Martha Graham: A Legacy of Dance

by Francis Timlin

October, 2003 -- I attended a presentation, "Martha Graham: A Legacy of Dance Invention" held in connection with the Graham Company's appearances at Meany Hall in Seattle on Saturday, October 25, 2003. The presentation was held in one of the large lecture halls in Kane Hall, across the plaza from Meany, just prior to the Company's final performance on Saturday evening. The event had a stated start time of 6:00 p.m., but at 5:55 p.m. the room was already darkened and a video was already running.

The video, approximately 25 minutes in length (hence the desire to get a jump on the start time) was put together by Rosalie Knox, who set about to document the rehearsal process of the Company as it prepared for its May 9, 2002 opening at the Joyce Theatre in New York. At that time, legal matters were still very much unsettled and it was uncertain whether the Company would have a future beyond the single performance on May 9. The video shows candid rehearsal footage (devoid of captions or narration) of "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Appalachian Spring," among other works.

At the conclusion of the video, Terese Capucilli (with Christine Dakin, one of two Company Artistic Directors) provided some background information. The Graham Company last appeared in Seattle in 1994. The current tour is the first time the company has performed outside of the state of New York since May 2000. She introduced two dancers, Gary Galbraith (with the Company since 1993) and David Zurek (with the Company for 14 months) to provide contrasting perspectives. (Dakin, who was performing the opening work on the performance, the reconstructed "Deep Song" from 1937, was not in attendance at the presentation.)

Capucilli recalled that Martha Graham wanted to be known and remembered only as a dancer. She read the full text of Graham's testament, "I Am A Dancer." Paraphrasing from that testament, she stated that Graham spent eight decades "choosing not to fall." Her quest was for "truth in movement." She demanded of her dancers that they find their own truth in movement.

She discussed some of the challenges of putting together the current repertory program. The dancers need the opportunity to develop and deepen their understanding of work they have previously performed, as well as needing the challenges provided by new work.

"Chronicle" had not been performed for 50 years. Originally five dances grouped across three large sections corresponding to "before catastrophe," "after catastrophe," and "a suggested answer."

In the case of "Deep Song," no one except Graham had ever performed it. There was no film or video. The work was reconstructed from images in photographs.

Galbraith explained that the [Rosalie Knox rehearsal] video shows only a part of the dancers' preparatory work -- the thinking, the reading, the reflection -- required outside the studio. He also believes strongly that preparation and performance need to remain a creative process, rather than an "interpretive" process, which implies a "reworking" of the material.

Galbraith separates the repertoire and its characters into three basic categories: (1) those works in which the characters have names and -- especially the Greek dances -- provide a basis for studying outside sources for additional insight into the characters; (2) roles (such as Diversion of Angels) where characters have assumed traits associated with a costume color or some other device; and (3) roles that are more purely abstract. The dancer's constant search for the discovery of deeper, richer layers of meaning in Graham's work is what helps the audience see, know and better appreciate the work.

Galbraith recounted the experience of setting "Appalachian Spring" for the first time on a company in Ohio -- a company without a deep Graham background. He immediately recognized that while he had a considerable understanding of the roles he had performed himself -- the Revivalist and the Husbandman -- that he recognized that he was on a different level of understanding when it came to "all those other roles."

Zurek joined the Company in 2002. Unlike most of the other dancers, he did not have an extensive period of training in the Martha Graham Dance School, having a background largely performing postmodernist works. His challenges are to daily deepen his understanding of the technique and the exploration of roles that are now the heritage of modern dance. He has been given the opportunity to explore different characters, starting with "Embattled Garden." He enjoys the Graham Company's wide range of repertoire -- the vocabulary changes from the 1930s through the 1940s and 1950s and continues to evolve into the 1960s and beyond. He is beginning to learn the nuances of all of the different periods. In doing so, he tries to determine what Graham's perspective was on roles and then decide what the roles mean to him personally. The Graham Company is a unique environment. One of his more recent challenges comes from learning Tiresias in "Night Journey," specifically the difference that playing a role in which the character is swathed in layers of heavy fabric and the effect of that fabric on the way one moves.

In response to a question about the shared duties of the two Artistic Directors, Capucilli stated that she and Dakin have had very different experiences with the repertoire, as well as having had very different experiences in their relationships with Martha. They find both perspectives valuable to the transmission of their knowledge of roles -- the company's "Blood Memory." She also mentioned, in response to a further question about reconstructions, that the Company does plan to try to do more reconstructions of earlier works presumed to be lost. Present plans call for 15 to 17 works in the active repertory with the hope of adding two or three new works each year.

Zurek added that he was himself a "late bloomer" to dance. He earned his degree in electrical engineering and has worked in the arena of biomedical applications. He did not start dancing until age 23. He first saw a solo performance of Peggy Baker (a performer associated with Lar Lubovitch) when he was 21 and determined that this was something he wanted to do. He finds the Graham technique to be "incredibly natural" for his physique and has had no injuries since he began this work.

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