Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of Martha Graham Dance Company since 2005, knows what all chefs, farmers, architects, engineers, scientists, philosophers — really, what anyone knows. The key to a delicious, sturdy, profoundly pleasing creation is all in the ingredients. On Friday Jan. 31 and Saturday Feb. 1 at Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances and the 77-year-old modern dance company will serve up three classic feasts, with live accompaniment provided by the Berkeley Symphony.
Like the way that jazz and blues defined American music, Martha Graham swept through the 20th century; absorbing, exuding and transforming the collective experience of American modern dance.
She wasn’t alone in her pioneering career that spanned nearly a century and resulted in 181 works. Others, like Lester Horton, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp (the latter three trained by Graham) also propelled the field in unique ways. But Graham’s themes and frequent collaborations with equally visionary composers, writers, filmmakers, and costume and set designers, matched the grand scale of America’s ever-evolving landscape from an agricultural to an industrial to a technology-driven society. As the country breathed, so did her dances.
Cave of the Heart (1946), with music by Samuel Barber, is Graham’s “Medea ballet.” She first sent the script to Copeland, who wrote back, advising her it was “a bit severe,” Eilber recounts. Copeland suggested she might try something milder. Carlos Chávez (who composed the score for Graham’s The Dark Meadow, premiered the same year) sent a score she deemed not theatrical enough. “Finally, she got a score out of Barber,” Eilber said.
The ballet’s dark, dramatic unravelling of a soul and a mind, combined with its pulsating score, corkscrewed, C-curved, contracted-core spines, virile male role, counterpoint grace-and-doll-like female, and a demonic, wickedly difficult solo for Medea, add up to classic Graham. With the opportunity to perform with a live symphony too rare to pass up, she says the program’s three selections aligned themselves easily. “We wanted the best scores and live music, that’s the reason for the classics,” she said.
But so too, does Maple Leaf Rag, a mood-lifting, jubilantly tongue-in-cheek poke at herself, created to the music of Scott Joplin in 1990 and her final, original work.
“It’s one big joke,” Eilber said, laughing. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Oh Martha, how like you to go out laughing at your own career.’ In (the ballet), there’s a woman in a huge grey skirt who interrupts as doom, but then the rag takes it back to her fabulous sense of humor.”
Multiplying pleasure — derived from innovative initiatives she is introducing — with the permanence of well-tended classics, Eilber has made a happy discovery. After the earliest years of her directorship, when the company’s troubled finances and the legacy of Graham was more burden than blessing, she has found unexpected bounty. Graham’s works are less a repository of relic choreographies than they are an immortal, living museum, stocked with treasures and tools, like artifacts found at an archeological site that can be put to contemporary purpose.
“The whole way we are dealing with the legacy is by not putting it in formaldehyde,” she says. “We’re finding it’s rich. The quality of the content is so high that you can do diverse things and still have the high art.”
Although the audience in Berkeley will see the authentic classics, Eilber is allowing winds of change to create a forward-moving current in the company’s repertoire.
“I don’t try to think like she did; that’s an impossible task. But I do take guidance from her. Martha was all about helping you draw a performance out of yourself,” Eilber recalls, remembering the years she performed or guested with the company. “She was collaborative.”
Two world premieres in 2014 (by Egyptian choreographer Andonis Foniadakis and Spain’s Nacho Duato), an ongoing, three-year Picasso project with Italian director Antonio Calenda, and another, Lamentation Variations, which invites choreographers to create their kinetic response to the legendary 1930 solo work, are particularly exciting to Eilber. “Had we done (these projects) seven years ago, there would have been more objection,” she admits. “Our creative inspiration has momentum now.”
Even so, Eilber thinks of herself as an arranger, a masher of choreography, a curator of a vibrant, museum of mobility. The definition of “modern dance” changes almost daily and she suggests it might be more accurate to think of Graham as “a true, American modernist” who kept pace with parallel changes in music, architecture and visual art. Picking up the ball and running with it is a habit she inherited — or shared — with Graham. “But we’re not throwing away the original Graham,” she cautions. “The fact that we use phrases in a new piece doesn’t dilute the core collection.”
And the company is not shy when it comes to social media and 21st century multimedia technology. Streaming live rehearsals, raising funds with Kickstarter campaigns and digitizing the archives is all in process. The last item, preserving Graham’s work, became a front-burner issue, after Superstorm Sandy flooded the company’s storage facility. “Fortunately, our films and videos were on the second floor,” Eilber says. “But most of our sets and costumes were underwater for two weeks: a few are beyond repair.”
The cleanup bill, nearly $4 million, will be one more boulder to climb, she says. Eilber, with a dancer’s characteristic, I-can-do-the-impossible verve, says the company “rolled with the punches” in the storm’s aftermath and didn’t miss a single performance.
Graham would be proud.