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Martha Graham Dance Company returns to Chicago for long-awaited performance at MCA

by Tracie Darnell
April 17, 2007


MGRAHAM_dancer

Photo courtesy of John Deane

A member of Martha Graham Dance Company performs.

Martha Graham, the legendary dancer and choreographer who died in 1991 at age 96, was arguably the most influential force in American modern dance. She was a seminal creator of the genre, forming a company in 1926 that performed her 181 ballets throughout the world.  Recognized as one of the most original artistic innovators of the 20th century, her legacy, for its breadth and range, has often been compared to the likes of Picasso, Stravinsky and Balanchine.

Beginning Wednesday, Chicago dance fans will have a rare chance to see Graham's celebrated modernist choreography and its unparalleled set design at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Opening tonight with a sold-out gala performance, the company will perform through Saturday in the MCA's intimate black box theater. The program includes three of her most important earlier works: “Appalachian Spring” (1944), “Errand into the Maze” (1947) and “Embattled Garden” (1958). On Saturday afternoon there will be a special presentation of Graham solo works and vintage film clips of her and her company.

As a choreographer, Graham was as creative as she was complex. In addition to her many dance works, she also created an enduring dance technique revolving around a principle of deep breathing that involved contraction and release of the torso. Taught throughout the world, Graham technique has been compared to the technical basis of classical ballet in its significance and scope. While ballet often sought to conceal effort, Graham revealed it, allowing contractions to attain whiplash intensity as an expression of the belief that life itself is an effort.  In time, her technique became more lyrical, but her dances never ceased to be passionate.

Graham's company has been a a training ground for some of modern dance's most illustrious names.  Her pupils included such greats as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and countless other performers, actors, and dancers.


Since Graham’s death in 1991, her company has been embroiled in vicious legal and financial battles. In recent years, however, the group has been bailing itself out, and its long-awaited and much-anticipated visit to Chicago this week hints at newfound stability. 

“For Graham, many know of her, but few have experienced her work,” said Peter Taub, director of performance programs at the MCA.  “Her influence extends very well in dance, in theater and other performing art forms.”


The evening programs entitled “Focus on Martha Graham/Isamu Noguchi Collaborations” will feature works created by Graham with sets by the legendary American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The duo worked together for 30 years, making dance more theatrical through their productive collaborations.


“In a funny way this project has an interesting balance,” Taub said. “The company represents someone who is established and has a widely recognized imprint on contemporary art, yet this will be a little bit of an experiment. The Martha Graham Company will be giving audiences a fresh new experience.”


The evening's opening work, “Appalachian Spring,” set to the famous score Graham commissioned from American composer Aaron Copland, is a breathtaking evocation of American determination and optimism. Springtime in the wilderness is celebrated by a young, newly married couple who are building a house when a roving evangelist preaches a hellfire-and-damnation sermon to them. Luckily, their love for each other and the calm wisdom of an older pioneer woman eventually calms the spiritual turmoil.


From the 1940s onward, Graham created dance-dramas inspired by history, mythology and literature, and the characters in them often served as psychological symbols. “Errand into the Maze” was inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Although the ballet does not literally retell the story, it depicts a woman shuddering through a labyrinth in which a monster lurks. This creature personifies her deepest fears and by conquering it, she can overcome her own fear.


In the final work, “Embattled Garden,” set to a score by Carlos Surinach, Graham spices things up in her own Garden of Eden. The tragi-comedy explores sacred and profane love in an erotic romp involving Adam and Eve. Four characters cross paths, exchange partners and stalk each other in predatory circles. For Graham's Adam and Eve, love appears complicated and delightfully unsavory.


The Saturday matinee, “American Original,” shows the trajectory of Graham’s artistic development through five solo dance performances: “Incense” (1906); “Serenata Morisca” (c 1920); “Lamentation” (1930); “Satyric” (1932); and “Spectre” (1937).  Rather than presenting the works traditionally, they will be interwoven with rare archival films of early pieces choreographed by Graham. This treatment will merge the dances in a variety of ways, even allowing dancers to travel into and out of a projection, or dance with the images of their predecessors behind them.


“The first part of the Saturday performance presents different solo works Graham performed throughout the years,” Taub said. “You can see a clear and radical progression.”


Selections from “Appalachian Spring” will follow with a voice over by artistic director, Janet Eilber, a protégé of Graham’s who began performing with the company in 1972.

As a principal dancer with the troupe, Eilber soloed twice at the White House and was partner to famed ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev in “The Scarlet Letter” and “Lucifer,” two of several roles Graham created for her. She was appointed artistic director of the company in 2005. After years of financial and legal struggles, the ensemble seems to be coming back to life under Eilber's guidance. 

“The artistic director is leading the company in new ways,” Taub said. “They are on a new ascendancy. The dancers are tremendous artists. As a company, they are doing very interesting things and sustaining the legacy of Martha Graham for audiences. It is an opportune time and the company deserves to be seen and recognized.”


MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY

Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago
April 18-21
Tickets, $24-$40
(312) 397-4010