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Eilber offers insight into Graham Company's Upcoming Reprise of The Rite of Spring

by Bonnie Rosenstock
January 23, 2018
Martha Graham Studio Theater
55 Bethune Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10014
(212) 229-9200
As part of the GrahamDeconstructed series, the Martha Graham Dance Company offered a rare opportunity for a small cadre of dance enthusiasts to attend an up-close rehearsal of Graham’s classic The Rite of Spring (1984), held January 17 at the intimate Martha Graham Studio Theater in Westbeth in the West Village. It included a fascinating backstory related by Janet Eilber, the Company’s artistic director, followed by a 35-minute performance of the riveting work and a brief post-performance Q&A with some of the dancers. The Company will perform it and other works on their upcoming world tour and bring it back to the New York City Center in April.

The Rite of Spring is based on the traditional story of a community coming together to choose a young woman as a sacrifice to dance herself to death in order to bring forth a fertile spring. The original Ballets Russes production premiered in Paris in 1913. “The Nijinsky choreography to Igor Stravinsky’s score was so avant-garde that it caused a riot at the Paris Opera,” related Eilber. “Graham was 19 at the time and hadn’t yet studied dance,” she noted.

The Rite crossed the Atlantic in 1930 when conductor Leopold Stokowski, a proponent of Stravinsky’s music, wanted to conduct the American premiere production. Léonide Massine, the choreographer, had previously staged it in Europe. “Stokowski insisted there was only one dancer who could possibly dance the role of The Chosen One, and that was Martha Graham. He said she had the percussiveness and the appetite for the driving tempi of the work,” Eilber said. “The relationship between Massine and Graham was just awful. He thought she was arrogant. She thought the young firebrand artistic revolutionary was trying to drag her into the past. The production was a success.”

Over fifty years later, Graham was ready to take on the score as choreographer, one of her last great works. It premiered in 1984, just shy of her 90th birthday. (Graham died in 1991 at the age of 96.) Eilber cited several reasons for the long hiatus. Primarily, Graham was forging a dance revolution in the 1940s and 50s, which included the groundbreaking Martha Graham technique, the vocabulary that she created as she was searching for a physicality that revealed human emotions.

“She discovered that emotion rides on the breath, that impulse that comes from the center of the body, when you laugh, sob. She developed her famous contraction and release, contraction being the exhaling and the coiling in of the energy of the torso and the release, the inhaling and the expansion of energy. You will see 800,000 contractions and releases tonight,” she quipped.

Another reason was that she always commissioned new music for all her works. “Later, she admitted the score was so powerful she wasn’t in the mood to compete with it,” said Eilber.

The choreography is replete with elements of her theatrical innovations, notably the inspiration drawn from Native American ritual that she observed in the late 1920s in Mexico and the American Southwest. “She was thunderstruck by a sudden understanding of the necessity of dance, not decorative entertainment, but dance that emerges out of spiritual and primal need. She was also inspired by the physical elements of the rituals. She borrowed the rhythm, the idea of the tribal gathering, the use of geometric patterns, the body percussion of dancing in silence, these techniques which occur again and again in her works,” explained Eilber.

For the run through, the 17 dancers appeared in costume elements to help them with the effort of the movements. The bare bones set was a platform with three steps on which The Shaman (the majestic Abdiel Jacobsen) stood at various times to oversee the action and urge on his flock. He spread his black and white cape like enormous wings and soared into wide rotating movements. He cupped and vibrated one hand near his mouth to summon forth the spirits. The dancers slowly entered from both sides, hands clasped in front, eyes upward. The movement repertoire was varied and relentlessly rapid and razor sharp, with stamping, grand leaps in glorious designs, arms held up or down in sharp U-shapes, bodies sculpted into side views, a lot of exiting and entering. The Chosen One (Charlotte Landreau) embodied the terror and horror of her ordeal in solos, duets with Jacobsen and encounters with the community that was preparing to slaughter her. “Martha’s community is very organized, geometric, often symmetrical and that is in counterpoint to the violence of her physicality and the story itself,” said Eilber.

Graham had nothing to fear about competing with Stravinsky’s score. As Eilber observed, “The Graham technique is a literally gutsy, powerful style of dancing, a perfect match for the attack of Stravinsky’s music.” And the Graham dancers are peerless and fearless, the best trained and most accomplished around to execute this most physically and emotionally demanding work.

In the era of MeToo, an audience member wondered how to perceive this dance of death and sacrifice. “Viewed in the context of the time, Graham saw the death of The Chosen One as rebirth,” replied Eilber. “Certainly in this climate it gives the dancers something more to work off, and the audience to see it in the context of their own times. It definitely adds an element.”

Martha Graham Dance Company at New York City Center, Wednesday, April 11 (Opening Night Gala Performance) to Saturday, April 14, 2018. For ticket information, NYCityCenter.org; CityTix, 212-581-1212. Box Office, 131 W. 55th Street, New York, NY 10019.
Anne O’Donnell, Charlotte Landreau, Anne Souder, and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s 'The Rite of Spring.'

Anne O’Donnell, Charlotte Landreau, Anne Souder, and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s "The Rite of Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Leslie Andrea Williams, Anne O’Donnell, Anne Souder, Marzia Memoli and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s 'The Rite of Spring.'

Leslie Andrea Williams, Anne O’Donnell, Anne Souder, Marzia Memoli and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s "The Rite of Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Charlotte Landreau and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s 'The Rite of Spring.'

Charlotte Landreau and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s "The Rite of Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham’s 'The Rite of Spring.'

Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham’s "The Rite of Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s 'The Rite of Spring.'

Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s "The Rite of Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood

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