Misery leaves company

Martha Graham rises from the ashes.

STRETCH ARMS STRONG Katherine Crockettperforms Lamentation.

STRETCH ARMS STRONG Katherine Crockettperforms Lamentation. Photo: Petra Bober

In the spring of 2006, the Martha Graham Dance Company was a mess: There was considerable debt, performers who hadn’t been paid and suspicion concerning the vision of its recently appointed artistic director, Janet Eilber, a former dancer who lived in California. She succeeded the artistic team of Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, longtime company members who stepped down abruptly—and for some in the troupe, the crisis had as much to do with loyalty to them as it did with job security.

But as evidenced by a substantially lowered deficit—from about $5 million to $500,000—and a two-week season opening at the Joyce Theater beginning Tuesday 11, Eilber, along with executive director LaRue Allen, has clearly turned things around. “LaRue and I are kind of like, ‘Oh my God, it worked,’ ” Eilber says, laughing. “When I think back to a year and a half ago? I must have been crazed.”

But even then, Eilber, who continues to split her time between the coasts, was the epitome of elegance and common sense. One of her most pressing concerns remains making Graham’s work relevant in the 21st century. To that end, she’s instituted preperformance talks, delivered by dancers to provide context for each program, as well as cost-effective tour packages, such as “Essential Graham,” that allow for fewer dancers on the road. “In part because of the debt, we had to streamline, to be more earned-income aware and to develop a much more flexible roster of offerings, which was part of my mission anyway,” Eilber says. “We were just forced into accelerating that process.”

The Graham company opens the Joyce’s fall season with a new work, Lamentation Variations, which features the responses of three choreographers—Aszure Barton, Larry Keigwin and Richard Move—to Lamentation, Graham’s legendary 1930 portrait of a grieving woman. A film of Graham performing her choreography will be screened, followed by the short new interpretations; each choreographer was given a 90-minute audition with the dancers, ten hours of rehearsals and the mandate of basic costumes and either public-domain music or silence. For Eilber, this is how you make a new dance out of thin air—and not, she stresses, an unofficial audition for a resident choreographer. “I’m not sure we’ll ever have one,” she says. “The first part of this mission is to have new work on the program that has an organic relationship with Martha.”

Within the organization, Eilber has appointed Denise Vale as senior artistic associate, brought in many former dancers to coach and instituted a group of junior coaches (experienced company members such as Elizabeth Auclair, Tadej Brdnik and Miki Orihara) to work with dancers on new roles during initial rehearsals. The new, streamlined approach also means that the dancers perform much more frequently. “I can’t wait for the New York audiences to see Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Blakeley White-McGuire, Jennifer DePalo—they are now rock stars,” Eilber says happily. “And, of course, Miki, Elizabeth and Katherine Crockett are in the upper stratosphere.” Leading the men, she says, are Brdnik, David Zurak and Maurizio Nardi.

“This year, we can actually focus on the dancing, which is what we’re here to do,” Brdnik explains. “Before, former company members were invited to come in for one rehearsal, give their opinions and leave. The big difference now is that people like Donlin Foreman, Peter London and Linda Hodes are coming in to really coach us on the roles. And Janet is becoming much more involved, especially in dramatic pieces like Cave of the Heart and Night Journey. She has such a polite nature. And then you realize, when she’s actually in the studio, that she has a lot of fire.”

Recently, Eilber, who became an actor after her dancing career ended, taught an intensive workshop, which incorporated a technique class geared toward performance (“the meshing of those emotional images while you’re studying the physical,” as she puts it) and a thorough picking apart of Graham’s 1932 Satyric Festival Song. “We talk a lot about the personal choices that make a performance unique,” she says. “It’s very fine-grained work.”

As Brdnik has observed, it is likely Eilber’s dramatic approach to dancing that has given her an openness to interpretation. “She doesn’t come to the studio and say, ‘Okay, this is how we’re going to do it.’ She allows you time to explore and to see if your interpretation has a different value than she has envisioned,” he explains. “She looks for the things that work. And it’s a little bit sad to say, but that’s refreshing. You become in charge of your own performance, as she always says. And not only your performance, but your development.”

Martha Graham Dance Company is at the Joyce Theater Tue 11–Sept 23.