Modern Classics

The Martha Graham Dance Company leaves its troubles behind and finally comes to Tucson

Seven years ago, the Martha Graham Dance Company canceled its scheduled concert at Centennial Hall.

Next Tuesday, after years of legal and financial woes, the troupe will at last play Tucson. Eighteen dancers strong, the company will offer up three classic Graham works from the mid-20th century--"Diversion of Angels," "El Penitente" and "Sketches From 'Chronicle'"--and one "re-visioned" dance, "Ardent Song (Redux)."

"The company is performing fantastically; the court case is behind us; and we're focusing on our art," says artistic director Janet Eilber, who danced in the troupe in the 1970s under the direction of the legendary Graham. "Our younger members are moving up into the solo roles. We have beautiful young dancers."

Graham, universally acclaimed as the pioneer of American modern dance, died in 1991, at 96, having worked in the studio until only a few months before. She'd led her company since the late 1920s, when she broke both with ballet and the "pretty" dances of other early modernists to present works of austere physicality and emotion. Her dances, based on archetypes, myths and historical subjects, were startlingly original, and her movement, powered by "contract and release," was low to the ground.

She won lavish praise early on, and even her enemies recognized her importance. Lincoln Kirstein, the ballet avatar who directed New York City Ballet for more than 40 years, called Graham's innovations a "brand of stark hysteria." But he eventually acknowledged her as "the greatest dancer on the continent."

Graham was born in Pennsylvania in 1894, and when she was a child, the words "dance" and "ballet" were interchangeable. Ballet then was European, not having yet found its Balanchine to make it American.

"She came out of movement that was escapist," Eilber says. "It was about swans, or royalty. What she really did was discover a way of moving that describes who we are. She captured the physical voice of America."

"Appalachian Spring," for instance, her 1944 collaboration with composer Aaron Copland, posited a new American art form, with American themes. Her lessons have been so absorbed by her successors, including Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, both of whom danced for her, that it's hard to remember just how original she was, Eilber says.

Eilber first met the intense Graham as a young dancer right out of Interlochen Arts Academy. The school's director had worked some connections to get Eilber a private audition.

"People are amazed that she showed up," recalls Eilber. "But she did. She watched my solo and talked to me for half an hour."

Then in her 70s and still actively choreographing, the legendary Graham advised the young dancer to go to Juilliard. Eilber did, but within a few years, she became an apprentice in Graham's company, and then a principal dancer.

"I danced for her through the 1970s," Eilber says. "I danced many of her greatest roles. She told me to play to my own strengths--she didn't expect me to mimic her own performances. She insisted I draw from my own emotional arsenal. It's a wonderful way to live your life.

"Simply put, it was life-changing."

Graham tended to have that kind of effect on people. Her works were so inextricably bound with her that when she died, a bitter legal battle erupted over the ownership of her dances. It almost destroyed her legacy. A highly publicized lawsuit pitted the Martha Graham Dance Center, home of her troupe and her school, against her heir, Ron Protas, who argued that he had inherited the rights to all of Graham's dances. The troupe was forced to go on a hiatus that lasted two years, from 2000 to 2002.

Protas lost at every level, Eilber says, with the final defeat coming in 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

"We successfully defended our ownership of the works. The court found that Martha Graham founded the center to protect her works," Eilber says. "Once we won the first round, we brought the company back, but it was a rough time."

The company was $5 million in debt, and presenters were skittish about booking a troupe that might not materialize. It took a while for the troupe "to reclaim the art and show that we were viable."

At this point, the debt's paid off, and bookings are coming in. But now that the company has the dances again, it faces a new challenge: how to re-create pieces that are 60 or 70 years old.

"Dance is such an ephemeral art form," Eilber notes. "How do you capture dance? How do you keep it authentic?"

"Ardent Song," a dance for five women and five men, was praised long ago by one critic as "one of the most magical rituals." The company wanted to "reclaim it," but it had not been performed since the 1950s, and no films survived. A former principal dancer, Susan McLain, began researching the work a year ago.

"We found a few archival photos (and) interviewed the original cast members," Eilber says. "We realized we had a lot of stuff, scenery, costumes, the score, but not the dance. So Susan re-envisioned the dance using Martha Graham's vocabulary and movement, but made it a contemporary dance," renamed "Ardent Song (Redux)" to acknowledge its new incarnation.

"Diversion of Angels," by contrast, has been "in the company repertory since the day it was made." It premiered in 1948, and old films demonstrate that the piece evolved, with Graham changing such elements as costumes and lighting as the years went on.

"The trick is to hold on to the meaning," Eilber says. "She always did."

Danced by a cast of 11, the work is "all about love. Martha said it was about three women or about one woman at different stages of life." Dancer Katherine Crockett, in white, represents mature, spiritual love; Jennifer DePalo, in red, embodies passion and eroticism; and Atsuko Tonohata, in yellow, is youthful flirtation.

"El Penitente," inspired by the New Mexico religious cult whose members flagellate themselves in penance for their sins, was first staged in 1940. (The superstar original cast: Graham, Cunningham and Erick Hawkins.)

"She was fascinated with the Southwest," Eilber says, "with the feeling of space and light, and the rituals. That's why we selected 'El Penitente' for Tucson."

Staged as a play within a play, the work combines theater and dance, moving from "archaic simple movement" to vignettes about Eve tempting Adam and Christ dying on the cross. Isamu Noguchi, the noted sculptor and frequent Graham collaborator, designed the sets.

Graham composed the evening's final work, the anti-war "Chronicle," in 1936, as a "reaction to the rising of fascism in Europe and the Spanish Civil War," Eilber says. The original five parts have been stripped down to two, thus the new title, "Sketches From 'Chronicle.'"

Danced by 11 women (in the early days, Graham used only female dancers), the piece begins with "I. Spectre--1914," a solo that has dancer Elizabeth Auclair "towering above the audience. War is coming."

"II. Steps in the Streets," danced by soloist Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch and a chorus of nine, is about the "devastation of war for those left behind."

The finale, "III. Prelude to Action," was a rallying cry. Composed just 16 years after American women got the right to vote, it was a powerful call to action, Eilber says. "Together, we can make the difference."