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ONLINE REVIEW: Lost Martha Graham Solo Reimagined as Digital Collaborative Dance

by Bonnie Rosenstock
June 25, 2020
New York, NY
Three major arts organizations have joined together to present a reimagined digital dance performance of Martha Graham’s solo "Immediate Tragedy," which she created in 1937 in response to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The New York-based Martha Graham Dance Company, the Los Angeles-based Wild Up chamber music collective and the Cal State Northridge Campus’s Younes and Soroya Nazarin Center for the Performing Arts (The Soroya), which commissioned the work, were inspired to create the long-distance collaboration as a result of recently discovered archival materials, which included 30 photos, musical notations, letters and reviews.

The new work premiered online on Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 20 but is still available on the Martha Graham YouTube Channel and www.TheSoroya.org. It’s a powerful not-to-be-missed gem.

Graham created the solo in collaboration with composer Henry Cowell, but it was never filmed and had been considered lost. Wild Up founder/composer/conductor Christopher Rountree and musicians consulted fragments of Cowell’s notations and created their own haunting composition.

The 10-minute work features 14 dancers and 6 musicians, working independently, who each recorded from their homes across the U.S. and Europe using a variety of technologies to coordinate movement, music and digital design. Each dancer received four photos from which to develop specific movement phrases. It was a feat of extraordinary skill and intuition as none of the performers were ever in the same room.

The men and women dancers wore all-black attire of varying styles. At the beginning, some are holding poses, but little by little they move until they all dance together. Sometimes they are doing the same movements or joining in to play catch-up. The screen scrolls horizontally and vertically, featuring solos, a few dancers at a time or group work. The movements and poses are classic Graham: long, graceful stretched-out arms, rounding, curving, contracting, expanding. At the finale, all the dancers hold their arms crossed just above their heads, mimicking a photo of Graham in the same pose. The piece is mesmerizing, with dance and music melding effortlessly.

"Immediate Tragedy" was preceded by Graham’s "Deep Song," set to Cowell’s composition. Created as a companion piece in the same year, "Deep Song" is a lament for a world torn apart and the anguish of Spanish women. The words "deep song" translate into Spanish as "cante hondo,” which is the most solemn and emotional vocal flamenco style and one of the oldest and purest. MGDC Artistic Director Janet Eilber noted that 1937 was the same year that Spanish painter Pablo Picasso created his anti-war Guernica. “The torque and distorted style of movement are consistent with Picasso,” she said.

"Deep Song" disappeared from MGDC's repertory in the 1940s, but was reconstructed in 1989 by Graham for soloist Terese Capucilli. The solo shown online was filmed at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2017 with the magnificent Anne Souder. The set is a simple white bench. Souder is wearing a stretchy black and white dress which allows for full expansiveness and expression of movement. She stretches on the floor, contracts, releases, stands up, arms stretched out, arches and does many flowing, graceful controlled turns. She alternates sitting, standing and lying on the floor. She goes under the bench, lifts it to vertical and slides down to sit on one of its legs. She rotates the bench, lowers it, hides under it and then rolls out from under it. Standing, then sitting, she executes small subtle contractions and finally leans her arm and rests on the bench, emotionally spent.

The 30-minute program also includes interviews with the collaborators and a Cowell music interlude. “The ephemera of Graham’s 'Immediate Tragedy' gives us potent and relevant ideas that resonate deeply with our current tragedy,” said Eilber. “Even in its absence, the passion with which Graham worked is palpable, and the inspirational courage of the people she depicted is sorely needed now.”

"Immediate Tragedy," choreography by Janet Eilber and the dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Music composed and conducted by Christopher Rountree, with musicians from Wild Up. Digital Design and Editing by Ricki Quinn.
Martha Graham in Immediate Tragedy. Courtesy of Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc.

Martha Graham in Immediate Tragedy. Courtesy of Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc.

Photo © & courtesy of Robert Fraser

Screen shot: Martha Graham Dance Company in 'Immediate Tragedy'.

Screen shot: Martha Graham Dance Company in "Immediate Tragedy".

Photo © & courtesy of Ricki Quinn

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