Traces of a Jewish Past En Pointe With Martha Graham

“If you were a dance anthropologist, this would be the mother lode of going back to the beginning — this is the lady who invented the art form,” said Randy Swartz, artistic director of NextMove Dance.
He’s talking about the woman who was the seminal artist in contemporary modern dance: Martha Graham.
The Martha Graham Dance Company, founded in 1926, has moved on without its iconic leader since her death in 1991, but the work she conceived will be recreated onstage again.
NextMove Dance will present the company from Nov. 3 through 6 at the Prince Theater for a performance of Graham’s masterpiece Appalachian Spring, as well as other works like the Lamentation Variations based on Graham’s original Lamentation.
The company comes to Philadelphia after a performance in Cuba, where it last performed in the 1940s. It is the first modern dance company invited to the Caribbean nation since the embargo.
While her artistic work may be well known, Graham was also “a groundbreaker in terms of race relations. She always had Asian [and Jewish] dancers in the company,” said Swartz, who recalled hosting Graham’s company in the 1970s at the Walnut Street Theatre. “She was one of the few dance artists that was political.”
Appalachian Spring will be the main recreation anchoring the Prince performance.
Appalachian Spring summarizes the American dream, the American West, the pioneer spirit,” Swartz said.
Graham was known for using original music composed by American artists. Swartz noted that “everybody can trace their roots to” Graham’s work.
“What she did in terms of movement just changed everything around,” he said. “We talk about going back to your history and finding your origins. If it’s a tree, Martha Graham is the roots. Everything emerged from Martha.”
After her death, her company was forced to evolve.
“[Choreographers] basically have the task of keeping her repertoire, keeping her style and keeping her school — there’s a whole technique involved with the Graham technique — intact along with providing opportunities for other artists to create on the inspiration of Miss Graham,” he said.
That technique made it all the way to Israel, where Graham had significant influence.
She was also invited to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — by Joseph Goebbels.
“She wrote a letter back to Goebbels, who invited the company, and said, ‘I’m not coming. I don’t like what you’re doing to my friends,’” said Swartz. “Graham was very inclusive in a field that actually wasn’t at the time.”
Janet Eilber — who was a dancer in the company in the ’70s and ’80s and became its artistic director in 2005 — said the company was always politically active.
“Martha’s first company all through the 1930s was made up entirely of women — 12 women. Over half of them were Jewish and probably first-generation Americans,” she said. “She knew certain members of her company would not be welcome [at the Olympics], and she was referring to these young Jewish women.”
Eilber said Graham’s legacy is “so fertile.”
“She was so dedicated to dance, to the human body, to self-expression, that you couldn’t help but be in her presence and feel standards of excellence that were expected. The bar was set really high, but it was set high in terms of developing your own potential,” she said.
Now, Eilber encourages her company members to cultivate individuality.
“They do not have to choreograph in the Martha Graham style. In fact, I want them to choreograph in their own voice, and I choose people who are very diverse from Graham on purpose to show that there are just so many other ways to connect.”
Swartz first connected with Graham serendipitously in the ’70s. He was leaving a meeting in New York City in the pouring rain, at least “two inches of water on the ground.” When he finally caught a cab, he asked the driver to offer another seat to the woman on the street.
“As we were pulling away I saw an umbrella with four legs underneath it. The woman said, ‘Thank you very much.’ I turned around and said, ‘You’re Martha Graham!’” he recalled.
He went on to spend more time with her, remembering how even later in life she would never miss a performance.
“She would never, ever miss an opportunity to take a bow. They would bring her out onstage, she would be standing there, and the curtain would come down, they’d rush out and put her back in her wheelchair,” he said. “She loved those moments.”
Before each performance at the Prince Theater, Swartz said they will hold a discussion to put the performances in context and enrich the experience.
“It’s storytelling … about the important issues that still resonate because they’re universal,” he said. “We want people to understand what they’re revisiting.
“We did the piece that she made in response to the Goebbels letter, but if you just saw that without knowing the backstory to it, it wouldn’t necessarily have the kind of impact when you see that she presented the women in this militaristic Nazi-esque marching. You [need] a context because it’s 80 years later; you’re not thinking of that.”
Given Graham’s status as an icon, Swartz said it’s important to take advantage of the upcoming shows.
Appalachian Spring is simply one of the most spectacular works of art available, and you don’t get to see it every day, and you truly don’t get to see it performed by the original company. That alone is worth a visit.”
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