Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ Hibbard Nash Photography

Martha Graham Dance Company is turning 100! Soon. In two years, to be exact. But it’s never too early to start the party, and the Company will perform American Legacies at New York City Center as part of a three-year-long centennial celebration, starting tomorrow (April 17). The program focuses on the Company’s exploration of American themes and will feature Graham classics as well as a new production of a midcentury ballet and a powerful new work by a contemporary choreographer.

Martha Graham (1894-1991) probably needs no introduction, but here’s a quick one: She was born in Pennsylvania to strict Irish-American Presbyterians. Eventually, her family moved to California, where she discovered concert dance and studied with modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. After performing with Denishawn and The Greenwich Village Follies, she went off on her own to create a more serious and “human” dance technique, one that was rooted in the American experience and the most basic of movements—breathing. “Contraction and release,” with its radical instance on a flexible torso, revolutionized the way dancers moved on stage.

Graham founded her company in 1926, making it both the oldest dance company in the United States and the oldest integrated dance company in the country. She went on to create 181 ballets over nearly 70 years. Now the Company, under the leadership of Artistic Director Janet Eilber (a former principal dancer who worked with Graham for almost a decade), continues to perform the Graham works but also regularly commissions new pieces by contemporary artists. “The range of our dancers has become mind-blowingly fabulous,” Eilber told Observer. “And at the same time, these new works have brought fresh eyes to the Graham classics that are on stage with them. Because the conversation is evident… when her work is put on stage next to the top voices of today’s dance world, there’s just—it’s hard to explain, but the Graham Company is being rediscovered and appreciated in a completely new light, I think.”

Here’s what’s on in the American Legacies program:

Rodeo (4/17 & 4/20)

A group of dancers in western style costumes form a circle on stage with hands linkedA group of dancers in western style costumes form a circle on stage with hands linked
Martha Graham Dance Company in Agnes de Mille’s ‘Rodeo.’ Photo by Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

The oldest piece on the program is also one of the newest. Rodeo was created in 1942 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but the Graham Company will be performing the New York premiere of a brand-new production of the classic ballet. Rodeo was not choreographed by Graham but by her contemporary Agnes de Mille. The De Mille Working Group approached Eilber with the idea to perform the ballet with the score reorchestrated for bluegrass, and she felt this would fit right in with their plan to reexamine mid-century Americana. “We wanted to find a way to talk about the roots of American music being in the immigrant and enslaved communities,” she said. “And Rodeo is the first dance for the stage that incorporated tap dance, also coming out of the immigrant and enslaved communities.”

When I asked what is new about this new production, Eilber said, “Everything except the choreography.” Aaron Copland’s original score, which wove in old cowboy melodies, has been reorchestrated for a six-piece bluegrass ensemble by multi-instrumentalist and composer/arranger Gabe Witcher, returning the music back to its roots. The new jewel-toned costumes designed by Oana Botez are, according to Eilber, “taken to a heightened reality” and “are more like a dream. A rose-colored glasses memory of the era.” And the original theatrical sets have been swapped out for projections by designer extraordinaire Beowulf Boritt. All these changes were made to expand the conversation about this iconic work while staying true to de Mille’s “humorous and heartfelt story about a young, independent misfit searching for love.”

We the People (4/17, 4/19, & 4/20)

The other New York premiere on the program is Jamar Roberts’ We the People (2024), commissioned as a companion piece to the new production of Rodeo. A 21st-century work of Americana, if you will. Roberts danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for many years and was the Resident Choreographer there from 2019 to 2022. His style is fast and hard-hitting, and the Company is clearly thrilled to take it on. (I saw an excerpt of the piece at the 92NY in March, and can’t wait to see the rest.) The music is by Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Rhiannon Giddens, inspired by songs from her latest album, You’re the One.

We the People, like its 20th-century companion piece, is rooted in the social-political atmosphere of the day. While Rodeo is optimistic and romantic—an idealized view of the country made with an international cast during a World War—Roberts’ piece is about protest and power. “You take a risk when you commission something and don’t know what you’re going to get,” Eilber told me. “But it is exactly, and beyond, what I had hoped when we started talking about a companion piece.”

Maple Leaf Rag (4/17 & 4/18)

Two dancers in distinctive yellow costumes strike a difficult pose in which the man is holding the woman aloft sidewaysTwo dancers in distinctive yellow costumes strike a difficult pose in which the man is holding the woman aloft sideways
Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight in ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ Hibbard Nash Photography

Maple Leaf Rag (1990) was Graham’s last complete work, made when she was 96. If that’s not reason enough to see it, get this: it’s funny! “In it, she makes fun of her own serious, angsty reputation,” Eilber explained, “which is, I think, wonderful for your last ballet to look back and make a joke.” A tribute to the choreographic muse, it harkens back to the days when the strain of creating in the early ‘30s was just too much for her, so she would ask her pianist (and mentor and lover Louis Horst) to play something to break the mood. The story goes, she would always ask for Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

The score is a delight, the original costumes by fashion designer Calvin Klein are lovely, and the piece is always an audience favorite.

The Rite of Spring (4/18 & 4/19)

A male dancer in black dance briefs lifts a female dancer in a white dress with a black beltA male dancer in black dance briefs lifts a female dancer in a white dress with a black belt
Xin Ying and Lorenzo Pagano in Martha Graham’s ‘The Right of Spring.’ Hubbard Nash Photography

I’ve written before about how much I love The Rite of Spring in all its iterations, and Graham’s 1984 version is no exception. Graham danced as the Chosen One in the first American production of the work choreographed by Léonide Massine and conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1930. She knew the work inside and out. But it wasn’t until 50 years later that she took on the story of ritual and rebirth as a choreographer.

Edward T. Morris’ set is a minimalist version of its original (which was lost), and Pilar Limosner’s costumes are also updated. The Shaman, for instance, no longer wears a bright green unitard.

The Rite of Spring is always worth seeing, especially when Igor Stravinsky’s music is played live (which it will be, as will the music for all the Graham classics, by The New School’s Mannes Orchestra under the direction of David Hayes).

Appalachian Spring (4/19)

It would be impossible to create a Graham program about Americana without including her celebrated masterwork Appalachian Spring (1944). Like Rodeo, the narrative ballet shines a patriotic light on American culture and the great frontier. Like Rodeo, it is romantic and hopeful. And like Rodeo, the score was written by Aaron Copland. This score later won the Pulitzer Prize for music and includes the now-unmistakable Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” The original set is by the sculptor, and Graham’s longtime collaborator, Isamu Noguchi.

CAVE (4/20)

Closing out the program is another commissioned work: Israeli-born and UK-based choreographer Hofesh Shechter’s CAVE (2022), presented in association with Hofesh Shechter Company, with an electronic score by Shechter and the German duo Âme.

The piece grew from a desire to bring the techno club scene to the proscenium stage to create a sort of Rave-style event. “It’s inspired by the basic human urge to move to the beat,” Eilber said. “Just infectious primal moves. It’s like a big dance party. And because it was invented towards the end of the pandemic, and people had not been able to dance together… not been able to sweat and breathe on each other in a dance club, so it’s very cathartic. Audiences get very involved vocally, if not physically. It’s a great closer for our last night.”

When I asked Eilber what she thought Graham would think of the program, of her classic works in conversation with those of de Mille, Roberts and Shechter, she smiled up at the ceiling. “Martha really was all about change, right? She loved to change. She looked for change. She tried to figure out what was going to happen next so she could do it first. I think she’d be thrilled that all of this was blossoming out of the essential human truths she was after back in the day.”

Performances of American Legacies will take place Wednesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 18 at 7 p.m. (Gala), and Friday and Saturday, April 19-20, at 7:30 p.m. at New York City Center.

Martha Graham Dance Company Explores the American Experience, Past and Present

Caedra Scott-Flaherty

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