Martha Graham: A revolutionary legacy in dance

Martha Graham Dance Company carries on founder’s unique vision

Photo by John Deane -- Miki Orihara performs a graceful leaping side bend in 'Appalachian Spring.'
Photo by John Deane -- Miki Orihara performs a graceful leaping side bend in 'Appalachian Spring.'

By today’s standards, Martha Graham got a late start on her career. In the mid-1910s, when she enrolled in the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, she was already in her early 20s.

It was no impediment to the stellar career that would follow.

And when Martha Graham finally hung up her dancing shoes, half a century later, her career didn’t end there.

She would live for another quarter century, heading up her namesake dance company, creating 181 dance pieces and being proclaimed “Dancer of the Century” by Time magazine.

Long before her 1991 death at the age of 96, Graham had revolutionized the dance art form. She is credited with taking dance out of its rigidly structured European milieu and infusing it with American energy and spirit. It was said that “Martha Graham did for dance what Picasso did for painting and what Frank Lloyd Wright did for architecture.”

The troupe she founded in 1926, The Martha Graham Dance Company, is dedicated to preserving the legacy of its founder. The troupe will be presented by the New Orleans Ballet Association for one show on Saturday at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.

The performance, starting at 8 p.m., will be headlined by “Appalachian Spring,” Graham’s classic, World War II-era collaboration with renowned American composer Aaron Copland.

The evening will open with a multimedia presentation of archival photos and film footage of Graham in her prime. This will segue into a series of dances that trace Graham’s early career from the Denishawn School to the development of her pioneering style in the 1930s. The presentation will be narrated by Janet Eilber, MGDC’s artistic director.

Eilber spoke about her friendship with Graham and the memorable professional relationship she had with her for approximately 20 years.

“Working with Martha was an enriching collaboration. She wanted you to play to your own strengths. She wanted to draw out what was unique and colorful about you. Whether she was directing you in a classic ballet or creating a new one, there was always the expectation that you would be asking the most of yourself. She was helping you understand your own power.”

Continuing the tribute to her late mentor, Eilber added, “There are a lot of directors and choreographers who just want you to dance a role like the person before you did. For her there was no expectation that you would want to dance like somebody else, even her. It was all about empowering you to be yourself.”

One of the evening’s numbers, “Panorama” (1935), will feature 33 young dancers, ages 14-20, from local schools, including Lusher, NOCCA and the Newcomb Dance Program of Tulane University. “The interesting thing here is that this is only a segment of a much larger piece that has been lost,” Eilber explained.

“In the late 1980s, Yuriko (Kikuchi), one of Martha’s greatest performers, found this segment in an old black and white film and brought it back to life. Even though it’s only a ten-minute section of the original, it’s still a complete section. You still feel like you’re seeing the whole dance.”

Yuriko’s daughter, Susan Kikuchi, directs the local students who perform in this number.

Closing the program is Graham’s masterpiece “Appalachian Spring” (1944).

Set on a 19th-century rural Pennsylvania farmstead with eight dancers in period costumes, the ballet is described by Eilber as “the dance equivalent of the ‘Great American Novel.’ It’s a love letter to the spirit, optimism and hope of American pioneers during a time when we were at war. They (Graham and Copland) wanted to remind Americans that we possess the determination that things would be better in the future. The work sort of distills the American experience.”

Prior to Saturday night’s performance audience members are invited to join Eilber for a pre-performance talk about Martha Graham at 7:15 p.m. on the Mezzanine, Level M2, of the Mahalia Jackson Theater.