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How to breathe new life into Martha Graham’s dances?  Infuse them with art.

If the pandemic has taught Janet Eilber anything, it’s this: “I always remember how powerful Martha’s work is,” she said, “when you play with it.”

As artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Eilber has long experimented with ways to reframe the choreographer’s work – even before the pandemic forced the dance world to go digital. What she learned is that the works of Graham, a leader in mid-20th century modern dance, do not crumble under pressure. They retain their purity; in some cases, they become even more powerful.

Now with Eilber’s latest digital adventure, a collaboration with Hauser & Wirth art gallery, she is looking for ways to connect the choreographer’s work to today: how the essentials of Graham’s Modernism can find a new meaning in a contemporary visual art setting?

On Friday, the Graham Company closed its 95th season with GrahamFest95, a three-day virtual showcase of live performances of classical and newer works, as well as the premiere of four films combining dances by Graham and Robert Cohan with four of the artists from the gallery: Rita Ackermann, Mary Heilmann, Luchita Hurtado and Rashid Johnson.

It helps that Madeline Warren, senior manager of Hauser & Wirth, is also Eilber’s daughter. Together, they coordinated the project. “She grew up knowing the Graham works,” Eilber said. “Between the two of us, we have found dances that relate seriously to their works.”

Marc Payot, Partner and President of Hauser & Wirth, has only seen sketches of the films, which feature Alex Munro’s cinematography and digital design. Even so, says Payot, “movement and dance are really in dialogue with what there is, even though it was created yesterday. It’s incredibly interesting to see how dance becomes so much more contemporary or the other way around.

For the films, the artwork is used as the environment for the dances, which were shot on green screen at Graham Studios. Instead of a projection of the painting as a backdrop, Eilber hopes to create a digital backdrop that will envelop the dancer in an immersive way. As she said: “We tried to find things that you can not do on stage. “

Heilmann’s choice was obvious: his use of line and color is closely linked to Graham’s “Satyric Festival Song”. In this playful 1932 solo, which was originally part of a sequel called “Dance Songs,” the costume is a vibrant black and green striped dress designed by Graham herself. In it, the dancer – her body full of angles and tremors – vibrates across the stage, just as Heilmann’s lines in paintings like “Surfing on Acid” possess electric verve.

In the video, starring dancer Xin Ying, the approach aims to capture this feeling of strangeness and pleasure. “This little character could be floating in space,” Eilber said. “She could be anywhere. And any size! She could be really small at some point, and she could get really big. It can be a real fall down the rabbit hole.

Xin also appears, along with Lloyd Knight, in a duet of “Dark Meadow,” a 1946 work inspired in part by Graham’s love for the Southwest. The original set is by Isamu Noguchi; Hurtado, who died last year, was a friend of this artist, who created many of Graham’s dances. “Martha’s Noguchi ensemble is an abstraction of this landscape,” Eilber said. “So replacing it with the abstraction of Luchita’s landscapes – which clearly relate to the space and light of the Southwest – or works that could become landscapes with the dancers in them, is what we are looking for.”

“Immediate Tragedy,” a lost 1937 solo reinvented through archival material, has been paired with Ackermann’s illustrations from his “Mama” series. Ackermann finds a connection to what she sees as Graham’s choreography: weight versus weightlessness. “I’m looking for a similar contradiction and emotional response in the gestural movement of my paintings,” she said. “His choreography also draws lines in relation to speed – fast and slow. These two elements are the fundamental basis of my drawings. “

Eilber recounts the solo and its message – “stay upright at all costs”, as Graham wrote in a letter to its composer, Henry Cowell – with Ackermann’s way of incorporating figurative drawings, often of young ones, into his work. girls. As she paints on them, their bodies or parts of them are, to a varying degree, discernible. For Eilber, that imagery and the solo’s message “speaks to the roles of women,” she said. “It is the role of women in humanity in difficult situations or simply our role in mortality and birth and death.”

For Xin, who will be doing the work, the shrill and passionate solo feels especially good for the time – because of the pandemic, to be sure, but now even more so in the wake of the recent attacks on Asians. “I never felt emotionally ready for the play until this time,” she said. “It’s like you want to go somewhere, and it’s hard and it’s scary, but you have to go. You don’t know what is safe and what is not.

The final collaboration is “Lloyd,” a solo by Cohan, a former dancer with the Graham company who founded The Place, a renowned contemporary dance school in London, and died in January. To do this, Knight plays with a painting by Johnson from his “Anxious Red” series. It again embodies the tension and trauma of the solo, echoing the sensation of the present moment. The aggressive and disturbing paintings come to life in a vibrant bloody red that is both rich and terrifying. Johnson began creating the Body of Work, an extension of his ‘Anxious Men’ series, last March when the shutdown took place.

“It was about fear, a little bit of the unknown, a reluctance to project too far into the future,” Johnson said, “because there were so many question marks about next steps.”

Although not a dancer, Johnson said that as an artist he viewed his process as a dance; as a young man, he was attracted to urban dance and station wagons. Now his approach often refers to the “circular motion that occurs in break dancing so as to set a scene, to walk around, to make full, robust movements with my body,” he said. “So I’m very much aware of the physicality or the physical aspect of a painting’s performance. I’ve never been a painter who really emphasized some sort of wrist gesture. It’s often a full body set of movements that I use to bring an image to life.

The movement of his painting – juxtaposed with Knight’s dance – underlines the startling tension of anxiety. In the austere and haunting work, Knight, clad only in a pair of tight panties, swivels in the direction and stops to adopt certain poses that are “almost like tantrums in a way,” he said. declared. “It’s a complete build-up to the point where, in the end, I shake and spin around uncontrollably until I can’t take it anymore.”

In the solo, based on 17th century drawings by Andreas Vesalius, Cohan’s intention was to show what was under the skin; to reveal, in a sense, how difficult it is for a body to stand up. “It’s like a statue slowly crumbling in place,” Eilber said.

During filming, Knight, who had rehearsed the solo with Cohan before his death, was transformed: “I have to take myself mentally,” he says. “When I was in this open space – on the stage with the lights – I fully understood what Bob wanted: I felt alone.

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