Lost Martha Graham solo finds contemporary context in world premiere @ The Soraya

Dance · Music
Martha Graham, ‘Immediate Tragedy’ 1937. Photo by Robert Fraser. Courtesy Martha Graham Resources, a division of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc

A scholar’s cache of rediscovered materials—remnants of a 1937 Martha Graham solo fashioned in response to the Spanish Civil War—has spawned a digital collaboration between Martha Graham Dance Company and the Los Angeles-based Wild Up music collective that will have its online premiere Friday June 19.

The new work, a commission by the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, aka The Soraya, will first appear on the theater’s Facebook page, and then be repeated on the Graham company youtube platform. Inspired by a great artist’s expression of despair during an era arguably comparable to our own, the commission was also aimed at keeping creative juices flowing during the COVID downtime.  

Graham’s Immediate Tragedy has been revisited and re-imagined through the discovery of 30 photos, musical notations, letters and reviews. The new rendering multiplies Graham’s solo into a group work delivered in digital format. Its creative process followed strictures of Covid-19 social distancing; it is art forged through remote contact.

Martha Graham, ‘Immediate Tragedy’ 1937. Photo by Robert Fraser. Courtesy Martha Graham Resources, a division of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc

Each of the Graham company’s fourteen dancers, under Artistic Director Janet Eilber, was allocated four photos on which to base new movement phrases. Christopher Rountree, Wild Up’s creative director overseeing a chamber group of six musicians, took inspiration from shards of Henry Cowell’s music notations found in the Graham archives. All participating artists received background materials including Graham’s reflections in a letter to Henry Cowell, excerpted here:

“… whether the desperation lies in Spain or in a memory in our own hearts it is the same … I had been in a valley of despair, too.  I felt in that dance I was dedicating myself anew to space, that in spite of violation I was upright and that I was going to stay upright at all costs …”

[Neil Baldwin, author of the forthcoming Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern (Alfred A. Knopf) uncovered much of the material – including the Graham/Cowell correspondance.]

Soraya Executive Director Thor Steingraber, in a statement, further sets the stage for the special commission: “As the Spanish Civil War erupted, America’s isolationist policies took hold. It was American artists and writers who stepped forward, Hemingway most famously. Another was Martha Graham, who premiered two new pieces in response to the Spanish atrocities.

Deep Song, which survives, was based on a poem by Federico García Lorca, who was brutally slain and labeled by the Franco regime as a bad influence, leftist, and homosexual. Immediate Tragedy was lost to history. But Graham’s own writing, along with a photographic contact sheet that indicates the order of the dance, allows us to imagine her solo piece dedicated to the Spanish Civil War,” Steingraber says.

Janet Eilber had been pondering the right occasion to re-introduce Graham’s gone-missing dance. “The ephemera of Graham’s Immediate Tragedy gives us potent and relevant ideas that resonate deeply with our current tragedy,” says Eilber. “The passion with which Graham worked is palpable, and the inspirational courage of the people she depicted is sorely needed now.” 

Rountree also sees the contemporary connection. “While the piece is really located in a ‘post Henry Cowell’ space, another big inspiration is this moment itself, and the immediate tragedy of us all being apart,” he says. “What are our modes of being together in this moment? What does it look like, what does it sound like, and how do we deal with being apart like this?”

Interviews with the artistic collaborators, a screening of a recent performance of Deep Song, and the new 10-minute digital Immediate Tragedy, form the premiere’s 30-minute program.

“This creative endeavor is a silver lining in an otherwise difficult moment when live performance is not possible,” says Steingraber. “The innovative spirit and brilliance of Janet and Chris make this project possible. I am proud that The Soraya first brought them together in 2017, a collaboration that has subsequently continued worldwide.”

Immediate Tragedy, a digital work, premiere June 19, 2020 
Choreography by Janet Eilber and dancers of Martha Graham Dance Company
Music composed and conducted by Christopher Rountree
Digital design and editing by Ricki Quinn
Commissioned by The Soraya.

Immediate Tragedy (2020)
Friday, June 19, 4pm (Pacific)/7pm (Eastern) |
The Soraya Facebook
Saturday, June 20, 11:30am/2:30pm |
MGDC YouTube Channel

Leave a Reply