Honoring a Legacy

The Martha Graham Dance Company presents works both created by and inspired by the late legend

Martha Graham was a towering figure of 20th-century modern dance, an innovator who helped invent the art form.

She choreographed no fewer than 181 works, including the likes of Appalachian Spring. But Graham has been dead since 1991, and ever since, her followers have wrestled with how best to honor her legacy.

A protracted court case over ownership of the works kept the Martha Graham Dance Company dark at first. With those legal issues now resolved, the trick is making aesthetic choices—and deciding how far to go beyond the bounds of Graham's own choreography.

"Our core mission is the artistry of Martha Graham," says Janet Eilber, a former Graham dancer who since 2005 has been artistic director of the troupe. "We have a fabulous collection of 20th-century masterpieces. We are curating these as creatively as we can."

Eilber has been turning to art museums for inspiration.

Museums with a great Picasso collection, she notes, might do an exhibition about the artist and his contemporaries. Or they might show new works by living artists influenced by Picasso. Sometimes, they'll simply dive into their treasure chest of paintings and do an all-Picasso exhibition.

Eilber has been doing the same thing with the Graham troupe, which this year celebrates its 85th anniversary. Following the museum analogy, she takes a three-pronged approach: She presents Graham classics alone. She stages Graham works alongside dances by Graham contemporaries. And she uses Graham's "core work as a springboard for new work" by today's choreographers.

Sometimes, she does all three in a single concert—and this Saturday night, Tucsonans will get the chance to see examples of each strategy at the troupe's performance at Centennial Hall.

The classic is Appalachian Spring, a pivotal work from 1944 that is one of Graham's best-known and best-loved. A collaboration with composer Aaron Copland and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, it won instant adulation and a Pulitzer Prize for Copland for the score.

"Dance Is a Weapon," conceived by Eilber, is a collection of five works by five choreographers from the 1920s to the 1940s, ending with Graham's 1935 "Panorama."

"Lamentation Variations," which premiered in 2007, consists of three short pieces by three choreographers of today. All of them were asked to respond to a film of Graham performing "Lamentation," her renowned solo from 1930. (A much-praised dancer, Graham won Time magazine's designation of "Dancer of the Century.")

The company this year is adhering to the theme of dance as a political force, and all three works on the program have a political subtext. "Lamentation Variations," for example, was first performed on Sept. 11, 2007, at a concert meant to commemorate those lost on that day six years before.

"We set rules for the participating choreographers," Eilber recalls. "They could have only 10 hours of rehearsal. Each piece had to be (less than) four minutes. They were not required to use the Graham technique (of contraction and release), but they had to use her physical vocabulary. The pieces were to be true to their own visions."

The restrictions seemed to inspire the choreographers. ("The rules freed them," as Eilber puts it.) The plan was for the works to be ephemeral, performed only that one night. But "they were so gorgeous, we took them on the road, and we commissioned more."

The company now has five of the short works in its repertory. Saturday night, the dancers will perform variations by choreographers Richard Move, Larry Keigwin and Bulareyaung Pagarlava. The works vary from a solo to a quartet to a full-company dance. A screening of a 2 1/2-minute filmed excerpt of Graham dancing her own solo will precede the new dances.

"Dance Is a Weapon" debuted last summer. It's a "montage of works" from the 1920s to the early '40s, Eilber says, a time when "all the arts were finding their voices" and raising them against the travails of the day. Modern dance was part of the chorus, and its new political commentary "cemented dance as a major cultural form."

Among the issues the works tackle are the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the right of labor to unionize and civil rights—"all ongoing challenges in the United States," Eilber points out.

The four guest works in "Dance Is a Weapon" are solos. "The Revolutionary," by Isadora Duncan, is from 1924; it's danced by Katherine Crockett. Eve Gentry's 1938 "Tenant of the Street" comes next; Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch dances. Third is Sophie Maslow's "I Ain't Got No Home," from 1941, with music by Woody Guthrie; Oliver Tobin performs. Ben Schultz dances Jane Dudley's 1932 "Time Is Money" to a Sol Funaroff poem read aloud.

The only group work in the series is the final piece, Graham's 1935 "Panorama." The choreographer first set it on students at Bennington College, and following in that tradition, students from the UA School of Dance will perform the dance here. Company dancer Miki Orihara has been on campus for several weeks teaching them.

The grand finale is the beloved Appalachian Spring. The three collaborators, Graham, Copland and Noguchi, "considered it their contribution to the war effort," Eilber says, intending it as a "beacon of hope and democracy."

The troupe owns the letters the collaborators wrote back and forth as they pondered a theme. Eilber says they considered—and rejected—a ballet about John Brown and abolitionism, a dance version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and a work about Indians and Puritans.

In the end, they settled on a simple pioneer story. The half-hour narrative dance—Copland always called it "Ballet for Martha"—depicts a young couple on the frontier on their wedding day. "What could be more optimistic?" Eilber asks.

The work's creators were determined to make a purely American piece, and the music and dance both draw on American folk arts. Copland incorporated the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," and Graham mixed square-dance movements with her modern-dance gestures. Noguchi even included a Shaker chair in his modernist set, which has house beams jutting out at angles.

"To me, it's like Grandma Moses," the folk painter, Eilber says, "like American primitive folk art. People who knew Martha's work were surprised at how pastoral it was. But it was hugely well-received, an immediate hit."

The work debuted in an auditorium at the Library of Congress, with Graham herself in the role of the bride. The U.S. State Department has since sent the Graham company abroad to perform it on goodwill tours. Eilber herself danced it on a State Department tour to Vietnam six months before the fall of Saigon.

"It was a little scary," she remembers. "There were guys with machine guns. But it was one of my favorite audiences ever."

A VIP audience sat in the seats of the open-air concert hall, but poor people living in the nearby alleys crowded behind the gates at the side. They were so entranced by Graham's masterwork that they climbed on top of each other to see it.

That the poor of embattled Vietnam could be drawn to a Graham dance still resonates for Eilber. She acknowledges that her project to continue presenting the choreographer's dances and to enlarge upon them is a "work in progress, an experiment. But it's successful because of the quality of Graham's work."

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