D Kevin McNeirLifestyle

Martha Graham Dance Company Prepares for Return to D.C. Stage

Founder Proclaims: ‘First We Have to Believe and Then We Believe.'

In celebration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which finally extended the right to vote to women in the U.S., the Martha Graham Dance Company brings The EVE Project — a guiding force behind the Company’s previous two seasons — to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, March 5-7, in the Eisenhower Theater.

The EVE Project honors not only the progress of women in the last 100 years but also provides entrée into today’s most pressing conversations about gender and power. New works from several female choreographers have been commissioned, and the classic repertory will feature both Martha Graham’s heroines and anti-heroines — all with an underlying statement about female power.

The performances will honor female empowerment and engagement, featuring signature Graham Classics alongside new work by Pam Tanowitz and works by Aszure Barton, Liz Gerring and Michelle Dorrance. Last seen at the Kennedy Center in 2008, the world-renowned Martha Graham Dance Company’s EVE Project serves as a collection of new commissions and classics that make impactful statements about female power.

Recognized as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham (1979 Kennedy Center Honoree) altered the fabric of dance by creating an entirely new style of movement. Her approach to presenting women onstage remains revolutionary. Instead of gentile goddesses, princesses, flowers, or swans, she created complex, flawed, ambitious and powerful women onstage often modeled after real individuals and characters of mythology.

“[The EVE Project] aims to connect audiences — in the ephemeral and visceral way dance does — to both historical and contemporary ideas of the feminine,” said Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

“It provides a lens through which to consider Graham’s transformative views of women in concert with the immediate and personal creations of today’s visionary dance makers,” she said.

Exploring the rich legacy of modern dance and its influence on contemporary work, the engagement of the Martha Graham Dance Company serves as part of the dance season’s celebration of legends in American Modern Dance.

Reflections from Two Graham Dancers

The Martha Graham Dance Company has been a leader in the evolving art form of modern dance since its founding in 1926. Today, the company continues to embrace a new programming vision that showcases masterpieces by Graham alongside newly-commissioned works by contemporary artists.

With programs that unite the work of choreographers across time within a rich historical and thematic narrative, the company actively works to create new platforms for contemporary dance and multiple points of access for audiences.

Two current members of the Company spoke with The Washington Informer about their careers, how they began drawn to dance and the challenges they’ve faced.

Leslie Andrea Williams, 26, born in Newport News, Va., and raised in Raleigh, joined the Graham Company in July 2015.

Marzia Memoli, 23, born in Palermo, Italy, marks her fourth season with the Company. Both continue their careers as a dancer, performer and artist with the Company.

Both dancers were asked the following questions; their answers appear below:

1) What’s the best thing about being a member of the ensemble, particularly given its diverse membership?

2) When did you know you wanted to become a dancer and can you explain the details briefly to further explain that moment or incident?

3) How long have you been with the company and what was your greatest apprehension/fear/concern as you first joined them? How was that resolved?

4) What advice do you give to youth who have similar aspirations to become a professional dancer? Often youth look at the glitz and glamour but have little awareness of the work — the blood, sweat and tears that goes into achieving the dream.

5) When you have free time, what do you like to do?

Williams: I love my colleagues. We are a small group so it is important to stick together and support each other when things sometimes get tough. Because it is such a diverse group with diverse ethnicities and dance backgrounds, I learn something from all my peers. Especially the more senior dancers.

My mother put me in dance class when I was three. First, it was gymnastics but unfortunately I couldn’t do a cartwheel to the left so I got cut. Dance was something I was naturally good at so I just kept with it until it got serious. At first I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Later I began to integrate the ballet and modern divisions. I was being exposed to a way of dancing that felt more true to who I was. After I got into Juilliard it became official to me that this was the path I was going to take and there was no other option. I always knew I was going to be a dancer, because I had given so much time and energy to the craft, it was now just a matter of figuring out what kind of dance I would be doing professionally. It was time for me to move to New York, get my degree, and work in the dance world. I ended up doing just that.

This is my fifth season with the company. I joined in 2015, right after graduating from Juilliard. My greatest concern going in was that I did not have enough Graham technique training and would fall short in the company. While that ended up being sort of true, I realized that most of the dancers I was working with were also new to the company and still learning new things about the technique. I had to trust that the training I received at Juilliard was more than exceptional. I learned what it means to delve into a Graham work and understand the emotional, spiritual and psychological connection to the technique in order to tell the story. I even had my first out of body experience on stage doing the role. I realized I had nothing to fear.

There is a lot of sacrifice involved in being a dancer. My parents invested so much in my dance. They used to take off work early to drive me all the way across town to practice and would spend copious amounts of money on private dance lessons and pointe shoes. They also allowed me to move out of the house at age fourteen to go to boarding school to train, which was a big deal. Professional dancing requires a lot of self-sacrifice and can be lonely and difficult at times. Most of the time it is not glamorous. You have to remember how dance makes you feel…it is fun! It’s invigorating. The happy times you experience in life can make the hard times in the studio feel less difficult, and ultimately you will be a better performer because of it.

I do as many things as possible that do not remind me of my job. I hang out with friends, I go to dinners, and I go out dancing. But mostly I love spending time with myself — reading, listening to music, journaling, being creative, or taking myself out on a date to the movies. I also do a bit of freelance work. I performed recently with world-renowned artist and director Rashid Johnson for his new gallery exhibition in the city and I dance/model for fashion brands. I also model for the dancewear brand Capezio. For the holidays, I solo traveled to Morocco and then to Paris for a photo shoot with some highly creative friends. I definitely recommend Paris for New Years. I am always on the move. But it’s lovely because these experiences teach me so much when I step back into my workplace.

Memoli: When I first joined the company, I was moving from a school environment from another country and such a different culture, to a professional/working environment with people from all over the world with diverse backgrounds. I felt as if I was a tiny little ant at the beginning, because I was and still am the youngest. But, I found beautiful and caring people, all very different, that since day one, have helped me through a lot, and with whom I share the best and worst moments in life and career, all connected by one big passion. I think this is the best thing of being part of this ensemble–to have found a group with whom you share your everyday life. You grow individually and artistically and you can call them family — that means discussion and misunderstanding too, of course. Also considering the fact that we are always in a work environment — we all know, specifically in the dance field, competition is real, and does exist but is not personal, and not as important as being good people and caring about each other.

I never really knew when and why I wanted to become a dancer — it has always been inside me. I believe I knew from four years old, I guess. You’ll probably think “oh, you don’t know what you want at four” and well, yes that is true, but I always felt something inside, a bit, in my heart, to never stop moving forward and dance. I remember my first dance class, how happy and satisfied I was, I just thought: “this is my place, I feel good, I feel happy!” But you never really understand what it means to “be a dancer” a professional one in the world, something that not just for you, or in your school and in your small community, until you get your first job, I believe. I never took dance as a hobby or viewed as something I did in my free time, I’ve always taken dance so seriously, always the little girl by herself, doing her hair and helping the others, always the first one in the studio and the last one to leave. At that time, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but now, looking back, I was creating a good foundation, and, it has always been so spontaneous and natural. At 14, I felt the desire to leave my city, my family, and learn more from the world. I was starting to feel that my city wasn’t enough for me, I needed more, so I took the next step and I decided to move to Milano at first and then Switzerland, at Maurice Bejart’s school.

I joined the company four years ago when I was 19. It was my first contract in such a big company. I was scared, I was freaking out actually, from the first moment. The company was performing in Palermo, and I was still studying in Switzerland, so I flew to Palermo and asked to take some classes. That’s when they offered me a contract and a few months later my life took a completely different path. At first, I was so happy and proud, I had made it, but, then, I felt lost! I didn’t speak any English and I had to jump on stage after just two weeks from joining; my only language, my way to communicate, was dance. Maybe the worst thought I had at that time was: Am I enough? Am I really capable to do this?  A professional dancer, I couldn’t believe it. But I stopped questioning myself — I just did it, and it worked. I was exhausted, every day, like you actually are when you dance professionally and I slowly understood how to face fears and insecurities. They are still there, but, with time and experience, you figure out your way to work on them.

You know when you are following the right track — you feel it inside of you and nobody is able to take that from you. There will be a lot of “No” responses, of blood, tears, and doors that will close in your face, but if you don’t give up, if you trust yourself, your capabilities, your talent, and your emotions (good or bad ones), something will work out — something bigger than you didn’t even expect. Dance is not easy. You have to face a world that constantly asks you to grow, to do more, to be better, and you will feel the pressure, the vulnerability. You will learn about yourself more than anyone else, and it is going be painful. But, ALL of that is worth it. You go up on stage, and all the sacrifices, hard work, pressure, anxiety — it goes away, because this is your place, the stage is your home, and you’ll need that forever.

When I have a long layoff and free time my favorite thing is to go back home in Italy. Seeing my family, my lifetime friends, to catch up on everything I missed of their lives; all of them, also from far away, help me push through, so they are a big part of my life. I love keeping care of my body as well — if I’m not dancing I will always move or take new classes, everything that is fun and in the meantime connected to dance. I love spending time in the city and shopping. I love cooking also even if I’m not the best cook. I also enjoy watching movies and rest sometimes, of course.

For more information about the company, go to www.marthagraham.org.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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