Dancing to new frontiers

26th May 1995 at 01:00
NOT JUST A SOMERSAULT. Age group: 14-18Arts Council video with education notes, Pounds 35 inc pp. Available from Peter Bassett, Librarian, Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, Laurie Grove, New Cross, London SE14 6NH. Tel: 0181 694 9620

Norma Cohen reports on the pioneering techniques of Martha Graham. She wanted to create a dance that reflected an American tradition, its vastness, the new frontiers." Born in 1894, Martha Graham was the lodestar of American modern dance, the innovator of a new technique to meet her own choreographic demands.

Now Bonnie Bird, who became Graham's principal teaching assistant, and Thea Barnes, who danced with her company from 1979 till Graham's death in 1991, have collaborated on the first educational video from the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance.

Not Just a Somersault: Insights on Aspects of Martha Graham Technique 1938-1991 explores the roots of Graham's unique, contemporary technique, still the most influential for today's modern dancer, and traces its artistic evolution as teaching passed down the generations. Rare archive footage of the charismatic Bonnie Bird leaning and swooping through the open air provides a blown-up backdrop to masterclasses with current Laban students, working on original dance motifs towards a performance for camera.

Strong and intent at 80, Bonnie Bird wanders good-humouredly around the class, challenging students to grapple with the basic mechanics and higher purpose of this powerful, floor-based technique. Graham's creative mine was epic myth and elemental thought and emotion, "perfecting technique and significant individual expression so that movement becomes an experience", as Thea Barnes puts it. She needed to transform a virtuoso technique into dance that could touch the heart.

"She was," says Bird, "in the process of trying to discover what was most basic in the expression of human feeling, what different positions and changing postures occur in the body in different emotional states." Barnes, with direct attack, dispels student inhibitions in expressing whole-body feeling, using Graham exercises like the exaggerated cry and laugh.

A demand for emotional truth flew from Graham's impatience with preceding dance convention. Ballet became an irrelevance, something that was so artificial it could never express tragedy. "Psychologically, ballet is designed to take you to another, unreal world and the ballerina is the essence of the queen. It's all about fantasy, and she was bringing us down to earth," says Bird.

Against the powerful figure of Bird swinging and falling, students negotiate Graham's unchanging fundamentals: her use of space as a palpable material, her belief in simplicity, the movement dynamics embodied in contraction and release observed in a cat preparing to spring.

From Bird's historical perspective on the raw, pioneer energy of the early years to Barnes's witnessing the technique's organic refinement, this 20-minute collage of reminiscence and anecdote intercut with sophisticated dance graphics illuminates Graham's exhilarating philosophy and practice.

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