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The Graham Residency at Laban

by Heidi Baumgartner

November, 2003 -- Laban, London



Iím currently in the 3rd year of my BA (Hons) Dance Theatre and didnít attend Graham classes before I came to Laban. In this Residency I had the pleasure of experiencing different teachers including Miki Orihara from the Martha Graham Dance Company and Susan Sentler from Laban. As the availability of Graham classes is greatly reduced in this country, Laban is the only institution offering classes consistently, which is why Ms Sentler is one of the foremost representatives of Graham technique in the U.K.

My personal interest in Graham was encouraged by a 2-week workshop with Ethel Winter that I attended in summer 2003 in Switzerland. Her way of teaching is similar to Mikiís and made me realize that the basic principles of the technique assist me in developing the skills necessary to be a dancer working within a variety of
styles or techniques. This notion was reinforced during the Residency.

The upper level classes with Miki began with basic floor work and she took a lot of time to explain the basic principles like spiral and contraction. She used much imagery and didnít hesitate to use unusual forms of demonstration to get points across, alongside her extraordinary skills as a dancer. For example, she had us stand in a half circle to facilitate the visualization of a hip movement and later asked to be supported to illustrate positions as they happen in the air. She also made references to ballet, which drew attention to some similar aims of the techniques, such as the importance of the use of turn out as a functional rather than an aesthetic element.

The other students and I found her hands on corrections very helpful - so often this method is clearer than any words. Generally her profound understanding of the work was underpinned by anatomical knowledge and a belief in finding things within the individual body, a necessity that was also mentioned in the panel discussion. This is also an aim in Susan Sentlerís classes but on top of that Miki emphasises attack in the movements. Some consider this an aspect of style rather than technique, but I believe this tension and energy is inherent in Graham movement and gives it a particular quality of surprise and urgency.

Embattled

In the second part of the class Miki gave us a taster of what the technique is striving for. We did quite Ďadventurousí exercises like various falls and pitch turns, which were challenging but exciting. Here the emphasis w as on risk, you gather up the energy and then just go.

The culmination of this Graham experience for me was the repertoire session where we performed the opening dance of ďNight JourneyĒ in which emotional content and expression are emphasized, as the movementís inherent purpose is to tell a story. Although for many contemporary dancers that seems to be an outdated
concept, to learn repertoire helps to make sense of the technique as a whole, which developed as a by-product to Grahamís choreography.

Many people in my year feel that Graham is not necessary for their training, even some that enjoy the classes. But in the end demands for versatility are increasing which means practising a technique as specific as Graham can in this respect only be beneficial. Further, learning more about the context and issues surrounding Graham helped me understand why and how certain movements are practised. The awareness to differentiate between what is functional and what belongs more to the specific realm of style makes it easier to apply this specific training to all my dancing.


The classes together with the discussion helped me to gain a sharper focus concerning the technique by recognizing the underlying principles that connect it with Cunningham or Ballet and also to appreciate the specific skills Graham has to offer. I agree with Miki that Graham technique has been successful in training the dance body for a long time and by emphasising the anatomical functionality it can be taught in a way that it feels Ďco-productiveí with the other techniques. What I appreciate about the technique especially as a dancer is that it snaps you
into focus because it has a certain edge. Personally I think that while release technique creates malleable artists, Graham emphasizes performance and projection, which remain important assets for a dancer. In addition, I appreciate the need to learn the discipline from within and make it work on my own body instead of trying to merely imitate shapes and this understanding was greatly facilitated by Mikiís teaching in the Residency.


Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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