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From the inside

Martha Graham’s works still dig deep
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  February 27, 2007
EMOTIONS: are made physically manifest.

Martha Graham created a revolution in the modern dance world on many fronts, most significantly by the emotional content and the sculptural form of her work. Founded by Graham in 1926, the Martha Graham Dance Company is still going strong, and they swing into Providence on March 8 to perform at Rhode Island College.
Graham’s angular line was in stark contrast to the flowing sway of Isadora Duncan or the stylized dances of other modern dance pioneers, including Denishawn (Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn), where Graham got her start. The first of the early solos that open the program at RIC was, in fact, choreographed by Shawn, titled SerenataMorisca (1916). By 1923, she’d left Denishawn and formed her own company three years later.
The iconic solo from those early years (Graham lived to be 96 and died in 1991) is Lamentation (1930), with the soloist (Graham herself for many years) wrapped in an amorphous dark fabric.
Lamentation is the most perfect example of the very center of what Martha’s revolution was all about,” noted the company’s artistic director Janet Eilber, herself a principal dancer with Graham through the ’70s and early ’80s. “It is the physical display of that inner emotion. You can look at it as if it’s a woman grieving or as if you’re looking at grief itself.”
“She extended the metaphor by encasing the dancer in that tube of fabric,” Eilber continued, in a phone conversation from LA. “The shape is even more sculptural, more painful. The fabric stretches as if it’s the dancer’s skin and accentuates the pull and the strain of emotion. Martha stripped away anything decorative — she only wanted movement that was absolutely central to the emotion it was born out of.”
The opening solos on the RIC program are followed by three group pieces, Diversion of Angels (1948), Acts of Light (1981), and a work based on Graham’s most famous collaboration, Suite from “Appalachian Spring” (1944), set to music by Aaron Copland.
“We take the highlights of the dancing and weave through the words of Martha Graham that she sent to Copland in describing what she wanted for the music for this dance,” explained Eilber. “Martha was incredibly eloquent, so we use her descriptions. The Bride, whom she called ‘The Daughter’ in the script, has an ‘electric eagerness for life — it’s an eagerness for destiny, which is the unconscious partner of youth.’ So we put the words up on stage — they are spoken — to give the audience an enhanced version of Appalachian Spring.”
Eilber took over the reins of the company about two years ago. The company declared itself almost $5 million in debt a year ago (now trimmed back to $1 million). The debt accrued due to a protracted lawsuit by Graham’s heir over ownership of her dances. Though the court decided that only two belonged to him, the company’s finances were drained and performances were suspended for four years.
Under Eilber’s leadership, the company instituted a chronological presentation of Graham’s work and initiated a five-minute on-stage introduction to the program. Since one of modern dance’s biggest challenges is to revitalize the masterpieces, Eilber wants audiences to be able to connect to what they’re seeing.
For example, the introductory notes might give some tips about what Graham was trying to do in Diversion of Angels — to talk about love but to also show its topsy-turvy nature by having dancers float in and out at unusual angles. The phrases “head over heels” or “falling in love” are made physically manifest, and the symbolic elements of the female soloist in white representing spiritual love, the one in red erotic love and the one in yellow adolescent love are also helpful guides for viewing this dance.
“So, hopefully the audience will take away that there’s this, as Martha used to say, this ‘revealing of the inner landscape or charting a graph of the heart,’ ” Eilber emphasized. “They’ll see a physical expression but they’ll feel it from the inside.” And through that, audiences will recognize the universal messages that make Graham’s work as timely today as it was 75 years ago.
Related: Steps . . . and more steps, Year in Dance: Reusable histories & durable trends, Daniel Nagrin, More more >
  Topics: Dance , Entertainment, Dance, Performing Arts,  More more >
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