The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance announced that its efforts in using technology to help preserve choreography and pass it on from one generation to the next were to be aided by a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will allow the company to build on, digitise and organise its archive of materials on Graham dances.
The grant will allow the center to create “toolkits” to help immortalise individual Graham dances, including videos of generations of Graham dancers in rehearsal and performance; stage drawings; musical recordings and scores; Graham’s choreographic notes; drawings and photographs of sets; costume sketches, and reviews. The kits will also incorporate the center’s recently restored and digitised films and videos, and some materials that were restored after they were damaged by Hurricane Sandy last year, a devastating blow to the company.
Over the next two years the center will create 35 new toolkits which can be used by the Martha Graham Dance Company when it revives a work, as well as by other companies and schools that license them, helping to recreate the magic of the Graham technique and performance without allowing any of it to get lost. The next set of toolkits would be about 34 dances, and the Martha Graham technique. Restoring the critical material – those pieces the company has information on – are hugely important for the company.
The toolkits will also be made available to scholars, critics and artists interested in Martha Graham. Graham is widely renowned as one of four major modern dance pioneers of her time (with Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and José Limón). Throughout her choreographic lifetime, Graham created 181 dances.
The Martha Graham Dance Company was just one affected by Hurricane Sandy, yet despite all odds the company is drawing itself back up to full height, long skirts and contractions included. The storm flooded the company’s production office, and sets and costumes were severely damaged.
The repertory, created by one of the pioneers of American modern dance, Martha Graham, is one which examines humanity, the soul and all the emotions in between. In order to fulfil the practicalities of being a full-fledged dance company, the company needed many items which were damaged for upcoming performances. Dancers, staff and a crew of volunteers worked to recover items from the company’s basement in order to restore order. Some costumes, many of which are original garments and some even worn by Martha Graham, returned to their pre-Sandy state, whereas others had to be entirely reconstructed.
So far the company has not missed a deadline or a costume requirement due to the sheer effort and support of others. However, Hurricane Sandy has also presented opportunities for the company, such as dancing without sets. The company has been able to experiment in many ways, for example, staging Graham’s 1947 classic Errand Into the Maze without its usual set of a large piece resembling a U-shaped tree that the dancer climbs all over. This enabled a reimagining of the famous setting whilst remaining true to such distinct choreography: the company meanwhile has time to recover more of its belongings.
Sets like those for Errand Into the Maze would have been replaced over time due to normal wear and tear, but Hurricane Sandy forced this to happen in quick succession. Performances in 2013 so far have meant the company borrowing items and solving problems: American Ballet Theatre even loaned its costumes for Graham’s 1949 Diversion of Angels, which has been the ABT repertory since 1999.
With 2013 marking The Place’s 43rd anniversary, it was the opening of The Place theatre and the London Contemporary Dance School that saw a distinctly British school of modern dance. Although Robert Cohan may not have been the first person to teach or perform contemporary dance in the UK, he was the first to do it with a vision. As a dance partner of Martha Graham, one of the mothers of American modern dance, Cohan came to the UK from the US in 1967 and set in motion the careers of many of the UK’s most influential choreographers, from Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies to West End veteran Anthony Van Laast. Beginning humbly by teaching Graham technique to students, actors and artists who had little formal dance training, they were soon performing Cohan’s choreography as LCDT.
Cohan became the first Artistic Director of the Contemporary Dance Trust in London and was consequently the founding Artistic Director of The Place, London Contemporary Dance School and LCDT, which he directed for 20 years. Cohan choreographed 43 works for the company, and puts his success down to being unafraid of aiming for the mass market, with a theatrical eye, making dance theatre which appealed to people who weren’t just balletomanes.
Cohan’s influence on the development of modern dance in Britain has been considerable. Having pioneered the teaching of contemporary dance technique, he was instrumental in developing the repertory of LCDT in the 1970s and 1980s, laying the groundwork for the many other British companies since. As a teacher, Cohan has taught extensively: besides being a senior teacher at the Martha Graham School he worked at The Julliard School, Harvard, Radcliffe, and the University of Rochester in the US, York University in Toronto and at many colleges and universities in the UK.
In 1988, Cohan was awarded an honorary CBE in recognition of his outstanding contribution to dance in the UK, and he has since taken British nationality. Cohan remains active in the running of The Place as a member of its Board of Governors.
Today is Martha Graham’s birthday!
It is important to note the profound influence Graham had over the development of modern dance, and to how it is referred today. Throughout her life from May 11th 1894 to April 1st 1991, Graham established her dance and choreographic career over the span of 70 years, and is now considered the mother of modern dance, having created a fully codified modern dance technique. Graham choreographed 181 masterpiece dance compositions during her lifetime, each of which utilise specific movements of her technique, such as the contraction, release and spiral.
The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established in 1926, through which Graham was, and still is, renowned for her intense, dramatic portrayals of life through movement. This signalled the beginning of a new era in modern dance, with tutus and pointe shoes falling by the wayside as block-coloured unitards, extravagant costumes and bare feet took to centre stage. Costume continues to be an important aspect of the Graham repertoire, reflecting the nature of the works performed by the company, perhaps the most famous being Graham’s Lamentation in which she wore a tube-shaped Lycra costume in her portrayal of grief.
To celebrate what would have been Graham’s 117th birthday in 2011, Google dedicated their logo to the life and legacy of Graham for a day, demonstrating the sheer influence Graham had over the United States, regardless of the rest of the world and the dance industry (see our article about the Martha Graham Google Doodle). Echoed through her use of costume – from, for example, dressing male dancers in traditional ballet tights to showcasing their leanness in minimal underwear today – Graham caused dance to evolve, adding further abstraction and creativity to the twentieth century and beyond. She has inspired numerous artists from all genres within the world of the arts and revolutionised dance by creating an entire movement vocabulary that is still celebrated today.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.