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How to Breathe New Life Into Martha Graham’s Dances? Infuse Them With Art.

How to Breathe New Life Into Martha Graham’s Dances? Infuse Them With Art.

If the pandemic has taught Janet Eilber anything, it’s this: “I’m always reminded how potent Martha’s work is,” she said, “when we mess with it.”

As the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Eilber has long been experimenting with ways to reframe the choreographer’s work — even before the pandemic forced the dance world to go digital. What she’s learned is that the works of Graham, a leader in mid-20th-century modern dance, don’t crumble under pressure. They retain their purity; in some cases, they become even more powerful.

Now with Eilber’s latest digital adventure, a collaboration with the art gallery Hauser & Wirth, she is looking for ways to link the choreographer’s work to the present day: How can the essential modernism of Graham find new meaning within a setting of contemporary visual art?

On Friday, the Graham company closes its 95th season with GrahamFest95, a three-day virtual showcase of livestream performances of classic and newer works, along with the premiere of four films pairing dances by Graham and Robert Cohan with four of the gallery’s artists: Rita Ackermann, Mary Heilmann, Luchita Hurtado and Rashid Johnson.

It helps that Madeline Warren, a senior director at Hauser & Wirth, is also Eilber’s daughter. Together, they have been coordinating the project. “She’s grown up knowing the Graham works,” Eilber said. “Between the two of us, we’ve found dances that relate in a serious way with their artwork.”

Marc Payot, a partner and president of Hauser & Wirth, has only seen rough cuts of the films, which feature cinematography and digital design by Alex Munro. Even so, Payot said, “the movement and the dance is really in dialogue with what’s there, even if it has been created yesterday. It’s incredibly interesting how the dance becomes much more contemporary or the other way around.”

For the films, the artwork is used as an environment for the dances, which were shot on a green screen at the Graham studios. Instead of a projection of the painting as a backdrop, Eilber hopes to create a digital setting that will envelop the dancer in an immersive way. As she said, “We’ve been trying to find things that you can’t do onstage.”

The choice of Heilmann was obvious; it’s hard not to look at her use of line and color and not think of Graham’s “Satyric Festival Song.” In that playful 1932 solo, originally part of a suite called “Dance Songs,” the costume is a vibrant black-and-green striped dress designed by Graham herself. In it, the dancer — her body full of angles and wiggles — vibrates across the stage, just as Heilmann’s lines in paintings like “Surfing on Acid” possess an electric verve.

In the video, featuring the dancer Xin Ying, the approach is meant to capture that sense of strangeness and fun. “That little character could be floating in space,” Eilber said. “She could be just anywhere. And any size! She could be really small at one point, and she could get very large. It can be a real falling down the rabbit hole.”

Xin also appears, with Lloyd Knight, in a duet from “Dark Meadow,” a 1946 work inspired in part by Graham’s love of the Southwest. The original set is by Isamu Noguchi; Hurtado, who died last year, was a friend of that artist, who did designs for many of Graham’s dances. “Martha’s Noguchi set is an abstraction of that landscape,” Eilber said. “So replacing it with the abstraction of Luchita’s landscapes — that clearly relate to the space and the light of the Southwest — or works that might become landscapes with the dancers in them, is what we’re going for.”

“Immediate Tragedy,” a lost 1937 solo reimagined through archival materials has been paired with artwork by Ackermann from her “Mama” series. Ackermann finds a connection with what she sees as Graham’s choreography concerns: weight versus weightlessness. “I seek a similar contradiction and emotional response in the gestural movement of my paintings,” she said. “Her choreography also draws lines in relationship to speed — fast and slow. Both of which are the foundational base of my drawings.”

Eilber relates the solo and its message — “to stay upright at all costs,” as Graham wrote in a letter to its composer, Henry Cowell — with Ackermann’s way of embedding figurative drawings, often of young girls, in her work. While she paints over them, their bodies or parts of them are, to a varying degree, discernible. To Eilber, that imagery and the message of the solo “speaks to women’s roles,” she said. “It’s the role of women in humanity under challenging situations or just our role in mortality and birth and death.”

To Xin, who will perform the work, the strident and passionate solo feels especially right for the times — because of the pandemic, certainly, but now even more so as a result of the recent attacks on Asians. “I have never felt emotionally ready for the piece until this time,” she said. “It’s like you want to go somewhere, and it’s hard and it’s scary, but you have to go. You don’t know what is safe and what is not.”

The final collaboration is “Lloyd,” a solo by Cohan, a former dancer with the Graham company who created the Place, an esteemed contemporary dance school in London, and died in January. For it, Knight performs with a painting by Johnson from his “Anxious Red” series. It epitomizes the tension and trauma of the solo, again, echoing the feeling of the present moment. The paintings, aggressive and unsettling, come to life in a vibrant bloody red that is both rich and terrifying. Johnson began creating the body of work, an extension of his “Anxious Men” series, last March when the shutdown happened.

“It dealt with fear, a little bit of unknowing, a reticence to project too far into the future,” Johnson said, “because there were just so many question marks as to what the next steps were.”

While he isn’t a dancer, Johnson said that as an artist, he thinks of his process as a dance; as a young man he was drawn to urban dance and breaking. Now his approach often references “the circular motion that happens in break dancing in kind of establishing a stage, walking around, making full, robust movements with my body,” he said. “So I’m super conscious of physicality or the physical aspect of how performative a painting can be. I’ve never been a painter who has a real emphasis on kind of a gesture with the wrist. It’s oftentimes a full gestural set of motions that I use to bring a picture to life.”

The movement in his painting — when juxtaposed with Knight’s dancing — emphasizes the gripping tension of anxiety. In the stark, haunting work, Knight, wearing only a pair of tight briefs, pivots in direction and pauses to enact certain poses that are “almost like seizures in a way,” he said. “It’s a complete buildup to the point where, at the end, I’m just shaking and turning uncontrollably until I can’t take it anymore.”

In the solo, based on 17th century drawings by Andreas Vesalius, Cohan’s intention was to show what was beneath the skin; to reveal, in a sense, how hard it is for a body to hold itself up. “It’s like a statue that slowly crumbles in place,” Eilber said.

During the shoot, Knight, who had rehearsed the solo with Cohan before his death, was transformed: “I have to mentally take myself,” he said. “When I was in this open space — on the stage with the lights — I fully understood what Bob wanted: I felt alone.”

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