In 1940, Martha Graham choreographed El Penitente and cast Erick Hawkins, her handsome heartthrob, as The Penitent. The young Merce Cunningham was a Christ figure. That same year, Graham choreographed her Emily Dickinson dance, Letter to the World, and cast Hawkins as The Dark Beloved. Cunningham was the poet’s elfin wit. In 1944, Graham choreographed Appalachian Spring and cast Hawkins as The Bridegroom. Cunningham was a preacher.

Graham may have been concentrating hard on Hawkins, who was indeed her dark beloved and eventual (if skittish) bridegroom, but her take on Cunningham is the more piercing portrait. Christ figure, cool humorist, guru—all true. Cunningham would leave Graham’s company in 1945, would head to Black Mountain College with John Cage where, in a forty-days-forty-nights kind of immersion (actually about two years), they would create an aesthetic that was antithetical...


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