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Martha Graham Dance Company Revisits Revolutionary Works

Martha Graham Dance Company, "The Rite of Spring"

Martha Graham Dance Company, "The Rite of Spring"

For the last three weeks, students from the University of Minnesota's dance program have been working hard to animate a work created 80 years ago by Martha Graham. This weekend, they will perform "Panorama" with the Martha Graham Dance Company at Northrop.

"'Panorama' is partly about a consciousness of injustice that caused people to collectively unite and make change," says Susan Kikuchi, a former Graham dancer who is working with the students. Graham was certainly committed to social justice; she protested anti-Semitism by refusing to go the Berlin Olympics in 1936 because she had Jewish dancers in her troupe. Graham was also one of the first choreographers to invite Asians and African Americans into her company.

These are values millennial students can certainly relate to, along with the idea of artists as rebels and visionaries.

At a recent rehearsal, 36 students were busy mastering the math that will catapult them through space in complex patterns. After patiently walking each group through its counts and floor patterns, Kikuchi gave a direct order.

"You have to go, charge!"

Soon overlapping units of dancers were swirling in relentless currents, barely avoiding collisions. Their outpouring of energy reflects both the precision of a military maneuver and the random surge of a crowd demonstrating in the streets. The choreography demands that they master a complicated series of counts, but keeping track of the numbers is just for starters.

Martha Graham Dance Company, "The Rite of Spring"

Martha Graham Dance Company, "The Rite of Spring"

In the early 1930s, Graham revolutionized dance through developing a technique based on breath and the powerful use of the torso in contraction and release. She was also revolutionary for recognizing that dance could be a vehicle for the expression of serious ideas. Her early works, including "Panorama," reflected the tenets of Modernism in art, music, and architecture. They were harsh and spare, finding the essence of emotional states such as grief, repression, and despair through powerful abstraction.

During the 1940s, Graham created several works based on Greek myths that were influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung. She re-imagined these myths from the point of view of a woman in crisis, revealing the inner lives and subconscious desires of her characters.

For Kikuchi, the Graham Company has always been a family affair. Her mother, Yuriko, was a leading Graham dancer, and Kikuchi thought of Graham as a grandmother figure. After a stint in the company, she began to set and sometimes revise the choreography of Broadway musicals like The King and I (in which her mother danced) and Flower Drum Song. Her daughter, Cassey Kikuchi Kivnick, is in Minnesota to assist her mother, and frequently works with her on Graham revivals and musicals.

Both are pleased with the progress and abilities of the U of M student cast, which Kikuchi refers to as "a rainbow coalition" of races, ethnicity, and gender. The original cast of "Panorama" was primarily white women.

Northrop director Chris Tschida fostered the collaboration between the Graham Company and the University. Before she came to Northrop, Tschida was an agent in New York who represented Martha Graham Dance. "Marrying the engagement of the company with an engagement with students seemed a brilliant idea," she says. "Graham's involvement with politics, psychology, history, Greek myths, and leading modern artists of her time fits with Northrop's mission of integrating the arts and academics."

As the two Northrop programs so aptly demonstrate, Graham was an artist whose work and influence spanned decades (she died in 1991 at the age of 97). Several of her iconic pieces will be performed by the company, including her early solo on grief, "Lamentations"; a work from her Greek period, "Errand Into the Maze," based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur; and "Diversion of Angels," which highlights Graham's joyful and lyrical side.

But Tschida emphasizes that the Graham Company, under the direction of Janet Eilber, wants to be more than a museum of its founder's works. The Northrop programs will also include works by contemporary choreographers that Eilber believes fit in with and augment Graham's vision.

"This is a strong company of dancers who can do anything," says Tschida. "It's exciting to see them moving forward."

IF YOU GO:

Martha Graham Dance Company 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday $44-$64 Northrop More info at www.northrop.umn.edu