The Depths to Which She is Capable
The Martha Graham Dance Company’s latest program shows the enduring strength of her legacy and the challenges for the company’s future.
The Martha Graham Dance Company, on the day of their opening night at the Joyce Theater on April 18, turned ninety-seven years old, making it the oldest surviving dance company in the United States. As the company pushes toward its centennial, it shows no signs of doubt about the viability of its future. Janet Eilber, the company’s artistic director, hinted at another ninety-seven years in her opening night speech. The program presented at the Joyce, however—a combination of Graham repertoire and new commissions by contemporary choreographers, spread across four different evening programs—reveals the uncertainty of that future.
It’s a tall order for any choreographer: to create something new and distinct while fitting into the vocabulary of an existing legacy company, making use of the talents of dancers whose job it is to live and breathe Graham technique. In Annie Rigney’s Get Up, My Daughter, as well as in Cortege 2023, choreographed by Baye & Asa, the dancers’ typical upright and taut poise dissolves into rangier movement. The dancers thrash and jerk from their centers while their limbs whip like tails. Rigney embodies women’s rage and sisterhood, while Baye & Asa present vignettes of the aftermath of violence and trauma, bodies cowering and shaking, caring for each other briefly before being hurtled into blackness. Both works favor explosive group virtuosity (all three choreographers have worked in Sleep No More).
Hofesh Shechter’s CAVE, which the company premiered last year, draws inspiration from the rave. Doof-doof music drives the throes of choreographed ecstasy. I found its evocation of club culture soulless and a little naff. Rave dancing is for doing in the dark, it’s not for flashy en masse showboating. But what do I know; the audience, mostly over fifty, ate it up.
It’s disappointing that all the commissioned choreographers miss something significant about Graham’s legacy, namely her elevating of the individual against the group. Her gift to dancers was crafting roles that they could inhabit entirely. “Show me how low a person will go,” Martha is quoted as saying in Agnes De Mille’s biography Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991). “Let me see the depths to which she is capable. The heights will take care of themselves.” Graham’s gift to audiences was allowing us to see dancers as characters of deep psychology rife with contradictions, not only as virtuosic technicians (but that too). None of the new works in the Graham program grant the performers or the audience such opportunities.
Watching Xin Ying perform in Graham’s Cave of the Heart from 1946, one comes as close as possible to seeing Martha’s proposition in action. It isn’t enough for a dancer to overlay a performance of emotion onto their technique, as a ballet dancer might; the depth of their psyche must erupt out of the technique, must scream out from the muscle and bone and fascia so that the dancer is no longer miming sorrow but becomes sorrow.
Ying’s performance of Medea in Cave of the Heart is feral, wrenching, fiery, sexual, devastating. In the same work, Anne Souder leaves her impression on the role of the Chorus, the sinking of her diaphragm as she lifts herself into a tabletop position transmitting a stoic mourning and inevitability.
Another of Graham’s gifts: the longevity of oddity. Graham made icons of movement, the body’s graphic potential realized. Simple repetitions of three implant certain gestures in the mind like an earworm for the eyes. This is apparent watching Dark Meadow Suite, a simplified work based on Graham’s Dark Meadow from 1946. The original Jungian psychology of the work may be lost in the condensing, but the strength of Graham’s movement invention is as fresh as ever. Dancers from the original piece attested that Graham choreographed large sections of the work in a single evening. Cupped hands slap strongly against thighs. Dancers scuttle backward on their heels, hinged at the hips. Men carry women while shuffling on their knees. Movements cemented in the Graham vocabulary still appear fantastically weird.
Another of Graham’s works, Every Soul is a Circus, proves the opposite can also be true: Graham could be conventional. A comedy ballet (alarm bells already), the movement here hews closer to ballet technique. The Acrobat—a role that originally marked Merce Cunningham’s debut with the company—performs petit allegro and pirouettes, skillful yet unoriginal stuff. The work still shows Graham’s willingness to excavate deep psychologies. The ballet takes place in the mind of a woman so preoccupied with romantic fantasies she ends up abandoned by everyone, while an imagined version of herself observes her cooly, seeing these temporary longings as farce.
If the Graham Company is torn between the old and the new, one work promised a bridge between the two. The original Canticle for Innocent Comedians, from 1952, was never recorded and is mostly lost to time. Artistic Director Janet Eilber commissioned six different choreographers to reimagine the work’s eight vignettes—“Sun,” “Fire,” “Wind,” etc.—with Graham’s “Moon” duet the only surviving choreography. An intriguing prompt ends up being the program’s low point. You’d never know that each vignette is choreographed by a different person; the material is so generic, the expressive demands so milquetoast, that even Graham’s “Moon” is weakened by association. Elements of Graham’s trademark technique appear in the final group dance—the slide into a split before curling into a contracted “pleading”—but become nothing more than class exercises, stripped of the emotive power Graham designed them to impart.
One benefit of dance’s ephemerality is that the work of someone like Graham, a towering pillar of the form, cannot become inert. It can be discovered afresh by new dancers, and in turn new audiences, and for that reason alone it is a blessing that the Martha Graham Company continues and that dancers take on the responsibility of summoning her choreographic ideas. As the company dreams of its future, it may need to risk a more radical vision, one that redefines virtuosity and individuality through its exemplary dancers, as Graham did, rather than dilute them into a chorus of talented generalists. It can certainly do better than sterilizing the rave.