Modern Dance Greats: Continuing a Collection

This spring has inspired a return to dance scholarship, in viewing, writing, and my own dance-making. I began venturing back into such territory when I decided to reinvent an idea for an evening-length performance piece, How to Make a Methodist Salad. This is a work-in-progress based on experiences growing up in the Midwest, and takes its starting point from a solo of the same name I made for my MFA concert in 2008. I always knew I wanted to turn the 8-minute solo into an evening-length work, but I did not know how. So the idea lay dormant, and my mind worked its unconscious magic. This year it surfaced and somehow, I knew what it was, and what it was supposed to be.

Without going too far into my head and confounding any potential readers, the piece is a response to the pressures of being raised in the Midwest. It uses the movement vocabulary of modern dance legends (Graham, Taylor, Limon, Duncan, and Humphrey most notably, but there are others) fused with my own personal aesthetic, in order to pinpoint and universalize certain developmental moments. The entire piece revolves around the so-called “Methodist salad,” which is made onstage at the beginning of the piece and follows the characters around for the rest of the night.

I had the thread, now I needed research. I dug up videos of Graham, Taylor, Cunningham, Limon, anything and everything I remembered from my past studies, and anything new that surfaced in my search. I spent ages in the studio in a long black skirt, trying on some Martha for size. I built the bones of the new work, which manifested in a new solo, quartet, and duet as well as a last-minute explanatory preface that all appeared in ACW Dances’ recent spring show. I’m now looking forward to undertaking building the whole work this coming season.

Recently, I had the incredibly good fortune to witness, live, some of the dance that I avidly poured over when renewing this project last fall. First, in late March, the Martha Graham Dance Company was presented at the Library of Congress. They performed the incomparable Appalachian Spring along with some lesser-known works Cave of the Heart and Dark Meadow (Suite). A wonderfully kind coordinator slipped me and my husband some tickets to an otherwise sold-out show and also granted me access to part of a rehearsal. This was a special show because Appalachian Spring was originally commissioned by the Library of Congress and performed on the library’s stage in October 1944. It was performed with the Isamu Noguchi set in all its frontier glory.

I don’t need to describe the piece to you; if you’re reading this far, chances are you have already seen it. If not, visit this link for the video. What I will do is describe my state while watching that piece and then the rest of the show. I felt humble, giddy, and appreciative. Those of us in attendance were witnessing something truly special: a revival of the old days complete with an orchestra. Watching Appalachian Spring live I could see Graham’s intense love of America, her ruthless optimism, and her fear that religion would confound and corrupt the frontier. I saw the sharpness, extension, and drama that characterized her work, and I recognized that I have, through my own dance education, internalized far more of her influence than I realized. And I saw that Graham was far, far better when dealing with story than with the abstract. With a story, her technique moved to greater heights to illuminate specific characters, inner passions, decisions and deficiencies; in the abstract, it became a Rolodex of stereotypical Graham movements done in succession to predictable classical music.

Fast-forward a few months and one ACW Dances concert later. Yesterday night I was able to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Kennedy Center. The company is at once capable, virtuosic, and rough around the edges. Most members are in their 40’s, several in their 30’s, with only a few hanging on in their 20’s. I attribute this to Taylor’s personal late start to dance, which may have given him the perspective to realize it’s not all about having the best pointed toes. We witnessed Arden Court (1981), Beloved Renegade (2008), and Promethean Fire (2002). The first and last pieces were accompanied by live orchestra, which was again a special treat. Arden Court is a satirical piece that pokes fun at romance and the bourgeoisie, and displays Taylor at his best. Interestingly, in the later works he seemed to rely more on classical ballet tropes, becoming more mundane and predictable as the material grew more story-oriented and specific. In direct opposition to Graham, his originality and genius seems to lie in the abstract.

Watching both performances inspired me to continue on my journey of making Methodist Salad. I am encouraged to keep investigating, to keep asking people to witness and respond to my art. Choreography is a dangerous game with many pitfalls. We choreographers all have our own idiosyncrasies and preferences. We all do the same movement in a billion different situations, causing consternation to our dancers who cannot remember the sequence or maybe which piece they are currently dancing. Sometimes we stumble on something truly new, and hope that an audience will come see it and give its existence meaning. Graham and Taylor, like all other artists, created truly inspiring work, ground-breaking work, mediocre work, and downright poor work. But they kept making work, and much of it is still around to leave its mark on us today.

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