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An Architect of Dance 

On Saturday night in Spokane, 20th-century American dance will soar again to its pinnacle

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“Who’s Martha Graham?” After hearing the question for the third time, I figured that I should stop taking it for granted that everyone just knew.

Widely considered the mother of modern dance — and famous for having some of the ugliest feet around — dancer and choreographer Martha Graham remains a force to be reckoned with long after in her death in 1991. She’s an icon with a capital “I.” Think of her as a revolutionary artist — the Picasso of the dance world.

She founded her company in 1926, and the Martha Graham Dance Company continues to perform her ballets year after year around the globe.

“Martha Graham’s works are the core collection, if you think of us like a living museum,” Janet Eilber, the company’s artistic director since 2005, says. “We’re beginning to surround our core collection with cutting-edge, contemporary work that has a relationship to our core collection.”

Anyone who attends the Martha Graham Dance Company’s performance at the Fox on Saturday will be presented with sort of dance biography on the legendary Graham.

“We want to let people know that we’re bringing at lot of context to the program. With some perspective on Martha Graham’s life, I think that people understand why she’s recognized as a real genius,” says Eilber.

The show will begin with “Prelude and Revolt,” a multimedia “event” that traces Graham’s transformation from a member of the Denishawn Dance Company to the founder of her own company in a set of five dances, beginning with Denishawn works and transitioning into Graham’s.

“The audience can really see physically the vast difference between the pale, wafting era [of Denishawn] and the percussive, emotional style Martha invented in the early 1930s. [Denishawn wasn’t] saying what she wanted to say on stage,” explains Eilber.
Eilber recalls the enthusiastic reaction to a recent performance of “Prelude and Revolt” in Scottsdale, Arizona: “People say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve know about Martha Graham for years, but I really had forgotten what a remarkable revolution she generated — how original she was as an artist.’”

In a modern dance scene where newer is typically equated with better, Graham is often forgotten. But Eilber frequently hears from audience members who are moved after a Graham performance. “They remember how profound the dances are. It’s like we’re getting a whole new generation of fans.”

The company’s show at the Fox is its only stop in Washington during this tour, and the only show to feature live music, provided by members of the Spokane Symphony and the company’s conductor, Aaron Sherber.

“We’re very excited because dance is one of the things the Fox is able to do really well. The stage is big, but the venue is small enough that there’s an intimate feeling during dance performances,” says Annie Matlow, marketing and public relations director for the Fox Theatre and Spokane Symphony. “And Martha’s the top — you can’t get much better than that!”

Aside from its dynamic biography of Graham, the company will perform three of her masterworks. “Errand Into the Maze” (1947) is the story of Theseus encountering the Minotaur. In Graham’s version, Theseus is a woman, and her battle with the monster — a duet — is a statement about confronting the fears imbedded in her own psychology.

After the crisis of “Errand,” “Diversion of Angels” (1948) will dramatize three versions of love: adolescent, erotic and balanced.

“Appalachian Spring” (1944) — probably Graham’s most famous work, with a Pulitzer-winning score composed by Aaron Copland — will be the company’s final piece. Eilber describes the ballet as a statement about “American optimism and hope for the future — [Graham and Copeland] considered it their war effort in 1944.”

Eilber says that Graham’s work is “the human experience on stage.”

“The show is really for anyone, from the most sophisticated audience to someone who just wants to know, ‘What’s the deal with Martha Graham?’”

The Martha Graham Dance Company, accompanied by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, will perform at the Fox on Saturday, March 27, at 8 pm. Tickets: $30-$65; $14, students. Visit spokanesymphony.org or call 624-1200 or (800) 325-SEAT.

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