An encounter with genius

In the opinion of Janet Eiber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Martha Graham is one of those names you speak in the same breath as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

Like the scientist who forever changed the way we think about time and space and the psychologist who revolutionized the way we look at the human psyche, Graham created a whole new physical and emotional vocabulary for the way we express our humanity through dance.

In its program notes, Britt Festivals mentioned Graham's name along with other pioneers in the world of art, such as Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The dance troupe Graham founded in 1926 is celebrating its 80th anniversary season and performed two nights on the stage at Britt last weekend. Sitting there under the stars and beholding three pieces choreographed and costumed by Graham can only be described as a rare privilege. An encounter with genius.

In the audience at Britt were many who had a personal connection with Graham. David Hochoy, the choreographer of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Green Show, actually danced in one of the pieces that was featured at Britt as a member of Graham's company when she was alive.

My friend Shelly Simmons' two aunts danced with Graham back in the 1930s and '40s.

Former members of the company include many who went on to become choreographers and start their own companies, such as Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp.

First Lady Betty Ford danced with the company in 1938. Back then she was Betty Bloomer. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford declared his wife's teacher a "national treasure."

Graham taught many actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse actor training school in New York, including Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Anne Jackson and Joanne Woodward.

None of these people, however, were at the two Britt performances. If they had been I'm sure they would have been just as deeply moved as I was to witness how Graham's work lives on.

While I never saw Graham, her name I knew well. She was one of those dance artists of mythological stature that you heard about, their names spoken in a reverential tone: Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Agnes DeMille.

Graham's work is so strikingly original and unpretentious that when you see a piece on the stage today, such as "Chronicle," which was choreographed in 1936, it still takes your breath away.

Written as a response to the rise of fascism in Europe, Graham said of the piece in the original program note: "'Chronicle' does not attempt to show the actualities of war; rather does it, by evoking war's images, set forth the fateful prelude to war, portray the devastation of spirit which it leaves in its wake, and suggest an answer."

Picasso did that with his painting "Guernica." Others have expressed these ideas in words and music. But to see dancers literally embody such compelling themes with evocative movements, gestures and use of space is a very powerful experience.

The other selections presented that evening moved us from celebrating the varieties of love to celebrating the dancer as "an exquisite instrument of expression" and "an ode to the Graham classroom technique," according to program notes.

The whole evening for this audience member was an ode to Graham as an artist — herself an exquisite instrument of expression.

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