A profile of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which continues to celebrate the independent spirit of its legendary founder.
- Good evening and welcome to NYC-Arts.
I'm Paula's Zahn.
Tonight, we go behind the scenes with a truly groundbreaking and original dance company.
Founded by one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
The Martha Graham Dance Company, celebrates its 95th anniversary, this season.
Unable to rehearse or perform together due to the pandemic, the company is bringing Martha Graham's legacy online.
Presenting Graham's iconic works to audiences around the world, in different ways.
(classical music) It also continues to foster her innovative spirit, reaching out to a new generation of artists, inspired by her vision.
(soft classical music) Now a look, at the Martha Graham Dance Company.
(classical cello music) - I started as a dancer with the company in 1972 and came back to the company as artistic director in 2005.
Martha from the very first rehearsal I had with her taught me life lessons.
And the theme that runs throughout her entire career is the empowerment of the individual, being true to your own unique power, that it is unique and yours alone to develop.
For example, when she directed us in her roles, it didn't cross her mind, that we might dance the role exactly as she had.
I had a different dynamic, a different personal aura, and she expected me to tap those things.
Use my own unique qualities as powerfully as possible.
- My artistic director, Janet Eilber, has taken the approach of allowing me to find my way into a role, to create my own interpretation within the choreography, within the structure, of course.
I didn't know Martha Graham, don't have the pressure of what that personality meant to me, but I can work from the philosophy and the teachings and the technique of the work.
(soft, classical music) - Night Journey is, Martha Graham's take on the Oedipus story.. Oedipus and Jocasta, his wife-mother.
And it's one of the greatest examples, of how Martha revolutionized the use of time on stage.
Her dance begins where the play ends.
Jocasta understands the truth, and is about to end her life.
And the dance takes place as if we see her life flashing before her eyes.
So we travel back in her memories, we see her meeting Oedipus as a young man, their courtship, their marriage, and the end of the ballet is, we returned to the rope and she ends it all.
Stepping into Jocasta and her psyche, what is she thinking?
That is a difficult question.
And as she goes back in time, that relives her bad choices.
We realize that, she's an innocent in this, she hasn't done anything, willingly, but she hasn't followed her instinct.
So all of those nuances that as Jocasta, one must portray for the audience, and the energies that the dancer must evoke to get that across, that is a great dramatic challenge.
(fast, classical music) - Jocasta I think is probably the most complex role.
So, as an actress and a dancer, the many different facets and elements that you can add into that role, it's endless, it's infinite.
(soft, classical music) - I'm definitely trying to find my own Jocasta, 'cause I can never be like Martha Graham, or anybody in the past.
We've done that piece.
And I'll add a little bit my cultural background into that role.
It's a little bit like Asian, or even like Chinese with Japanese Kabuki gesture.
Emotional wise is about using a technique to communicate to bring a story on stage, to talk with your body.
It's the most challenging part for the dancer.
(fast, classical music) - The elements of the Graham technique, have remained constant, that the torso is driving movement.
The torso being the center of emotion is also so intimate and descriptive of the emotional journey, that famous Martha Graham contraction and release is so visceral.
- The contraction, it's not a shape.
The contraction is a lift and a movement in space.
It's a way to move through space.
That takes extreme depths of muscle control to access and to achieve.
So, that really is the most difficult part for any of us.
We have to train in it continuously.
(fast, classical music) - Graham's work requires sort of the perfect marriage of the physical and the emotional.
Her movement is designed to reveal the inner landscape, as she used to say, and really finding that balance between the physicality and the emotional journey without becoming melodramatic, is the constant battle.
Cave of the Heart is Martha Graham's take on the story of Medea.
- People think the Medea, that role it's, is evil role.
It's violent, it's dark.
But for me, it isn't. It's a woman.
It's human emotion that naturally comes out if somebody hurts you, somebody betrays you.
Eventually you wanna do something to confront your anger, by revenge.
I enjoy a lot 'cause it's, for me the way I could really release myself.
This side that never came out in a normal life.
(chuckles). (fast, classical music) - Lamentation in 1930 ,of course, was the shot heard round the world, for modern dance, to do something that was so stark, so modernist.
There's no decoration, there's no escapism.
It really is the thing itself.
It's one of my favorite role, work of Martha.
It's four minutes.
And it's very hard, 'cause the fabric is resistant.
As Martha says, stretching the fabric, is stretching your skin.
You're trying to break through a certain pressure to relieve the sadness.
- The Lamentation variations, started in 2007.
We asked young choreographers to create short works for the company, inspired by a film of Martha dancing, her iconic solo, Lamentation.
The commissioning of new work for the company is really part of a much larger initiative.
Finding new points of audience access for these gram works.
- With new choreographers, a dancer learns a tremendous amount about who they are.
I learned a lot about who I am creatively.
That really helped me bring this very vital energy to my repertoire work.
For me, Appalachian Spring is a perennial favorite.
I was able to play the followers, and eventually the bride.
Martha Graham's role of the bride.
And I was privileged to be coached by the subsequent brides after Martha Graham.
So there was a wonderful lineage and transference of knowledge through the generations that I received.
And I have some beautiful dancers who are coming into the work as it should be.
(fast, classical music) There are many different ways to appreciate Graham and to connect with her work, whether it's the Greek myths, or the Bible, or whether it's simply understanding that her language, her dance vocabulary, was born out of natural human gesture.
So, it's a very personal and intimate experience, for audiences, and they recognize human beings on the stage.
(classical music) (bright music)