Ed. note: This story by Debra Levine, commissioned and previously published by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for the Arts, is reprinted with permission.
During the Second World War, with American men losing their lives in the overseas fight against fascism, Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham, in New York, found their own patriotic calling. Each grappled to find an artful, yet accessible means to bring themes of Americana onto the theatrical stage. Each sent forth an enduring dance masterpiece, both which still have legs: Agnes went first, birthing Rodeo (1942), a ballet peppered with social dance; Graham followed suit, with her venerable modern-dance calling card, Appalachian Spring (1944). Both works were choreographed to scores by Aaron Copland.
Now, in a bold programming move on Saturday, September 30, opening night of The Soraya’s 2023-24 season, Graham and de Mille will have a joyful meet-up in the 21st century. Martha Graham Dance Company — founded in 1923 our nation’s oldest — is marking its centenary with a new production of de Mille’s Rodeo—a rather seismic undertaking for a work that has lived for decades in the ballet wheelhouse. It’s the kick-off of a three-season touring centenary, Graham100, and we get it first at The Soraya.
The earthy and uber-articulate Graham dancers will take their own spin ‘round Rodeo, a zesty-yet-poignant tale of love and romance on a Wild West cattle ranch. Agnes de Mille, herself a marvelous character dancer, originated the leading role of The Cowgirl, a tomboy with a crush on the ranch’s hunky Head Wrangler.
“Martha’s trajectory was steeped in the notion that the dancers, not swans or flowers, carry the emotional message, the human message,” says Janet Eilber, the Graham Company artistic director and one of the company’s former lead dancers, speaking in a Zoom interview. And therein, Eilber believes, lies the connective thread. “I do see a relationship between what Agnes and Martha did.”
It is not widely known, but de Mille and Graham were more than compatriots. They were friends, first meeting in 1929. “Agnes was about ten years younger than Martha and a real disciple. She revered Martha,” says Eilber. In that very year, 1929, Graham, then 35, burst forth with Heretic, a game-changing work that, according to Eilber, was Graham’s first radical eschewing of dance as “decoration and escape.” De Mille felt an electric impact. “On first seeing Heretic,” she wrote in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, her 1990 biography of Graham, “I found myself uttering dry sobs.”
“What Martha did in concert dance,” Eilber contends, “Agnes took to musical theater. It’s the idea that the movement of the dancers furthers the plot. Both of them were trying to represent real human beings on stage.” In this regard, “They were groundbreaking. And I think that’s a basic element that is not talked about that much, the relationship between these two pioneers.”
Janet Eilber knew and worked with both Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille.
“I knew Agnes fairly well,” she says. “She directed me in the numbers I did from Brigadoon and Carousel.” (Along with her Graham work, Eilber was then dancing with The American Dance Machine, a company whose mission it is to shine a light on musical theater “numbers” and recast them as artistically viable, standalone choreographic works.) “She used to talk about the genius that Martha was, and how Martha towered over every creator of the twentieth century,” says Eilber.
“But Agnes was a genius also,” she adds with a hearty laugh, “What a character!”
“The two of them were just great,” Eilber reminisces. “Incredibly powerful, creative, exacting women. They were equally dry, equally good with a zinger, with a wry comment on anything that was lacking in rehearsal. It was: ‘Don’t show up unless you’re showing up with 100%.’ Because: ‘They. Just. Don’t. Have. The. Time.’”
On this occasion, Copland’s score is getting a dusty brush-up. Giving a real-life cattle prod to Rodeo’s jaunty corps de ballet of wranglers and cowgirls will be a spanking new arrangement for roots instruments to be delivered by a six-piece bluegrass ensemble led by Gabe Witcher, the Grammy Award-winning master fiddler.
Injecting the gusto of roots music into Copland’s original symphonic orchestration was the vision of the Agnes de Mille Working Group, a team dedicated to preserving de Mille’s choreography as she made it. Eilber immediately liked the idea. “We’d been talking about the iconic works of the 20th century, in light of today’s conversation,” she says, “about expanding the conversation so it’s more inclusive. Things that were left out that can be revisited. Rodeo to bluegrass allows us to acknowledge that the roots of much of American folk music, particularly bluegrass, are in the Black community—perhaps co-opted by white musicians.”
Eilber is much aware that the use of modern dancers augurs a fresh take on Rodeo: “Our dancers are experts in the use of gravity in every respect,” she says. “Our technique is based on leveraging the body against the earth—finding your weight against the floor. As opposed to ballet; their goals are anti-gravity. Always trying to be lighter than air.”
Diana Gonzales, who is overseeing the current re-staging of Rodeo underlined this point, “There’s a whole section for The Cowgirl, where she’s mimicking riding a horse. The horse gets out of control and throws her suddenly to the ground. It sometimes takes ballerinas a week to figure out how to fall off the horse on the floor. Your [Graham] women got it on the first try.”
Martha Graham Dance Company | The Soraya | Saturday September 30
Dance critic Debra Levine’s feature articles, reviews, and interviews have been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, DANCE Magazine, EMMY Magazine, South China Morning Post, and more. She is the author of essays on select artists performing at The Soraya in Northridge, CA.