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GrahamDeconstructed: An Insider’s Guide to the Martha Graham Technique

by Bonnie Rosenstock
May 10, 2017
Martha Graham Studio Theater
55 Bethune Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10014
(212) 229-9200
Martha Graham developed a movement language and technique that is recognized as the foundation of American modern dance. GrahamDeconstructed at the Martha Graham Studio Theater in Westbeth May 3 offered a unique opportunity to observe her groundbreaking technique up close and then thrill to its application for the stage through excerpts from three works in the Graham canon.

With Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Denise Vale, Senior Artistic Associate, as our guides, 15 members of the Graham Company demonstrated a 90-minute Graham floor work class, distilled into 25 minutes. The class itself felt like a performance, riveting in its intensity and beauty. “It’s the dancer’s job to fill the class with emotional content,” said Eilber.

While the dancers, who come from many countries, were doing preliminary warm-ups followed by the floor exercise routine, an overhead screen behind them projected segments of vintage black and white films: 1930’s Graham dancers shot in her then studio (May O'Donnell is in the center); Ethel Butler and Bonnie Bird shot on the lawn at Bennington; an excerpt from A Dancer's World (1958); an excerpt from the 1975 technique documentation in the Graham Studio; and an excerpt from The Beginners Graham Technique, a production of Dance Spotlight, which will soon be available for purchase.

The driving force behind every movement is the torso, which grows longer—“theatricalize the body length”—and the pelvis, which is the opposite of ballet, Eilber explained. Graham principles are based on contraction, originating from the deep pelvic muscles, and release, with exhale and inhale. Besides spinal torque or spiral, other essential elements include weight shift for dramatic effect, effort, focus and emotional projection. (In classical ballet, the emphasis is on lightness and effortlessness.)

Soloist Lorenzo Pagano, 25, from Turin, Italy, said he was first drawn to the physicality of the technique, but what really “got” him were the human emotions. “The emotion comes with the movement and is secondary and emotions are primary,” he said. “In dance, you learn the movement. In Graham, you contract feeling. It is a precious technique.”

The first excerpt was from Ekstasis (1933), a solo choreographed and originally performed by Graham, reimagined by Virginie Mécène (2017), original music by Lehman Engel, reimagined by Ramon Humet (“Interludi meditatiu VII” from Homenaje a Martha Graham) The soloist was the remarkable Peiju Chien-Pott in a form-fitting ankle-length white dress, which emphasized the sculptural aspect of the torso, as she performed hip swivels, body arches and long arm stretches in opposition. “The body is a sacred garment,” said the program notes, quoting Graham.

“Medea’s Lament” from Cave of the Heart (1946), music by Samuel Barber, was emotionally performed by Xin Ying. It demonstrated Graham’s use of character development and Greek myth. Medea is rejected by Jason, her lover, and is devastated. Ying, 32, told me that she suffers with Medea. “A piece of me is shown that I don’t show in real life,” she said. “It’s as real as the real me, from the gut.”

Ying learned about Graham in her dance history class in Sichuan, China, but didn’t experience the technique until she came to New York. She said the floor exercises are a huge contribution to core training in how you should use your body. “That’s why the company is still here,” she declared. “We’re doing so many different steps now, but we can handle it. It’s very valuable for dancers.”

“Steps in the Street”: Devastation—Homelessness—Exile from Chronicle (1936), music by Wallingford Riegger, featured ten women, dressed in black, who performed strong, fast movements with stomping, bending, weaving, leaping, body shapes, gathering together, moving apart, which demonstrated the power of the torso, noted Eilber. Graham layered in an anti-war message as well as advocating for freedom for women. At that time, the Graham Company consisted of only women. The work is as fresh and relevant today as when it was first presented. Eilber revealed a little-known fact: Graham turned down Hitler’s invitation to dance at the 1936 Olympics.

Pagano was a silent, immobile Jason to Ying’s Medea. But after he dances (his favorite role, which is “magical to perform,” is the Snake in Embattled Garden), he feels empty “because the Graham work is so deep, and you give everything. At the end, you want to take off your make-up, be silent and appreciate that moment of emptiness. You gave it your all, and you’re tired.”

The Graham 2 Season at Martha Graham Studio Theater, 55 Bethune Street, 11th floor, will be June 1-4, 2017, and feature works by Martha Graham, Stuart Hodes, Ted Shawn, Pearl Lang, Ethel Winter and a World Premiere by Adam Baruch. Graham 2 is a pre-professional dance company, comprised of the most advanced students. For full program and information, go to marthagraham.edu/graham2
Dancers doing Graham floor work.

Dancers doing Graham floor work.

Photo © & courtesy of Samantha Peller

Dancers taking a bow after an excerpt from 'Steps in the Street' (1936), Devastation—Homelessness—Exile from Martha Graham's 'Chronicle.'

Dancers taking a bow after an excerpt from "Steps in the Street" (1936), Devastation—Homelessness—Exile from Martha Graham's "Chronicle."

Photo © & courtesy of Samantha Peller

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