Magazine

Out of the Maze

Reshaping Graham for new audiences

 

When Martha Graham formed her company in 1926, it was the start of a dance revolution. But for those dedicated to keeping the Graham flame alive—namely Janet Eilber, artistic director of Martha Graham Dance Company—the foremost question is, How can a company formed 87 years ago be relevant today?

“You have to make decisions,” says Eilber at the Graham company’s West Village studios in Westbeth, formerly home to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Take Eilber’s current undertaking: to cut Graham’s 1958 two-act masterpiece Clytemnestra down to one hour.

Right: Katherine Crockett in Satyric Festival Song. Photo by Nathan Sayers.

“I don’t see that as really losing anything,” she says. “I see that as traveling through time. You do have to strip things away as you move forward and accept the fact that they’re no longer relevant. That’s the great thing about the Graham legacy: the core of it is so relevant.”

When Eilber took over as artistic director in 2005—joined by LaRue Allen, who remains the company’s executive director—she had immediate crises to deal with. The company, previously led by the two foremost Graham interpreters of the 1980s and ’90s—Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin—was in substantial debt. Dancers were full of doubt. It seemed like the company had a better chance of folding than rediscovering itself.

The turnaround has been an evolution. “We started with a $5 million debt and used this whole trajectory of starting with simple, inexpensive creative programs that gave us a foundation to build on,” Eilber explains. The organization has been in the black for eight years, and its budget more than doubled since 2006.

For Tadej Brdnik, who joined in 1996, the success comes down to artistic vision. “The biggest mistake after Martha’s death is that nobody actually sat down and said, Who are we? How can we make this legacy thrive past the years of Martha Graham?” he says. “It was kind of like sucking on a lollipop: Nobody noticed there was nothing left on it.”

Eilber danced with the Graham company from 1972 to 1980. Martha trusted her so much with her own roles that she invited her back as a guest artisteven while Eilber was in Los Angeles, where she was acting in films like Whose Life Is It Anyway? Eilber has lost none of her statuesque polish, yet while she may evoke the blond coolness of Grace Kelly, there is heat in her, too. Her eyes sparkle with passion whenever she shares a thought about how an aspect of Graham’s world could be disseminated. It’s almost as if she’s built a web and shooting from its center are silken pathways showing all the ways Graham’s work can live on.

Left: Blakeley White-McGuire in costume for Diversion of Angels. Photo by Nathan Sayers.

Eilber’s first mission was to shorten programs so that there would be one intermission instead of two. She initiated audience-access experiments in the form of online video competitions like the “Clytemnestra Remash Challenge” and “On the Couch,” which was part of that season’s “Inner Landscape” theme. Eilber, who is greatly inspired by museum curation, adores themes. They give her a sense of structure; from there, her imagination can run wild. Currently, the organization is enmeshed in “Myth and Transformation,” but she’s starting to cook up “Shape and Design,” which will address Graham’s place in American modernism.

Yet Eilber also stays in the present. Lamentation Variations is an ongoing series in which short works—created in reaction to Graham’s extraordinary 1930 solo—are commissioned for a range of choreographers. (The list includes Larry Keigwin, Aszure Barton, and Doug Varone.) “It’s easier in Lamentation Variations to open the door to any style, but for a larger work we need somebody who can stand up next to Martha Graham,” she says.

In February, Nacho Duato will begin his second piece for the company. His first was Rust, a devastating male quintet exploring ideas about torture. “Even before he finished the piece, he volunteered to come back and do another one as soon as possible,” says Brdnik, laughing. “I could feel him in the studio—he was really happy because he was tapping into a part of his imagination that maybe wasn’t being fulfilled with different kinds of dancers.” (Duato, who mainly works with classical dancers, is the artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg.)

Above: Doug Varone's Lamentation Variation with, from left to right, Tadej Brdnik, Lloyd Knight, Abdiel Jacobsen, and Maurizio Nardi. By Costas, courtesy MGDC.

Eilber also hopes to bring contemporary classics into the mix, like Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch and Jerome Robbins’ Watermill; she would love to have, as museums do, an acquisition fund. “A work by Pina Bausch for the Graham company?” she asks in wonderment. “Pina was so influenced by Martha. There are so many people out there who are grandchildren of Martha Graham. Matthew Bourne. It’s the emotional narrative: Remember the duet in his Swan Lake between the son and his mother? It’s like a Graham duet. As you can tell, I dream…”

But her ideas are doubly exciting when the current crop of Graham dancers have so much to offer. If Katherine Crockett is the company’s incandescent bombshell—she was Cate Blanchett’s dance double in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for a reason—Blakeley White-McGuire is its drama queen. Her performances become more ravaged and haunting—without the melodrama, if you can believe it—with each passing season.

“What has been gained is a vibrancy and an unleashing of the spirit of the artist that made all of this,” White-McGuire says. “I didn’t know Graham as a personality. What Janet has done, in a way, is made that OK. She has opened up the possibility of it going forward.”

And Xiaochuan Xie, a soloist from China, is proof that the company is still attracting talent. A dancer of startling luminosity (see “On the Rise,” Sept. 2011), she will be featured in The Rite of Spring during the company’s New York City Center season this March. Having joined the company in 2010, she’s still learning; White-McGuire is her idol.

“She has a special intensity, which I think I’m lacking,” Xie says. “I see myself as a weak person. That’s also why I came to Graham: I want to be strong. When I came here, it was a new experience for me to really think, What’s in me? I still ask myself that question every day.”

Xie describes Eilber in one word: “Brave.” It takes a few seconds for Xie’s peals of laughter to die down. “I couldn’t do those things. It’s an older company with all this reputation and probably a lot of stereotypes from the audience.”

She recounts how one spectator complimented her dancing in a Graham duet, but referred to the other more contemporary piece on the program in a derogatory way. “There are probably a lot of people who say things like that to her face,” Xie says. “It’s hard to get all those opinions, but at the same time, you still need to say, This is what I want to do and I’m doing it.”

For Crockett, the company now has a greater openness. “Things change and they should change, because we have new people in the company and the world is changing,” she says. “The beauty is to understand the impulse of the technique and to understand that technique is not the style, but how to shift the body from the pelvis, how to spiral from the back, how to find the impulse of the contraction shooting you through space. If you project that into everything you do, it will still live, it will still be pure.”

 

Right: Blakeley White-McGuire in costume for Cave of the Heart, set by Noguchi. By Nathan Sayers

 

In a way, Eilber is creating a highly technical repertory company with a secret weapon: a Graham base. “These works will resonate,” she says, “and can be disassembled and reassembled in many different configurations.”

Falling under the category of what she calls “creative curation,” Eilber is experimenting with ways to reframe the Graham repertoire. In 2011 she collaborated with Italian theater director Antonio Calenda for a production about Picasso in which dancers performed remixed sections from Graham works. Another Italian venture featured 10 members of the company in casts of Prometheus Bound and The Bacchae.

 

“That was a great experience in deciding which Graham phrases to manipulate,” Eilber says. “Prometheus Bound had the dancers flying down this huge staircase, and we used moves from the white lady from Diversion of Angels for the whole group. Later, they had a more angry section; we used the solo Deep Song, but turned it into a group dance. It was amazing. I want to do it again!”

 

Another of Eilber’s dreams is to collaborate with an opera director to give a production a Graham look using, say, characters from the Trojan War. “What if scenes from all of these dances could be seen and the audience could walk through them?” she asks. “A film artist could create projections while you saw the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and then soldiers would lead you into a town square, and you’d see Cassandra’s crazy scene. You’d turn the corner and see Clytemnestra murdering Agamemnon.”

 

Eilber’s eyes, it should be noted, have that special sparkle again.

 

“These are the sorts of things that I figure if you don’t think about them they’ll never happen,” she says. But it also comes down to what she’s been handed: the Graham legacy.

 

“If you’re going to curate something, curate something that’s limitless.”

 

Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.

 

Xiaochuan Xie in costume for The Rite of Spring. Photo by Nathan Sayers for DM.

 

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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