There is a breath, a rhythm -both harmonious and discordant - ever-present in life. Martha Graham yearned to express the full range of her inner landscape, and in doing so she forever changed the world of dance.
In an era where classical ballet kept dancers in line through beautiful, decorative flow, Graham began experimenting with percussive, disjunctive, sharp, angular movements and falls. Her choreography evoked raw emotion, as well as political, psychological and sexual themes.
"Her physical vocabulary was shocking at the time," said Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. "It was a whole new way of moving on the stage. It emerged out of real human emotion."
Graham's movement originated from her torso, eliciting visceral responses. She followed "stirrings" in the center of her body, extended them through her back and then radiated them through her arms and legs, as opposed to simply moving her limbs in a less embodied fashion.
"Martha Graham said, 'We feel life in our center, the center of our being where all the viscera are,'" said principal dancer Katherine Crockett. "The closer that you move to that center, the more honesty lives in that movement.
"Because it is wrapped around this concept of vitality and emotion, about what it means to be human, it does not grow old. It is a universal expression in the way that it touches you so kinetically. There is something that pulls you in because we all understand and empathize (with emotion)."
An evening with the company
The Martha Graham Dance Company, originated in 1926 as Graham's studio, is one of the oldest dance companies in North America. And though the company proudly bears her name and history, Eilber reminds people they are "not coming to see a museum by any means."
Graham's legacy is one of forward momentum, of seizing Graham's appetite for experimentation and exploration and diving into uncharted dimensions of personal and artistic expression.
Though the company will showcase three of Graham's pieces during their festival debut tonight, "Vail is not going to see dance like it was danced 50 years ago," Eilber said. "These are 21st century artists; they're powerful athletes - some of the most extraordinary dancers in the world. We've incorporated a new facility (encompassing) the vibrancy of today and tomorrow."
Each piece highlights one of Graham's best works from the decades of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
"They represent the essence of her revolution," Eilber said. "The grouping shows the starkness of her work in the 1930s compared to the more lyrical work of the '40s and the complicated interaction of the '50s. You can see how diverse her thinking and inspiration were, from the Bible to political (statements) to her evolution as an abstract artist."
"Chronicle" is one of Graham's early political pieces, choreographed in 1936 in response to fascism in Europe. Earlier that year, she refused to dance at the 1936 Olympics in Germany because of Jewish persecution. The original work contained three sections, but the company has reconstructed it and now performs the center section, portraying the tragedy of war, the prelude to action, and the power of people to effect change.
Aaron Copland wrote the score for "Appalachian Spring," a narrative about newlyweds moving into their new home on the frontier. The dance portrayed the American spirit of optimism, determination and hope for the future at a critical time in America, 1944, and was considered to be a significant support in the war effort, Eilber said.
It also exemplifies two of Graham's revolutionary contributions to dance, in the realms of both time and space.
Graham was the first to "change the shape of space" through three-dimensional stage sets, when other dancers simply performed against painted backdrops. For "Appalachian Spring," she worked with sculptor and set designer Isamu Noguchi to create an angular, three-dimensional feeling of expansiveness reminiscent of the new frontier.
She also portrayed changes in time on stage through flashbacks and techniques such as freezing motion and allowing one dancer to step forward and convey a character's inner thoughts.
Graham's erotic side emerges in "Embattled Garden," choreographed in 1958. Its contemporary look on temptation and forgiveness includes Adam, Eve, Lilith (Adam's first wife) and the serpent-like Stranger. The piece began more innocently, but Carlos Surinach's steamy Spanish music and Noguchi's stylized forest set inspired Graham to infuse the movement with lusty sexuality.
Graham's fiery spirit and dedication to self-discovery resulted in a sense of empowerment not commonly found in women in the early 1900s. She passed that sense of power onto her students - one being Betty Ford.
Ford studied with Graham in the late 1930s and performed in a couple of Graham's dances as part of the larger cast.
"Ford revered her," Eilber said. "She had such a formative time with Martha. She had a new understanding of how women could be powerful."
Graham rejected the label of feminist, saying, "I've just done whatever I've wanted to do," Eilber said. "She led by example. You could feel that she had a clear idea of what she wanted, and she went after it."
Historians have compared Graham's influence on modern dance to that of Picasso's on art, Stravinsky's on music and Frank Lloyd Wright's on architecture.
"She brought us (ways of) looking inside of ourselves - our sensual and sexual selves," Crockett said. "She fearlessly took on frontiers and opened up realms for other artists to explore."
Today, the company continues to foster Graham's genius by showcasing not only her masterpieces, but also those of her successors.
"(Graham named her school) the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance - not modern dance - because it continues to evolve with the breath and movement with each dancer that comes in contact with it," Crockett said. "It is very, very passionate work."