Tomorrow and the Martha Graham Company

July 22, 2007

Fourteen women, closely aligned, wait for the piano to begin. Young and impossibly slender, the dancers bristle with contained energy. They cross the floor in a gait so sustained that poet Ben Belitt once called it “the heels’ blow upon space.” They are members of the Martha Graham Dance Company at work on Graham’s
Primitive Mysteries
. The dance itself is 70 years old and very sturdy.

As they finish, a refrain from Graham’s epic
comes to mind: “Rebirth, rebirth.” It is 14 years since this great American choreographer’s death, and after a period of unwonted chaos, the future of her company at last looms clear.

The costly and tedious court cases initiated by Ron Protas, Graham’s legatee who contested ownership of her works, have now been constructively settled. It was an exasperating journey that prevented the company from staging any of Graham’s 111 works and threatened their permanent loss to the dance world. Gradually, with the help of film and video, plus recollections by former Graham dancers, the major works (created especially between 1930 and 1960) are returning to the stage. And 2006, which marks the company’s 80th anniversary, will be crowned by a revival of
Letter to the World
(1940), her poignant evocation of the life and art of poet Emily Dickinson.

Trained in the eclectic, storytelling dance of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Graham was a pioneer in every sense of the word. In 1926, her first year as an independent artist, she gave birth to 29 new dances. A number of them, with titles like Danse Languide and Maid with the Flaxen Hair, were in the chiffon style of the time. But she searched and she experimented, and a fresh way of moving began to emerge.

Her compact torso took on percussive variations of breathing, as if she were gripped by an inner storm. Instead of denying gravity, as ballet performers did, she embraced the earth in circling falls. Instead of softly curving, her elbows were angled or straight, her wrists flexed, her hands held like small, peaked roofs. This decisive new movement language was accentuated by Graham’s own physical identity: her tightly molded cheeks; shining, deep-set eyes; and a cascade of straight black hair, later arranged with the strong sense of design that also characterized the costumes she devised.

By 1930 Graham had begun to hit her creative stride with the solo
. Encased in a stretch of tubular jersey, she sat on a bench and, with her torso deeply contracting, incarnated tragedy. She was not a specific woman weeping over a specific loved one, but the essence of all bereft people in all of time.

The 1930s were an era of rampant social conscience in American art. Graham’s Chronicle, with its bold rhythms, and Deep Song, with its echo of the Spanish Civil War, were again not literal, but powerfully evocative. Her heroic period was on the way. The 1940s, with its dedicated female ensemble (soon augmented by a cadre of males), brought forth important works like
Seraphic Dialogue
, Appalachian Spring, Night Journey, and Clytemnestra.

By no means willingly, Graham retired from dancing in 1969. She was 74. For 22 more years she continued to shape the company. Now it is directed by two dancers who inherited some of her roles. Quite different from each other in style, they stand reassuringly of one mind about the future of the repertoire. Christine Dakin is the Apollonian. Her attack is heroic, her use of stillness meaningful. She entered the company 29 years ago. It’s 26 years for Terese Capucilli, who is the Dionysian—swift and windswept. While both still love to perform, they limit their appearances and are more generous than Graham about delegating their roles to younger company members.

Since last year’s New York season they have honed the company. The soloists now rise clearly above the impeccable ensemble, punctuating it like jewels in a setting. Katherine Crockett has become a truly commanding presence; with a single forceful gesture, Fang-Yi Sheu illuminates the entire action, while Miki Orihara’s warmth adds welcome contrast. The other soloists, while not so consistent, have earned their positions at the apex of the company. Beginning to surge through the ranks are Erika Dankmeyer, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Maurizio Nardi, Heidi Stoeckley, and David Zurak.

What about the long-range future of the Graham company? Should the output of other choreographers be regularly added? If so, should they be philosophically related to the founder’s, or should they strike out in unfamiliar directions?

Over the years, Graham trained many dancers who then left her to seek paths of their own. Some used her style as a creative base; others rebelled against it. Capucilli and Dakin may eventually consider existing works by some of these choreographers. Capucilli says, “We have an idea of putting on the stage work by Graham alumni that is not seen anymore, that doesn’t have a home, like Jane Dudley, Anna Sokolow, Bertram Ross, Erick Hawkins, and Pearl Lang.”

In addition they will occasionally commission a choreographer whose style is compatible with Graham’s. This season’s choice, at City Center in April, was Martha Clarke. Her new
was inspired by the fiercely realistic 18th-century prints of Francisco Goya. Clarke, at one time a Graham student, creates theater pieces with a dance overlay, while Graham created dance with a theater overlay. In its intentional chaos, Sueños did not accumulate to a climax, even when Maurizio Nardi, as a hanged corpse, began to laugh hysterically. Followed by Graham’s Sketches from Chronicle, with its taut, well-ordered bursts of action, Sueños appeared somewhat random.

The reconstruction of
Deaths and Entrances
(1943) was freshly costumed by Oscar de la Renta. The easy-flowing drape of the women’s gowns made one hope that he will eventually take over the sartorial debacles created by Halston during the waning days of Graham’s career. Her choreography for the women (in this case Miki Orihara, Virginie Mécène, and Katherine Crockett as the Brontë sisters) is stronger and more specific than for the men. She tended to base male roles on physique, rather than presence. Thus the Dark Beloved and the Poetic Beloved, interpreted by Christophe Jeannot and Tadej Brdnik, remained supportive, rather than motivating. Despite this imbalance, Deaths and Entrances still exudes a dramatic persuasion akin to black magic.

Since Graham’s demise, the company’s board of trustees has undergone profound changes. According to executive director Marvin Preston, those who originally joined the board only for prestige reasons have been dropped—or they dropped themselves. Last April, with many new board members and Melania Trump as gala chairperson, the opening night party garnered $580,000. Preston reports that this year has been the best financially. Foundation funding has doubled, and he points with pride to a grant of $1,500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The current budget is $5,200,000, which includes 25 to 30 weeks of employment for the 27 dancers.

In addition to developing the repertoire and board, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance needs to find a building where both the school and the company can be housed. Their building on East 63rd Street, originally a gift from the Baroness Bethsabee de Rothschild, had to be sold. It has been reconstructed and a portion of the space returned to the school, but it has no room for growth.

Under the lively direction of former Graham dancer Marnie Thomas (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” May 2004), the school now numbers 200 students, and the teaching staff includes distinguished former Graham artists like Mary Hinkson, Pearl Lang, Linda Hodes, Stuart Hodes, Peggy Lyman, and Yuriko. The students are exposed to three phases of Graham technique as it has evolved since the beginning, as well as ballet, yoga, and Pilates. Former company member and author Ellen Graff supervises special projects like the Young Artists Program, which draws its population from the city’s public schools, and Thomas directs the Martha Graham Ensemble, some of whose members will eventually enter the company.

At the end of the last century, it might have been said that the angst and the angularity of Martha Graham were going out of style. But her monumental creativity along with the revitalized sense of the directors, the dancers, and the Center behind them prove once again that the dance theater of Martha Graham is classic and, as such, will endure.

Doris Hering, who has written for Dance Magazine since 1945, is the recipient of the Capezio, Martha Hill, and Dance Critics Association Awards.