Neil Baldwin is no stranger to biography, having written about such innovators as Thomas Edison and Man Ray. His latest work, Martha Graham – When Dance Became Modern (Knopf) , is making all the right moves with accolades from OPRAH (named “one of the twenty best fall non-fiction books of 2022“), the New York Times and AARP, all before today, the book’s official publication date. Baldwin’s first book signing is Thursday, October 27, 7 p.m. at Watchung Booksellers.
The idea to chronicle one of the most important artistic forces of the 20th century, traces back to a moment in a Montclair State University dance studio more than 10 years ago. Baldwin, who created the Danceaturgy curriculum at MSU during his nearly 15 years as a professor in the Department of Theater and Dance, came to his latest subject by chance.
“Late one afternoon in January 2008, I was observing a rehearsal of the Graham classic, Steps in the Street for the first time, being taught to a group of wonderful MSU dance majors by Denise Vale of the Martha Graham Company,” recalls Baldwin. “I watched the students going through their energetic, muscular, lunging, striding paces — cutting through space with ardor and passion — and I realized in a flash that this was going to be my next subject. I had to write about the connective tissue of modern American art through modern dance.”
That pivotal moment was the first step in what became more than a decade of intense research – consuming his early mornings before classes, many evenings, and most weekends — as he delved into Graham’s early life in Allegheny, PA, across the river from Pittsburgh, where she was born in 1894, the daughter of a physician who instilled in her the enduring value of great books and the necessity of always seeking the truth.
After the death of her baby brother, her parents moved Martha and her two sisters to California, where she starred on her high school basketball team and began studying dance in earnest, in time to become the star, early on, of the famous Denishawn exotic ballets, and, at age 32, founded her own company that travelled the globe.
Baldwin recreates the astonishing career of the legendary American dancer and choreographer who upended dance, propelling the art form into the modern age, and whose profound and pioneering influence is still being felt today.
He presents Martha Graham as a complex, driven woman. Her large, fiercely lived life, Baldwin emphasizes, was beset by conflict, competition and loneliness—but also filled with fire and inspiration, drive, passion, dedication, and sacrifice in work and in dance creation.
“I hope people who read my new book will take away the enduring impression — as I experienced during 10 years and more of writing it — of this brave, intrepid, pioneering individual American woman, who, through the magic and discipline of her own body, took on the whole world around her, translating its beauty and hardship into indelible images, reaching beyond great theatre,” says Baldwin.