Well, that was unexpected. Who would have guessed that the Martha Graham Dance Company would take over the space inhabited, until just a few months ago, by Merce Cunningham’s troupe? News of the move brought with it a sensation of time collapsing, looping back on itself. Cunningham began his dance career in Graham’s company in 1939, but as a choreographer, he soon emerged as a kind of anti-Graham, stripping dance of the emotion and narrative that saturated her works—and inspiring a new generation of choreographers. So as questions linger about the preservation of his dances, there’s a hard-to-accept irony in the devotion of Westbeth’s eleventh floor—the gorgeous, if slightly weathered, studios where he choreographed and taught from 1971 until his death in 2009—not to Merce’s legacy but to Martha’s.
In other ways, though, it’s an uplifting turn of events. Few people knew what would come of this expansive space, whose architecture inherently invites movement. What a relief to know that it will continue to be used for dance. (As one critic tweeted yesterday, “At least it’s not a Thai restaurant, or a nail salon.”) And as the Graham Company, which has had plenty of preservation struggles of its own, seeks to make its repertoire both true to the past and relevant to today, it will surely benefit from these new headquarters, which will house both the company and school.
A recent review by Tobi Tobias, about the MGDC’s spring season, comes to mind. (A significant aside: Tobias was recently named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for criticism, in recognition of her incisive writing at ArtsJournal.) In the final paragraph, she laments:
During the two evenings that I watched the present-day version of Graham, I saw to a heartbreaking extent how her company has diminished—not just in first-rate dancer power, but in astute direction, public popularity, and (apparently) funding. Yet seeing a few of Graham’s greatest works, even under far from ideal circumstances, I felt more convinced than ever that these treasures should survive and be properly performed. Still, for the life of me, I can’t see how that is going to happen.
The company may have just found a way. —Siobhan Burke
Photo: A Cunningham technique class at Westbeth. Photo by Colin Fowler.