institute Fellows’ Presentation Series. For more information, call (617) 495-8212 or visit