Martha Graham: Myth and Transformation



Martha Graham Dance Company dancer Blakeley White-McGuire in Graham's 1946 work based on the Medea story, Cave of the Heart (photo by Costas)

THOUGH MODERN DANCE titan Martha Graham died in 1991, her company has survived and evolved—preserving its (and our!) precious legacy of great modern dance works, as well as commissioning and presenting new works that express Graham’s noble vision of human life and artistry.

This year the company’s efforts center of the distinctly Grahamian theme of “myth and transformation.”  Its upcoming performances at New York’s Joyce Theater (see below for more information) feature new works by choreographers Luca Veggetti and Doug Varone, a reconstruction by Richard Move of his 2002 work Achilles Heels, and several classics by Graham, including the darkly psychological Cave of the Heart, based on the Medea story. Because we revere the Graham legend and are curious about how dance companies can continue the work of their deceased founders, we spoke with the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Janet Eilber, a distinguished former principal dancer with the company, who danced many of Graham’s greatest roles under the direction of Graham herself.

CLASSICAL TV:   It would be hard to think or any greater performing arts legacy than the works of Martha Graham.  How do you go about preserving this legacy and engaging new audiences in it?

JANET EILBER:  Great question – there are many examples of our creative approach to this challenge on our season at the Joyce this year.  We’ll be performing a mix of Graham masterworks and works new to the company by Doug Varone, Luca Veggetti, and Richard Move.  More about that in a moment…

The challenge of curating a dance legacy is an issue for the entire field – not just the MGDC.  Modern dance is a young art form one that was born out of, and driven by, revolt – each generation rejecting what had come before and forging something new.  This basic concept placed high value on the “new” and trained audiences to do the same.  But now that the art form is about a hundred years old, we have, for the first time, a body of “classics.”  The question is how to present them to keep them powerful and relevant to today’s audiences.  There are few models in the dance world so we have looked to other art forms.  In short, we have been asking, “What’s the modern dance equivalent to the museum’s audio tour or to the opera’s supertitles?” 

At Graham, we have spent the last several years experimenting with ways to present the Graham masterworks that will give audiences more context and different points of access.  One simple example: all of our performances now have a spoken introduction. It gives the audience just a few clues about the works they are about to see and things to watch for.  This technique has been very popular (our version of that audio tour!).  We’ve also created multi-media events that use images and narration to connect several dances under one theme.  We’ve partnered with other organizations to emphasize Graham’s collaborators in the music or art world, and even added supertitles to Graham’s only full-evening work, Clytemnestra.  For the last few years, our New York performances have been organized around a theme such as our Political Dance Project in 2010 or last year’s focus on psychological dance titled “Inner Landscape.”  This year’s theme is Myth and Transformation, and explores how artists appropriate iconic stories or characters and transform them to make contemporary statements.  Graham did this to great effect in many of her ballets, particularly those with stories from Greek myth and theater.  

These thematic seasons give audiences a new lens for viewing the Graham works.  They also allow us to build programs with masterworks of other choreographers – classics from years past and commissions of brand new works that connect to our theme.   Our presentations can have a great range of styles because they resonate together through the common theme.  The Graham works give context to the other choreographers’ work on the program and vice versa. 

The above explanation leaves out one essential part of how we continue to engage audiences – we have fabulous dancers.  Without the extraordinary artist/athletes that make up today’s company, no amount of context would allow audiences to connect with the Graham classics as deeply as they do.

Martha Graham Dance Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber (photo by Costas)


CTV:  How do you keep new members of the company centered in Martha Graham’s vision of dance theater—and how does this vision play out in their work in the 21st century, when things are somewhat different from when Martha Graham created the works?  I imagine this is not just a matter of technique, but of a cultural point of view?

JE:   Most of the Graham works we present have been recognized as classics – transcending the era in which they were created.  So our dancers have a task similar to today’s actors who must bring Shakespeare to life, or musicians playing any of the classics.  As interpretive artists, they must connect their own unique experience and physicality to the choreography and characters Graham created.   This challenge is a huge part of the dancers’ job – the essence of being an artist, really.  They each do a lot of work outside of the studio, studying the history of the dance, Graham’s inspirations and choices, etc. as well as the in-studio research (rehearsal) in order to form their own performance.

Martha directed us to create interpretations that were entirely personal – drawing on our uniqueness as individuals.  We were never expected to copy the performance of someone who preceded us in a role.  In addition, she also incorporated the new physicality of each generation of dancers that joined the company – never expecting us to dance like the generation before.  So today’s audiences do not see “Mozart played on the original instruments.”  They see twenty-first-century artists interpreting masterpieces of twentieth-century dance.

CTV:  What is your approach to presenting work other than Martha Graham’s, during the company’s season?  When you acquire or commission work for the company, what principles guide you?

JE:   This relates to your first question – our audience access efforts like contextual and thematic programming give us an organizing principal for what we present – whether new work or classic.  There are some great examples on our Myth and Transformation Joyce season this year.

On Program C, we’ll be offering the New York premiere of the Varone Variation – a new work created for us by Doug Varone and premiered in Vail last summer – which Dance Magazine called “one of the best of 2012”.  The Lamentation Variations is an ongoing project in which we ask choreographers to create short works for the company inspired by a film of Martha dancing her iconic solo, Lamentation.  We began the project in 2007 with three choreographers and now have a total of eight variations(!).  On Program C we will perform variations by Varone, Bulareyaung Pagarlava, and Yvonne Rainer.  These are three very different artists whose works resonate with each other because of the overarching concept.

Lamentation Variation by Bulareyaung Pagarlava (photo by Michele Ballantini)


Program C of Myth and Transformation also has the world premiere of a work by Luca Veggetti, From the Grammar of Dreams. The score by Kajia Saariaho uses text from poetry of Sylvia Plath, and Saariaho and Veggetti use the Plath as inspiration for this new work for five women.  The artistic team, Veggetti, Saariaho and Beverly Emmons, lighting designer, have all contributed their work on this project in support of our storm recovery efforts – an amazing gift!!

Our Myth and Transformation theme, of course, lends itself to presenting the Graham masterworks that were inspired by Greek legends and characters.  Program B will be our season’s all-Graham program.  All of the works are from Graham’s Greek period: Cave of the Heart, based on Medea; Errand into the Maze inspired by Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur; and Night Journey, the stunning retelling of the Oedipus story.  Errand into the Maze will be presented with a new “look.”  We have decided to present the choreography without the classic sets and costumes under the title of Errand.  In part, this was inspired by the damage we sustained due to Hurricane Sandy, but we looked at it as an opportunity to feature the Graham choreography in a simple setting – unadorned – allowing the audience to consider it in a different way.  Luca Veggetti directed this new arrangement assisted by our principal dancer, Miki Orihara.

Our third program, A, will feature another Graham Greek work, Phaedra, known as one of Graham’s most erotic works from 1962.  Phaedra is on Program A with The Show (Achilles Heels) created by Richard Move in 2002.   Though the works were created forty years from each other, there are some wonderful parallels.  Both explore issues of sexuality in a frank way.  Both use the Greek Gods as instigators to the action.  Both are evocative examples of Myth and Transformation.

For more about the Martha Graham Dance Company, go here. For more about the company's appearance at the Joyce Theater, go here.  

Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham (1894-1991) in Cave of the Heart (photo by Chris Alexander)