How does a dance company survive after the death of its founding choreographer? That’s the question companies like Ailey and Limón have wrestled with successfully — by expanding their repertoires with works by new choreographers who reflect consonant aesthetic points of view.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s unprecedented solution was to close down and license some of his masterworks to companies that can do them justice both technically and expressively.
When the company founder was a force of nature like Martha Graham, the impulse to keep her company alive is understandable, but maintaining its relevance is a challenge with no new dances coming from its founder. However, since 2005, under the artistic and executive direction of Janet Eilber and LaRue Allen, respectively, the once nearly moribund troupe has sprung to new life by emulating the best practices of art museums.
Eilber’s vision is to design programs thematically, presenting groups of Graham’s repertory in ways that illuminate certain aspects of them — era, political content, emotion — in depth. This year’s 15-performance, two-week Joyce Theater season (February 20-March 3) continues this thematic approach with “Myth and Transformation,” which encompasses three different programs, crammed with Graham classics.
The erotic 1962 “Phaedra” joins masterpieces from the ‘40s, “Cave of the Heart” (1946), Graham’s take on the Medea legend; “Night Journey” (1947), the Oedipus tragedy embodied; “Errand into the Maze” (1947), based on the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur, and the lovely, lyrical “Diversion of Angels” (1948).These ballets alone constitute a treasure trove of Graham, but there’s more…
The company has also been commissioning new ballets, some directly in Graham’s tradition, like the “Lamentation Variations,” based on Graham’s famous 1930 solo. Recent commissions to be presented this season include ones by postmodernist Yvonne Rainer (2012), Taiwanese dance maker Bulareyaung Pagarlava (2009), and the premiere of a piece by Doug Varone.
The season also includes a reconstruction of Graham’s 1935 solo “Imperial Gesture,” as well as “The Show (Achilles Heels)” by Richard Move, who notoriously channels Graham in his own stage shows. Graham admirer Mikhail Baryshnikov originally commissioned this work for his White Oak Dance Project in 2002.
At the February 21 Gala Performance, fashion icon Patricia Field will introduce “The Show,” and pop icon Deborah Harry of Blondie fame, who contributed original songs to Arto Lindsay’s score, will perform live.
And as if all that Graham wonderfulness weren’t enough, the company will also do a premiere by noted contemporary Italian choreographer Luca Viggetti, titled “From the Grammar of Dreams,” and give us a sneak peek at a new work by Spain’s Nacho Duato, which will premiere in April in North Carolina.
The irony of the Graham Company taking over Merce Cunningham’s Westbeth facility is compounded by the sad fact that the Graham sets and costumes, stored in the building’s basement, fell victim to the flooding from apocalyptic Superstorm Sandy. So, the February 26 performance is dubbed “Fall and Recovery Benefit” and will feature a slate of guest artists who define their dance forms — ballet star Wendy Whelan, tap dancer Michelle Dorrance, and modern dance legend Desmond Richardson.
THE MARTHA GRAHAM COMPANY | Joyce Theater | 175 Eighth Ave. at 19th St. | Feb. 20 – Mar. 3; Tue.-Thu., Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $10-$59; joyce.org or 212-242-0800