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Dancing on the high wire

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The Martha Graham Dance Company, the opening act of this season's American Dance Festival, canceled their scheduled performances June 8 through June 10, leaving the first three nights of the ADF season blank. Fiscal problems brought the company's operations to a standstill on May 25. The final word that the company would not perform came last Wednesday.

"We know there are so many amazing dance companies out there," said Rebecca Hix, director of ADF performances, "but one week before we open is just too late to schedule a replacement."

The Graham company was to play an important role in this summer's offerings at ADF, a season designed to trace modern dance from its inception in the 1920s through the year 2000. They would have performed seminal works from Graham's personal repertoire--Errand into the Maze, Appalachian Spring and Diversion of Angels. But now the fiscal impasse has forced the company to cancel all summer performances, and quite possibly permanently close the Martha Graham school operated out of rented studios in Manhattan.

The loss of such an influential company defines the fragile nature of dance as it struggles to keep pace with other forms of entertainment. Recently, while jettisoning the artifacts of my life during a move, I found an old ADF program from the early '90s. It was chrome yellow with no illustrations, just black typeset with information in bold print. In the last few years, glossy press kits arrived in the mail with myriad photos and reviews, attesting to the need for slick marketing to survive in a strongly visual art form.

Dance must compete with film and rock concerts in a nation with an economy that is year by year more driven by marketing campaigns than it is affected by expert opinions. Martha Graham herself was more than any photo, and her staging more than glossy materials could document. Surely some of the financial crisis her company faced comes from the need for promotion without the grand dame herself to spearhead the campaign. There is just too little room at the top, and without a living choreographer-creator to offer leadership and continued fundraising, companies will continue to be vulnerable to dissolving during dicey periods.

The indisputable diva-mother of modern, Graham developed the Graham technique that has been taught for years at the school where most of the company dancers trained. Graham dancers learned to move all gesture, all form, from the center of their bodies. And their bodies were substantially heftier and more violently expressive than dancers--particularly female dancers--in the 19th century. Ironically, though Americans no longer envision the anorexic bodies of Old World ballerinas when they think dance, the economic base for modern dance companies remains as half-starved as the prima ballerinas beyond whom the 20th-century dance world worked so hard to move. All the ins and outs of the Graham company's financial struggles--the budget gone too far in the red for too long--will be discussed for some time. More intimately, in the dance world and art circles, the outcry may echo Peter Martins' comment that this would never happen to such a historically important company in Europe, where a safety net of government-supported arts exists.

On Thursday, May 25, the dance company's tearful dancers had their last practice. The New York Times reported that the group may reinvent itself in the fall, but, for this summer, performances are suspended. Though her company won't appear, the presence of Martha Graham will inevitably be felt at ADF in the successes of her dancers-turned-choreographers, and some of their pupils, most notably Mere Cunningham's student, Trisha Brown, and Graham's student, Paul Taylor.

Taylor turned his back on the Graham style early in his career, refusing to emulate her self-absorbed works. Still, in Taylor's choreography it is uncanny the way movements--particularly the angular curved upraised arms--derive from movements in Graham's repertoire. But the difference remains: In pieces like Esplanade and Aureole, Taylor defines his works around pure form and movement rather than psycho-narrative. Graham's works probed the intensity of self-discovery, becoming almost as mythical as she did, cast as the lonely, suffering heroine. But too often all her dancers looked alienated and alone, even when dancing en masse. They rarely touched, and when they did, the presence of the dominating heroine or the male archetype appeared at best surreal, and at worst, mechanical. When Taylor's dancers touch--though the story's rarely explicit--a tenderness emanates from the shapes of their embraces and the often joyous response to human connection. The Paul Taylor Dance Company will close the festival July 20-22.

Along with Taylor, the ADF companies that work more purely from movement will be Pilobolus, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Doug Varone and Mark Morris (though Tharp has created pieces like The Hundreds that are pure performance art). Also, almost all of these companies have experimented more freely with narrative in recent pieces, as if to return to a story is necessary somehow to the survival of modern dance as a means of communication.

The recent winners of the 20th Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, Pilobolus will perform from June 13-17. Famed for their athletic performances and for building unusual forms with the dancers' merging bodies, the company moved in the direction of narrative last year. They collaborated with author Maurice Sendak, who designed the costumes and backdrop, to create a piece entitled The Selection that remembered the Holocaust. The company, noted for the kids' night appeal of its repertoire, made a startling rendering of challenging historical subject matter with this performance.

Known for her daring choreography to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, an opera based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice complete with a airborne nymph, Trisha Brown and her company (June 29-July 1) will dance to more contemporary music in her collaboration with jazz trumpeter and composer David Douglas. The collaboration is one in the series of Doris Duke Millennium Awards for Modern Dance & Jazz Music, pieces that have sister performances at the Kennedy Center.

Twyla Tharp's collaboration with Donald Knaack is the last of the series to premiere at ADF--July 6 through 8. The six collaborative pieces, composed over three years in the series, were created as a means to explore the relationship between jazz music and modern dance, two distinctively American art forms. Both are notable for their rebellion against the highly structured white European art forms of classical music and classical ballet. Jazz and modern each rely on highly individualistic interpretation of music and movement.

From July 10-12, Doug Varone & Dancers will perform an ADF commission. Varone has delved into narrative, basing a choreography on the paintings of Edward Hopper in a piece exploring relationships, but he is known for his athleticism and his ability to express deep emotion. On July 13-15, the Mark Morris Dance Group will show how they can move with ease from abstraction to narrative in a program. Love is often a Morris theme, resisting and falling and all the human places between, and the company has been exalted for a keen honesty that leaves the audience changed after a performance.

Dance theater has gained more splash and spotlight at ADF in recent years. In 1999, Martha Clarke brought ADF the enactment of several Chekhov stories. From June 22-24 this year, ADF has scheduled the José Limón Company, billed as the oldest modern dance company in its 52nd year, and known for being a trailblazer in dance theater. The Limón Company, which survived Limón's death by adding innovative works to the well-known company classics, pioneered the idea that it was possible for a company to evolve after the death of its founder, an idea impossible for the Graham company to make a reality this year.

Many choreographers also use elements of acting to highlight a narrative. Performing June 26-28, Mark Dendy, a native North Carolinian, employs theater in his pieces and has been awarded a Bessie citing his "wicked alchemy of character and performance ... " Dendy was deeply influenced by working with Jane Comfort, who received her art degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her company, known for questioning traditional views of gender in her postmodern works, has also reinterpreted The Glass Menagerie to dance. They will debut at ADF on July 3. To round out the programs, on June 20, Eiko and Komo will return to ADF with their staccato, stylized technique that defies categorization. International choreographers nights in late July will include dances from France, the United States, Indonesia and China.

It may be prescient that ADF will open on June 11 with Ann Carlson, the festival's most avant-garde performance artist to grace the ADF roster to date. Carlson has even become the lawn while in residence at Riverdale's Wave Hill. She has used real people in her works, both handicapped and professionals. In her renowned work Animals, the choreographer dances with a kitten and then, naked, she moves like a feline across the stage.

The move in these dance programs to narrative and theater--in particular Carlson's embracing of all people in her works--suggests that, in the new millennium, dance may be taken out of the parlor of dance history and into the laps of real people. The message seems to have odd messengers--the cutting edge performance artist-dance groups--but the return to narrative looks like it will take hold with more conservative choreographers as well. Even the purest movement dance-maker, Paul Taylor, has played around with stories, as in his recent tango piece Piazolla Caldera.

The return of modern dance to psychodrama and narrative--both Graham fortes--will at least reference the works of the absent Martha Graham Dance Company. The "Marthalode" endures, even if her company may not last the year. In her essay "I Am a Dancer," Graham said, "We have all walked the high wire of circumstance at times." Her dancers--as well as the administrators and volunteers at ADF--may find solace in her words today as the ADF staff calls all patrons with tickets to the canceled performances to arrange remuneration. Martha Graham lived on the edge, and so has her company. It's quite probable that most of our modern dance companies do. In a world where the extinction of species occurs almost daily, such delicacy ought to be savored. I hope patrons flock to ADF this year. The experience could be like holding 100-year-old fine china in hand, or like peering through fine lead crystal held up to the sun. The moment seems apt for looking into the light. EndBlock

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