Every time dancer Blakeley White-McGuire steps on stage in a Martha Graham role, she knows her artistry will be stretched. The choreographer’s heroines are known for their depth: courageous women balancing morality with passion, or fear with gutsy impetuousness.
“When I’m dancing a Graham ballet, I find it always opens my imagination,” said White-McGuire, who has performed with the iconic Martha Graham Dance Company since 2002. “Her ballets always spark something. I think the greatest challenge is to stay open to it. It’s a challenge I look forward to.”
White-McGuire will appear as the Bride in Graham’s masterpiece, “Appalachian Spring,” at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Thursday. The program, which opens the Saratoga ArtsFest and is the high point of the company’s residency at Skidmore College, also includes Graham’s “The Rite of Spring” and a newly commissioned work, “Echo,” by Greek dance maker Andonis Foniadakis.
“I think the thread of this program is interesting,” said White-McGuire. “You can see the connections between Graham’s modern work and Andonis’ contemporary work. They are very different. ‘Echo’ is a tour de force and abstract. It’s about the release and flow of energy. Graham’s work is about form and the drama inherent in the movement. Seeing these works together on one program is a great juxtaposition.”
Certainly contemporary dance owes a great debt to Graham, who is considered one of the most influential pioneers of modern dance in the 20th century. Her company, established in 1926, was her fully formed artistic expression. She choreographed and performed the central roles in all of the “ballets,” as she called them. She also designed the costumes and a technique that was the backbone of the works’ gravitas.
As a result, only the Martha Graham Dance Company dancers, who are practiced in her technique, can provide audiences with the sweeping breadth of her vision.
“The physical technique can get a dancer to a place of virtuosity,” said White-McGuire. “It’s based on the contraction. Many people mistakenly think of the contraction as a shape. But it’s a movement through space and has created a dynamic body of work. It’s a great gift. It’s also a means to an end.”
While Graham’s technique can be difficult to master, once a dancer is proficient, White-Blakely said, it can take a performer to places that explore the human spirit, which, she added, is at the heart of the Graham canon.
That will be evident when she dances the Bride in “Appalachian Spring,” the famed 1944 work with a commissioned score by Aaron Copland and sets by artist Isamu Noguchi. Called one of “the most inspiring and symbolic works of the century,” the dance centers on pioneers welcoming newlyweds into a house they built. The work — both the choreography and the music — feels pastoral, a celebration of unified community and the promising pleasures of young love.
But, says White-McGuire, the dance, like all Graham works, shimmers in dark and light.
“ ‘Appalachian Spring’ is a celebration,” she said. “But the Bride has a lot of doubt and fear. It’s all there, making the experience so much richer.”
“The Rite of Spring,” set to Stravinsky’s well-known driving score, is also layered. In Graham’s rendering, the sacrificial maiden or chosen one displays a fighting spirit, but dies of fright in the end.
“The dance is a celebration of empowerment,” said White-McGuire. “It’s very ritualistic, tribal and rhythmic. The shapes she created offer a particular point of view. There is a lot of beautiful movement, but also terror.”
Like most Graham programs, the SPAC show will begin with an introduction from Artistic Director Janet Eilber. She will discuss the importance of the works, historically and artistically, and the injection of energy that a new work like Foniadakis’ can supply.
“This has become an important part of the Graham experience,” said White-McGuire. “People like having explanations of what they are about to see. Janet crafts each curtain speech, targeting the specific audience. She wants to offer something beneficial and inspiring to each.”
However, explanations of Graham’s drama are often unnecessary as her characters and their motivations are clearly drawn, and the stories they tell are human ones, even when they are inspired by myth.
“The great thing about Graham’s work is it is universal,” White-McGuire said. “It’s also visceral work. Her work is an exploration of the human journey and often the heroine’s journey.”
Since Graham’s death in 1991, it’s been a Herculean journey to keep the company afloat. For more than a decade, it struggled with legal and artistic challenges. The battles didn’t settle until Eilber took over the directorship of the company in 2005. The ensemble found more stable footing in 2012 when it established a home in the Westbeth neighborhood of New York City.
Three months later, Hurricane Sandy flooded parts of Manhattan, including the company’s storage room. It caused $4 million in damage to historic Noguchi sets and costumes, some of which Graham herself wore. The company is still trying to restore these irreplaceable costumes and sets so that the Graham legacy can live on.
“Janet is coming up with creative ideas on how to perform, temporarily, without using the sets or paring down the costumes,” said White-McGuire. “She is doing her best to make lemonade out of lemons.”
No matter how the issue is resolved, White-McGuire is sure that the Graham tradition will remain viable for generations to come.
“Her work encompasses so much,” said the dancer. “I believe that people who see Martha’s work will see themselves in the work. She pulls out qualities that can not be touched, but are truthful, for the performer and the audience.”
There are several public events associated with the Martha Graham Dance Company’s summer residency at Skidmore College.
-- Lecture Demonstration with the Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC), 5:15-6:30 p.m., Thursday. Skidmore Dance Theater in the Field House. Free
-- Ballet Master Class with Denise Vale, Master Teacher with MGDC, noon, Saturday. National Museum of Dance, South Broadway, Saratoga Springs. $20 general public; $15 for students. Reservations: www.spac.org or 584-2225, ext. 3008, email@example.com
-- Martha Graham Dance Company Performance, 8 p.m., Thursday, June 12. Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Spa State Park, Route 50, Saratoga Springs. Pre-performance talk from 7-8 p.m. Tickets: www.spac.org
-- Lecture Demonstration with the MGDC, featuring excerpts from “Letter to the World.” 7 p.m., Thursday, June 19, Skidmore Dance Theater. Free
-- Skidmore Dance Workshop Student Showing, Time TBA, Friday, June 20. Skidmore Dance Theater. Free
More info: 580-5596 or firstname.lastname@example.org