The year 2020 marks the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, and for the occasion the Martha Graham Dance Company is performing “The EVE Project,” a showcase of dances by revolutionary modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, as well as newly commissioned works by female choreographers. On January 24 the company’s dancers will take the stage of The Granada Theatre for a UCSB Arts & Lectures performance that artistic director Janet Eisner called a way to “celebrate the revolutionary way Martha created female characters.”
“No one created female characters like Martha,” Ms. Eisner told the News-Press.
According to Ms. Eisner, “The EVE Project” started development about five years ago, anticipating the lead-up to the 100-year anniversary of American women receiving the right to vote. During the years the show was pieced together, cultural conversations centered on women such as the #MeToo movement took off, so Ms. Eisner believes it is appropriate timing for “The EVE Project” to run now.
In terms of thematic content, the performance will remain faithful to Ms. Graham’s original dances and depict subjects like grief, love, oppression, and empowerment. The first topic will be central to “The Lamentation Variations,” a piece consisting of both Ms. Graham’s 1930 solo dance “Lamentation,” and three short contemporary dances. Beginning with a film of Ms. Graham dancing the titular solo, the segment will be followed by three short dances choreographed by Michelle Dorrance, Aszure Barton, and Liz Gerring. The three new pieces deal with grief just like “Lamentation” does, but they represent three distinct creative voices. According to Ms. Eisner, commissioning new works that would cohesively gel with Ms. Graham’s wasn’t difficult because their creators took the time to make sure that their pieces would fit nicely with “Lamentation.”
“They were very thoughtful about how their work will mesh with Martha’s,” she said of Ms. Dorrance, Ms. Barton, and Ms. Gerring.
However, that doesn’t mean that they imitated “Lamentation” in their work, as the three new dances are the unique visions of their respective choreographers.
“I have plenty of Martha Graham. I don’t need Martha Graham light,” Ms. Eisner said.
For the remainder of the performance, the company will stick to performing Ms. Graham’s best-known dances. The opening “Diversion of Angels” focuses on the theme of love and features three women dancers, possibly representing the same female character throughout the different stages of love in a woman’s life. The show’s closer “Chronicle” was described by Ms. Eisner as one of Ms. Graham’s “top masterworks” and a “powerful anti-war, anti-oppression dance.” The artistic director added that these expressed themes were demonstrably significant to Ms. Graham, as she declined Adolf Hitler’s invitation to perform in Berlin for an event concurrent with the Olympic Games in 1936, the same year “Chronicle” was debuted. Most pointedly related to the event’s celebration of women is the duet “Errand into the Maze,” in which a woman overcomes her worst fears, embodied in the performance by the mythical beast the Minotaur. Whereas the ancient Greek myth from which “Errand into the Maze” daws from tells of the warrior Theseus venturing into a labyrinth to face the Minotaur, Ms. Graham’s duet replaces the male hero with a female.
Having recently observed a renewed public interest in Ms. Graham’s work as well as a revived curiosity in the modernist artistic movement that she played a large role in, Ms. Eisner hopes “The EVE Project” adds even more people to the many who already appreciate Ms. Graham’s work. The modernist movement that influenced American art in the 1920s and 1930s stressed stripping away extraneous decoration from a piece of art until all that remained was its essence, and Ms. Eisner credited this as the reason why Martha Graham dances are so timeless. Because they didn’t indulge in once-modern fashions that would later go out of style, the artistic director believes Ms. Graham’s works don’t look dated and resultantly appeal to modern viewers.
“They’re not held back by the trappings of any time period,” Ms. Eisner said.
This not only goes for the look of the show, but its thematic substance as well. While Ms. Graham’s choreography spoke to societal issues that were significant during her lifetime, their applicability to America and the world in 2020 makes Ms. Eisner confident that the dances in “The EVE Project” will resonate with contemporary audiences. That resonance, she expects, will be on a deeper level than just satisfying one’s historical curiosity about some old dances.
“You’re not coming to a historical performance,” Ms. Eisner said.
Tickets for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s performance of “The EVE Project” on January 24 cost between $56 and $71 and can be purchased online at www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu. The performance begins at 8 p.m. at the Granada Theatre, located at 1214 State St.