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The Martha Graham Dance Company in London:  Thoughts on the Panel Discussions

'Ownership vs. Embodied Knowledge'
November 22, 2003 -- Lilian Baylis Theatre

The Laban Residency Panel Discussion
November 25, 2003 -- Laban Centre

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

NIght JourneyDuring the Martha Graham Dance Company’s (MGDC) visit to London, two panel discussions took place. Those interested and curious numbered among those who have been associated with the Martha Graham Dance Company as performer or supporter in the past 40 or so years. The first took place at Sadler’s Wells in the Lilian Baylis Theatre 22 November 2003. Led by Allen Robertson, writer/dance critic for Time Out Magazine, this discussion revolved around issues of ownership and embodied knowledge as variables in the Company’s future. On the panel were Terese Capucilli, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Aaron Sherber, Music Director/Conductor for MGDC, Henrietta Bannerman and Susan Sentler, teachers of the Graham technique and faculty members at Laban Centre, London, and Thea Barnes, former member of Martha Graham Dance Company and currently Resident Dance Supervisor for “The Lion King” in London.

The second panel took place at Laban Centre 25 November 2003. This panel, led by Ian Bramley, writer/director of Dance UK, began with an introduction providing a brief history of the Graham technique given by Henrietta Bannerman. This panel discussed issues about the repertory of Martha Graham and use and place of the Graham technique in its varied contexts. Panel members at Laban included Bannerman, Miki Orihara and Tadej Brdnik, present members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Susan Sentler, and Thea Barnes.

As I listened and commented on thoughts aired during both panel discussions from panel members and members of the audience, specific concerns for the MGDC and the Graham technique ran throughout both sites. For the Martha Graham Dance Company the future seems free from any legal confrontations. The work to secure the artistic vision that will foster access to Martha Graham’s legacy for Graham practitioners and researchers as well as continue to support a performing dance company in the future is one of many challenges. After a two year hiatus, the future is promising as the support the Martha Graham Dance Company has received in America indicates. Its increased ability to tour the world is also a sure indicator of success. As Capucilli stated: “What’s important is the future”. Establishing continuity is a priority for the dancers who have remained despite the turbulence of the past. Providing comprehensive processes to assure that younger members of the company are given as much information and rehearsal time as is possible for them to reach their highest level of artistry within the Graham aesthetic is also a priority.

The Martha Graham Dance Centre is the main repository for Martha Graham’s work save one, “Seraphic Dialogue,” and for this one the Centre owns the costumes and sets. The archival entity of the Graham Centre, the Martha Graham Resources, headed by Janet Eilber, is organising and preserving the vast collection of photographs, recorded music, scores, videos costumes and props and other materials in its collection and serve as liaison for the Company and The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the Jerome Robbins Collection at the New York Public Library. Organising the materials will enable access for company members and acknowledged aficionados of the Martha Graham legacy. The key to the viability of the repository and the legitimacy of the company hinges on keeping these collections intact and accessible. The material within the repository is accompanied by an ethos, an underlying philosophy that fosters a way of working and making dance that has passed from one generation to the next. As long as this philosophy is remembered the repository will sustain the Graham aesthetic for the company and those who would research and explore this extensive and extraordinary body of work.

The beauty of Martha’s repertory, as Capucilli pointed out, is its process of perfecting the repertory. This process allows the dancer to grow into a role and to continue to develop intricacies of a character with nuances of the movement language from season to season. The mythical characters of Jocasta, Medea and literary interpretations of Emily Bronte, for example, require a heightened level of maturity coupled with an extended length of experience and the aesthetic to dance with excellence. Martha’s process respected the individual and nurtured the dancer’s personal journey through the work to prefect a character. That journey, though, was through the Graham aesthetic. Demanding and articulate, this aesthetic required the dancer to immerse and change ways of knowing movement to meet the prescriptions set forth. It is then understandable that a belief within the British context is that the Graham technique is demanding and a question as to how could it benefit dancers not able or even interested in becoming a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. While the discussion at Sadler’s illustrated the task of maintaining the Graham aesthetic as a viable 'in the flesh' entity, the Laban Centre panel spoke of the benefits a dancer gains in learning Graham technique in today’s diverse dance making contexts.

The Graham aesthetic sought to reveal humanity on stage with all its vulnerability for audiences to choose to embrace or not. With Capucilli and accompanying artistic director, Christine Dakin, present company members will find their own way through the Graham way of exploring and knowing movement. Movement never lies and if the dancer works fully within the work, going to the core of her or his individual humanity seeking to expose the heart in all its frailties, its beauties, and its ugliness then the vision is halfway there.

Seraphic DialogueFor Capucilli, Graham works are one of the last bastions of human sensitivity, and as Martha would have encouraged, it is the dancer’s responsibility to discover, listen and be alive with that sensitivity. Sketches from the “Chronicle” (1936) section, “Steps in the Street”, with music by Wallingford Riegger, speaks of 20th century urban despondence but has a resonance for today’s 21st century spiritual desolation. Having this contextualised insight perhaps aids with the response and then interpretation of the work; but does this assist in characterising the aesthetic, understanding Graham choices in dance making?

The current vision of the company is to continue to cultivate in this generation and future generations a knowing of the work as Martha Graham originally directed it. This is an application of the theory as it evolved through the years in a practical way in the present and the future. As Martha continued to evolve her choreographic vision, the movement language and accompanying compositional choices altered from generation to generation. Stark, percussive all female early works, gave raise to Americana, Greek mythology, satire, and lyricism. Embodiment of this evolution and its altered states will be most effective when explored with an informed, contextualised perspective.

Graham aesthetic practice is specific, each generation of work having a particular context and cultural time. To grasp the Graham aesthetic that dictates variations of its embodiment requires a contextualised understanding of each significant form of expression. A contextualised perspective will illustrate the science of Graham’s dance making and how she and her dancers danced the way they did in each generation. Similarly, a response to Graham aesthetic requires a particular state of mind; a mind set, if you will, that is informed of how to enter the varied expressions evidenced in Graham’s oeuvre. The challenge for the Company is to provide today’s audiences who are new to Graham’s work the information of how to enter the work. This is a challenge in a global context that shuns what it perceives as dated because it craves new, innovative dance making.

If dance is the product of the moment – is of its time – where is the place of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the 21st century? Is it classical? Martha chose composers who were contemporary in their day. Is Aaron Copland’s “Ballet for Martha” used for "Appalachian Spring" (1944) and William Schuman’s music for “Night Journey” (1947) considered classical music? Just what is meant by ‘classical’ when discussing the legacy of Martha Graham? Can modern dance have a history that makes it classical?

The contemporary-ness of modern dance may seem a contradiction in terms but this description stems from a consideration of what classical implies when used to describe the Graham aesthetic. Being considered classical confirms longevity of a canon of knowledge that has survived for years and is accessible enough to be shared between dance communities worldwide. The Graham technique can be considered classical because it has established practices that reinforce an embodiment of theory. The Graham repertory and its technique can be accessed through preserved materials that illustrate the work of the originator, Martha Graham and her protégés. The Martha Graham Resources will make this material available for research, reflection, and inspiration.

Despite several decades and contexts of use in different locations, embodied knowledge of the Graham way of working has survived with its particular aesthetic, bodily architecture, and dynamics intact. There is an implicit bodily narrative supported by embodied knowledge that reinforces Graham movement vocabulary. Passed from generation to generation this vocabulary retains nuances in movement that distinguishes Graham technique from any other technical practices, and distances Graham from any other way of knowing movement. By attributing ‘classical’ to the Graham aesthetic, one acknowledges a legacy of exploration that has continued since the personal and public investigations of movement initiated by Martha Graham in 1926. The Graham aesthetic is classical in the sense that it has a codified movement vocabulary, a technique to sustain its science in theory and practice of dance, a viable repository of its legacy of work, and global recognition of the efficacy of its artistry.

How will Graham’s dance making be passed on from generation to generation? Once the research is done then the dancer forms his or her interpretation of a role. For the Maid in “Seraphic Dialogue” I watched a film of Patricia Birch, a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company 1950–1970 performing the Maid to supplement my watching of Christine Dakin also performing the Maid. Even though video or film is two-dimensional, the more I watched and the more entrenched in the Graham aesthetic physically I became, the more nuances and details I learned. The more I learned, the more the Graham way of moving became indelible. The live performance of Dakin spoke for itself and listening to her directions gave me additional insight. The more entrenched in the repertory, performing the work and practice of the Graham technique the more I understood physically, and thus more astutely I performed the Graham aesthetic.

This means of indoctrination and embodiment coupled with my individual life experiences devised my replication of the Maid that with Martha’s artistic direction became the dance I performed. My replication of the Maid became a synthesis of research, a collection of informed choices and personal insight. There have been, and hopefully will be, future generations of the Maid so as long as there is a chronicle of these varied expressions achieved through in-depth research coupled with astute artistic direction. As long as these different versions of the Maid are available for present and future generations to study the Graham aesthetic will be passed on. Capucilli told of a similar process in her reconstruction of “Spectre – 1914” [ "Spectre - 1914" was first performed in 1936 and the reconstruction described is from 1994 -- ed]. Carol Fried, the then Associate Artistic Director of the Graham Company, worked with Capucilli to reconstruct the work from film clips and from Barbara Morgan's photographs. Capucilli’s own embodied knowledge gathered from her extensive experience in the repertory of Martha Graham was a huge factor in the successful completion of this work.

There will be new interpretations. Dancers bring their own experiences to any dance they perform. If the rep is mounted on companies that do not practice the Graham technique or its accompanying way of knowing movement, the interpretation of a Graham ballet will also vary. The current Company dancers have different insights and physical potentials than the ones who danced in earlier generations. These new expressions will be welcome as long as their lineage to the legacy is intact. As long as those protégés of Graham and in the future those who have studied the legacy in depth mount the work of Graham the variations will achieve an acceptable level of excellence.

The present artistic directors have a combined direct experience with Martha Graham encompassing some twenty-seven years. The Resources contain the products of some seventy-seven years – generations – of dance making and performance. There is an abundance of individual expressions of most roles including documentation of Martha’s performances. There is also material discussing the theory within the technique and variations on the practice of Graham movement. All the information of the generations is there to assist those who would make choices in dance performance – Martha Graham Dance Company dancer and artistic director, when tailoring roles and performing the works. The processes that lead to conclusive evidence of what the Graham aesthetic is, will be revealed. Should practitioners license a Graham work, the resources, living and archival, will be there to make the reconstruction a success. As long as the repository remains accessible and refers constantly to the wealth of materials that store the Graham way of making dance the aesthetic will live in the flesh.

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Edited by Jeff

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