Martha Graham. Photo © Cris Alexander.

Martha Graham Dance Company, New York City – October 2015

Eight men marched in unison across the studio, tightly grouped.  They repeatedly lunged and crossed one leg over the other knee while their arms formed stiff, angular shapes.  Eight women also strode across determinedly, twisting their upper bodies with each jerking step.  Abdiel Jacobsen*, Soloist of the Martha Graham Dance Company, stood in the centre in the role of The Shaman, wearing a cloak – black on one side and white on the other – that heightened the sense of opposition and conflict with each sweep of Jacobsen’s long limbs.  Charlotte Landreau*, a dancer of the company, curled and contorted her thin frame to express both her reluctance and acceptance of her tragic fate in the character of The Chosen One.  Stravinsky’s rhythmic, pounding score played from the studio’s speakers.

Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring, set to Igor Stravinsky’s composition of the same name, premiered in 1984, 70 years after the infamous performance by Les Ballets Russes that incited a near riot at a Paris theater.  Few choreographers, including Graham, have been able to hold their own against Stravinsky’s monumental score.

Ben Schultz and XiaoChuan Xie in Martha Graham’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Photo © Hibbard Nash Photography.

Following the music’s tumultuous finish, the dancers’ panting breaths echoed in the otherwise silent studio.  They looked toward the two rehearsal directors, Denise Vale and Tadej Brdnik.  “Okay, that was good,” said Vale, Senior Artistic Associate and a former Principal Dancer of the company.  Her voice had a very soothing tone and her enunciation was crisp.  “A few things we need to fix –”, and she turned to Tadej Brdnik, who had been taking notes on a clipboard beside her.  Brdnik, Program Director at the Martha Graham School and Principal Dancer of the company since 1996, answers to a myriad of duties – on the same day, I saw him dashing from the morning class he teaches to coordinate the rundown of an evening event for the company’s donors, responding to the company’s wardrobe designer along the way, and then checking the repair work to the floor tiles as he passed through the studio’s small lobby where students of the Martha Graham School stretched and sprawled on their lunch break.  For now Brdnik is focused on this rehearsal.  The company will fly out in just two days for a month-long tour with stops in China, Russia and Turkey, where several of Graham’s iconic works, including The Rite of Spring, will be performed.  Rehearsal time is precious.

“Can I please have the men for that last section,” said Brdnik, and the men grouped around him on one side of the studio.  “The shoulder,” he explains, demonstrating with his body, “needs to come toward the audience.”  Vale gathered the women on the other side. “This part here,” and she tilted her upper body, reached one arm toward the ground while pulling the other arm, bent, in opposition.  “You’re throwing the seed, here…Show me that position before you turn.”  One of dancers tried the movement.  “Get there,” Vale said sharply, ” – faster!”  With her voice, Vale emulated the swiftness that she wanted to see.  “Yes!  And…throw!” She said excitedly as the dancers practiced.  “Good! Stay in unison, but have your own intention for the movement.”

Atsuko Tonohata, Jacqueline Elder, and Mariya Dashkina Maddux in Martha Graham’s ‘Chronicle.’ Photo © Costas.

Graham’s repertoire spans an impressive seven decades – from the 1920’s, when she formed her company, until her last work, Maple Leaf Rag, in 1990 before her death the following year at the age of 96.  Undisputedly one of the pioneers of modern dance, her aesthetic captured the sentiments of the evolving political and social concerns in America of those times, including worker’s rights, the dust bowl, the financial collapse, women’s rights, and the war effort, in a vocabulary that wasn’t part of classical ballet, vaudeville, or any of the other prominent dance forms in the early decades.

Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins and the Martha Graham Dance Company in Martha Graham’s ‘Appalachian Spring’. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a later rehearsal that day, Jacobsen was partnered with Konstantina Xintara, another dancer of the company, in one of the duets in Graham’s Conversation of Lovers (1981).  During a break, Jacobsen explained to me what he thinks of when he dances that role. “There’s a narrative that goes through my head.  When I take her ankle, it’s like, ‘I got you’.  And, when she pulls her foot away, she is saying ‘no you don’t’.  Yeah, it’s a kind of dialogue.”

Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo © Hibbard Nash Photography.

“So much of contemporary dance is owed to Martha,” stated Janet Eilber, Artistic Director and former Principal Dancer of the company.  We chatted in her office – a white-walled space with only the necessary computer, printer and office equipment; creative and decorative energies, it seems, are saved for the stage.  “Before,” continued Eilber, referring to the 1920s when Graham formed her company, “there was mime on stage if they wanted to say ‘Will you marry me?’ or ‘Let’s dance’…Martha took naturalistic body language and primal gesture – the things we do unconsciously – and she turned it into theater.  The movement is married to an emotional idea.”

As she explained Graham’s artistic philosophy, she gently curled her upper body inward into that ‘contraction’ which the Graham technique is famous for.  “You don’t just curve your body,” she said, pausing in the furthest point of the curve, “into a contraction.”  Her dramatization of that sole gesture turned the sparse office into a performance space – yes, I’d say Ms. Eilber’s still got it.  “You have to,” she said as she exhaled and slowly released her contraction, “give yourself an emotional prompt that makes the sob happen or the laugh happen.”

“Subtext,” Eilber said definitively, elaborating on Graham’s technique.  “Martha’s Night Journey (1947) was the Oedipus story told through the eyes of Jocasta,” Eilber described, of the character, Jocasta, who had unknowingly married her own son, Oedipus.  “At the point of the story where Jocasta has discovered the truth,” Eilber continued, “and she is running and turning and running and turning, Martha said to me: ‘Dear, you have to talk to yourself the whole time.  When you come over here, you remember this is where you weaned him, and you cannot stay.  And when you come over here, you remember this is where he took you as a lover, and you cannot stay here either.’  I had taken some acting by that point of my career and only then, had I made the connection that Martha was talking about subtext.”  Eilber laughed modestly, “afterward, Martha said, partly to herself, ‘I think I used to do that automatically.'”

Back at the studio, Vale was rehearsing another of Graham’s work, Diversion of Angels, about joy between lovers.  Konstantina was being lifted by two men and it looked wobbly.  “Okay, tell me what’s wrong.  What do you need?”  Vale asked, standing close to the three dancers.  “What do you wish you had to make you more stable?”  Vale put the responsibility on the dancers to articulate their needs for the performance.


PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s ‘Lamentation’. Photo © Hibbard Nash Photography.

“Graham dancers have to be great communicators,” Eilber answered, when I asked about the qualities that make a Graham dancer.  “They have to be powerful individuals…who take charge of their own performances.  They are responsible for their interpretive choices…To express themselves with emotion and physicality in equal measure is what our dancers and students fight for every day.”

Such qualities are probably what bridge these artists from the Graham repertoire to the works of other choreographers – a direction the company is consciously pursuing to evolve and adapt Graham’s aesthetic​ to current times.

Mats Ek, the Swedish choreographer notable for his darkly modern twist on ballet fairy tales like Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty, had been ready to retire.  But, he couldn’t refuse Eilber’s appeal to set, for the first time, his work on the company – a duet titled Axe.  Created in 2015 and originally performed by Ana Laguna (Ek’s wife) and Yvan Auzely, Axe happens to be Ek’s last piece.  In January 2016, he announced his retirement, and to the disappointment of many in the dance community, also declared that he would be pulling the rights to stage his works.  “Mats told me a story,” Eilber said, “that he planned to be a theater director.  But, he saw a performance of the Martha Graham Dance Company in Stockholm in the mid-fifties that just changed his path.  He realized that dance could be just as powerful as theater.”  Eilber also cited Ek’s theatricality as a reason for choosing to collaborate with him.  “Every new work is a risk, but when I choose a choreographer, I’m hoping to create a work that will resonate – that can stand onstage next to a Martha Graham work.”

PeiJu Chien-Pott, Principal Dancer, described how she approached Laguna’s role in the Axe duet.  “The piece is about two people in a long relationship.  I had to figure out how to embody an older character and to express myself in another way…The choreography is very hard on the quads; it’s a lot of deep pliés in second.  When we were rehearsing, I asked Ana if that was normal and she laughed and said ‘yes, you’re doing it right!'”.  She stood up to show me, playfully mimicking the crab-like walks in the choreography.  ”Graham has a different feeling – you hold it in, then you release, and that contrast expresses emotion,” Chien-Pott explained.  “Mats is also very specific with gestures.  Each of the movements in the dance has a meaning.”

PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s ‘Errand into the Maze.’ Photo ©Hibbard Nash Photography.

Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz, another Principal Dancer of the company, performed Axe that evening to a small audience in the Martha Graham studio theatre, with Schultz dancing Auzely’s role.  In this touching and intimate duet, the pair portrayed an old couple so complacent in their relationship they have become oblivious to one another.  As Schultz stoically and methodically chopped wood with an axe, Chien-Pott danced in an expression of frustration and anxiety; each failing to gain the attention of the other.  Graham’s technique was discernible throughout, especially in Chien-Pott’s articulated distortions of her body that contrasted with Schultz’s heavy and monotonous chopping motions.  Though I hadn’t seen the performance by Laguna and Auzely, Chien-Pott and Schultz embodied the characters so genuinely, the piece seemed like it was created for the Graham technique.  It came to a climax when Chien-Pott interrupted Schultz by placing her hand determinedly on his chopping block.  As if finally realizing the purpose for all the chopping he had done, Schultz allowed her to take his axe from his hand and began to gather up the pieces of wood. They exited the stage, heavily anchored by their past while embracing a change for the future.

*Update:

The following dancers received promotions in June 2016:

Abdiel Jacobsen has been promoted to Principal Dancer

Charlotte Landreau has been promoted to Soloist.