The Martha Graham Dance Company performed for 2,400 lucky ticket-holders in a packed Bridges Auditorium on Tuesday, Mar. 1. Renowned by TIME Magazine as “Dancer of the Century,” Martha Graham (1894-1991) was one of the most influential modern dance choreographers, developing a unique and radical language of movement that incorporated both technical skill and theatrical passion. The Martha Graham Dance Company keeps her creative vision alive, and the Claremont community was honored to experience such a performance on behalf of the Pomona College Dance Department. The company’s residency began with master classes and open rehearsals, culminating in their concert performance of Dance as a Weapon.
In addition to the performance by the Graham Company, I, along with 25 other students from the Claremont Colleges, auditioned to participate in a recreation of Martha Graham’s signature work, “Panorama,” for the concert under the instruction of David Zurak (a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company), Laurie Cameron, and John Pennington. Our first rehearsal began not with a normal warm-up, but with all 26 student dancers sitting together on the floor at Pomona’s Pendleton Dance Studio. As a diverse bunch of 5C students and alumnae with distinct dance backgrounds ranging from ballet to Broadway to burlesque, we anxiously awaited the infamous Graham choreography that loomed before us. We sat silently, expecting to hear the historical context surrounding Martha Graham’s “Panaroma,” known as a famous social protest piece that was part of her 1930s work Dance as a Weapon. But instead of reciting a lecture, David Zurak, a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, asked us about the political uprisings in Egypt. Although confused, we discussed our knowledge of the events, expressed our awe of the unity and strength of the Egyptian people, and recognized our pride in living during such an historical movement.
“Bring that to this piece,” David said. “I can give you the steps and choreography, but you must bring the intention.”
Thus began our Martha Graham crash-course: six hours of weekly rehearsals; individual journal assignments to research cultural archetypes, political struggles, newspaper photographs, and relevant poetry to channel as inspiration; and ice packs and Advil galore for our aching muscles. Needless to say, “Panorama” was a process, calling for both physical and mental endurance.
Unlike our previous dance experiences, each of us was challenged as a student dancer to explore our individuality within the choreographic structure of the (extremely demanding) Graham technique. We learned to question the motivation behind each uncomfortable shape, series of tiring jumps, and moment of stillness. The personal research and reflection of each dancer illustrated a powerful call to action, maybe not the specific one that Martha Graham had in mind in the 1930s, but one that resonates with us today.
Nearly three months of rehearsals flew by, all leading up to the evening of Mar. 1. While I was disappointed not to be able to perform with my fellow student dancers due to an injury, I was anxious to watch their hard work come together on stage. The curtain opened to a packed house of Claremont students, alumni, faculty, and community members at Bridges Auditorium. The performance began with four characteristic protest solos created by late modern choreographers such as Isadora Duncan. Exploring the themes of female activism and industrial working conditions during the early 20th century, these solos illustrated the concept of modern dance as a tool for social change.
The solos, reenacted by members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, were followed by the student performance of “Panorama.” The dancers executed Graham’s signature technique of “contraction and release,” physically embodying a powerful call to action both with the intention and unity of the movement. Audience members held their breath as the tension grew from the moments of stillness followed by fanatical, resolute jumping phrases. The dramatic piece ended with overwhelming applause from the audience. As Denise Vale, Senior Artistic Associate and former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, expressed after the performance, “It was one of the most beautiful reenactments of ‘Panorama’ that I have seen.”
Following intermission, the second act began with three choreographic interpretations by company dancers of Martha Graham’s “Lamentation,” (1930) her signature piece performed in a restrictive purple fabric. These “Lamentation Variations” were created in response to September 11th while also inspired by Graham’s original version of the piece. The three interpretations expressed the evolution of the grieving process and, though choreographically distinct, all demanded technical and emotional stamina from the dancers.
“It was unbelievable watching the performers after just having shared the stage with them,” said Dail Chapman SC ’13, one of the student performers.
The night concluded with “Diversion of Angels,” a 1948 Graham piece following three stages of love: innocence, passion, and maturity, with each stage depicted by a female solo dancer dressed in yellow, red, and white, respectively. The piece incorporated a universal theme with exquisite partnering between the female soloists and male companions, unison amongst the ensemble dancers, and a strong message of endurance through the demanding leaps and turning patterns. The curtain closed to a tremendous standing ovation from the packed auditorium.
“Seeing the company’s passion, strength, and commitment on stage was so inspiring,” said McKenzie Javorka CMC ‘14, who attended the performance. “I had chills during the entire performance.”
The Martha Graham Dance Company illustrated how “modern” dance is still an apt term, despite being used to describe a dance form that originated in the early 1900s. Graham’s signature works such as “Panorama” and “Lamentation,” both created nearly 70 years ago, are still moving and relevant to contemporary audiences. Ultimately, the “Panorama” experience fostered camaraderie among the dancers from the colleges, underscoring the idea that a body of people can influence a movement for social change.