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Flynn Center Blog

Martha Graham Dance Company: Legacy in Motion

by Erin Duffee

Martha Graham Dance Company performs on the MainStage on Friday, November 21 at 8 pm. Get tickets at www.flynntix.org.

“Virtually nothing has ever been said about the ‘artist,’  that does not apply to Martha Graham.” —Leroy Leatherman, Portrait of the Lady as an Artist

Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America, founded in 1926 by the Grande Dame of modern dance, Martha Graham. Dissatisfied by the expressive limitations of ballet as a performance medium, Graham created a revolutionary movement language all her own, based on her experimentation with the principles of contraction and release. The simplicity of this form allowed her to focus her efforts on enlivening the body with raw, electric emotion. Graham’s technique revolutionized dance as an art form, establishing new standards of creativity that are still rippling through the contemporary dance community. Her influence on American dance has been compared to that of Picasso’s on the visual arts, Stravinsky on music, and Frank Lloyd Wright on architecture. A master of composition, Graham was also revered for her innovative approach to set and costume design. She was involved at every level of creation, working collaboratively with artists and musicians to turn her modern ballets into otherworldly realms of theatrical experience.

Graham worked relentlessly in pursuit of artistic attainment, teaching and choreographing new works up until her death at the age of 96. She was at the vital center of each piece she created, performing her own lead roles till her late retirement from the stage at 76. A true dramatist to the end, it never felt appropriate to Graham for someone else to perform roles that were wrenched from the dark annexes of her own heart and mind. When physical exhaustion and related ailments forced Graham to retire from performance in her later years, she sank into a deep state of depression. It pained Graham to watch the roles she had created for herself, as well as for former friends and lovers, be appropriated by younger dancers in her company. Losing the vivacity of youth is difficult transition for most people, but for performers it can become a devastation too great to bear. To Graham, the loss of her performance identity felt like an absolute end. She began drinking heavily as an attempt to numb the agony. Her health rapidly declined, and in her own words she, “lost the will to live.” After suffering a coma under circumstances suggesting of a suicide attempt, she was hospitalized. Through this dark period Graham rediscovered her will to create, and after a short rehabilitation she returned to the studio with a vengeance. She quit drinking and took a renewed ownership of herself and her dance company. Between the age of 78 and 91, Martha choreographed ten new performance pieces and revived several of her greatest classics.

Graham’s revival as a true choreographer seemed to ease the difficulty of passing her performance roles on to a new generation. Principle dancer Janet Eilber learned most of the major roles in the company’s repertoire under the direction of Graham herself. Graham relied primarily on memory for the original transposition of her choreography, as much of her work pre-dated film recording technology. Throughout her career, Eilber has worked diligently to preserve the specifics of Graham’s choreography in film and written notation, safeguarding Graham’s legacy for generations to come. Eilber is currently the artistic director for the Martha Graham Dance Company, a position she has held since 2005. She was one of the first dancers to publicly perform the choreographer’s iconic solo “Lamentation,” a piece Graham performed herself for over 30 years. “Lamentation,” as well as several other seminal works will be presented at this Friday’s show. Whether you have loved Graham for decades or are just discovering her now, it is hard to imagine that this show will be anything else than spectacular. Join us and enjoy this opportunity for all that it is!

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Vermont Artists’ Space Grant: Marly Spieser-Schneider

by Marly Spieser-Schneider, Vermont Artists’ Space Grant

Marly Spieser-Schneider of South Burlington is the newest recipient of the Vermont Artists’ Space Grant. During the 10-week creation process, Spieser-Schneider works to develop a dance piece that investigates the versatility of the body. Apply now to be considered for the next Vermont Artists’ Space Grant.


For the sake of this blog, I will refer to the work I am creating as Einstein’s Dreams. I do not intend that to be the name of the piece/pieces that come out of this creative process but it is the name of the book that I am drawing much of my inspiration from so it fits well as a working title.

Thus far I have created three phrases of material and today I had my first one-on-one rehearsal with a dancer! It was very exciting to start to see how the material I have created manifests on another body. I will share the structure we followed in the rehearsal as I intend to follow the same structure in all future one-on-one rehearsals (I will meet with all 6/7 of my dancers individually before we begin group work).

– First I taught my dancer all 3 phrases of material I have developed thus far.

– Then, I read her the following written phrases (all found in one chapter of the aforementioned book) in list form, 5 times. Her job was to just hear whatever she heard and improvise movement and then, eventually, form a set phrase of her own material.

Absently emptying pockets

Meet for supper or beer

Stingy with money

Must be audited

Whether by boat or by rail

Searched for contraband

Liquor drunk in the pews

Matted pink gillyflowers

Paces anxiously

Cosmos is irrational

Unpredictability is the life

Events not forecasted

Island in time

World of impulse

World of sincerity

Kiss of immediacy

– From here I asked her to combine the first phrase of movement I taught her (lets call it A) with the phrase she created in two different ways: 1. As an insert. That is, she began doing phrase A, at a point of her choosing she inserted the phrase she created (in its entirety) and then she picked up where she left off in phrase A and completed it. 2. She wove the two together. In this version she took some time to intertwine the movements from phrase A together with the phrase she created. Both phrases were used in their entirety but combined, in whatever way she chose, to create one longer phrase.

– We then decided on an arbitrary order that she would do all of the phrases (A, B, C, Own Phrase, A with OP insert, A with OP woven) and mapped out a basic pathway.

– The result of this whole process was an almost 6 minute solo!

Erica, the dancer I met with today, has the task of retaining and refining what we worked on today as I go through the same process with the rest of the dancers. Once everyone has their own solo we will begin to come together as a group and attempt to place those solos within different dance structures that I will have developed with the help of the book I am so obsessed with!

I learned a lot today about how my natural movement tendencies transfer on to another body and that will continue to be a lesson in all upcoming rehearsals. Once I have worked with all of the dancers I think i will be able to have a more well-rounded idea of what material reads well, what maybe needs to be refined or cut, etc. The goal, however, is to have everyone be familiar with the same bank of movement but also have some of their own movement language involved and make some of their own choices about where and when the material happens. Based on what I observed today I have high hopes for what this process will reveal!

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Raphael Xavier: Breaking as an Art Form

by Danielle Thierry, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Raphael Xavier’s The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance in FlynnSpace on Friday & Saturday, November 14 & 15.

There are so many ways for a performance to succeed—from purely entertaining, to enlightening, to offering fresh perspectives on issues personal, political, or cultural. Raphael Xavier’s autobiographical Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance manages to hit them all.

In this mix of breaking, spoken-word commentary, and audience interaction, Xavier and his fellow performers—Jerry Valme and Cameron Beckham—entertain and enlighten at the highest level without a doubt. From the moment they begin moving slowly and fluidly across the near-dark stage, the performers pull the audience into their intensity and never let go. Their physical skill is, quite frankly, astonishing as they flip and spin and contort their bodies to tell the story of the 30-year journey of a maturing hip-hop artist.

Framed as a lesson in which Xavier plays the role of teacher and the audience that of his students, the performance also draws the audience in directly. Xavier welcomes us to class, asks for our assignments (and is appropriately annoyed when we’ve clearly “forgotten” them), and later invites a few “students” on stage to take photos with provided disposable cameras.

As he takes us through our lessons—punctuated by segments of solo and ensemble breaking—Xavier proceeds to deconstruct the elements of breaking and hip-hop culture so that we can understand what we are witnessing. He challenges us with a pop vocabulary quiz of words like “whip” (car) and “20 Supremes” (rims), before weaving those words into lyrics of the next segment of spoken-word rap. He takes us through a series of breaking moves step-by-step, so we can see that this, too, is its own vocabulary. Our job, he says, is to imagine being him existing in the moment.

What he’s doing, he tells us, is offering a study of cultural transmission—the process by which cultural elements are passed on. And why is he doing this? According to an article in the Educational Psychology Review, “a primary role of culture is to provide a consistent and stable environment or framework whose goal is to ensure or, at the very least, enhance, the survival of the group.”

During the post-show Q&A, audience members express their past experiences of being vaguely aware of, and entertained by, breakers performing on the street—and their newfound appreciation for breaking as a true art, a form of modern dance with a language, culture, and discipline all its own.  And it becomes clear that beyond entertainment, this is what Xavier is accomplishing. He is teaching us how to view his art and his culture. He is building a framework—and an audience—for the breakers who come after him.

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Martha Graham, Dancer of the Century

by Cynthia Close, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of Martha Graham Dance Company on the MainStage on Friday, November 21 at 8 pm. Get tickets at www.flynntix.org.

Martha Graham photo by Barbara Morgan

Martha Graham photo by Barbara Morgan

Appalachian Spring, one of Martha Graham’s signature masterpieces, was created the year before I was born. It was also my first experience with contemporary dance when I saw it performed in Boston sometime in the 1960’s. Aaron Copland scored the music for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, and Martha Graham danced the lead role when it premiered in October 1944. The set was designed by the Japanese American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.

The collaborative, experimental nature of this piece, firmly rooted in the individualism that is at the heart of America, are elements that help to define the entire 181 works that make-up Martha Graham’s oeuvre.

While the Martha Graham Dance Company will not be preforming Appalachian Spring at the Flynn, they will be celebrating the 85th anniversary of Lamentation Variations, Graham’s iconic solo work. Two other programs from her early repertoire, Diversion of Angels (1948) and Errand into the Maze (1947), are also part of the Flynn program.

In keeping with the company’s practice of performing new works, we will also get to experience Echo by Andonis Foniadakis. This piece has an intriguing androgynous element judging by a brief YouTube clip, with the male dancers wearing flowing, pleated skirts that rhythmically merge into the movements of the female dancers. The music for Echo is by Julien Tarride, who partners regularly with Foniadakis.

I initially became aware of contemporary dance as an art form through my first college roommate, Twanette Tharp. She was the younger sister of dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp, who at that time (the mid 1960’s) was just beginning to make her Martha Graham-inspired avant-garde dance work known. Tharp is only one of a long line of dancer/chorographers who studied with Martha Graham and who continue to contribute to the evolution of modern dance today.

This has been the season that celebrates dance at the Flynn. I was lucky enough to see the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company in October and was even more excited when I discovered that the Martha Graham Dance Company was coming to town.

But performance is only part of what constitutes the company. While Martha Graham died in 1991, her legacy continues, supported by The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. Graham began teaching modern dance in her studio in 1926. She led the studio for 66 years, but it wasn’t until 1980 that official accreditation came to the field of dance with the formation of the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD). Graham coined the term “Professional Studio School,” which defines the professional standards used by institutions that teach dance. Today The Martha Graham School is the longest continuously operating school of dance in America. Its focus is on teaching the Martha Graham Technique and Repertory, and it includes an outreach program in public schools that is age specific and designed for the individual needs in each school.

Graham2 is the school’s dance troupe made up of as many as 12 advanced student dancers who participate by audition and who are supported by scholarships. The Flynn is offering a pre-performance program at 6:30 on November 21 that includes a conversation with Janet Elber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Flynn Artistic Director Steve MacQueen. This seems like an ideal opportunity for any budding young Burlington dancers to find out what steps they need to take to become professionals and if studying the Martha Graham method is for them.

At 8 pm on November 21, I will be in the audience watching the legacy of Martha Graham, a woman who TIME magazine named “Dancer of the Century.” I wouldn’t miss it.

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Steve Paxton and Perspectives in Performance

by Erin Duffee

Review of dancer Jurij Konjar performing choreographer Steve Paxton’s Bound in FlynnSpace on Thursday, November 6.

On November 6, I bundled up against the late autumn winds and walked to the Flynn for an evening of dance with Steve Paxton. I went to the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery first, for the pre-show talk with Paxton and local dancer, Polly Motley. The room seemed to vibrate with curiosity. I had a feeling that many people in attendance, myself included, had never seen a live performance of Paxton’s work before. I was unsure what the show would look or feel like, even after researching Paxton for this blog. That research left me with a handful of his weighty titles: post-modern pioneer, inventor of contact improvisation, father of the deconstructionist movement, co-founder of Judson Dance Theater. It seemed that Paxton was most celebrated for taking dance apart and putting it back together with new age sensibility . . . but what does that look like?

During the talk, Paxton shared his perspectives on dance with careful thought. He struck me as both open minded and evasive, a rare combination but it makes sense. For someone as conceptually experimental as Paxton, hard and fast definitions must feel somewhat uncomfortable. The role of the interview is to elicit information and in the context of a performance talk, this information can be hugely significant to understanding an artist’s work. But there are many dance artists, past and present, who want to influence the witness through their creative expression alone. Pina Bausch once said, “I can’t explain anything. You have to hear it or you have to see it. But I do all this not to speak, you know.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1996) For Bausch, the art itself was the purest form of expression. Further explanation would only dilute the witness’s experience, and thus it’s meaning. Telling an audience why or how you created a performance piece can create a perceptional filter that, for better or worse, affects the audience’s ability to engage with the art at the individual level.

The balance between how much value a work of art gains or loses through indirect exposure is an interesting dilemma. Paxton mentioned in his talk that there are many images from Bound that he does not allow to be photographed, the reason being that he wants to, “save some things for the audience.” During his years as a solo performer, Paxton became well known for eliminating any outside influences that might keep his art from being appreciated as is. Exposure creates a cloud of information that sits between live art and its witnesses. For better or for worse, that is something that Steve Paxton is wary of.

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Bill T. Jones on John Cage

by John R. Killacky

STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea
by Bill T. Jones
Princeton University Press
107 pages, $24.95

Three decades ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers and visual artists. A new queer aesthetic emerged that was anything but minimalistic.

When I worked at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1988-96), I presented Jones’ company on multiple occasions. During this period, the AIDS pandemic ravaged his world, killing lover Arnie Zane (1988) and collaborator Keith Haring (1990), as well as scores of friends, colleagues and dancers.  Consequently Jones’ work became politicized. Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) had him searching for hope as a gay black man in America. Its final resolving tableau included 52 nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages and genders.

The conceit of this work proved electrifying, as it included his core company augmented with local dancers on tour. Everybody had to own the nudity, claim the identity politics of survival and transcendence. The work was rapturously received by those who saw it, and picketed by those who feared it.

Philip Bither, then Artistic Director of the Flynn Center in Burlington, also presented this work. He remembers hosting “a two-week residency and incendiary sold-out performance of Last Supper with 50 community members drawn from all walks of Vermont life. There was an attempt to shut down the performance . . . but the Flynn board and (Executive Director) Andrea Rogers stood firm in support of Bill.”

Jones continued mining his grief and rage in Still/Here (1994). He developed this piece in workshops with people facing terminal illnesses. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it, but wrote about it in the New Yorker, dismissing it as “victim art.”  No one was neutral.

Jones continues to create iconoclastic dances across a vast array of aesthetic explorations. His collaborators are eclectic: Cassandra Wilson, Orion String Quartet, Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, Fred Hersch, Jenny Holzer, Vernon Reid, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Toni Morrison and Jessye Norman. The company has performed in over 200 cities in 40 countries.

Commissions and honorary degrees, MacArthur genius award and the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama have not tempered this firebrand provocateur. Outside his own company, Jones has created dances for Alvin Ailey, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet and Berlin Opera Ballet. He directed at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and won two Tony Awards for his choreography in Spring Awakening and FELA! Operatic collaborations include Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Munich Biennale, Boston Lyric Opera and New York City Opera.

As a writer, Jones published his memoir, Last Night on Earth, in 1995 and a children’s book, Dance, in 1998. He also contributed to Continuous Replay: The Photography of Arnie Zane in 1999. This fall, Princeton University Press released his STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea.

As Jones writes in the acknowledgements: “Story/Time is a meditation on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, a 1958 work in which Cage read ninety stories, each one minute long . . . Engaging with this seminal work allowed me to examine and interrogate a system of thought and practice grounded in ideas held by many – myself included – striving to understand how Eastern thought, liberation philosophy, and art could be used to redefine reality for both the maker and his or her audience.”

I talked with Jones about his new book and projects under development.

Killacky: Story/Time is such a beautiful homage to John Cage. You are this hot, politically engaged, out gay artist. I think of Cage as this cool, philosophical, quiet, disengaged from the world, theoretical genius. Can you talk about his influence on you and in particular this project?

Jones: He literally represented for me everything cool and removed and sophisticated at a time when I was trying to wend my way into the art world. There was a woman that had known Jasper (Johns) and John Cage. She tried to get them interested in what Arnie and I were doing. They were like “No way!”  We were too ‘obvious.’  We were too ‘in your face.’  I always felt a little hurt by that. We did meet John later through a mutual friend. I had dinner with John and Merce (Cunningham) and went to a show with him and got to know him as a man. I couldn’t be in that club, but I realized there was a lot to love in him. This book is trying to come to grips with my need to be in the modernist cool club and acceptance that I will not be in that club. You have to build your ideas on your fore-bearers and it is sort of Freudian because you are fighting with your father. What happens when I put on that suit of clothing is who I am.

Jones’ staging of Story/Time began a few years back when he decided to return to performing. Building off of Cage’s storytelling, he created a work in which he reads 70 one-minute stories (drawn from over 170) while his dancers perform around him. Movement sequences are excerpted from existing repertory, rearranged on the day of performance to create a unique work for that evening.  Composer, lighting and scenic designers improvise alongside. Jones was then invited to participate in the Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton.

Killacky: How did this beautiful book come into being?

Jones: The deal with the Morrison Lecture people was we would do three lectures that would result in a book. I had been struggling with this work, trying to mesh these thoughts and ideas of John Cage with my own theatricality and the way my company moves. The process had been so strange, and challenging and scary. I thought the lectures would be a great opportunity to talk theoretically about it in the first and third lectures, and show a version of it in one of those wood paneled rooms in an august university. It felt very claustrophobic, very much of a throwback to a world that I’ve only seen in movies. I never went to an Ivy League school. We set this thing up as if it were site specific and emulate something that he (Cage) would have been able to put forward in 1958: sitting alone at a table in a room, and reading one story after another. The difference was we had a very sophisticated sound design, a rudimentary lighting design and Bjorn Amelan drawing on the chalkboards before an academic audience. It was wonderful.

Included in the publication of Story/Time are gorgeous photographs of the work in performance, as well as 60 of Jones’ masterful stories, weaving in childhood reminiscences and tales from touring around the world. Observing the mundane, Jones reaches for the profound. Vignettes with Virgil Thompson, Abbey Lincoln, Louise Nevelson Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor are peppered throughout, as is John Cage – whose theories disrupt, provoke and inspire him.

Killacky: Your company is still performing Story/Time?

Jones: The work is part of our touring repertory. For the New York shows (November 4-15) we decided do the classic version, and then to get rid of some of the ‘crafting’ and strip the place down a couple of times and we have guest artists: Kathleen Chalfont (Angels in America & Wit), Lois Welk (founder of American Dance Asylum) and Theaster Gates (conceptual artist). They wrote some of their own stories, will read mine as well, and talk about a personal history.

Killacky: You juggle multiple projects at any given time. Can you talk about some in development?

Jones: The new one for the company is a three-part work influenced by W. C. Sebald’s The Emigrants, the story of a Jewish boy who was a ‘valet’ to a rich German boy, an oral history of my husband Bjorn’s 94-year old Jewish mother who survived the war by working in an internment camp in eastern France, and my wild nephew Lance who had drug problems and was a hustler on Polk Street (San Francisco).

In terms of the commercial art world, I would love to be able to talk with you about it. There are a couple projects on the table . . . but you know how the producers are – we will see what ones go the distance.  One is a major motion picture from some years back that was very successful; now that filmmaker is making it into a musical I am choreographing.

Killacky: With all you’ve done and all you’ve achieved, what still drives you to make this ambitious work?

Jones: For the theater work, there is: ‘Can I do it?’ ‘Can I make an entertaining thing that has some integrity?’  So that’s maybe my pride. There is also hopefully my retirement; because in the dance world, you will not retire with what the dance world has to offer you . . . The company is the child that Arnie (Zane) and I had. Every time I make a new work, I get this excitement in my chest.  I keep thinking, ‘Ah, this is the way I understand the world.’  This is my religion . . . something keeps pulling me forward that has to do with artmaking as a spiritual activity.

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Martha Graham Dance More than a Legacy

by Jim Lowe, Times Argus

Martha Graham Dance Company performs on the MainStage on Friday, November 21 at 8 pm. Get tickets at www.flynntix.org.

Martha Graham was to 20th century American modern dance what Picasso was to art, Stravinsky was to music and Frank Lloyd Wright was to architecture.

“It was a revolution in all of the arts — and Martha was the right genius in the right place at the right time,” explained Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

“She studied how we move, how we hold our bodies, how we reveal ourselves with body language, naturalistic gesture,” Eilber said. “And the essence of her revolution was she theatricalized body language. She stripped away any façade, anything decorative, anything escapist, and got down to the essence of how we reveal ourselves — and turned that into a style of dancing.”

The Martha Graham Dance Company brings the dancer-choreographer’s legacy to Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21. (Eilber will be featured in a pre-performance discussion at 6:30 p.m. in the Flynn’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery.)

The Flynn program includes two Graham originals, “Diversion of Angels” (1948) and “Errand into the Maze” (1947). In addition, “Lamentation Variations” is three choreographers’ takes on Graham’s 1930 “Lamentation,” and “Echo” is choreographer Andonis Foniadakis’ 2014 paean to Graham.

Graham (1894-1991) danced and choreographed for more than 70 years, in which span she collaborated with composers Aaron Copland (“Applachian Spring”), Louis Horst, William Schuman, Norman Dello Joio and Gian Carlo Menotti, among others.

In the 1994 documentary film “The Dancer Revealed,” Graham said, “I spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It’s permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.”

“When I speak about Martha, I say that she innovated in dozens of ways, but there are three main areas,” Eilber said. “She changed the shape of gesture, she changed the shape of space on stage, and she changed the shape of time on stage.”

Eilber worked closely with Graham, dancing many of the dancer-choreographer’s principal roles, and had roles created for her by Graham. Eilber has been artistic director of the company since 2005.

“Gesture, of course, was her remarkable vocabulary, the Martha Graham technique,” Eilber said. “This is really a huge contribution. It has been so absorbed into dance and theater worldwide. People using her technique today don’t realize they owe her a debt of gratitude. I can’t look at anything without seeing Graham.”

Graham aimed to reduce movement to emotional essence.

“She found a way of moving that was so recognizable — it was shocking to her initial audiences because it was so recognizable — this undulation of the torso, this use of the pelvis. It was so radical,” Eilber said.

Graham’s revolution is showcased in the “Lamentation Variations,” which were conceived by Eilber as a tribute to Graham as well as the 2007 anniversary of the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center.

“First we show a film of Martha dancing her iconic solo ‘Lamentation,’ which is from 1930,” Eilber said. “This is a dance in which the dancer is seated the whole time. You can’t see her arms and legs because she’s shrouded in fabric. It’s like looking inside your heart for four minutes — a sculptural evocation of grief.

“It’s still radical — what dancer sits down for four minutes?” Eilber said.

Graham’s use of space evolved with her company, at first, all women, in works like “Celebration” of 1934.

“The way she manipulated the groups of dancers on stage, the geometry, the architecture of groups moving through space, were the emotional message,” Eilber said. “The force of the women on stage, because of the lines are moving towards you, and moving into a circle, and dissembling onto a whole other force — that was her initial take on space.”

Then Graham took space to the next level — establishing a sense of location. Her 1935 solo “Frontier” was her first collaboration with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

“The collaboration with Noguchi over the next 40 years completely changed space on stage because he created sculptures for her that the dancers could climb on, could come through,” Eilber said. “He created paths and different levels, and abstract sets that have multiple meanings. Previously dancers performed in front of a painted backdrop.”

Graham also changed the use of time, initially taking inspiration from myths and legends.

“Because the audience had foreknowledge of who was on the stage, whether it was Jocasta in ‘Oedipus’ or Medea, or the Americana characters in ‘Appalachian Spring,’ she could mess with the chronology,” Eilber said. “She rarely told a chronological story. She was the first to put stream-of-consciousness on stage, to put two dancers on stage playing the same character. She used flashback and memory on stage — and this was all in the ’40s.”

“Appalachian Spring” freezes time when the cast goes into a tableau while one dancer comes forward, and you see their inner monologue. “Night Journey” (1947) opens at the end of the “Oedipus” play when Jocasta is about to hang herself — the whole ballet takes place as her life flashes before her eyes.

Another difference was Graham worked only with commissioned scores for four decades. The music she commissioned framed and supported the dance — unlike choreographers like Balanchine who aimed at musical visualization.

“Martha sent Copland long scripts about what she wanted — and he wrote ‘Appalachian Spring’ to her scripts,” Eilber said. “She asked for the bride’s solo, which was her solo; she asked for music ‘for an electric eagerness, an eagerness for destiny that is beyond conscious partner of youth.’”

This article appeared in the Times Argus on November 13.

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Taking My Seat: A Meditation on the Connection Between Dance and Poetry

by Lizzy Fox, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of Martha Graham Dance Company on the MainStage on Friday, November 21 at 8 pm. Get tickets at www.flynntix.org.

The dancer, like the poet, is concerned with rhythm and melody, with shape and movement, with tension and revelation. Both forms are rooted in and rely upon music, but they are not music itself. Neither dancer nor poet is as popular today as the pop singer, yet for the attuned watcher and reader, both art forms deepen one’s felt experience of sound. Further, each strikes me as a “language of the heart,” seeking to be felt before being understood.

Martha Graham Dance Company “is the oldest and most celebrated in its field” according to the Flynn’s description of the company they’re hosting on November 21. A quick glance at Martha Graham’s website reveals some of the company’s interests: history, political and social movements, exploration of the inner life, and an incorporation of other disciplines, including (you guessed it) poetry.

When I was living in New York City, I collaborated with dancer/choreographer Maria Bauman (of MB Dance and formerly of the Urban Bush Women) on a piece for The Gratitude Project at the WOW Café Theater. My role was simple: select three to five poems and read them aloud. Bauman’s role was far more impressive, improvising movement to work she’d heard only once before performance night. (She asked me to join the show on a whim a week before opening).

Years later, I watched Bauman, in a performance with the Urban Bush Women, recite a monologue while dancing—a technique also employed by Martha Graham Dance Company in their piece “American Document,” in which a dancer recites Walt Whitman’s “Salut Au Monde!” Anyone who’s ever tried to chat with a friend while going for a vigorous run can guess how difficult this is. In order to do it, the dancer must have a profound understanding of breath. By using the breath skillfully, one can create rhythms and melody with no music at all, just as verse does on the page.

Perhaps it is this breath that allows me (an avid reader/writer of poetry and watcher/dancer of dance) to connect so deeply with these art forms. In meditation, breath is used to still the mind and open the heart. So too, a dancer (or a poet) uses breath to still the mind of her audience and to open its heart. This is a generous gift to offer an audience of over a thousand people. I look forward to taking my seat.

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Fishman Brings Dylan Out of the Basement

by Brett Sigurdson, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Howard Fishman’s The Basement Tapes Project in FlynnSpace on Friday, November 7 at 8 pm.

In a dark basement, a group of talented musicians met to jam and expand on songs written by Bob Dylan. This much was true in 1967, when Bob Dylan and The Band set down some soulful, strange folk music in West Saugerties, N.Y., and it was true on Friday night in the basement space of the Flynn Center, where Howard Fishman and his crack band offered their own take on these eclectic, mysterious songs known collectively as The Basement Tapes.

It was a cool night, but Fishman and his band kept things hot as they offered a Cliff’s Notes synopsis of the mythical jam sessions, bootlegged for years until their official release last week.

“This is music for your body, not your mind,” Fishman told the crowd at the outset. “Turn off your minds.” He immediately testified with a reggae-tinged take on “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” Between spoken-word lyrics about, well, I’m not sure what, the band—lead guitarist Scott Barkan, violinist Skye Steele, sousaphone player Kenny Bentley, and drummer Mark McLean—kicked into richly textured jams, each musician getting a chance to show their chops as Fishman called them out, yelling “yeah” as each finished.

On the next song, “Open the Door, Homer,” and later “Apple Suckling Tree,” the band brought a Bourbon Street flavor to the proceedings, like Dr. John and the Meters stopped by Big Pink to back Dylan and The Band. This should come as no surprise, as Fishman crafted his musical persona in New Orleans. He offered his adopted city a direct tribute later in the set with “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood),” which he recast from Dylan’s barroom singalong to a song of loss in post-Katrina Louisiana, transforming the lyric “Oh, mama, you’re gonna have to find another best friend somehow” from a sly taunt to a sad lament.

My favorite song was “I’m Alright,” which saw Fishman capture the foot-stomping pop singalong at the heart of the scratchy Basement Tape recording.  With its propulsive beat, jaunty rhythm, and instantly memorable chorus, Cheap Trick should have made a hit out of this years ago.

Fishman is a curious bandleader. He doesn’t lack for magnetism, but his frontman MO is predicated on acting as a musical conductor rather than band centerpiece. When he’s not singing, he returns to a wooden chair at the center of the stage to strum or solo or direct the band. He often seemed to lose himself in the music as his bandmates tested Dylan’s musical scaffolding with freeform jams, freely channeling the looseness of the Basement Tapes sessions. During one extended jam, for instance, McLean ventured a series of rapid-fire fills that caught Fishman off guard and briefly overwhelmed Barkan’s guitar solo. Fishman looked at the drummer and smiled as if to say It didnt quite work, but so what?

Often when Fishman returned to his chair he sat atop a dog-eared copy of Greil Marcus’s book about the Basement Tapes, The Old Weird America, from which he would read during breaks in the music. (This contradicted his earlier statement about not overthinking the night’s music; Marcus has made his career on overthinking Bob Dylan.) When Fishman was singing, the tattered book sat open on his wooden chair, it’s spine broken such that it stayed open no matter what page Fishman left it at. From its place there, the band seemed to act as a conduit for Marcus’s ideas about Dylan’s many identities, playing songs that changed in genre like chapters in the book. The set list featured rock and roll (“Gonna Get You Now”), pop (“I’m a Fool For You”), goofs (“Don’t Kick My Dog”), and folk (“Tears of Rage”).

The most memorable song of the night was Fishman’s take on the traditional folk song “Pretty Polly,” which transcended the concert experience and entered the realm of performance art. He preceded the song by reading a quote from Dock Boggs, a rascally banjo player with a haunting voice who claimed to know well the impulse for murder—he made plans to kill his wife’s family but never did. This lent an ominous undertone to this murder ballad, which details how the narrator lures a young woman to the forest, kills her, and buries her in a shallow grave.

Fishman brought the same menace to the song through a whispered vocal, the band filling in the gaps of his breath with dissonant punches of sound, building the tension that continued in extended instrumental breaks that acted as narrative sound collages. The audience sat transfixed as each musician played these solo free-form segments, expanding and contracting on the sound and the story before suddenly falling silent for the next verse. “Pretty Polly” was high drama. At one point, when the narrator reveals to Polly their long walk in the woods will lead to her grave, a few audience members audibly gasped.

With so much bluster surrounding Dylan and his songs, Fishman’s take on “Pretty Polly” captured the sheer power at the heart of the music, and really all folk songs. Fishman’s performance shook off any level of artifice. It was as if he held the dirt of a dust bowl ballad in his hand or sang a sea shanty soaked in brine.

It was clear by the night’s setlist Fishman is drawn to the truth of the music, its unvarnished reality. In the brochure for the show Fishman writes that he doesn’t much listen to Dylan’s music prior to 1967 because he feels albums like Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited are full of posturing. The Basement Tapes, however, are authentic Dylan.

Fishman writes, “To me, the sessions with The Band now known as The Basement Tapes are the first time Bob Dylan reveals his true self: not as a visionary prophet, not as a generational spokesman, not as a hallucinatory poet, but just a guy who loves to make music with friends; a guy who cracks himself up (and so cracks us all up), a guy who knows that his own true self is deeper, more mysterious, and more compelling than any role he could ever choose to play.”

Indeed, “real” is the operative adjective for Fishman’s performance that night. The music was real. It was also real fun.

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The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance

by Danielle Thierry, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of Raphael Xavier’s  dance performance The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance in FlynnSpace on Friday & Saturday, November 14 & 15 at 8 pm. Get tickets at www.flynntix.org.

Raphael Xavier began Breaking as a 13-year-old in 1983 Wilmington, Delaware, teaching himself by imitating his idols in the emerging hip-hop scene. In 1995, he choreographed his first piece for the Brandywine School of Ballet.

In the nearly two decades since, Xavier has grown up right alongside hip-hop—and become an integral part of the art form along the way. He’s toured internationally with the renowned Rennie Harris Puremovement (hip-hop’s first and longest running dance touring company), founded the nonprofit Olive Dance Theatre, and choreographed numerous worldwide performances. He’s found success as a hip-hop magazine photographer, musical artist, and filmmaker. And, he has made a tremendous mark on the hip-hop scene in his adopted home of Philadelphia—where he’s been credited with the reinvigoration of the Breaking community, established Breaking as a traditional folk art, and been awarded the prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He’s also overcome some serious setbacks over his long career, including a severe spinal injury that left him temporarily paralyzed—and spurred him to develop a new research-based Somatic dance technique (called Ground-Core) that has been taught at universities, including UCLA.

On November 14 and 15, Xavier will take viewers at the Flynn through his journey from a young, self-taught Breaker among scores of other kids with dreams of making it big to a boundary-defying artist and well-known hip-hop philosopher and historian. In The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance, a full-length autobiographical dance performance, Xavier merges Hip-Hop street dance choreography with twenty years of his rap, poetry, and spoken-word lyrics—delivered as a conversation with the audience—to explore the evolution of a maturing artist’s life and work.

Get your tickets now to experience a performance the Philadelphia Inquirer says “explores the broader themes of artistic dedication as a total, almost ethical commitment across an entire life, captivating his audience with the impassioned lyrical delivery of a hip-hop artist.”

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