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The Martha Graham Company revisits a 72-year-old dance -- don't call it a revival

June 8, 2010 |  5:00 am
When the Martha Graham Dance Company opens at New York’s Joyce Theater on Tuesday evening, the program’s centerpiece will be a new work that shares a title with a 72-year-old Graham dance. But no one is calling it a “revival” – with all the thorny debates over authenticity that  invites. While "American Document (2010) "evokes, and pays homage to, that earlier project, the company has completely reinvented it for today. Perhaps most surprising, a theater director – Anne Bogart – is at the helm, and six actors (members of SITI Company, which Bogart co-founded in 1992) will share the stage with 10 members of the Graham company.

“American Document (2010)” was a landmark Martha Graham work, announcing several startling new directions for the singular modern dance choreographer when it premiered in 1938. For the first time, a male dancer (Erick Hawkins, later to become Graham’s husband and a significant choreographer in his own right) had invaded the pristinely female ranks of her troupe.

And the choreographer, who had spent the bulk of the 1930s creating rigorously formal works, went in a more overtly theatrical direction in the piece, which ambitiously tackled the issue of what it meant to be an American at a moment of social and political activism, with fascism looming abroad. In a surprising move, Graham brought the spoken word to her stage; an actor declaimed texts ranging from Walt Whitman to the Declaration of Independence, from a Puritan fire-breathing sermon to the Emancipation Proclamation. A cast of 24 – with Graham and Hawkins leading the way, progressed through sections examining slavery, Native Americans and religious repression.


Some tantalizing evidence of the original work remains – a five-minute film fragment of Graham and Hawkins, a celebrated series of photographs by Barbara Morgan, Graham’s difficult-to-decipher notes and even the published version of the text. (The junior ensemble, Graham II, has undertaken a precise reconstruction and will present the portion completed thus far at a special matinee during the season.)

“As I was considering what to do with this blueprint we have for ‘American Document,’ Anne Bogart came to mind,” says Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Graham troupe. “Because so much of Martha’s work is dance theater, I decided that having a theater director bring this work to a new place would be most interesting.” SITI Company works in a strongly collaborative mode and takes a rigorously physical approach to training actors. “We realized how much we have in common – in terms of our training, and our aesthetic, and approach to character and emotion through physical gesture,” Eilber said of the two companies. “We’ve all contributed and guided throughout the whole process. It’s a group effort.”

In "American Document (2010)," members of both will speak as well as dance. Whitman is still represented, but this time around, the texts – collected and shaped by playwright Charles L. Mee – include Jack Kerouac and blogs written by soldiers in Iraq.

----Susan Reiter, reporting from New York

Photos: The Graham ensemble dances "American Document (2010)." Credit: Costas Cacaroukas