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The Dance Insider Photo Album

Like the Phoenix
The Resurrection of Martha Graham

Photography by Julie Lemberger
Copyright 2003 Julie Lemberger
Album design by Robin Hoffman

Click here for the photo album (launches a new window).

If there were two giants of American dance in the 20th century, they were George Balanchine and Martha Graham. If there was one key posthumous difference in their legacies, it was that Balanchine left his oeuvre meticulously well-protected by a trust which ensured that the dancers who knew it best would pass on the work, while Graham left hers in the hands of a single trusted friend who was not a dancer. Or that's how it appeared, anyway, until the friend, Ron Protas, angry at being removed as artistic director by the board of the Martha Graham Center, sued the center to prevent the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and the Martha Graham Dance Company from using the Graham name or presenting the Graham ballets without his permission. In a two-phase trial that spanned 17 months from 2001 to 2002, two tenacious teams of Defense lawyers, aided by the New York state attorney general's office, proved that in fact, the rights to most of the ballets in question were not Graham's to give away. Federal district court judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum's ruling last August in favor of the center affirmed its ownership of a majority of the surviving dances. It was up to the dancers, returning to the stage for their first full season in almost three years this past January at the Joyce Theater, to show who really owned the work.

"Graham's company is a phoenix rising, an endangered species back from the brink," wrote Dance Insider senior critic Tom Patrick of the opening night performance. "And, after all, doesn't her work inform (toward/away) much of what we are as dancers even now? The MGDC dancers shine in the repertory, with everything so clean and in their bones, dancing with a lot of focus and passion."

In her review of the two-week season, the DI's Alicia Mosier noted that the dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company "had an unmistakable look in their eyes: they were making history. For the first time in years, after a harrowing legal battle, some of the most important works of art of the 20th century were seen again at last in their full glory, before an audience that was as hungry to see them as the dancers were eager to perform them. On each of the three nights I was there, the mood in the jam-packed Joyce was ecstatic. These ballets were being born again before our eyes. They had, at times, the qualities of a newborn; but they are here again, being danced and seen, and that is history and hope."

Dancer and veteran dance photographer Julie Lemberger was also on hand to record this historical event. (Click here to view Lemberger's Dance Insider Photo Album now.)

Ever since a young photographer named Imogen Cunningham photographed a young dancer named Martha Graham at Graham's parents' Santa Barbara farm in 1931, photographers have found in the body of Martha Graham and the body of her work a source of archetypes. In Lemberger's series -- we are privileged to publish 12 images here -- we re-discover the multi-dimensional architecture of Martha Graham. It's a synthesis of emotion, arrangement, and relationships, conjuring landscapes -- geographic, mythical, psychological. As captured by the photographer, the dancers are neither just going into the moment or leaving it -- they are at its apex.

What makes Lemberger's achievement of this quality even more extraordinary is that these photographs were taken during simple photo calls, at most an hour in duration, with no time for the photographer to rehearse or retake the shots..

"In a photo call of a dress rehearsal, you really have to anticipate the action," explains Lemberger. "As the dancers move to stage right, for instance, you have to move with them. In a set-up (studio) situation you can have the dancer work in front of you. You can ask her to repeat movements so that you can have choices about when to press the shutter release and from which angle you might like to see it, capture it. In a photo call of a dress rehearsal, the action is happening in real time and you have to think on your feet and shoot it as you see it. It is likely that a great moment could pass you by, unless you know what you're doing and looking very carefully. In this way, I am participating in the dance too. I become intimately involved."

Graham was known to push dancers to challenge their usual limits, and Lemberger was no exception; when she shot the photos in this album, she was 8 1/2 months pregnant. "'Embattled Garden' was January 28, and baby Margot debuted February 12," she tells us. "Her dad is Chris Saganich, and she is Margot Jean Saganich, after our grandmothers Mary and Margaret and Jennie, too. The spelling is because her Aunt Nancy sang the B-I-N-G-O song with M-A-R-G-O ('and Margo was her name-o'), I didn't like it, so I put in the 't' at the end so it wouldn't fit THAT song. And also, to pay tribute to a certain British ballerina, a real Dame in her own right."

To view Julie Lemberger's Dance Insider Photo Album of the Martha Graham Dance Company, please click here.

To view more photography by Julie Lemberger, please click here.

--Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

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