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Martha Graham Dance Company artistic director Janet Eilber talks about NextMove program at Philadelphia's Prince Theater

by Lewis J Whittington
October 31, 2016
Prince Theater
1412 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 422-4580
Since becoming artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company in 2005, Janet Eilber has been taking the iconic troupe in new directions. Eilber is a former principal dancer with the company and has performed many of Graham’s most famous roles. Behind-the-scenes she also worked closely with the legendary choreographer in the final years.

After a company shutdown a dozen years ago, Eilber and executive director Larue Allen restored the company to its former prestige as one of most innovative and exciting modern companies in the United States. Eiber has been a standard bearer of Graham’s indelible repertory as well as commissioning new works from today’s dancemakers. The company’s current diverse roster of 20-dancers from all over the world are as accomplished and vibrant as ever.

The company performs Nov. 3-6 in Dance Affiliates’ NextMove at the Prince Theater. NextMove artistic director Randy Swartz has presented the company many times over the years, but they haven’t been in Philadelphia since 2007.

In a phone interview from New York earlier last week, Eilber talked about the company's current tour. Eilber said they were getting ready for performances in Cuba, their first since Martha Graham toured the company there in 1944. They will be the first American dance company to perform there since President Obama bagan normalizing US-Cuban relations.

Cuba has a direct artistic connection to Graham’s work Eilber noted, “In the 1950s a number Cuban dancers came to New York and many studied with Martha and they took the Graham technique back to Cuba. It has been part of Cuban dance for 60-years and is still taught in the National School. [They have been] without any contact since then, so we are very curious to visit this satellite of Martha Graham’s techniques.”

At NextMove the company will dance "Dark Meadow Suite," one of Eilber’s reconstructions of Graham’s full ballets with dramatic sets by famed Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

“It's a suite of highlights from [Graham's Ballet]‘Dark Meadow’(1946) and we really wanted to feature the choreography itself," said Eibler. "Aside from being a masterpiece, it has her most remarkable and iconic choreography that she created for an ensemble. When I chose the excerpts, I connected all the ensemble work and made it the main focus. I really wanted people to know that we were not trying to shrink ‘Dark Meadow,’ but give them the same experience.”

One of the main reasons for these variations on larger Graham works is that the stripped down versions are more conducive to touring and presenting in concerts.

Graham’s most famous solo work “Lamentation” (1930) had a seismic effect on modernist dance in the 1930s. It serves as inspiration for "Lamentation Variations," a series of 4-minute or less dance works by a host of contemporary choroegraphers.

“In 2007 we had an opening night at the Joyce Theater in New York and it fell on the anniversary of 9/11,” said Eilber. “We wanted to commemorate that in a special way, so we asked three choreographers to make a dance after watching a film of Martha Graham dancing 'Lamentation.'”

In addition to limiting the length of those works to 4-minutes or less, the choreographers were only allowed to use music in the public domain and could only have 10-housr of rehearsal time.

“That night we showed the film of Martha dancing [Lamentation] herself, then one variation after another," said Eibler. "It was so effective and beautiful that we programmed it and started commissioning more variations. Now we are up to twelve choreographers."

For the current tour there are three new choreographies by dancemakers Larry Keigwin, Richard Move and Bulareyaung Pagarlava.

Also on the program is another of Graham’s masterpieces "Errand into the Maze" (1947). It is danced without the famous costumes and set allowing audiences to focus on how very modernist Martha was, says Eilber.

Legendary choreographer Nacho Duato saw this version of "Errand" in rehearsal recently says Eibler and commented “Wow, we think we are modern, look what Martha was doing 70 years ago.”

Eilber feels that mixed repertory programs of Graham classics and newly commissioned ballets are essential for audiences so “the conversation continues," she says. "The classics bring context and substance to the new works. That’s how we stay connected to today’s artists and to audiences going forward.”

Rounding out the program will be a fully staged performance of Graham’s most famous work “Appalachian Spring” (1944) with the equally famous score by Aaron Copland.

Eilber said that even though they dance this masterwork at seemingly every concert, it never looses its power and is as vital as ever, adding “If ever we need a dance about the optimism in America, this is so timely, let people be reminded of the positive profile of America by seeing this ballet.”

The company was supposed to be in Haiti, but the dates had to be postponed because of hurricane Matthew. “We were watching that so closely,” Eilber said. “Of course we're very saddened by what the country was going through,” she said.

Responding to the emergency in Haiti, the Graham dancers have started an Indiegogo campaign for relief funds and there is a benefit performance for Haiti in New York on Dec. 7. Eilber says for a small donation, people from around the world can also see the benefit performance because it will be streamed live online. The company is currently in talks with the US Embassy to reschedule the Haiti performances in late January.

For information about the Dec. 7 benefit and donations to the Haiti relief fund visit www.marthagraham.org.
“Appalachian Spring” by Martha Graham.

“Appalachian Spring” by Martha Graham.

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