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Graham ascendant

New leader revives a famed (and troubled) dance company

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Published 10/11/2006

Just like a Greek goddess in one of her renowned dances, defying the gods, legs splayed, torso close to the ground, Martha Grahamís spirit has transcended time. The modern dancer and choreographer lives on in legend, still celebrating on the stage with the current incarnation of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

But like the paths of many mythological figures, Grahamís way, changing the shape of dance history, wasnít easy. She rejected classical ballet ó women en pointe, corseted and carried about by men. Instead she chose to perform barefoot, using a muscular system of contraction and release, so that energy flowed from the midsection. In her style, arms and legs are not long lines, but may be bent, and leaps are often forward but not necessarily high. When men and women partner in a Graham piece, they may look like modern sculpture, fitting together in odd combinations that, by now, of course, seem almost ordinary. In "Diversion of Angels," from 1948, she epitomizes womanhood and eroticism in a way that was liberating for the time.

Her struggle continued after she passed away. When she died in 1991, her heir, Ron Protas, anointed himself artistic director.

"He proceeded to run the company into the ground," says current company director Janet Eilber, a brilliant Graham dancer from 1972 to 1982.

"After 10 years, the board fired him, but the company was in such bad shape that they suspended operations." To make matters worse, when the company performed a one-night event, Protas sued and barred the company from performing her works.

Nonetheless, says Eilber, "We emerged victorious." Except for two ballets, Graham dances remain available for reproduction. Grahamís classics "Diversion of Angels," "Appalachian Spring" and "Lamentation" will be performed this weekend.

A Detroiter by birth, Eilber moved as a young girl to Michiganís Interlochen Academy for the Arts, where her parents were on faculty. She danced with Grahamís company from 1972 to 1982, and has been artistic director since June 2005. She has proved an inspired choice. When the group last performed here in 1994, local choreographer Peter Sparling, also a former Graham dancer, says, "The company lacked consistency." He continues, "I saw the company last year, a much younger company, and found myself being hypercritical of seeing the dances and my memory of being in them."

But with Eilber at the helm, the group has a new lease on life. Making its Ann Arbor debut, this company embodies both tradition and innovation. Eilber says, "I have a very specific goal, which I believe is important to modern American dance in general. It was just about 100 years ago that Graham began her career, propelled by a revolt against classical ballet ó out with the old and in with the new."

To keep the older works alive and in their historical context, Eilber incorporated a brief introduction to each show, presented by one of the companyís dancers.

Upping the ante is a brand-new program to be performed on Friday evening. "Prelude and Revolt" is seven dances charting Grahamís emergence, beginning with works by her teachers, the pioneers Isadora Duncan and Ted Shawn. This part of the performance, covering 1906 to 1936, is accompanied by film, projections and narration.

"We even read a copy of her rejection letter to Joseph Goebbels [Nazi propaganda minister during World War II], saying why she turned down his invitation to perform at the Munich Olympics in 1938," Eilber says. The second half of the program will be ballets from the post-1936 period.

Eilber points out that "everything Graham did was tied to the pulse of what happened in America." Adds Sparling, "What is lasting about Marthaís work is that the dances still resonate and speak to the times."

Martha Graham Dance Company performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13, and 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538 or 1-800-221-1229.

Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to

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