How should Martha Graham's work be danced today?

The great revolutionary was remarkably attuned to the art movements of her time, and an appearance of the famous Martha Graham Dance Company at Seattle's Moore Theatre raises a question: Should they mirror her choreography or reinterpret it?
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Martha Graham in 1940. (Barbara Morgan)

The great revolutionary was remarkably attuned to the art movements of her time, and an appearance of the famous Martha Graham Dance Company at Seattle's Moore Theatre raises a question: Should they mirror her choreography or reinterpret it?

In a now famous 1980s photo by Richard Avedon for Blackglama mink, Martha Graham, wrapped in fur, posed with Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn for an ad whose tag line asked, "What becomes a legend most?"

At the time, well past her creative prime though still making new work for her company, and only a few years from her death in 1991 at age 96, Graham was indeed a legend. She was the dominant choreographic voice in the development of American modern dance beginning in the mid-1920s and reaching into the late 1950s, by which time her creative powers were greatly diminished, and new voices bespoke other ways of looking at the art form.

Her death resulted in a web of intrigue surrounding the ownership of her vast repertoire. A long, nasty, and complex legal battle was settled in 2002 with the Martha Graham Dance Center prevailing over Ron Protas, Graham's assistant in her last few decades of life, and to whom she willed her dances.

What does become a legend like Graham? Is it enough to know that she was here on earth with us, created great dances, and is remembered through films, photos, interviews, and other documentation and memorabilia? Or do we preserve her choreography so that it can continue to be performed by new generations of dancers for new generations of dance audiences?

The Martha Graham Dance Center assumed the latter as the correct legacy, even though others, including former Graham company dancer and famed choreographer Paul Taylor, believe that the choreographer may have thought otherwise. After the legal battles and a two-year suspension of activity, they reconstituted the Martha Graham Dance Company, now under the artistic leadership of former soloist Janet Eilber, and resumed touring. Last Saturday night, Sept. 29, the company presented a single performance at the Moore Theatre on the same stage where the Graham Company made its Seattle debut in 1936.

In celebration of their return to the Moore, and as part of that venerable theater's 100th anniversary season, two solo works created and performed by Graham on the 1936 program were on the bill: Lamentation from 1930, and Satyric Festival Song, created two years later and danced here by Blakeley White-McGuire. The latter is a short work that was originally part of a suite of solos inspired by Southwest Pueblo culture and the clowns who are present to relieve the tension of religious rituals. It is a slight and delightful romp in which Graham poked fun at her "serious" self. White-McGuire was dressed in a banded sheath dress that accented her quick jumps, percussive moves, and lithe figure, complemented by occasional facial gestures, including an un-Graham-like wry little smile.

Lamentation is an extraordinary solo in its brevity and in the economy, eloquence, and power of its movement. Seated on a bench, and dressed in a stretchy tube of fabric, Elizabeth Auclair manipulates the cloth in various directions, pushing and pulling it into multiple shapes, revealing and unrevealing herself in gestures of grief and mourning. In this early work, Graham makes a leap forward in creating a serious language of expressive movement serving a coherent and compelling choreographic vision.

A program complement to Graham's own solos was a third work, Serenata Morisca, choreographed for her by Ted Shawn in 1916. Along with his wife, Ruth St. Denis, Shawn was a pioneer of theatrical dance and a direct influence on Graham who danced and studied at Denishawn, their school and company in Los Angeles. Serenata Morisca brought first public notice to the young Martha. It is all liquid arms and turns, with references to Indian dance with bells on ankles and a kitschy harem outfit, designed no doubt to titillate the audiences of the time under the guise of artistic expression. It is fun to imagine the intense, serious, and dramatic young Graham performing this piece of "exotic" fluff.

The other stellar dance on the program of six works, and the closing piece, was a reconstruction of Chronicle, originally a 40-minute dance choreographed in 1936 in response to the rise of European Fascism, but here seen in an abbreviated version called Sketches from Chronicle. Performed in three sections by an all-female ensemble, the dance is a thrilling example of Graham's ability to evoke a social message through danced ritual. Up to this point in the program, the company had displayed admirable technical prowess but seemed unable to fully muster the gravitas, power, and directness that need to be invested in Graham's movement to truly make it work, so it was good to see them finally perform with dramatic coherence.

The first segment, danced by Elizabeth Auclair, less pallid than in her turn in Lamentation, is again a lament, this for the losses of the First World War, or any war. It is performed in a voluminous skirt designed by Graham herself that takes on a life of its own, making Auclair an instrument of its all-encompassing sadness. "Steps in the Street" follows, creating the dramatic tension of "devastation, homelessness, and exile" through simple walking lines and gestures, and the counterpoint of shifting groups. The closing section, "Prelude to Action," has a high priestess in white and a black-clad chorus, a sort of high art gospel that evokes "Unity - Pledge to the Future."

The year 1936 was indeed a difficult time, with a depression and political ferment in our country and the specter of fascism abroad. Modern dance choreographers, who saw themselves in the vanguard of American art, rightly expressed their concerns with society's ills. The massed movement and group solidarity of this work's last two segments evoke the social realism that would have us all marching to a brighter future.

The work also did something else. It reminded us that Graham was remarkably attuned to the art movements of her day, both music and visual art. The architecture of Sketches of Chronicles, the way that dancers are arranged in lines and on differing levels, seems very connected to the design sensibility of this Art Deco period. In looking at the dance, I was reminded of the clean lines and symmetry of buildings, automobiles, and furniture of the time. This too, seemed like a vision for a bright future, uncluttered by the detritus of the past.

So what does become a legend the most? In the case of Graham, it is always good to see her work, though I wish there had been fewer reconstructions - there were at least three on this program, and that is not including Serenata Morisca, which had no attribution as to how it had been documented or reconstructed. The lighting for the works, mostly original designs by Jean Rosenthal, seemed a bit tired and might be revisited by new eyes. It also would have been good to see at least one work that moved the company to a new vision. They have had mixed success in commissioning new works that complement the Graham repertory, but it would have been good to have seen at least one.

What becomes this legend the most however, is to remember what a revolutionary Martha Graham was in creating a new movement language, a new form of dramatic theater, a new way of training dancers, a new way to express myth, religion, and the deepest recesses of the human psyche. Some of what she does may now look old-fashioned to our eyes, as if we've seen it many times before. But sometimes we forget that 50, 60, even 70 years ago, Martha Graham did it first.


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