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January 18-24, 2006

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Fever Pitch

The Martha Graham Dance Company keeps the fierce spirit of its founder alive

By Michael S. Gant

THE DANCE CRITIC Arlene Croce wrote of seminal American choreographer Martha Graham, "Sex, dancing, and life were for her, as for most great dance artists, indivisible." Graham's most famous pieces often conflated ancient myths with Jungian archetypes, to the point of sometimes embarrassing audiences with movements that were close to the hip thrusts of intercourse. Graham was herself something of a mythic figure. Born in 1894, she pretty much single-handedly created, in the 1930s, what we now think of as modern dance.

Graham's long decline—she danced well past her physical prime and died in 1991 at the age of 96—also played like something out of the Greek tragedies she mined for so much material. In the late 1960s, she attached herself to Ron Protas, a much younger man; drank excessively; and alienated many of her dancers. In her will, she granted the rights to her dances to Protas, who guarded them with a heavy hand that prompted a long series of legal tussles about how—and even if—choreography can be copyrighted.

Finally, last summer, the courts ruled against Protas and freed up the troubled Martha Graham Dance Company to start performing its founder's great pieces again. New artistic director, longtime dancer and Graham protégé Janet Eilber leads the troupe on its first performance in our area for many years, Jan. 25, at Stanford Lively Arts.

Graham was a diva in the grand mold, and how to continue her legacy presents thorny issues to her company. Although Graham left behind a technique based on the basic release and contraction of the breath cycle, her dances depended heavily on her own force of personality, which was considerable. And Graham didn't offer much help to her followers. As Eilber notes, "She didn't talk about the future; she was a creature of the now."

Eilber, who learned many of Graham's dances directly from the source, wants postmodern audiences to understand the modernist innovations that Graham pioneered. "My belief is that it is time that modern dance comes to grip to the idea that we have classics," Eilber says. "Now [modern dance] is 100 years old. The art form has a body of masterpieces that shouldn't be thrown out." Eilber's mission, she says, is "to create new way of presenting the classics that gives the audiences insight and connection to them." This strategy includes re-creating "lost" pieces, presenting dances in unusual settings and developing a new work "that will evoke Martha's early years—a new theatrical event that would include the classics, surrounded with media, projections and so on."

Currently, Eilber explains, the company has approximately 50 easily reclaimed Graham works, of which 10 are performed in repertory. Graham's total output pushed nearly 200 pieces, but some may be gone forever, dance being notoriously hard to record in a "text" that other dancers can reproduce.

The program for the Stanford appearance mixes the familiar—Graham's most storied piece, Appalachian Spring (last seen in this area two years ago performed by Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley), and Cave of the Heart, both from the 1940s—with a much rarer work, Sketches From Chronicle. Using the story of the vengeful sorceress Medea, Cave of the Heart shows off Graham's taste for Greek myths at their most primal. Sketches From Chronicle re-creates three sections of a five-part 1936 work in which Graham responded—in broad strokes—to the horrors of war and fascism. The three parts, Eilber says, are "incredibly powerful—one of the finest examples of Martha making a political statement through dance. 'Spectre-1914,' a solo for a woman, is quite ominous, showing the foreboding time before war. 'Steps in the Street' is a comment on isolation, exile and homelessness. 'Prelude to Action' is a rallying cry." Eilber sees the piece having relevance to both our current occupation of Iraq and to the homelessness and despair seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That sounds like a heavy burden for dance to bear, but Graham never aimed for anything less than full emotional engagement in every piece she created.

The Martha Graham Dance Company performs Wednesday (Jan. 25) at 8pm at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium as part of the Lively Arts Series. Tickets are $28-$46. (650.725.ARTS)

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