A triumphant return

The legendary Martha Graham Company will perform in Israel after more than three decades.

Dancer 311  (photo credit: Miki Orihara photograph@ John Deane)
Dancer 311
(photo credit: Miki Orihara [email protected] John Deane)
If it weren’t for Martha Graham, modern dance would not exist. At least, without Graham’s immense talent and veracity, dance would be nothing like it is today. A gifted visionary, Graham changed the way dancers use their bodies by codifying a new movement vocabulary, gave them a new way to tell stories and, above all, she opened a window of opportunity out of which most major contemporary choreographers took a leap.
This month, the Martha Graham Company will visit Israel for the first time in more than 30 years. For their Israeli engagement at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, the directors of the Graham Company have put together a montage of works by both Graham and American choreographer Robert Wilson. The program includes excerpts from Chronicle, which was created by Graham in 1936, as well as Maple Leaf Rag, Graham’s last creation.
In 1991, when Graham passed away at the age of 96, the company went into a 10-year tailspin. There was a highly publicized scandal involving property rights and inheritances. There was the freezing of all activities in the Graham school and of the company. Without Graham to slay the monsters and forge the path, it seemed the company was lost. There were even rumors that the end was near for the 85-year-old ensemble.
In an effort to put the company in the right hands, the board of directors appointed Janet Eilber as artistic director of the Graham Company. She had enjoyed a long career as a dancer in the company and was deeply dedicated to the survival of the legendary troupe.
“She taught me how to use my own strength,” said Eilber in a recent interview with Billboard, explaining her deep devotion to Graham and her works. Together with executive director LaRoux Allen; Eilber began to bring the company into the present tense, with new strategies and fresh ideas.
“My executive director and I came in six years ago when the company was heavily in debt,” she explained. “It was a combination of LaRoux’s excellent financial expertise and creating this new programming that gives the audience more access that saved us. I focused on creating programs that could travel to smaller venues so that a wider range of audiences could appreciate the work. The combination of the two has put us in the black for six years. We were back to square one and had to change the product and the infrastructure. It was the right time to build a new model for the organization.”
The story of the Graham Company’s fight to maintain both quality and relevance has become central in the dance community over the past few years, as many of the great choreographers have recently passed away. In December, in accordance with Merce Cunningham’s final wishes, the Merce Cunningham Company will close its doors forever.
And many wonder what the future will hold for Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. The success of Graham’s posthumous existence no doubt informs the decisions of artistic directors everywhere.
Though Eilber is adamant about continuing to present Graham’s ballets at the highest level possible, she is enthusiastic about the possibilities of incorporating new work into the company’s repertoire.
“Breaking through the reputation that classic modern dance is old and not relevant is a major challenge,” she said. “Modern dance was born out of revolt and out of rejecting the last generation and forging your own path. Now we’re 100 years old, and we have classics,” she said. “We need to work on how to present our classics. The field itself needs to learn to value its own classics. Even though we are doing what every contemporary company does – new work – it’s difficult for us to emerge out of the derogatory museum reputation.”
In attempts to shake things up, Eilber has initiated the Lamentation Project, which invites contemporary choreographers such as Aszure Barton and Larry Keigwan to create works inspired by Graham’s opus from 1930, Lamentation.
In addition, the company commissions original works by choreographers who were influenced in their careers by Graham. One of the pieces being presented during their tour to Israel is Snow on the Mesa by Robert Wilson. The work is comprised of 13 chapters, each one dealing with an element of Graham’s choreography that touched Wilson. His piece will share an evening with Appalachian Springs, choreographed by Graham in 1944. Eilber confided that this work is an unusual choice, as the company rarely performs it abroad.
“It’s an Americana piece that we don’t travel with often,” she said, “but we think the Israeli audience will be able to appreciate it.”
The Martha Graham Company will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center from November 1-5. For tickets, visit www.israel-opera.co.il.