Theater archives

Martha Graham Dance Company Teams Up With Charles L. Mee and Anne Bogart


What’s an orphaned dance company to do? Keep mother’s silver polished and on display? Add modern conveniences that won’t clash with the décor? Take in pedigreed boarders?

I’d love to see a season of Graham’s greatest works, meticulously coached and passionately performed. Her company, however, needs not only to survive, but to thrive. And I’m not privy to the issues that preoccupy the Martha Graham Dance Company’s artistic director, Janet Eilber, and its executive director, LaRue Allen, and engendered the Political Dance Project for the company’s recent Joyce season. Fortunately, their daring was anchored by research, good taste, and smart ideas.

Graham—although attuned to the political and social upheavals of the 1930s—was no propagandist. Yet her 1938 American Document could be thought of as an affirmation of democratic principles in response to the rise of fascism in Europe. Heroic texts, spoken onstage, also touched on slavery and the campaigns against the Indians. The piece’s questions about what it means to be American justified its 2010 incarnation as a compelling joint effort by the Graham company and SITI Company, co-founded and directed by Anne Bogart.

The texts embedded in Charles L. Mee’s updated scenario come from Walt Whitman’s “Salut au Monde,” Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, along with feminist statements, anti-immigrant rants, and blogs by soldiers serving in the Middle East. Bogart skillfully blends the 10 Graham dancers and the six SITI performers. They merge in the marching, prancing parades that intermittently cross the stage; actors partner dancers in movement drawn from Graham works; dancers speak lines.

The initial vision, laid out by SITI’s commendably “natural” narrator, Stephen Webber, is of small-town America, with flirting and neighborly by-play. This vivid, shifting collage acquires darker colors gradually, without relinquishing all its wit or optimism. Only one passage struck me as protracted and heavy-handed: individuals calling out methods of torture. The work’s final statement is somewhat better in terms of irony and theatrical finesse: Gunshots underlie Whitman’s grand “I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.”

Another Joyce season offering, “Dance Is a Weapon,” is titled after an exhibit created in France by Victoria Geduld, and Geduld worked with dance historian Ellen Graff and Nancy Stevens on the narrated film montages that punctuate the performance and provide a context for Graham and other choreographers’ responses to the Depression, discrimination, tyranny, and the rat race of commerce.

Graham made Panorama in 1935 and Chronicle in 1936 for groups of strong, militant women, who marched and jumped tirelessly—standing for a humanity that refused to be downtrodden. At the Bennington Festival in ’35, additional performers swelled her company’s ranks, and this reconstruction sends more than 30 dancers chosen from the city’s high schools racing and striding through the choreography’s stunning contrapuntal lines and wheeling circles. In their plain, long red dresses, the girls burn like orderly fire. As do the Graham dancers in the excerpts from Chronicle, led by Miki Orihara. The Spanish Civil War had broken out in the summer of 1936, and its ties to the fascism in Germany and Italy were already raising the specter of another world war. Episodes like the eloquently crafted “Steps in the Streets” section show in pristinely powerful ways both the downtrodden and the marchers, the human machines of war and the victims.

As if to counterbalance these proto-feminist visions, the “Dance Is a Weapon” program casts men in solos made by and for women: Isadora Duncan’s exhortatory 1924 Revolutionary Etude, and two by onetime Graham dancers—Jane Dudley’s 1934 Time Is Money and Sophie Maslow’s jaunty I Ain’t Got No Home (from her 1941 Dust Bowl Ballads). The gender switches work OK, and Maurizio Nardi performs wonders with Dudley’s desperate, driven-by-the-clock worker. But the most striking solo is Tenant of the Street, made in 1938 by Eve Gentry, then a member of Hanya Holm’s company. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch enters trudging, her back rounded by the weight of invisible burdens. She wears a long dark dress and a headscarf, which make the pale face she turns toward us and her reaching hands seem almost ghostly. In this austere solo, the woman’s every gesture, step, run, or crawl is dragged out of her by necessity.

Eilber gave the “weapon” theme leeway by including Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isamu Noguchi’s 1944 Appalachian Spring. Samuel Pott’s Husbandman is a bit too naive and ungainly, but Blakeley White-McGuire imbues the Bride (Graham’s role) with touching intensity and thoughtfulness, and Katherine Crockett’s interpretation of the all-seeing Pioneering Woman has become deeper. Nardi seems overly arrogant as the Revivalist, but his passionate solo is tremendous—terrifying, God-struck.

This masterpiece defies categorization. It makes you think about great spaces, about love, doubt, courage, and individualism. What could be more American? Or more of a weapon?