Karen Greenspan attended the first Graham Studio Series event: New@Graham with Andrea Miller, to see a working rehearsal of Miller’s new work, Scavengers, which will be premiered at the Joyce Theatre on the 26 October 2021.
The Graham Studio Series runs through to February 2022. More details.
I walk into the spacious studio space in the historic Westbeth apartment complex (previously the home of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for over 40 years) in New York City’s Greenwich Village, to an area of seating at one end of the ample space. This opening night of the reprise of the Martha Graham Company’s “Studio Series” is bubbling with anticipation as dancers return to the communal work they so dearly love, and dance lovers gather again to appreciate their skill and sublime creations. The series offers a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the company in their private rehearsal space. According to the company’s artistic director Janet Eilber, “The Studio Series emerged in 2013 out of an ongoing goal to offer more points of access to the company’s work.” This objective also drives their programming vision of presenting newly created works by contemporary artists alongside the Graham masterpieces. This year’s series of five studio events includes a glimpse of several new commissions for the company as well as narrated rehearsals and demonstrations of two Martha Graham classics.Tonight is a first – a public viewing of an actual working rehearsal with choreographer Andrea Miller as she refines her new piece Scavengers for the company just days before its world premiere at the Joyce Theater. We soon learn that this unique opportunity is partly driven by the artists’ need to use every spare moment of studio time to consolidate the work that is still in-process!
Andrea Miller is a much in-demand New York City choreographer with a company of her own called Gallim. She has received a list of sought-after commissions from such organizations as Lincoln Center and New York City Ballet as well as a year-long artistic residency from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As Eilber and Miller introduce the evening, it becomes clear that the Graham Company had commissioned Miller to create the work two years ago. But, as with so many things, Covid-19 shut everything down just as 65-70% of the dance had been sketched out. Miller revealed that the work was originally going to explore the organic behavior of algae! But when she and the company reconvened eighteen months later, Miller declared, “You know – things have changed.” She decided to discard a good deal of the earlier material and remold the work in response to the feelings of isolation experienced by many dancers over the past year. She identified the urge to dance with another person as an important space of research, pleasure, and healing. Miller explains, “Our work will be a simple, poignant exploration of the urge to dance with someone, maybe a stranger. With four duets and a solo, I am looking to strip away any narrative trappings and instead capture the feeling of wanting to ask someone to dance.”
Eilber explained to me via email that she was originally drawn to Miller because “Andrea, like Martha, gets down to the elemental. Her work is based on primal movement – body language. Her physical style and thematic choices are quite different. But she is connected to Martha through the basics of the heart.” As Miller recast her work to resonate with a new atmosphere emerging from the common experience of the pandemic, Eilber’s respect for her grew. She reflected, “It was a really difficult task and, in my mind, showcases her sensitivity as a deeply attuned creative thinker.”
Miller informs the audience that they will run the piece and then she will give the dancers notes. Burke Brown, the lighting designer, pipes in that he will be experimenting with lighting cues. Clad in rehearsal clothes, the dancers run the astounding, though unfinished set of relationship portraits to the somber strains of Will Epstein’s musical composition (also in-process). The work feels fresh and very personal for these dancers. Afterwards, Miller concentrates her attention on one of the couples, working with them center stage on refining the timing of various moves. At the same time, the other dancers fan out behind them in a giant semi-circle and continue to work independently through their own sequences. Miller announces that she is changing the order of the duets! The atmosphere grows a bit feisty as composer Will Epstein, who is in the audience, calls out, “We need to discuss that.”
During the Q and A, when asked about her creative process, Miller explains, “The first week [two years ago], I start with a workshop – to give the dancers an understanding of where I assign value in what we’re doing. We do exercises I have developed to give the dancers a quick entry into my approach to improvisation, movement generation and self-expression. It is a laboratory and conversation that creates a base that we work from.” Miller goes on to share that she takes a very collaborative approach – involving “lots of talk while generating and exploring movement together.” In other words, the choreography is an expression coming from these particular dancers. At this point in the process, they are evaluating the dance material for legibility. Do their movements read as they intend them to?
Next month the Studio Series will offer a program that deconstructs the Graham work Acts of Light followed in December, by a holiday event with highlights from Appalachian Spring. A peek into a new work in development from UK-based choreographer Hofesh Schecter is scheduled for early 2022. And an ambitious new collaborative work based on Graham’s Canticle for Innocent Comedians with each of the eight sections reimagined by eight exceptional choreographers will be the centerpiece for the final event of the series.
For the Studio Series, the Graham Company is offering both in-person tickets as well as live-stream tickets with additional seven-day access to the performance. I watched the second night’s event via live-stream. Although digital access is a welcome and useful option, the visual and sound quality of this initial program recording was unsatisfactory.
On opening night though, I am sitting just a few feet away from the animated dancers – faces flushed and smiling. They line up and introduce themselves telling us where they are from – Italy, Miami, London, Tennessee… As the enthusiastic audience showers the dancers with appreciative applause, one dancer triumphantly cries out, “We’re back!”