Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Everyone needs their version of a gold unitard

                                                          Viola Farber

On Sunday, after perspiring mightily on a long walk to midtown Baltimore, I had a moment.  It was one of those back-of-the-neck tingling, teeter-on-the-edge-of-my-seat, exclaiming "Oh-my-heavens" under my breath repeatedly moments. I think I may have announced "I'm having a moment" to my dear friend Shannon, who walked with me from Hampden to the Meyerhoff to watch Graham II perform. For free.  In an air conditioned auditorium.

I LOVE attending modern dance performances. LOVE them. Addiction in this case is not too strong a word.  I love bearing witness to the remarkable poetry that choreography holds, releases, and explodes, using music, sets, costumes, and of course, PEOPLE.  The human body is an eloquent thing, after all.  I would venture to say that I feel more alive when I watch a dancer on stage than I do in any other performance setting. Basketball holds a similar appeal, and there is a definite balletic grace in the agility and ragged movements that fly across a basketball court -all of which seem to defy logic. Like dance.

There is something about dance, especially modern dance, that really does make me swoon and feel slightly dizzy.  In a good way. At Sarah Lawrence (where I went for undergraduate studies), I was surrounded by dancers and by a legacy of modern dance that I knew even at the time was really something extraordinary.  Viola Farber, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, was the grand dame and life-force of the Sarah Lawrence dance department, and I came to know her through my friends and one of my professors, her own dear friend. I loved Viola. She walked with the aid of a cane, and had a shorn crew cut that I often found myself wanting to touch. I can still call to memory her sing-song voice, the staccato of which was uncannily matched by her movements on stage. I saw her perform once, and it shook me to my core. I think I cried. And when she passed away, not long after I graduated, I wept bitterly. 

Viola's students (many of whom were my friends) could do things with their bodies that I can not fathom.  Is it odd that I remember so many of their choreographed pieces?  I think not. A number of them are dancers today. One of my dearest friends, Angeline, came to Sarah Lawrence all the way from Hawaii.  She knew how to hula, which basically granted her star status in my book. And when I saw her dance, I understood why my best friend had fallen so madly in love with her.  She choreographed pieces that caused me to leap to my feet in admiration (much to Gaby's embarrassment). I don't think I missed one dance performance in my four years at Sarah Lawrence, and I can still remember costumes, movements, who danced in certain pieces, and a particularly beautiful piece that had me sobbing buckets.  It was choreographed to this song, and I still get chills when I hear it (especially the end)*:

*I had forgotten Sting had a long hair phase. Huh.  And also -  the SLC choreographers blew his video out of the water. 

When I lived in New York, I saw as much dance as I possibly could: Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Elizabeth Streb...it is insanely fun to go to dance performances in New York, a city where dance happens on subways, streets, in parks, and on sidewalks. There is a spontaneity in New York that is as infectious as its rhythmic and finely measured choreography - the perfect place for dancers and aficcionados of its art. And the feeling of walking into a performance space grasping a ticket, knowing that the next hour or two will be spent witnessing a series of small miracles...well. It rivals only the high one leaves with after the performance has ended, and one is brought back down to earth again, wanting a gold unitard. 

Shannon loves dance as much as I do.  She comes to my student dance performances with me, and we gush over the incredible talent so many of my students possess.  Seriously.  One of my former students was recently told in her first year of college that she was "too good" for the dance department and they recommended that she transfer to a university that would adequately challenge her.  Watching her dance is akin to experiencing some sort of angry angel, who has the singular gift of transforming that raw venom into a divine elixir. I could watch her dance for the rest of my life and never tire of it.  And when I first saw one of her choreographed pieces, I felt like a student at Sarah Lawrence again, memorizing the costumes, the movements, who occupied stage left, whose leg could kick higher in the air, and so on.. When Shannon first saw my former-especially-insanely-talented student dance, she GOT IT too and I remember leaving the auditorium with her, both of us giddy.  Both of us over-the-moon, ridiculously happy.

So it makes perfect sense that we would go to see Graham II together.  Sunday was the first time I had the gift of seeing any of Martha Graham's companies perform a full show. Which is kind of funny, given that she is the irrefutable mother of modern dance.  I mean, look at her and tell me that you don't feel every single emotion in the spectrum when you study this image:

If that isn't some sort of heaven, I don't know what is. How can a face be so still while the body does THAT?? How does that hand say so much?

Graham II is a company of young dancers, and on Sunday, they performed a small number of Martha Graham's pieces, choreographed during World War II, the Cold War, and so on...in the midst of all that ugliness, people had THIS.  Had I been alive, I would have clung to these choreographies like rosary beads. One of her most famous pieces (a bit of which was performed on Sunday), Appalachian Spring, had a score of Aaron Copland and a set by Isamu Noguchi.  Collaboration at its finest.  

My favorite piece was the final performance: a section from Acts of Light, choreographed in 1981.  It has to be one of the most technically difficult performances I have ever seen, with dozens of Graham's infamous contractions unleashed in double-time. I think I held my breath through most of it. At the end of the performance, the dancers looked like I did when I walked in off the street, "glowing" profusely (as my grandmother taught me was the proper word for perspiring).  I have seen another part of Acts of Light, and it dawned on me, watching the dancers wearing nothing but these amazing gold unitards, that this piece is really kind of a painful thing. All of these contractions - so eerily beautiful, are like bee stings, and like a bee sting, they make one feel more alive than before. Which is kind of the point of most things, I think.

And so Acts of Light rivals my favorite Carracci in its celebration of the human form, and of the complicated dance that life and death engage in so arduously. "There are daily small deaths," Martha Graham once noted.  A realist thick and through, she was also able to marvel in the magic that dance offers us, while regarding dance as something that we all must do, and CAN do to keep the human spirit intact, vibrating, alive.  Donning the gold unitard (which is something I desperately covet now) is really a form of personal truth, and we need these truths to find our own planets. It is a gift to throw one's arms in the air and make magic.

"I am absorbed in the magic of movement and light. Movement never lies. It is the magic of what I call the outer space of the imagination. There is a great deal of outer space, distant from our daily lives, where I feel our imagination wanders sometimes. It will find a planet or it will not find a planet, and that is what a dancer does."
-Martha Graham


  1. I remember coming to realise the power of modern dance when British Channel 4 did a series of Pina Bausch works back in the 80's. I have to say, though, that I found the soft, flowing movements more engaging than the harsh (albeit impressive) gymnastic ones.

    Lovely to see another post, Paige.

    Interesting. The verification for this comment is 'hareleep.'

  2. Thank you for telling/remonding us of what a wonderful person Viola was. An absolutely unqualified angel

  3. so finally the time and place i can adequately respond. a post that speaks volumes, a post that goes beyond words...possibly to that of dancing. i feel honored to be a part of this post and that day and that we both feel the joy of dance. i find it no coincidence that in the time i was declaring 'i am a dancer' that our paths crossed. i find it no coincidence that the title of the book given so kindly 'a ring of endless light' bears a striking resemblance to 'acts of light'. and i find it no coincidence that "Donning the gold unitard is really a form of personal truth, and we need these truths to find our own planets" is a reminder to hold true to ones personal truth. i will be the first to buy your book.