Sunday, June 6, 2010

Revisiting a Troubled Political Past

Martha Graham Dance Company principal Tadej Brdnik performing Isadora Duncan's "The Revolutionary." New York City high school students, below, in "Panorama." Photos by Costas Cacaroukas.

TADEJ Brdnik is wearing a black tank top and grey jeans. He moves around the floor in a controlled fury. The jumps, leaps and thrusting out of his arms are very urgent and adamant. They are determined. Indeed, they are righteously angry.

He ends Isadora Duncan’s “The Revolutionary,” with arms held aloft, his hands balled in tight fists, evoking another protest image: The Black Power Salute by gold medalist Tommie Smith and silver medalist John Carlos on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. TB’s entire body language in this piece, originally danced by ID, bellows power to the people.

Empowerment of the masses is the leitmotif in the Martha Graham Dance Company’s new season, the “Political Dance Project.” “The Revolutionary” was one of the solos performed during the season preview at a company fundraiser last month at Cedar Lake, home to the contemporary ballet company of the same name. The Graham company season opens Tuesday night (8 June) at the Joyce Theater and ends with an evening performance on 13 June.

In this four-program treatise, the Graham company revisits early 20th century America and many of the issues of the day i.e., workers rights, aftermath of the stock market crash. This look back also looks forward to today, which may cause some to muse, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

To impart this panoramic story the company is not relying on dance alone. This is a multimedia, collaborative effort that comprises film montages, spoken word, actors, and like “The Revolutionary,” works from other choreographers. Graham company artistic director Janet Eilber explains that she is staging the political dances now because of what she terms a current “fascination” with the 20th century. Another impetus is the ascendancy of contemporary dance. Further, this project is in keeping with the company’s continuing mission to tinker with ideas.

“We (the Graham organization) have been for about the last five years experimenting with new ways to present the ‘new’ classics of American Modern Dance,” says JE, who cites as one of her inspirations for this season “Stepping Left,” the book by former Graham dancer Ellen Graff examining the influence of social and political activism on dance. “We have been addressing what studies show us about today’s audiences – that they want more context, more information about what they see in the theater. So we have experimented with spoken introductions, thematic programs (like an evening about Martha and American Music, or her Greek themed works, or evenings that use media and narration).”

One dance that uses narration - mainly slave narratives in the preview excerpt - is “Panorama,” which like “The Revolutionary” is one of the solos in the “Dance is a Weapon” (debuting Wednesday) montage. When “Panorama” was first performed in 1935, it explored an expansive view of American history, dating to the Puritans through to the rise of the nation’s collective social consciousness in the mid-1930s. It took 33 dancers to tell the tale. In its current iteration, the 33 dancers are New York City high school students who auditioned for their roles.

While on Wednesday the students will be dressed in red, during the preview performance they wore heavily symbolic white T-shirts and blue jeans. Both the T-shirt and blue jeans are enduring modes of dress in America in a piece about American history. The different pocket designs on the jeans suggests the diversity that is the United States. Further, in one sequence the dancers disclose their birth country, making them hyphenated Americans. Yet what is striking is that none are Native American. Once again, the natives are virtually invisible in our diverse society – a shameful bit of American history.

The Graham company has a well-documented history of celebrating/challenging the zeitgeist of the day, never skittish about addressing controversial subjects - even snubbing the likes of Adolf Hitler during a moment in history when he was not a hated figure, albeit a feared one. The company is much like its founder who came of age in an era when upperclass women such as herself did not pursue careers in the arts, yet she did the shocking. The political dances, too, speak to issues that have the power to send shock waves, the passage of time and human rights laws notwithstanding. JE calls “American Document” (premiering Tuesday) the most provocative. It is an updated version of Graham’s 1938 work that was informed by the ascent of Fascism in Europe. It asks the fundamental question, “What is an American,” still fighting and dying words, even in the 21st century.

“This is not a dance but a theater piece created with SITI Company with Anne Bogart directing,” says JE of the ensemble troupe and its founder. “… It is performed by six SITI Company actors and 10 Martha Graham dancers and includes spoken text from a wide variety of sources – from Walt Whitman to blogs from American soldiers in Iraq. It’s very different from traditional dance programming and parts of it are quite edgy and contemporary.”

Hmmm … cryptic and intriguing.

Expressing a difficulty in choosing from among the dances, JE nevertheless settles on “American Document” and “Dance is a Weapon” as the ones she hopes will make the greatest impression on audiences. “And of course, I hope EVERY dance will be particularly impactful – that’s the goal that drives all of our work and experimentation with giving audiences context and new points of access.”

For tickets, schedule of performances and more information about the Martha Graham Dance Company’s “Political Dance Project,” visit and /.

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