TURNING 93 years old this month, the internationally acclaimed Martha Graham Dance Company remains pretty spry for the oldest dance company in America, continuing to wow audiences across the world and commission new works from up-and-coming choreographers to push the boundaries of contemporary movement. And with the company swinging through Sarasota this past February at the invitation of the Sarasota Ballet, SRQ took a moment with Artistic Director Janet Eilber to talk preserving a legacy, embracing change and the importance of breathing.

How do you put together a show like the one we saw in Sarasota?   We wanted to show the audiences different periods in Martha Graham’s long career. So, we have one of her famous Greek works on the program [Errand into the Maze], we have one of her most beautiful abstract expressionist works—that’s Diversion of Angels—and we have a solo, Ekstasis, which really shows the beginnings of her new style of dancing. It’s from 1933, and it was a very important solo in terms of the discovery of her style. She discovered how meaningful the movement of the torso could be in that solo, and that’s elemental to her dance style.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Why the torso?   Martha Graham was dissatisfied with the dance of the 1910s. Early American dance was a very escapist and decorative, vaudevillian type of thing. She wanted to express real human concerns and emotions, and she discovered that our emotions ride on our breath—when you laugh or when you sob, there’s this impulse from the center of the torso. And she took that to the next step. She developed it theatrically. 

Is this the “contraction and release” that Graham often spoke of?   Absolutely. The contraction is the exhale, when your torso empties and curves into itself, and the release is the inhale, when the torso expands and sends energy out. Those two movements are the motor of all Martha Graham movements—the coiling in of energy of the contraction, and the spewing out of energy of the release. And there are hundreds of different contractions, hundreds of different releases. It’s the driving force behind all of the dancing that we do.

All of the dancing comes from the torso?    Well, the core informs the extremities. If you wanted to throw up your arms, it begins in the center of the torso, it begins in the back. Like a baseball pitcher, for example. When he throws, he doesn’t just throw with his arm; he uses the entire weight of his body. He curls into a grand contraction on his back foot, and then he releases the whole torso, releases the arm, releases the ball. The whole weight of the body is behind that movement.

The name Martha Graham has weight behind it, but is it ever intimidating as well, as shoes to fill?   No. Martha was so much about the future, and she was so much about change. She was never a person to say, “You have to do it the way we did it 20 years ago. You have to dance my roles exactly the way I danced them.” She was quite the opposite. When I danced some of her roles, she encouraged me—expected me—to bring myself to each role, and to use my unique power. She was very empowering, and I’m still riding on that expectation. She would not want us to be reverential about the past.

Yet what remains constant, even as the company celebrates 93 years?  The one thing Martha held onto was the emotional message, the emotional impact. As she allowed dancers’ legs to go higher, and jumps go higher, and she adjusted choreography for audience expectations, the core theme of each dance was revered. And everything that was adjusted, was adjusted in light of what that message had to be. What I take from Martha is that we embrace change, but we maintain the power of the message.

What do you hope an audience will take away from a night with the Martha Graham Dance Company?   People will recognize the genius of Martha Graham and that her works are timeless, and they’ll be enthralled by our current company. Our dancers are spectacular 21st century athletes. They’re passionate, they’re sexy, they’re beautiful, and they bring these masterpieces to life.