JANET EILBER, Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, knows what she’s talking about. After her career as a dancer with the Company she became an acclaimed actress but returned in 2005 as its Director.
As the most important founder of contemporary dance Martha Graham has been invaluable for the development of the international art of dance. Apart from a stunning oeuvre of over 180 creations the American also left a unique technique that is still taught all over the world. In 1988, at the age of 94, she received a standing ovation after a performance of her Martha Graham Dance Company in the Muziektheater Amsterdam. Now the company — that is artistically thriving under the guidance of Janet Eilber — is finally returning to the Netherlands.
Dance legend. Icon. Dancer of the century. Mother of the modern dance. Picasso of the dance. The number of classifications that were used to measure the importance of Martha Graham (1894-1991) through the years is seemingly endless. And each and every one is well deserved, says Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company since 2005. But Eilber herself, when speaking about her mentor, primarily thinks about two other qualifications.
“Martha was a visionary. A game changer, no the game changer. She was always focused on the future, on change. To her creating was, as they put it so beautifully in Iceland, ‘doom eager’. It was her passion, her necessity, her fate. And with each new creation she jumped into the deep, up until the day she died.”
“In addition she was a revolutionary. Especially in the first years of her career people didn’t believe what they were seeing! Dance in America in those days was primarily aimed at entertainment. And suddenly there was this woman who moved from an enormous inner passion, from her ‘core’ and created intimate productions that were radically different in sets, costumes and lighting design than anything that had been done before. In Martha’s choreographies it was not about fantasy worlds filled with princesses, gods and swans, but about the human condition and deep human feelings. This is also the reason why her work is timeless: she did not choose to be decorative, no frills, but universal subjects and pure emotion.”
“What Gershwin and jazz did for the American musicworld and Hemingway did for literature, Martha did for dance. Her influence has spread globally. You can find elements from her technique and legacy in prominent choreographers like Paul Taylor, William Forsythe, Nacho Duato, Hans van Manen, Rudi van Dantzig, but also in the youngest generation. But Martha also had an impact outside of dance. For instance she coached famous actors like Gregory Peck and Bette Davis on how to speak from the depths of their souls. And also popstar Madonna often says how much her Graham Lessons have transformed her.”
“Martha always taught you to bring your own personality to a part, to always search for simple ways of showing who you are.” Yet it certainly wasn’t love at first sight between Eilber and the Graham style. Laughing she says, “As a dance student at The Juilliard School I hated Graham technique classes. I predominantly loved ballet and the Limón-dance technique and I didn’t understand why we had to spend so much time sitting on the floor in the Graham classes. Until I was cast in Martha’s Diversion of Angels. Suddenly I was captivated by the enormous power she communicates through dance and I understood the physical necessity of training, often while sitting down, your ‘core’”.
Eilber became a pupil at the Martha Graham Dance Company through a project in which dance students helped to document Graham’s choreographies on video. The years that followed — in which Eilber danced many of Graham’s original roles and the legend also created various new pieces for her — Eilber describes as a life changing experience. “That was the effect she had on people, even if they were only sitting next to her at a dinner party. She had the ability to fathom people, simply by looking, by listening, by seeing how a person walked. She could flirt with you, fight, be your mother, challenge you, bring you back to life. I danced in her company for almost ten years and she ‘read’ my body, she taught me to take off all my masks, to never pretend to be something I’m not and to speak clearly and honestly from my personal, physical power.”
Next to her work as an actress Eilber continued to rehearse Graham’s choreographies with, for instance, the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris and our own Dutch National Ballet. “I closely worked with her until the end.” After the death of the ‘mother of modern dance’ the Martha Graham Dance Company was in crisis. “Nothing was handled, nothing was written down about how the future should unfold. When Martha was alive there was never a problem funding productions: everybody said ‘yes’ when she wanted to create a new piece. After she passed the company soon ended in debt.”
When Eilber took over the artistic helm in 2005 — fourteen years after Graham died — from Graham’s heir Ron Protas, the company had a debt of $5m. “The first thing I did was thoroughly research our (potential) audience. It became clear that current generations need more information, more context, they want a fuller experience in less time. I mainly looked at how that was dealt with in the field of museums and opera. Presently we never do a performance without an introduction, we experiment online — we were the first American dance company to live stream a rehearsal — and we constantly collaborate with unusual partners. But the most important thing is: we commission new pieces and combine these in our performances with Martha’s master pieces.
And the beauty is that it turns out that the Graham choreographies provide context for the new pieces and vice versa, moreover the new creations help people to see the Graham works with an open fresh gaze. In looking for new choreographers I always look for authentic, unique and diverse ‘voices’.” Jokingly: “I have enough Graham masterpieces, so we don’t need Graham-light artists.”
During the performances in the Holland Dance Festival — interlaced with a ‘ninety years Martha Graham Dance Company in ninety seconds’ film portrait — the company will also perform a combination of existing and some new choreographies. Those will be clearly related to Graham’s work. “So we will bring three of the fourteen variations that we now have in repertory of Martha’s famous solo Lamentation, but we will also show a recording of the original choreography, danced by Graham herself, sometime in the early forties of the last century.” The idea for these variations was hatched in 2007 when the company performed on 9/11. “Six years after the attacks we wanted to do something special and then the project kept growing. We now have variations, among others, by a tap dancer, a television choreographer and a postmodern version.”
Another remarkable production — “a new old solo” — is the reconstruction of Graham’s choreography Ekstasis from 1933. “This solo seemed lost, there was no footage of it, only pictures. But based on fragments of the text Virginie Mecene (director of the Martha Graham School – Astrid van Leeuwen) managed to reconstruct the solo and this piece has turned out to be crucial within Martha’s oeuvre: during the creative process she discovered the relation between the hip, the shoulder and the pelvis and that changed her view of technique considerably.”
The program also includes one of Grahams oldest group work, Chronicle (1936) and her final work Maple Leaf Rag (1990). “Chronicle is an absolute highlight within Martha’s oeuvre. She created it in the year that she refused to accept Hitler’s invitation to represent America during the art festival in honour of the Olympic Games being held in Berlin. It is her gripping answer to rising fascism and she gives a powerful and overwhelming voice, originating from the body, to women — only sixteen years after they were given the right to vote in America.”
“Whilst creating Maple Leaf Rag the then 96 year old Martha suffered from ‘choreographer’s block’. She asked the pianist to play something for her and he played a number of ragtime compositions by Scott Joplin. These inspired her to make a very jolly satire on her own career, with fragments from some of her earlier work. A wonderful way to say goodbye, after such a long life, wouldn’t you agree?”
In modern dance schools worldwide the Graham technique is still being taught. But Eilber wants to introduce even more people to this ‘fundamental technique for every dancer’. “No matter what style it is you perform, there is no technique that gives you as much stamina and mental power in such a perfect balance.”
Through the initiative Graham for Europe Eilber works on expanding the European network of Graham teachers, but also she hopes to organize introductions, classes and master-classes during the performances in The Hague. Eilber believes that Grahams legacy will also blow away today’s youngsters. “Her choreographies are masterpieces of the twentieth century, comparable to Picasso’s paintings. But at the same time our tableau of dancers consists of twenty-first century athletes who really don’t perform Grahams work like it was performed in 1955. Martha would have loved that, that dancers are so versatile and so technically gifted. As long as the essence of her work is not compromised. As long as enormous jumps and high legs don’t just end up being physical tricks. I still feel Martha pushing me ahead, hand on my back, towards the future, towards change. She is always present, inside me. I don’t need to look at her picture and say: ‘Hey Martha, what do you think about this?”
Janet Eilber was talking Astrid van Leeuwen. The piece first appeared in and is © the Holland Dance Festival 2018 magazine. We are grateful for the opportunity to reproduce it here.