When I hear the name Martha Graham, two thoughts immediately pop into my mind. My first exposure to modern dance was Graham Technique, and until my third year of college it was really my only exposure. Hearing that name brings a flood of memories of the sore hip flexors and complete frustration and confusion with a dance form that feels anything but natural. As time went on I eventually found a deep appreciation for Graham and all her crazy contortions, and if I take a look at my own modern classes they reveal her influence above all others.
The second thought is Robin Williams directing a dance in The Birdcage.
Next weekend, a few contemporary choreographers come together to present Vision, Faith & Desire, a collection of dances inspired by Martha Graham. The only thing these dance makers really have in common is the thread that Martha weaves through the evening of works. I had the pleasure of watching a studio showing of two of them last Sunday: one from Winifred Haun & Dancers and the other from The Leopold Group (Haun and Leopold are co-producing the evening with additional contributions from Ayako Kato and former Graham dancers Lisa Thurrell and Peter Sparling).
Haun has never shied away from her lineage in the Graham Technique, but I was somewhat surprised to see Lizzie Leopold on the bill. In truth, Leopold admitted she didn’t have much of a connection to Graham, and used nothing more than a piece of white marley, Ravel’s Bolero, and a big red fabric as a launchpad for her piece The Near Future. “When I think of Graham, I think drama,” she said, and The Near Future is high drama for sure. I don’t really hide my feelings about Bolero… but Leopold treats that horrible dirge delicately with her careful attention to intricate movement, interpersonal battles, and deliberate focus (which is piercing, but never fully AT you). There is a sense of charge and retreat, of repetition and ritual.
Winifred Haun’s new piece, Don’t Linger Too Long, also plays in this realm. It begins at a big (BIG) dining table in which 7 (of the 8 total) dancers demonstrate rituals of the meal like saying grace, cutting your meat, salting your plate, etc. This repetitive motion is intertwined with exquisite exits and entrances away from and back to the table. You get the sense, though, that even in this realistic, gestural world something is awry.
Perhaps the most exciting thing for me on this concert is Lamentation Variation, a re-imagining of the original 1930 Graham choreography. You know the one… it’s the iconic solo Martha performed in a purple sheath. This version sets the choreography on a group of dancers, and was created through a collaboration with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Their Lamentation Variation project sets the choreography on dancers and choreographers across the country to do with it what they will (pictured right is Deb Goodman setting the piece in Chicago). In doing so, they smartly continue the legacy of Graham and her work, and promote the evolution of modern dance, which, no doubt, she would have wanted.
“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
“Vision, Faith & Desire” premieres Sept 27-28, 7:30pm, at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts (1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago). Saturday’s performance is preceded by a master class with former Graham dancer Lisa Thurrell. Tickets are $30, available online, or $25 for the master class including a free show ticket.
P.S. Lizzie Leopold’s defense of her use of my least favorite piece of music can be seen here. And, let me be clear, her choice of music holds no bearing on my love for her work… in fact, it gave me a new appreciation for Ravel and his silly Bolero.