Excavation Site: Martha Graham U.S.A.
January 16, 2016
According to her longtime friend and colleague Agnes de Mille, contemporary choreographer Martha Graham would often declare: “Wherever a dancer stands ready, that spot is holy ground.” The Graham technique is known for its grand, dramatic gestures and expressive flourishes. But Graham also tended toward those moments when “a dancer stands ready,” toward those instants just before the fall, the spiral, or the sharp jut of a limb.
As part of Performance Space 122’s (PS 122) annual COIL festival, Austrian choreographer Michael Kliën and dramaturge Steve Valk debuted Excavation Site: Martha Graham U.S.A. Co-presented with the New Museum and the Martha Graham Dance Company, the four-hour dance installation eschews proscenium stages, Isamu Noguchi sets, and billowing costumes. Instead, it emphasizes Graham’s attention to the less pronounced moments of a dancer’s performance. It honors those seconds of silent contemplation and those instants of strength derived from stillness—or, perhaps, stillness derived from strength. And even when Excavation Site runs the risk of realizing Valk’s and Kliën’s philosophy of movement, not Graham’s, it ultimately remains faithful to the prolific pioneer’s spirit and style.
The installation unfurls across the eleventh floor of the Westbeth Artists Community. It includes a tearoom, two spaces for discussion, a nook for interviewing Graham’s long time colleagues, and a performance stage. Each room is dotted with posters that introduce guests to Valk’s theories of dance and democracy. His words and diagrams are meant to ignite discussion among guests, but they lack a clear thesis—and a clear tie-in to Graham.
One wonders, for instance, what Graham would have made of Valk’s attempt to link her legacy to “social choreography.” This concept seems to suggest that, if citizens creatively engage with one another, they will foster a more participatory, equitable society. Throughout her career, Graham advocated for democracy and freedom. In 1929, she premiered Heretic, a work that casts an individual against a hostile society. Nine years later, she debuted American Document, a piece that incorporates spoken text from the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. Even offstage, Graham used political language to describe physical expression. “Movement never lies,” she stated in her 1991 autobiography. “This might be called the law of the dancer’s life, the law which governs its outer aspects.” If the exhibition had presented Graham’s views on dance and society alongside Valk’s, then guests could have grappled with how the thinkers’ stances overlap—and where they diverge. Instead, Graham
Guests must pass the poster marked “social choreography” on their way to the performance space. To reach the stage, guests walk by wooden pews that are tipped on their sides, remove their shoes, and slip through a thick black curtain. Once inside, visitors encounter the groans and whirs of Volkmar Kliën’s electronic score; they are encouraged to sit or splay anywhere around the room’s perimeter. Twenty-four dancers—all but one affiliated with the Graham Company—travel in and out of this space throughout the evening. They vary in age, although most are current company members. And they wear jeans and sweats so that they are, at times, indistinguishable from their audience.
The performers’ physicality is on full display throughout the event. They enthusiastically throw themselves to the floor, tussle and writhe. Some form pulsing shapes in groups of two and three. Others tumble alone. Two are pronouncedly pregnant. But the performance lacks cohesiveness, and it is easy to get lost in the chaotic clash of choreography.
After tracking the dancers for an extended period, though, patterns emerge. They are, in fact, realizing Graham’s techniques of floor work, concentrated breathing, and electric, angular falls. When Abdiel Jacobsen lunges toward a partner, his arms extended and almost menacing, he recalls his otherworldly performance in Errand into the Maze. When Blakeley White-McGuire drills down to her knees and thrashes her limbs beyond a breaking point, she could be treating guests to an impromptu rendition of Deep Song.
And this is one of the evening’s triumphs. Even from the front row at the Joyce Theater, audiences are nowhere near as close to Lloyd Knight or Lloyd Mayor as they are in this crafted space. This proximity makes both guests and performers vulnerable. Every muscle movement—every tensing, every slackening—is laid bare.
In another departure from the expected, the evening includes a participatory element. It turns out that the “special guests” billed in the program are the audience members. I am, reluctantly, among those who give myself over to the dancers. They tell me to keep my eyes closed as they pull me into the center of the room. One dancer places my hands in a prayer position. And then I stand among the Graham Company. The dancers brush up against me as they round the performance space. One dancer cups his or her hands around my body, clasping two hands around mine. I wait. I breathe. Forty minutes later, I blink.
This exercise adds an intensely personal element to the performance for those who, as one event staffer phrased it, “enter into the dance.” Participants walk away both feeling the thunder of a Graham dancer’s explosive energy and knowing the sensation of standing at the ready.
This intimacy extends to the room set aside for history. In this space, which consists of Graham’s photos, clothing, and books, guests are encouraged to converse with individuals who have personal and professional ties to the choreographer. Janet Eilber, who is the company’s artistic director, sits in as one of these hosts, as does artist Richard Move, who has notably recreated Graham’s performances.
I drop in as a group of young women kneel in front of dancer Marnie Thomas Wood, who recounts her days traveling with the company in the 1950s and 1960s. As she fiddles with the projector—“This is Chronicle. We’re looking at the 1930s.”—she answers a question about how European audiences responded to Graham’s modern style. One group of spectators was, she remembers, so outraged that they booed and threw things during Graham’s curtain call. So Graham, ever defiant, turned from the audience and stuck out her backside as she bowed. When the company toured Durham, North Carolina, in 1965, Graham worried about more resistance—this time, though, to her group’s diverse make-up. Wood runs through the roster of dancers performing Embattled Garden that evening: “Adam was black, the snake was Asian, and Lilith was black.” But there was no backlash, and the company forged ahead with its tour of the South. Through this rich, spontaneous storytelling, Wood and her fellow hosts bring the evening’s focus back to Graham. They also bring Graham’s opinions into conversation in a way that Valk’s wall text fails to do.
In her biography of Graham, de Mille notes that her compatriot did not initially want to be a choreographer. However, she did not see other choreographers creating the kind of movement that she wanted to perform. So she created her own style. It seems that her company is, at least for this evening, trying to do the same. For this ninetieth-anniversary tribute to her company, Graham’s disciples attempt to develop a kind of movement that they want to perform. But they never forget that the spot on which they are building is holy ground.