Fri, Mar 24, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Rediscovering the world of Martha Graham

When the Martha Graham Dance Company performs in Taiwan this weekend with principal dancer Sheu Fang-yi, it will bring some of the greatest works of modern dance back to her home town

By Diane Baker  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sheu Fang-yi, above, joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1995.

PHOTO COURTESY JOHN DEANE, MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY

The Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in the US, the repository of some of the most iconic and groundbreaking choreography of the 20th century.

But it is also a company that has struggled hard to survive in the 15 years since its founder died at age 97, including a three-year legal battle over ownership of the dances themselves that was as epic as any of the Greek myths that Martha Graham frequently used for inspiration in her work.

Taiwan-born principal dancer Sheu Fang-yi (許芳宜) has been a major factor in the Graham company's success in recent years. She joined the company in 1995, a year after she graduated from the Taipei National University of Arts. She has returned home frequently to work with Cloud Gate Dance Theater and to co-found a small modern dance company in Taipei.

Now she is leading the Graham troupe's return to Taipei to show local audiences the work that has made her world renowned. Under-standably, much of the media and audience focus of this weekend's performances has been on her.

Frances Mason, chairman of the board of trustees of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, served as spokesman at a press conference at the National Theater yesterday afternoon, saying how pleased the company was to be in Sheu's home country.

He said Martha Graham herself loved to be in Taipei and to watch the modern dance training at the National Institute of the Arts (now Taipei National University of Arts), where one of her former principal dancers, Ross Parkes, has directed modern dance training for many years and where others from the company continue to demonstrate Graham's works.

"Sheu symbolizes the beauty and power of the Martha Graham repertoire found in the world-class Cloud Gate Dance Theater and the brilliant work of its director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), who has made dance a crucial factor in your culture," Mason said.

"I think its safe to say that it [modern dance] is now in your bloodstream," he said.

Mason said the appeal of Graham's work transcends national and cultural boundaries.

"I think people everywhere, no matter what the nationality, when they see the company they catch on to Martha Graham ... especially young women seeing Steps in the Street [an excerpt from Chronicle] knows `that could be me,'" Mason said.

"Martha Graham is an individual speaking to other individuals through dance," he said. "She brings the inner self out."

Graham was a colleague of, an inspiration for and a trainer of some of the greatest names in 20th century modern dance, music and art. In the years after she founded her company in 1926, the roster of her dancers who went on to found their own troupes or to choreograph is amazing: Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Elisa Monte, Paul Taylor, Glen Tetley and Twyla Tharp.

And yet Graham's legacy is centered as much on her own performances as a dancer in the 1930s and 1940s, as it is on her choreography, which is why such famous ballet dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov were so eager to dance for her.

The company is offering two entirely different programs for its two-day visit, but both give audiences a chance to see why Graham was such a groundbreaker -- and a polarizer -- and why the Graham Technique became such a major force in the world of dance.

Grahams' falls, spastic pelvic contractions, trembling bodies and floor work became her trademarks. Now they are considered basic vocabulary in the language of dance and theater.

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