BWW Review: Martha Graham's IMMEDIATE TRAGEDY in Honor of Juneteenth
Inspired by archival remnants of Martha Graham's "Immediate Tragedy," a solo she created in 1937 in response to the Spanish Civil War, and in collaboration with composer Henry Cowell, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Los Angeles-based Wild Up music collective, and The Soraya have constructed an innovative Digital Dance creation, "Immediate Tragedy."
Graham created the solo "Immediate Tragedy" in collaboration with composer Henry Cowell, but it was never filmed and had been considered lost for decades. Drawing on the common experience of today's immediate tragedy - the global pandemic -- as well as the global civil rights protests -- the 22 artists creating the project have collaborated from locations across the U.S. and Europe using a variety of technologies to coordinate movement, music, and digital design.
In its new iteration, "Immediate Tragedy" features 14 dancers and 6 musicians each recorded from the safety of their homes. Martha Graham Dance Company's Artistic Director Janet Eilber, in consultation with Rountree and The Soraya's Executive Director, Thor Steingraber, suggested the long-distance creative process inspired by a cache of recently rediscovered materials-over 30 photos, musical notations, letters and reviews all relating to the 1937 solo. Each dancer received four photos from which to develop specific movement phrases. Rountree and the musicians have taken inspiration from shards of Cowell's music notations found in the Graham archives. All the artists received the background materials and collectively based their artistic contributions on Graham's reflection in a letter to Henry Cowell "... whether the desperation lies in Spain or in a memory in our own hearts it is the same ... I had been in a valley of despair, too. I felt in that dance I was dedicating myself anew to space, that in spite of violation I was upright and that I was going to stay upright at all costs ..."
The creation of something so deep within your soul takes a lot of fortitude and conviction. Such was Martha Graham, in thought and in deed. To take the feelings and choreography from a different era, and apply them to pertinent current situations, was Janet Eilber's extension of evolvement, within the long-standing and eternal light of Martha's work.
The deep contractions, plies' and pitches, the austerity of the movements, the technical perfection and brilliant artistry are the marks of Martha Graham's work.
It is particularly seen in this world premiere; during a world-wide pandemic, no less. There are 14 dancers and 6 musicians participating in this experimental, really, performance, that are each at home, alone and in their each own individual frame on screen.
The frames, during the entire presentation, do almost their own rhythmic geometric choreography, sometimes shown all together at one time, sometimes scrolling or moving around as the choreography progresses, popping in and out of view, but with the intricacy of the individually created movements, it is a unique experience unlike any other. Not only do you see clearly the Graham work at it's purest, but the different dimensions totally elevate this piece to an almost new art form. You will want to watch it more than once...
Each one of the highly-trained and creatively relevant company members put their own emotions into this experience as a solo performer, and each have their own unique background from which to draw upon. This is pure dancing from the soul. They did not confer with the others, they were not dancing with anyone else, it was all what they felt in the moment, guided by Martha's style and Janet's oversight.
Martha Graham's Choreographic contributions number approximately 181 pieces. There were many lost, mainly because of her prolific outturn of work during the late '30s. After that, the structure of her company changed, adding male dancers, and giving a new dimension and point of view to the work.
We are so fortunate that Ms. Graham's work lives on, and we have many to thank, but Janet Eilber is in the foreground of this pioneering and important endeavor, this mission to retain the greatness of our past. Martha Graham was given the title "Dancer of The Century," by TIME Magazine for a reason. She has always represented a woman of strength, belief in herself and her values, true and honest to the work. Much like women we need today, that can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, but embrace it with care and enlightenment.
The presentation starts off with an interview between The Soraya's Executive Director, Thor Steingraber; Janet Eilber, Artistic Director, MGDC, and Christopher Rountree, discussing the "preproduction" that went into this project. Listen in, and you will find that Art, Dance, Music, Inspiration, they absolutely cannot be silenced. It will always be relevant to what is happening in the world, a way of expressing and transforming things.
Apres' the informative interview, we are given an opportunity to see a recent solo performance (Filmed at Teatro Real, Madrid in 2017) by company member Anne Souder, of "Deep Song," a solo which Graham created as a companion piece to "Immediate Tragedy" in 1937, originally premiering December 19, 1937, at the Guild Theatre, NYC. An arresting piece that immediately takes you in.
The costuming, and scenery, in keeping with the overall concept, is black and white, and again, very geometrical and structured in design. The starkness of the scene, the attention to form, and the exquisite movements are amazingly powerful, combined together. Reaching and using every sinew of the body to express the goal of the piece, Souter completely conveys a lamenting deep song from within. As with all of Graham's work, it is mesmerizing. The physical movements are so intense and full of passion, there is no mistaking the intention. David Finley's lighting design, using a royal blue scrim, greatly enhances the theme, giving depth and accents more presence.
Right into the Interlude, "Intermediate Percussion," which was partially constructed from research notes of the composers', performed, again, each in solitude, by the Musicians of Wild Up: Jiji, Richard Valitutto, Jodie Landau, Brian Walsh, Derek Stein, composed and conducted by Christopher Rountree. It had a special significance for me, as I saw each musician contributing from their individual aloneness, yet contributing to a larger consciousness through an unseen collective energy. When you are alone somewhere and feeling a rhythm, it amazes me that that can be translated through film to a cohesive version; everyone in sync, yet each somewhere alone. The piece begins in Jodie Landau's living room, shot in black and white, using some make-shift equipment and instruments made from household items, complete with his relaxed dog, enjoying all this on the floor, as he begins drumming a percussive rhythm. During the piece, the rhythms keep evolving, with different tempos and intensity, adding in clarinet, keyboard, guitar and cello. A perfect transition into the title piece, which was the original concept.
"Immediate Tragedy" premiered June 19, 2020
At first we see still photos from the original performance, in different frames scattered on the screen. Beginning with one small frame in the upper left-hand corner, a dancer begins to move. It is one of the dancers from the current company. There are 13 other squares, frozen, whose frames at first, are filled with archival photos from the original performance in 1937. Those stills are of course in black and white. The 14 dancers in their homes are filmed in color, although all of their rehearsal clothes or costumes are some version of black and/or white. Different frames pop up, intermittently, replacing the vintage photos as the choreography ensues, and we begin to see the pattern mentioned previously, where the last of the dance poses of the first dancer, becomes the first pose for the next dancer, and so on...
We begin to see rounds of a phrase or combination danced among groups of three frames, a male and female version side-by-side, then most of the frames filled at one point, where the rounds continue over the entire screen. This creates a fluidity to the choreography, punctuated by lunges, pitches, arches and beautiful, strong extensions to the accents that are embellished with tense, purposeful Spanish port de bras. The vivid contractions and releases are felt through the entire torso of each dancers' body, and the solemn music is filled with percussive accents that help shape the movements of the dance, giving more emphasis to the flexed hands and feet, the fists in defiance and endurance creating awkward yet beautiful lines. The music for this piece was newly composed by Christopher Rountree, for this event, and really melded completely with the movement.
Near the end of the piece, the scrolling from left to right of the frames, changes to scrolling downward, faster and faster, as the chords and music intensify and build, with lots of intricate modern floor work being demonstrated. That is broken by one female dancer in her frame rising slowly from a plie', circling her arms outward and up, beginning to slowly sway left and right, the others joining in, until the music stops. The last frame left morphs into the black-and-white still photo from 1937.
The inner dialogue that drove Martha Graham to create this dance originally was the statement, "... whether the desperation lies in Spain or in a memory in our own hearts it is the same... I had been in a valley of despair, too. I felt in that dance I was dedicating myself anew to space, that in spite of violation I was upright and that I was going to stay upright at all costs ..." The coordination of all connected with this endeavor was a massive feat in itself, and the outcome is revolutionary, indeed. The road blocks they encountered were massive, but they were tackled one by one and in turn, developed into a new and important piece of Art, relevant to the times it was originally created, and even more relevant, now. As you watch, the enormity of the message will become apparent, and hopefully move you, as it did me.
Choreography by Janet Eilber and dancers of Martha Graham Dance Company
Music composed and conducted by Christopher Rountree
Digital Design and Editing by Ricki Quinn
Martha Graham Dance Company: So Young An, Alessio Crognale, Laurel Dalley Smith, Natasha Diamond-Walker, Lloyd Knight, Charlotte Landreau, Jacob Larsen, Lloyd Mayor, Marzia Memoli, Anne O'Donnell, Lorenzo Pagano, Anne Souder, Leslie Andrea Williams, Xin Ying
Musicians of Wild Up: Jiji, Richard Valitutto, Jodie Landau, Brian Walsh, Derek Stein
The Entire 30-minute event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2974950135892211 (thru 7/17/20)
Just the Immediate Tragedy performance can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1663230013829119
Available for viewing on the Martha Graham YouTube Channel and www.TheSoraya.org