If the pandemic taught Janet Eilber anything, it is: “I’m always reminded how powerful Martha’s work is,” she said, “when we mess with it.”
As Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Eilber has long been experimenting with ways to redesign the work of the choreographer – even before the pandemic forced the dance world to go digital. What she learned is that the works of Graham, a leader in modern dance in the mid-20th century, don’t collapse under pressure. They keep their purity; In some cases, they become even more powerful.
With Eilber’s latest digital adventure, a collaboration with the Hauser & Wirth art gallery, she is now looking for ways to combine the choreographer’s work with the present: How can Graham’s essential modernity find a new meaning in an environment of contemporary visual art?
On Friday, the Graham Company concludes its 95th season with GrahamFest95, a three-day virtual showcase of livestream performances of classic and recent works, along with the premiere of four films pairing dances by Graham and Robert Cohan with four of the gallery’s artists : Rita Ackermann, Mary Heilmann, Luchita Hurtado and Rashid Johnson.
It helps that Madeline Warren, Senior Director at Hauser & Wirth, is also Eilber’s daughter. They coordinated the project together. “She grew up knowing Graham worked,” Eilber said. “Between the two of us, we found dances that are seriously related to her works of art.”
Marc Payot, partner and president of Hauser & Wirth, has only seen rough cuts of the films that contain cinematography and digital design by Alex Munro. Nonetheless, Payot said: “The movement and the dance are really in dialogue with what is there, even if it was created yesterday. It is incredibly interesting how the dance becomes much more contemporary or vice versa. “
For the films, the artwork is used as the setting for the dances, which were filmed on a green screen in the Graham studios. Instead of projecting the painting as a background, Eilber hopes to create a digital environment that envelops the dancer in a haunting manner. As she said, “We tried to find things that you can’t do on stage.”
Heilmann’s choice was obvious: their use of lines and colors is closely related to Graham’s “Satyric Festival Song”. In this playful 1932 solo, which was originally part of a suite called Dance Songs, the costume is a vibrant black and green striped dress designed by Graham himself. In it, the dancer – her body full of angles and wobbling movements – vibrates across the stage, just as Heilmann’s lines in paintings such as “Surfing on Acid” have an electric enthusiasm.
In the video with dancer Xin Ying, the approach aims to capture the feeling of strangeness and fun. “This little character could be floating in space,” said Eilber. “It could just be anywhere. And any size! It could be really small at one point and it could get very big. It can be a real fall down the rabbit hole. “
Xin also appears with Lloyd Knight in a duet from “Dark Meadow,” a 1946 work partly inspired by Graham’s love for the Southwest. The original set is from Isamu Noguchi; Hurtado, who died last year, was a friend of this artist who designed many of Graham’s dances. “Martha’s Noguchi set is an abstraction of this landscape,” said Eilber. “So we want to replace it with the abstraction of Luchita’s landscapes, which clearly relate to the space and light of the southwest, or with works that could become landscapes with the dancers.”
“Immediate Tragedy”, a lost solo from 1937, which was reinterpreted through archive material, was combined with works of art by Ackermann from her “Mama” series. Ackermann finds a connection to what she sees as Graham’s choreography concerns: weight versus weightlessness. “I’m looking for a similar contradiction and a similar emotional response in the gestural movement of my pictures,” she said. “Your choreography also draws lines related to speed – fast and slow. Both are the basis of my drawings. “
Eilber tells the solo and his message – “to stay upright at all costs”, as Graham wrote in a letter to his composer Henry Cowell – with Ackermann’s way of embedding figurative drawings, often of young girls, in their work. As she paints over them, their bodies or parts of them are recognizable to varying degrees. For Eilber these images and the message of the solo speak “for female roles”, she said. “It is the role of women in humankind in challenging situations or just our role in mortality, birth and death.”
For Xin, who will perform the work, the strict and passionate solo feels particularly timely – certainly because of the pandemic, but now even more as a result of the recent attacks on Asians. “I’ve never felt emotionally ready for the piece up until that point,” she said. “It’s like you want to go somewhere, and it’s hard and scary, but you have to go. They do not know what is safe and what is not. “
The latest collaboration is Lloyd, a solo by Cohan, a former dancer with the Graham Company who founded Place, a prestigious contemporary dance school in London, who died in January. Instead, Knight appears with a painting by Johnson from his series “Anxious Red”. It re-embodies the tension and trauma of the solo and reflects the feeling of the present moment. The aggressive and disturbing images come to life in a glowing blood red that is both rich and terrifying. Johnson began creating the work, an extension of his Anxious Men series, in March last year when the shutdown occurred.
“It was about fear, a little ignorance, a reluctance to project too far into the future,” said Johnson, “because there were just so many question marks about what the next steps were.”
Although not a dancer, Johnson said that as an artist, he views his process as a dance; As a young man, he was drawn to urban dancing and breaking. Now his approach often refers to “the circular motion that occurs in breakdancing to set up a stage, walk around, and make full, robust movements with my body,” he said. “So I’m very aware of the physicality or the physical aspect of how performative a painting can be. I’ve never been a painter who really values some kind of wrist gesture. It is often a series of movements that I use to bring an image to life. “
The movement in his painting – alongside Knight’s dance – emphasizes the gripping tension of fear. In the stark, haunted work, Knight, only wearing a pair of tight panties, turns in the direction and pauses to play certain poses that are “almost like seizures in a way,” he said. “It’s a complete build up to the point where in the end I just shiver and spin uncontrollably until I can’t take it anymore.”
In the solo, based on drawings by Andreas Vesalius from the 17th century, Cohan wanted to show what was under the skin. to reveal in a sense how difficult it is for a body to hold on. “It’s like a statue that is slowly crumbling on the spot,” said Eilber.
During the shoot, Knight, who rehearsed the solo with Cohan before his death, was transformed: “I have to take myself mentally,” he said. “When I was in this open space – on the stage with the lights – I fully understood what Bob wanted: I felt alone.”