Whenever I’m about to view a work by one of the great choreographers of the 20th century for the first time, I like to do a little digging. Why was this piece of dance created? What did it mean in its time, and how can we relate to it now? After seeing that the Martha Graham Dance Company would be performing Graham’s 1947 Errand into the Maze at the Vail Dance Festival this summer, I got out my metaphorical shovel and started to dig. You could even say I went on my own errand…into the labyrinth of books, articles, and resources housed in the New York Public Library. What follows is everything might want to know before your first viewing of this masterwork.
Martha Graham (1894-1991) drew inspiration for her works from a wide variety of literary sources such as poetry, Greek mythology, American history, folklore, rituals, and ceremonies.(1) The structure and setting of a dance might be based on an established story, but into that, Graham would inject her own ideas of the characters’ struggles and emotions. In the case of Errand into the Maze, there are two pieces of literature that Graham used as a framework.
The first source was a poem titled “Dance Piece” by her friend Ben Belitt.(2) As friends, they corresponded for years. In fact, Belitt dedicated “Dance Piece” to Graham when he wrote it. Surprisingly, it was not until years later that Graham read his poem when he sent her a copy of it in a letter. Upon reading it, she was captivated by the opening line, “On an errand into the maze…” To her, the word errand “involves a choice of will and into an area or element of peril […] from which the participant fully intended to return” (3)… She tucked the poem in the mirror of her dressing table.(4) The idea for a new work was taking root.
Errand into the Maze became the title for her next work, but what errand would the lead dancer go on, and through what maze would she move? In 1946, Graham began to find in Greek mythology “the primary myths of her own being and experience”. (5) Eventually, eleven of her works would take shape around Greek myths. When dance writer Walter Terry questioned Graham on her habit of using Greek mythology for the core of her heroines, she answered: “There seems to be a way of going through—in Greek literature and Greek history—all of the anguish, all of the terror, all of the evil and arriving someplace. In other words, it is the instant that we all look for, the catharsis through the tragic happenings” (6)
For Errand, the source material was the myth of Theseus and Ariadne. To understand the depth of Graham’s storytelling onstage, I found it helpful to understand the nuances of this myth. I’ve summarized it as briefly as possible while still including details pertinent to the dance work: