In The Studio: The Graham Company On Staying True to Martha's Vision and Voice
The much-anticipated Martha Graham Dance Company season at New York City Center is upon us. From April 11–14, the company will present classics like Chronicle, the sly melodrama Embattled Garden and of course Graham's visceral masterwork The Rite of Spring. This season also includes works by internationally acclaimed choreographers Lucinda Childs, Lar Lubovitch and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
We sat down with Graham artistic director Janet Eilber to talk about bringing back older Graham works, working with new choreographers and what Martha would have to say about today's wave of feminism.
MGDC in rehearsal with artistic director Janet Eilber.
How do you decide which choreographers would be a good fit for the company?
There are a number of things that go into it but one is the theme of our season. We launched Sacred/Profane last year at The Joyce Theater and it continues this year at New York City Center. We commissioned Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui because he's known to do spiritual works, which he did in creating Mosaic. Where as Lucinda's work goes more under profane. Her signature is to take everyday movement and manipulate it into choreography which she does brilliantly. Lar's work is a mixture of both. He came to us and asked if we would be part of his 50th anniversary and we were honored.
When it comes to reworking pieces from so long ago, how do you stay true to Martha's voice?
With Martha's work it's easy because she was a leader in the modernist movement. Her work is really stripped down to the elemental—to what will evoke a reaction from the audience. Even though Embattled Garden was choreographed in 1958, the elements are so strikingly modern, I think they still have a powerful impact.
We also have to incorporate the facility of the new dancers which was also something Martha was always aware of. The mission is to do what she did; to maintain the very direct emotional impact and the message that she intended, rather than let it get diffused by things that get added. We keep it clean so that it speaks the way she intended.
Embattled Garden was originally created on the cusp of the sexual revolution. What do you think Martha would have to say about today's wave of feminism?
I think she was always instrumental in empowering women. She claims she never felt any inhibitions placed on her nor felt contained by male power. She was always someone who said what she wanted to say and she was all about personal empowerment—which she expressed through her art.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.