Arts: Martha and after

Martha Graham died eight years ago. Is there a future for the company she founded?
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The Independent Culture
During the Seventies, there was a long-running magazine advert which boasted the caption "What becomes a legend most?" The image showed a fur-swathed Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Martha Graham, and the answer was Blackglama mink. Another answer, though, might be to remain alive in people's minds, since that is the prerequisite of a legend. And in that sense, Graham has the advantage, in that she left a great cache of work to be performed by future generations. She is, we are told, equal to Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce, and who would argue with that? She invented a new, complete and extraordinary dance vocabulary and, with this, American modern dance. Her company, founded in 1926, is the oldest in the US and holds 181 ballets by her. (She always called her pieces ballets.) True, the first decades were tough; but then came glossy celebrity. The photographs say it all: Martha meeting Pope John Paul II, Martha at the White House, Martha with her former student Madonna.

Graham had a unique gift for lapidary pronouncements, which is useful for a legend. "Theatre is a verb," is one Graham maxim. Another is: "Dance charts the graph of the heart," which vividly defines the expressive truth of her movement, conceived long before pop-psychology thought of body language. During her last years, though, and even more after her death at nearly 97 in 1991, the heart of her company was torn and some of her most trusted company members left. The abrasive component was Ron Protas, a young photographer, who became Graham's friend and collaborator for more than 25 years. Their enormous disparity of age provoked suspicion and Harold and Maude comparisons, except that this was more a mother- son relationship. He would sit with her in rehearsals and performances. "I know now she was training me, but she did it so subtly." He looked after her devotedly in horrible old age, and even his enemies agree he prolonged her existence by weaning her off alcohol.

Graham said: "I owe Ron everything, he saved my life," and she left all her ballets to him. So he took charge of the company. Naturally, he wanted to keep up the regular repertory, but was also keen to continue the project, initiated in Graham's lifetime, of reviving her early solos and company pieces. He enlisted the collaboration of several Graham stalwarts, including Terese Capucilli, a principal dancer (and now associate artistic director).

The company's London season - its first for 20 years - includes the reconstructions it brought a few years ago to Edinburgh. Deep Song, for example, an anti- war solo from 1937, was reproduced by Graham herself in 1988 on Capucilli. "She used about 100 photographs taken at the time by Barbara Morgan," says Capucilli. "They were numbered so we could assemble them into a basic sequence." Chronicle (1936), a long piece, again about war, already had its middle section, Steps in the Street, revived by Graham and Yoriko (a former dancer) in 1989. But finding the rest was a laborious process using more Morgan photographs, film footage, and memories; and two sections are lost for ever.

The London programme also contains two signature pieces from Graham's middle period, when she turned away from political themes. Errand into the Maze (1947) belongs to her Greek myth mode, the Ariadne story transformed into a metaphor for the mind confronting its fear. Appalachian Spring (1944) has a wonderful score commissioned score from Aaron Copland. She cast Erick Hawkins as the Husbandman to her Bride, and the young Merce Cunningham as the Revivalist preacher. "Martha choreographed it when she was very much in love with Erick," says Capucilli. "And she brought it into an American setting because she also loved America. So it was a very important ballet for her."

I recently watched a rehearsal of Appalachian Spring in downtown Broadway. The slightly built Miki Orihara's Bride reminds me of how, like Elizabeth I, Graham hid the heart and stomach of a man in the exterior of a helpless little woman, and how she revelled in this physique, emphasising it against big, strong male partners. The Bride's steps had an enchanting feminine grace. When she stretched her arm, she seemed to reach out not only to the Husbandman, but also to the American frontier. And then there were the Followers, four demure, bonneted women who accompany the fanatical Revivalist. Are they infatuated with God or with this man? "With both," says Capucilli. "It's like those people who become so obsessed with an evangelist that they will kill themselves. Graham knew there is always an undertone of sex between men and women, even if it's stifled."

I was struck by how the dancers suffused each movement with emotion. Since with Graham the movement always means something, in performance it is strictly set. Yet even if there is no leeway for improvisation, she always insisted on dancers understanding the motivation and bringing their own individual spirit to the movement.

I ask Protas if the company's school ever teaches the early Graham style, since several elderly dancers have expressed regret at its passing. He calls this criticism bullshit. "The core is unchanged. What has changed are the bodies. Martha's women in the Thirties looked like footballers: they were heavy girls." Recently they have been inviting old Graham alumni to teach sessions and recording them. "And we can see there is a cortical line through."

Protas is a quixotic figure with an unusual and real charm; but three years ago the company nearly folded. He realised that to continue performing and to offer credibility to potential sponsors and funders, he had to reorganise. Now there is a new managing director, Todd Dellinger, whose task includes raising the company profile, increasing performances and solving the financial problems, no less.

To those ends, the company has contracted from 22 to 17 and recently sold its headquarters to pay off debts. (They have various plans to find another home.) A Martha Graham Trust and Foundation has been established to license other companies to perform her work. And Protas retires as artistic director in September 2000 in favour of the former dancer Janet Eilber. He will direct the Trust and Foundation, process the massive Martha Graham Archive being established at the Library of Congress, and write a book about Graham. This year sees a large increase in the company's American and European touring.

What is the future for a choreographer-led company after that person dies? Protas would like to see this one become a kind of Royal Shakespeare Company, with its founder's work as the core repertory, supplemented by other choreographers. Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs and Susan Stroman have created pieces. He is toying with the idea of presenting Graham ballets in new productions, and has invited Robert Wilson to stage Graham's Clytemnestra.

"I am not opposed to their [my works] being performed in the future by other dancers," Graham wrote in 1953. "My only concern would be that the dancing should not seem old-fashioned or inept." I have a theory that art can look dated in the short term but, if it is truly good, with a longer perspective it will be as fresh and relevant as when it was born. Graham's pieces are at that point.

"As long as they are kept vital they should live as long as people want them," Graham also wrote.

The Martha Graham Dance Company performs at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) 25 - 29 May