The Graham Company Is Making Quarantine Magic With its Archives

July 12, 2020

Martha is having her YouTube moment. Who can resist the sight of the modern dance icon donning 3-D glasses for the Wednesday Martha Matinees, a marvelous hump day mix of vintage and recent performances? These are just one of many outstanding pieces of digital programming coming out of the Martha Graham Dance Company since the lockdown, which have also included the world premiere of Immediate Tragedy (a lost 1937 solo reimagined for the internet), company member Lloyd Knight’s lively interviews with the dancers and a robust Instagram network of Graham technique classes.

This is not only Martha’s moment, but Janet Eilber’s as well, as she has been creating historical context for the company’s work since she took the helm. Fans are well acquainted with Eilber’s vast insights during her pre-show curtain talks, but now she is putting her Graham smarts to work in a way for us all to learn.

A black and white image of Martha Graham wearing 3D glasses, with the words "Martha Matinees" written next to her.Courtesy MGDC

“I’ve been mining the archives since the moment I became artistic director,” says Eilber. “We had no money, but we had all these assets.”

When the shutdown started, Eilber sprang into action, assembling a curatorial team that also included the director of Teens@Graham and Martha Graham resources Oliver Tobin, and marketing director Melissa Sherwood.

“Suddenly, I was running a digital empire,” says Eilber, with a gentle laugh. “No dance company has a better archive. We are the oldest dance company in the country.”

Something about watching vintage Graham feels equal parts nourishing and empowering. War, social justice, revenge, artistic courage, life on the frontier—all epic themes for these epic times.

Eilber agrees, “Part of the genius of Martha’s revolution was that she was stripping away facade and decoration and giving us a stark view of ourselves—’a graph of the heart,’ as she used to say. Her modernist simplicity reveals elemental human emotions and travels through time unencumbered by the fads or trends of an earlier era. So when she creates a dance about oppression in 1936, it speaks to oppression in any context. The kinesthetic connection she insisted on is timeless and, in our current global situation, resonates with the fever pitch of anguish, confusion, despair, anger with which we are all coping.”

Graham’s sculptural movement vocabulary—those fearless forward swoops, the great hollowing of the center in a Graham contraction, and the architectural contours of her port de bras—all expand space, internally and externally. What a gift for our cabin-fevered bodies.

It’s no wonder that the Martha Matinees quickly became the centerpiece of the company’s digital offerings. A spirited live chat, with Eilber, Tobin and other dance notables responding, add to the in-the-moment experience. It’s a rare chance to have Eilber answer your questions during the show. “People are thrilled to connect,” she says.

Graham’s 1944 Hérodiade proved a total tour-de-force, showcasing five different couples from five different decades at the same time. The montage was created by Peter Sparling, Eilber’s former partner on stage. Seeing Graham side by side with May O’Donnell and others allowed us to see how the Graham body has evolved. “The instrument is changing,” admits Eilber.

Letter to the World,
Graham’s homage to recluse poet Emily Dickinson, had particular resonance for isolation as we try to expand our lives without leaving our house. Graham’s Letter directly addressed how Dickinson’s seemingly enclosed world came alive in her poetry. Aren’t we all trying to do that now, though making dance films, taking and teaching online, and so on? We are a nation of Emilys trying to make our room bigger.

Graham masterwork Appalachian Spring, with the original 1944 cast with Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins and May O’Donnell in the lead roles, and Yuriko, Nina Fonaroff, Pearl Lang and Marjorie Mazia as The Followers, gave me a chance to pause and consider the frontier that we belong to—dance—and to keep forging on, like the young bride in Spring. “That one broke the internet,” quips Eilber, about the rise in views.

Certainly a pandemic is a great time to consider a lost solo from 1937, which is exactly what the company did with Immediate Tragedy, a new digital work created by 22 artists collaborating from across the U.S. and Europe. Choreographed by Eilber and the dancers, Immediate Tragedy was commissioned by The Soraya in California, and featured a new score by Christopher Rountree performed by his band Wild Up, and a savvy digital design by Ricki Quinn.

With 14 photos of Graham and 14 dancers, the play of then and now created a dynamic synergy as a grid of still photos morphed in and out of motion. “We leaned into film techniques for this one,” says Eilber.

Leave it to Graham to pack betrayal, adultery, murder, revenge and redemption into one ballet, but she did just that with her behemoth Clytemnestra. On July 15, 18 and 22, the Matinees will take a deep dive into Graham’s 1958 culmination of her Greek Cycle. Each Matinee will include a section of the piece from a 1979 broadcast of “Dance in America” with Yuriko Kimura as Clytemnestra, along with footage of Graham in rehearsal dancing the lead role from 1965.

“It was her only full evening-length work, and in it we get all of her theatrical techniques from flashbacks to time travel, and it includes a spectacular modular set by Isamu Noguchi,” says Eilber.

Graham re-envisioned the piece especially for this broadcast. She told Jennifer Dunning in The New York Times, “I know I’m going to have criticism, but I get that all the time. I’ve rechoreographed a great deal, not to deny the old but for the eye of the camera. I wanted this to be alive and vibrant for people. I felt I’d sacrifice choreographic design for meaning, because I only use choreography to express meaning. I had the chance to tighten up ‘Clytemnestra’ and the piece has much more dramatic intensity now.”

It did then, and it will again in this new iteration with Graham’s own dancing on the digital stage.

The company’s fall plans are shaping up as well. Eilber is planning to announce the winner of #19 Poses for the 19th Amendment Instagram contest, which invited dancers to recreate one of 19 iconic photographs of Graham using household objects. “We will narrow it down and then let people vote on the finalist.”

More fabulous Matinees are in the works, but Eilber also realizes the need to pace herself. “I’m aware that this is going to be a long pandemic, and we need to catch our breath,” says Eilber. “This is our first dive into building our digital world and we have no shortage of material. But we don’t want to burn ourselves out.”