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The modern-dance museum
Martha Graham's troupe preserves her classics

Martha Graham, the architect of American modern dance, died at 96, in 1991, but the company that bears her name aims to make her choreography immortal. For its 80th season the Martha Graham Dance Company put together a retrospective of the grand dame's ephemeral oeuvre. On Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. this extraordinary exhibition comes to Overture Hall.

Graham's death, like her dances, was dramatic. To a man 50 years her junior - her confidante during her two-decade alcoholic decline, Ron Protas - she left her estate. Like a Greek tragedy choreographed by the goddess herself, convoluted lawsuits between Protas and the Martha Graham Dance Center raged for years. The Dance Center ultimately won, but inherited massive debt.

Last year former Graham principal and Broadway hoofer Janet Eilber was appointed artistic director of the troubled company. Her mission, she says, is to rescue a 20th-century art form for the 21st.

Modern dance itself was a revolt. "Out with the old, in with the new," Eilber says. "But we're 100 years old now, and wait a minute, we've got masterpieces that we don't know how to take care of. The new generation is saying ‘on to the next frontier.' That's important, but we also need to take on the challenge of curating the classics."

Other art forms already use the tools of today to engage new audiences. Opera's supertitles render German and Italian lyrics accessible to English speakers. Famous dead painters, their life and works demystified via audio tours, come to life in enormous museum expos crammed with avid citizens. Eilber's searching for the dance equivalent.

"We need to bring context to the art without interrupting the presentation," she says. For this program she's selected dances from a 75-year span, interspersed with film and narration. New York critics generally admire the dancing but give Eilbers' history-channel approach mixed reviews. "They're not my audience right now," she says. "They don't need context - they've spent their lives giving Graham's works context. But I'll tell ya, they're a tiny minority. If we just cater to them we're gonna be dead in 10 years."

The program begins with "The Incense," a 1906 solo by Graham's teacher, Ruth St. Denis, whose own innovations brought fin-de-siècle barefoot ballet to the brink of modern dance. The rest of the choreography on the bill is all Graham's. From "Three Gopi Maidens" (1926), done in St. Denis' innocent, veil-waving idiom, the sequence follows Graham's leap to "Lamentation" (1930), the first shot in her revolutionary canon.

Two quintessential works come next - the striking "Steps in the Street," her 1936 response to the Spanish Civil War, and "Appalachian Spring" from '44, her seminal commemoration of America's pioneer spirit.

Oddly, no excerpts from Graham's legendary 1958 "Clytemnestra" or anything else from her productive sixth decade are included. Instead, Eilber chose "Acts of Light" from 1981 - the elderly Graham looking back at her roots through a new, more lyrical lens.

I guess that's legit, in a sampler like this. But can a new generation of dancers really dig into Graham technique? "We're not doing Mozart on the original instruments, but the dancers understand Martha and the messages in her masterworks," Eilber says. "And I've got an incredible multigenerational team of past Graham dancers coaching. They maintain the context."

Is Eilber's approach working? "We just premiered this program in Champaign-Urbana, and it was terrific."

Sounds like a must-see to me.

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