Martha Graham Dance Company to perform in Atlanta after 84-year absence

Credit: Melissa Sherwood

Credit: Melissa Sherwood

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

When the Martha Graham Dance Company last performed in Atlanta, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, Europe was on the verge of World War II and “Gone with the Wind” had not yet been released. Finally, after 84 years, an Atlanta presenter decided it was time to bring the company back. The ensemble will perform at the Rialto Center for the Arts on February 5 at 3 p.m.

Martha Graham is considered the founder of American modern dance and her genius has informed generations of dancers and choreographers. The company she founded is now in its 97th season.

Credit: Pictorial Press; courtesy of Martha Graham Resources

Credit: Pictorial Press; courtesy of Martha Graham Resources

Back in 1939, at the Erlanger Theatre on Peachtree Street, Graham performed in four of her groundbreaking dances: One of them was a group work titled “American Document.” It was set to spoken excerpts from writings such as the Declaration of Independence, Walt Whitman’s poetry, sermons by Cotton Mather and the Bible. It was Graham’s response to the rise of fascism in Europe.

Jean Chalmers of The Atlanta Journal reviewed the concert. “. . . the ‘Democracy’ section of American Document left one wondering if Miss Graham’s idea of this form of government is chaotic mob rule or control by the whole people,” she wrote.

The American conversation hasn’t changed much since then, notes the ensemble’s current artistic director, Janet Eilber, a former principal with the company. “Her works travel throughout time because she was a modernist and because in almost every dance she was demonstrating her belief in the empowerment of the individual.”

“American Document” was “wildly popular” in the 1940s, Eilber says, but the original choreography was lost. It underwent a recreation recently but it won’t be coming to Atlanta. The story of its renaissance, however, is worth telling.

The only things that survived of “Document” were a few brief film clips and Graham’s handwritten notes for the stage directions. With those as the framework, Eilber went to work to reimagine the dance. She collaborated with a theater company, and for the spoken-word component used contemporary documents, including letters from soldiers in Iraq, artfully bringing the work up to date. The work is complex, however, and involves two companies, making it unsuitable for touring. It lives on mostly as a historical document and a creative project for students.

Another lost work, “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” went through a similar reimagining in 2022 and is well-suited to touring. It will close the Rialto program on Feb. 5. Like “Document,” “Canticle” was hugely popular with audiences when it premiered in 1952. Choreographer Paul Taylor saw it when he was a student at Juilliard and said it was the reason he became a choreographer. Eilber describes it as Graham’s ode to nature, an atypical theme for her.

Credit: Melissa Sherwood

Credit: Melissa Sherwood

Like the original, the new “Canticle” comprises eight vignettes — solos and duets — woven together by ensemble sections. They have titles such as “Earth,” “Water” and “Wind.” The only extant Graham choreography is for the duet “Moon.” For the rest, Eilber brought in a team of choreographers, a different one for each vignette. They are a diverse group, both culturally and in their style of dance: street dance, hip-hop, Chinese classical dance and more.

Bringing diverse creative voices into the Graham Company is no one-time affair. All the works Eilber has commissioned in the last 10 years — 50 percent of the current repertoire is new — have been created by choreographers with their own aesthetic. “I have Graham,” Eilber says emphatically. “I don’t need Grahamesque choreography.”

Credit: Dragan Perkovski

Credit: Dragan Perkovski

Instead, she looks for dance makers who resonate with Graham’s work either by rebelling against it or by drawing on her dramatic, narrative style. “It’s not like the new works spring from the head of Zeus,” she says firmly. The Graham technique and anti-ballet point of view, after all, are the source from which every other form of American modern, post-modern and contemporary dance has flowed.

Eilber’s dancers are deeply entrenched in the Graham style, with its deep torso contraction and release, and the spiraling of the torso around the spine, but are supremely versatile. “They can speak Mats Ek or Gaga and have gotten very good at wearing many hats,” Eilber says. Conversely, the new dances allow audiences to see Graham’s work from a new perspective. “It’s one plus one makes three and it’s been really successful for us.”

The Atlanta performance will also include two seminal works: the 1947 “Errand into the Maze,” considered a Graham masterpiece, and “Diversion of Angels,” her buoyant celebration of love that she created in 1948.

Graham once described “Diversion of Angels” as embodying three aspects of love: mature love, erotic love and adolescent love. It takes place in an imaginary garden, perhaps the garden of love itself.

“Errand” is a searing two-person drama based on the Greek myth of Theseus, who dares to venture into the maze of a fearsome beast, the Minotaur, and slay him. Today the duet is presented as a psychological drama in which the female protagonist does battle with fear, that debilitating creature within. “Think about the struggle of women today to triumph and hold their own,” Eilber says.

It is classic Graham. Fiercely emotional. Deeply psychological. Carving out drama with every cell and muscle of the body. Anna Kisselgoff, longtime dance critic at The New York Times, once wrote that Graham’s genius was in “distilling the deepest of feelings rather than merely depicting them.”

The costumes and original Isamu Noguchi sets for “Errand” were badly damaged when Hurricane Sandy battered New York in 2012. Until then, “Errand” had limited touring potential because the cost of transporting the sets was prohibitive for most presenters.

So Eilber took advantage of a bad situation. She created a touring version of “Errand” without the Noguchi landscape, allowing more audiences to see it. “We wanted to get down to the basics so the choreography can shine through.”

The 1939 Erlanger Theatre program gives us a glimpse into the Graham company of the past. It also offers a tidbit of Atlanta’s dance history. Listed are members of a group called Dance Crafters, probably dance enthusiasts who supported the event. At the top of the list is Dorothy Alexander, founder of Atlanta Ballet.


Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance since 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. Many years ago, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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