Friday, April 30, 2010

Designer of the Month: Isamu Noguchi

Week 5: the stage

While this final week's focus is on Isamu Noguchi's designs for dance and theater productions, we're primarily going to be discussing one particular patron who had a very important influence on Noguchi's life: the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

Isamu Noguchi, Portrait of Martha Graham, 1929. Bronze. Collection of the Honolulu Academy. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.
Noguchi and Graham developed a friendship in 1929, when she commissioned him for two portrait heads, one of which you can see above.[1] A central figure of the modern dance movement, Graham developed an original dance technique involving the expression of primal emotions through stylized body movements of great intensity.[2] Graham began an independent career in New York in 1926, and with the thought of wanting to introduce innovative stage design into her repertoire, she started collaborating with Noguchi to design stage sets for her performances.[3] Noguchi explains this collaboration, which began with Graham's 1935 solo dance, Frontier:
In our work together, it is Martha who come to me with the idea, the theme, the myth upon which the piece is to based. There are some sections of music perhaps, but usually not. She will tell me if she has any special requirements...the form is then my projection of these ideas. I always work with a scale model of the stage space in my studio. Within it I feel at home and am in command. With Martha, there is the wonder of her magic with props. She uses them as extensions of her own anatomy.[4]

Isamu Noguchi, stage set for Martha Graham's Frontier,1935. Photo by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.
Noguchi had a keen interest in the stage, and it's clear that he enjoyed designing these stage sets, which he saw as works that complemented his landscapes, and which were just another means of making sculpture useful.[5] As he discusses about Frontier:

Frontier was my first set. It was for me the genesis of an idea - to wed the total void of theater space to form and action...This set was the point of departure for all my subsequent theater work: space became a volume to be dealt with sculpturally.[6]

This idea of dealing with space sculpturally seems to be a defining moment for Noguchi. He would go on to use this concept in different ways throughout his career, not only in his designs for the stage, but in much of his other work as well.

Martha Graham in Medea's dress from Cave of the Heart. Stage set designed by Isamu Noguchi, 1946. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Noguchi ended up designing about 20 sets for Graham over the course of three decades, including those for her series based on Greek myths - Cave of the Heart (1946), Errand into the Maze (1947), Night Journey (1947), Clymnestra (1958), Alcestis (1960), Phaedra (1962), Circe (1963), and Cartege of Eagles (1966) - as well as works revolving around Biblical and religious themes, including Herodiade (1944), Judith (1950), Seraphic Dialogue (1955), and Embattled Garden (1958).[7]

Isamu Noguchi, study model of stage set for Martha Graham's Errand into the Maze, 1947. Photo by Rudolph Burckhardt. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

But why such an interest in the stage? Here's what Noguchi has to say about it:

We breathe in, we breathe out, inward turning, alone, or outgoing, working with others, for an experience that is cumulative through collaboration. Theater is the latter kind. My interest is the stage where it is possible to realize in a hypothetical way those projections of the imagination into environmental space which are denied us in actuality...There is joy in seeing sculpture come to life on the stage in its own world of timeless time. Then the air becomes charged with meaning and emotion, and form plays its integral part in the re-enactment of a ritual. Theater is a ceremonial; the performance is a rite. Sculpture in daily life should or could be like this. In the meantime, the theater gives me its poetic, exalted equivalent.[8]

Isamu Noguchi, stage set for Martha Graham's Seraphic Dialogue, 1955. Photo by Bill Lewis. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

In addition to his collaborations with Martha Graham, Noguchi also worked with other choreographers over the course of his career, including Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine.[9] In 1955, Noguchi was given an opportunity to design the costumes and sets for the controversial Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear, starring John Gielgud.[10]

Isamu Noguchi, macquette of stage set for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, London, 1955. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

For this production, Noguchi designed a system of mobile set elements that moved around with someone either inside or behind them, allowing for 26 continuous changes of environment and mood.[11] The press met the production with mixed feelings. Noguchi explains:
In spite of two trips to England, I never saw a performance of Lear. Instead, I was deluged with an avalanche of abuse from the press: one critic said, 'It may be that the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have dominated the imagination of Mr. Noguchi...even the tragedy of three contrasting forms of madness - the real and terrible lunacy of Lear, the feigned insanity of Edgar, and the harmless idiocy of the Jester - becomes unimportant, unintelligible gibberish against this colossal chaos.' But there was also some warm praise, as from the critic who wrote, 'Mr. Noguchi has succeeded magnificently; it is not too high a praise to say that his ignorantly-abused decors are fully worthy to go alongside the most rewarding interpretation of a great play by a great player that we are ever likely to see.' Had I gone beyond my depth? And yet I had utter confidence that I understood Lear - with a fearful joy.[12]

Clearly, Noguchi's stage designs for modern dance were fitting collaborations, but people were not so forgiving when it came for designing sets for a different type of interpretation of a classic theater production. Regardless, both Noguchi and his collaborators in his designs for the stage were looking for a certain something that only he could bring to these productions.

Thanks for reading these past 5 weeks, and I hope you all stop by next week for a new and exciting Designer of the Month.

[1] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Theater," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 123.

[2] The Noguchi Museum online, "Martha Graham,", (accessed April 28, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Theater," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 123.

[5] The Noguchi Museum online, "Dance and Theater Sets,", (accessed April 28, 2010).

[6] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Theater," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 125.

[7] The Noguchi Museum online, "Martha Graham,", (accessed April 28, 2010).

[8] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Theater," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 123.

[9] The Noguchi Museum online, "Dance and Theater Sets,", (accessed April 28, 2010).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "Theater," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 131.

[12] Ibid., 131.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested to know that three of the Graham/Noguchi collaborations are being staged in Orange Co, CA, next month -- I'll write about it and the story will be posted on my blog The Misread City.

    Great blog, by the way.



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