Every Soul is a Circus premiered at the St. James Theater in New York City in December, 1939. With a set by Paul Stapp, and a score by Paul Nordoff, it was hailed as Graham’s entrance into the world of theater. Inspired by a poem of Vachel Lindsay, a traveling troubadour popular in the 1920’s, Graham’s dance created a world where fantasies of romance and intrigue could be played out in the center ring. The critic Margaret Lloyd called it “a circus that never was, in tent or arena, but might be, in your heart or mine.”
Newly popular theories of human behavior by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had posited a dynamic inner life, and artists like Graham were quick to embrace the subterranean world of the unconscious; Every Soul is a Circus revealed “a woman’s inner landscape,” she wrote in program notes. The central figure is a dilettante, a bored housewife who imagines herself as the Empress of the Arena, the center of a romantic triangle between a pompous ringmaster and an antic acrobat. As always, Graham was making theater out of her own life; the Ringmaster was Erick Hawkins, who had integrated her all female company the year before in American Document, and who was her lover, and the Acrobat was Merce Cunningham, appearing with the Graham Company for the first time at the age of twenty. An alter ego, titled the Spectator, sits on the sidelines throughout the action, commenting on our heroine’s behavior. She is alternately approving, disdainful, surprised and non plussed. “Throughout the circus of her life, every woman is her own most appreciative spectator,” Graham stated.
New York Times critic John Martin pronounced Every Soul is a Circus “hilarious and satirical.” It is one of the rare dances that demonstrate Graham’s funny bone; as in later dances such as Acrobats of God (1960) and Maple Leaf Rag (1990), Graham made herself the object of choreographic humor – an addled female negotiating the circus of life, a choreographer beset by unruly dancers.