Martha Graham premiered her first evening of solo work in 1926. Dance hasn’t been the same since. She was a dancer first, creating works that fit her long torso, angular body, and dramatic intensity. Graham is considered the mother of American Modern Dance. Hailed as a national treasure, honored by two presidents, and hosted seven times in the White House; Graham was the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim and a host of other awards.
In 1931, Graham’s all-women company premiered their first concert in New York City. By 1938, men joined the company. Modern dance legends Erik Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor were early Graham dancers who went on to start their own modern dance companies.
Graham was attracted to deep psychological themes in Greek mythology, literature, and history. She often re-told the story from the feminine point of view. She danced until her 70s and remained productive until her death in 1991 at the age of 96. Although many Graham classics date before 1960, she choreographed her highly acclaimed work, The Rite of Spring, in 1984. Her last work, Maple Leaf Rag, was choreographed a year before her death.
Graham occupies a large space on the dance map. She not only changed the landscape of contemporary choreography but developed her own movement language to do so. Her technique is known for its powerful use of the body’s center, vigorous floor work, and spiraling turns. You would be hard pressed to find a modern dancer that can’t at least imitate a Graham contraction. Graham’s technique was considered to be the first modern dance alternative to ballet training and was taught at universities and studios all over the world. Today, the Graham School in New York City is up and running full force and attracting an array of new students.
The company fell on difficult times during a major legal dispute over the ownership of Graham’s dances. The company was not allowed to perform from May 2000-May 2002. “No one was sleeping,” states Terese Capucilli, one of the current Artistic Directors. The company stayed busy learning repertory and keeping up with developments on the law suit. On August 19 2004, the Appellate Court ruled in favor of the Martha Graham Center. The litigation process left the organization drained of its resources, but not its spirit.
Capucilli and Christine Dakin, two dancers who worked with Graham herself, are steering the company boldly towards the future. The company is back on its feet, in great demand, and touring the US and the world. The 2005 touring schedule is completely booked to the point that they had to turn down work.
Graham choreographed 181 dances during her lifetime. Only half of them are danceable while the other half is simply lost with no viable record. Twenty dances, all considered classics, are currently in the repertory. Reviving and reconstructing dances involves still photos, film footage, and the collective memory of those who danced the roles. Only three dancers in the current company danced with Graham herself. “The knowledge comes from one mouth to another, from one heart to another. That is the beauty of the work. Dancers have passed the work to the next generation. Because the Graham technique is a language, it’s an oral tradition in the deepest sense,” states Capucilli.
Houston welcomes Martha Graham Dance Company after a 22-year absence. The Houston program consists of all Graham classics designed to highlight the range of Graham’s genius. Diversion of Angels (1948), Graham’s opus on love, is one of a handful of dances that Graham never danced herself. Graham saw a Kandinsky painting with a slash of red. In the dance, the girl in red literally dances Kandinsky’s slash as an embodiment of passion itself.
Sketches from Chronicle (1936), is Graham’s response to fascism in Europe. Earlier that year, she was invited to perform as part of the 1936 Olympic Games, in Germany. She refused for political reasons stating, “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time.”
Errand in to the Maze (1947), was first choreographed as a duet for herself and Erick Hawkins. The dance is a re-telling of the myth of Theseus from Ariadne’s point of view. She descends into the labyrinth to face the Minotaur. Graham’s interest in Greek mythology often explored the feminine perspective. Isamu Noguchi’s set is said to resemble the female pelvis.
In Embattled Garden (1958), Graham enters the Adam and Eve story complete with Lilith. The set, designed by Noguchi, is one of the oldest sets in use today. Noguchi created close to twenty sets for Graham.
This is rare opportunity for Houston audiences to witness dance history come alive on stage. Capucilli speaks with tremendous hope for the future of this great company. “Martha’s dances only live as they are performed. That is were the work is alive and breathing.”
Capucilli and Dakin are taking the company into the future with a ferocious energy. This year they will add a new work by the highly theatrical choreographer, Martha Clarke. (Clarke was actually named after Martha Graham.) Graham was famous for saying, “The only constant is change.” The company has weathered change with grace and dignity and is poised to carry on Graham’s genius to the next generation of dance lovers.
Martha Graham Dance Company performs on Friday, February 25th 2005, 8:00 pm at Jones Hall. Call 713-227-4SPA or visit http://www.spahouston.org/.
This preview originally appeared in the February issue of Artshouston.