Martha Graham was the high priestess of modern dance. From the 1920s, when she began experimenting with stretch jersey and flexed bare feet, to the 1970s, when she was no longer able to dance, but became a mark, horribly crippled by arthritis but hanging out in caftans with Liza Minnelli and the members. from the Studio 54 crowd, she earned her status as an old-fashioned genius: by revolutionizing an art form, dance after dance – 181 of them to be exact.
What sometimes seems histrionic and dated now was heartbreaking then. Like jazz, it was a product of its time – still leading the pack through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and the 1960s. It was the progenitor of psychological and feminine theatrical performance and a brilliant innovator in the use of the body. Thanks to Performance Santa Fe, the Martha Graham Dance Company is presented with the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus on Friday and Saturday, March 4 and 5 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Graham’s technique and his dance company had many followers. I should know, I was one of them. In the early 80s, decades after Graham’s prime, I was writhing on the floor in his Upper East Side studios, where a Russian pianist was delivering smashing minor chords on a Steinway grand piano and we were doing the drills. warm-up. There, the contraction and release, the intense use of muscles and breathing in the technique, began to make sense. It was not ballet.
The Graham studio was notorious for its cliquism and unwelcomingness, but I befriended a dancer in the company who later died of AIDS. When I danced in a play by one of the founding members of the Graham Company in Boston, I spent a week in the hospital with a serious infection after doing Graham-style knee tricks during a weekend show, reopening the same scabs again and again. My dance master’s thesis concert was about Graham’s emergence from the hoochy-kootchy world of vaudeville to become The Goddess.
Santa Fe Pilates teacher Claudia Hochberg met Graham in 1982 when the dance company performed at Southern Methodist University, where Hochberg was a student. Graham sat on a dais where a low throne and poster-size images of his famous Barbara Morgan photographs had been installed, along with two towering green-glazed vases thrown by the Japanese head of the ceramics program. Then the dance students, one by one, were allowed to approach and greet her, touching her gnarled, arthritic finger.
“As I walked forward, I could see his feet,” Hochberg said. “They were very small. She wore black crepe-soled Chinese slippers. I thought it was a perfect expression of his soul at this point in his life.
Graham was one of the major artists of the 20th century. When she died in 1991 at age 96, her ashes were scattered in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A funeral mass was held at the Santuario de Chimayó. Graham first visited New Mexico in 1930 on a cross-country trip. She was inspired by the landscape, observed the rituals of Pueblo Indians and Penitents, and choreographed several dances based on her experiences. She later returned to share the place with her dance partner and future husband, Erick Hawkins. In New Mexico, she was in love.
Appalachian Spring, Graham’s classic work featured on the Lensic program, is also about love. With a stand-alone score by Aaron Copland, the ballet is lighter and more upbeat than most of the dances she has built around female characters from mythology. Janet Eilber, the company’s former principal dancer and artistic director since 2005, said the dance was created when Graham was deeply in love with Hawkins, who later formed his own dance company. There was a commission for Copland to compose a piece for Graham’s company, and she came to him with the idea of a ballet about Medea.
“Too serious,” Copland told him, according to Eilber. “Appalachian Spring was a kind of Our city, a work that attempted to distill the American experience. It was created during World War II, and there was a desire to create something with optimism and hope. One reviewer, Eilber said, wrote that Copland turned Martha away from her dark side.
Appalachian Spring (1944) is about a newly married husband and wife. It is also about America, with its wide open spaces and the possibilities of new beginnings at the frontier. Critic Edwin Denby distinguished between Graham’s dances which he considered to take place indoors and those, such as Appalachian Spring, which took place outside. “When Miss Graham suggests in her gesture a large space around her, it is, so to speak, the intellectual horizon of the character she portrays.”
In his review of Appalachian Spring in 1945 he wrote, “Showing us our country’s ancestors and inherited mores as real is a feat of genius that no one else who has touched on the pioneering subject of ballet has been able to accomplish. Copland’s score won the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year.
After Graham’s death and his rash decision to make a caregiver his heiress, the business nearly closed. A court battle was won which restored the company’s right to perform Graham’s works. Eilber took over as art director at that time, with the goal of not only helping Graham’s business and legacy survive, but also turning it around 180 degrees. “Where we used to be goddess-centered, we became audience-centered,” she said. “The goal was to provide as many access points and develop the most diverse audience that we could imagine.”
Among the experiments instituted by Eilber and the Graham Company was contextual programming, where, for example, a batch of Graham’s political dances were shown with a narrative about their place in 20th century history. the EVE project was, similarly, according to Eilber, “a lens through which to consider Graham’s transformative visions of women in concert with the immediate and personal creations of today’s visionary dance makers”. In bringing in new choreographers and modern voices, the goal has always been to compare and contrast these new dances with Graham’s historical masterpieces (and sometimes lesser works).
One of these commissions will be seen in Santa Fe. scavengersby Andrea Miller, is, according to Eilber, “largely a reaction to the pandemic.”
“One of the things that Andrea told me was inspirational for this piece was the fact that she missed the human interaction of dancing in clubs with strangers. four duets and a solo, and it’s visceral, athletic and erotic,” she said.
Miller has his own company, Gallim. She completed an artistic residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and received commissions from Lincoln Center and the New York City Ballet. Her choreographic process involves improvisation and the contribution of the dancers. During an open studio rehearsal of scavengers held in October, Miller spoke about the urge to dance with another person as an important space for seeking, enjoying and healing. “I seek to remove any narrative trappings and instead capture the feeling of wanting to ask someone to dance.”
Hijacking Angels (1948) is another Graham dance in a romantic vein. In this case, three couples in red, white and yellow represent aspects of love: red is passion; yellow is a young and flirtatious attraction; and white is a more spiritual and mature love. The score, by Norman Dello Joio, will be performed live, along with the rest of Graham’s pieces, by members of the Santa Fe Symphony & Chorus.
“We performed to live music for the first time in two years last November,” Eilber said. “It was a sacred experience.”
Immediate tragedy (2020) was a lost Graham solo from 1937. “It was choreographed during a time of fascism in Europe – the Spanish Civil War,” Eilber said. “Graham was not a fan of performance photography, but a guy who was dating one of the dancers at the time was allowed to sit in the front row and take pictures.” These photos, along with descriptions taken from ratings and reviews, helped Eilber and others in the company “reimagine” the piece.
“The dance resonates with the intentions of strong, determined women in the face of current events, whether it’s the pandemic, the murder of Floyd, or other challenges,” she said.
Graham’s dancers have been busy building an online presence for the past two years. “We were able to keep the dancers thanks to a PPP loan,” she said. “They got half pay and full benefits.” Eilber said proof of a strong social media program is the school itself, with students coming from all over the world to study Graham’s technique in New York.
“The new generation knows a lot about Martha Graham. They respond to the central power of technique, athleticism and emotion,” Eilber said. The current tour will take the Graham Company out of a virtual world and back into the real world. After Santa Fe, they will head to Greece, Budapest and North Macedonia. “We have a lot of hope for the future,” she said.