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Martha Graham Dance Company

The Graham Company brings its history to São Paulo

by Ana Paula Höfling

November 10, 2005 - Theatro Municipal de São Paulo

Coming out of the Praça da Sé subway stop, I’m in the heart of downtown São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil.  São Paulo is a modern city, where its history lives side by side with the present.  Behind me is the Sé Cathedral, inspired by Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; ahead of me -- through a busy commercial street where the stores obnoxiously announce their sales through loudspeakers on the sidewalk -- is the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo, built in 1911 and modeled after the Paris Opera, at a time when the Brazilian elite looked to Paris for architecture, fashion and the arts.

But sadly, São Paulo has lost most of its historical buildings, giving way to a sea of modern rectangular skyscrapers.  The Martha Graham Dance Company, on the other hand, knows how to renew itself through its history.  It has revitalized itself by bringing in older works that had left the repertory for almost fifty years and giving them a new life through the committed, impeccable performances of the dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

In "Deep Song," choreographed in 1937 and reconstructed in 1989 by Graham herself, Alessandra Prosperi began sitting on a bench, dressed in a striking black and white dress designed by Graham.  Graham chose movements that convey fear, like a retreating bourree with one hand in front of the mouth, and contrasted those with defiant, strong movements -- Prosperi sharply crossed her wrists above her head, her hands closed in tight fists, or sunk into a wide second position with both hands framing the center of her chest. Prosperi used the bench not only for sitting, but also for hiding under, and in a poignant ending, she leaned over the bench, her back to the audience and silently cried, letting each percussive sob ripple through her torso and her arm, ending in her hand.

"Sketches from Chronicle" is another reconstructed work, choreographed one year before "Deep Song," that enriches MGDC´s repertory by bringing its early history back to life.  This piece, while only partially reconstructed, consisted of three excerpts: "Spectre 1914," "Steps in the Street," and "Prelude to Action."  In "Spectre 1914," a solo, Fang-Yi Sheu manipulated an oversized black skirt lined in red -- she tossed it back, creating red waves that seem influenced by Loie Fuller; wrapped herself with the inside-out skirt, its red lining covering her body from head to toe; and extended an arm in a begging gesture.

The second and third movements of this work remind us that Graham’s work is not limited to her powerful solos and her later, more narrative group works. In "Steps in the Street," 10 women, dressed in Graham’s classic long-sleeved black dresses, entered the stage one at a time, walking backwards tentatively, one elbow jutting out in front of the chest, one hand in front of the belly in a protective gesture.  In "Prelude to Action," a woman in white seems to have taken control of these women in black, who whirl around her in barrel turns and walk across the stage with large steps, arms stretched out in front, as if pulled by an external force.

When comparing Graham to her contemporary, Doris Humphrey, she is remembered for her solos, and Humphrey for her group works. But both choreographers knew how to manipulate large groups of women to create powerful, abstract images, and in "Sketches from Chronicle" we see that Graham and Humphrey had a lot in common -- "Chronicle" shares many images with Humphrey’s "With My Red Fires," also choreographed in 1936.

MGDC’s program also included the celebrated solos "Lamentation" (1930) and "Satyric Festival Song" (1932), and the only work of the evening showcasing Graham’s sculptural, bare-chested men, "Diversion of Angels" (1948), where Graham’s movement vocabulary is very different from only 10 years earlier and well on its way to becoming the codified technique we know today as Graham technique.

A lens into the origins of her movement style, the program opened with "Serenata Morisca" an Orientalist solo choreographed for her by her teacher Ted Shawn as a classroom exercise in 1916.  In this solo -- in the middle of the cultural incongruences of Denishawn such as “Spanish” arm movements mixed with of East Indian bells around the ankles -- we take a trip back in time and are able to see a young Graham performing her teacher’s steps, such as the quick, springy sissonnes and full leg circles in front of the body, which were to become part of her technique two decades later.

The MGDC is not only preserving dance history, it is making it part of our present, renewing itself by always finding something new in the large body of work of such a prolific choreographer.

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