UA School of Dance Salutes Martha Graham

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Panorama Rehearsal © UA Dance

It was a typical, balmy March evening outside the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre on the University of Arizona’s campus in Tucson, but inside, serious work was going on. Principal dancer Miki Orihara, who has been with the Martha Graham Dance Company since 1987, was quietly and efficiently rebuilding Graham’s 1935 work, Panorama, using three groups of students (one, all female; the other two, mixed.) At the time Panorama was first produced at Bennington College in Vermont, the work comprised all women.

The groups had been chosen by Douglas Nielsen, resident choreographer and dance professor at the school, but only one, with 34 dancers (including seven men), appeared with the Martha Graham Company on April 16, 2011, as part of the U A PRESENTS series at Centennial Hall. The other two would alternate performances at the dance school’s annual Spring Collection to be presented from April 21 to May 1 at the Eller Theatre. The school, known from its inception as the Committee on Dance in the School of Music way back in the 1980s, has grown into a sturdy and very respected dance conservatory, and today the school enjoys a well-deserved national reputation.

How the association with the Graham Company played out seems like a dream sequence from a 1950s movie musical. According to Nielsen, it wasn’t until two weeks before the actual rehearsals began that he and his dancers knew who would be coming to stage Panorama. When they found out it would be someone as prestigious and so intimately involved with the Graham Company as Orihara, the students were jumping for joy, or as it would be in this case, leaping into Graham’s exciting choreography. Nielsen was thrilled that his previously arranged visit to see the Graham Company perform at the Joyce Theater in New York and his discussions with the Director of MGDC, Janet Elber, on the possibility of such an exciting collaboration would result in this honorific adventure.

Although any remnant of the nine-minute dance was thought to have been lost, a film of it by Julien Bryan was found, and the dance was reconstructed by Yuriko Kikuchi, a former Graham dancer, in 1992. According to the UA Presents program notes, the dance as presented in 1935 was “part of the emphasis on participation in the revolutionary dance culture and expresses the power of the people to make change.” This quote indicates that during the 1930s, the works of modern dance were very much involved in the social changes coming out of the Great Depression. Today, that political context has fallen by the wayside, and the work is judged solely on its artistic merits.

And that is what Orihara was imparting to her charges on that March evening.

Orihara is a quiet, gentle woman by nature, and her affect very much set the tone for the rehearsals. But her approach had the added burden of teaching the dance to the three groups in the two rehearsal evenings allotted to her. With written notes in her hand, she dispatched handily the quick, knee-high jumps, straight-armed, fleet-footed movements that Graham had packed into her dance. Panorama‘s dynamic ending features the dancers in a tight cluster which at first winds, and then quickly unwinds, morphing into three groups that accelerate across the stage leaping into the wings. With remarkable clarity, Orihara gave each group the same rehearsal time for every section. As for the students, their aim-to-please, disciplined approach didn’t waste a second in following Orihara’s lead. It’s easy to take for granted how quickly the dancers absorbed Orihara’s instructions. Devoted balletomanes would not.

In 1935, Graham incorporated much of her youthful energy into her choreography of Panorama, producing dance moves that stood out in a decisive and spontaneous manner. As the rehearsal continued through the second week, Nielsen was able to keep his forces focused on these elements so that on the evening of the 16th at Bicentennial Hall, Panorama easily fit into the rest of the Graham dance program. Even with the slight ebbing of the precise dynamics the dancers had perfected in their rehearsals, their rendition of the dance was still impressive.

The evening ended with Graham’s masterwork, Appalachian Spring, one that stands with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations and Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane as three of the greatest examples of American modern dance. The program also included a new work from 2007 called Lamentation Variations, commemorating the anniversary of 9/11. In the last section of the work, with the full company standing in place, slowly moving their bodies in reaction to the horror that was unfolding before their eyes, the audience could feel the powerful wave of sorrow that we all experienced that morning.

In a question-and-answer session after the performance, Artistic Director Janet Eibler mentioned that university dance programs around the US are interested in adding Panorama to their repertoire, such as Brigham Young University which had recently performed the work. Now that School of Dance at the University has joined the Graham Company in this educational outreach, more exciting collaborations with professional dance companies are definitely in its future.

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