This interview with Martha Graham Dance Company principals Tadej Brdnik and Blakeley White-McGuire was conducted in March before the company's annual run at the Joyce.
Why is Martha Graham special to you and why do you choose to dance for MGC rather than another company?
Blakeley: I was a New York dancer before joining Martha Graham in 2002. I danced for Sean Curran and many different choreographers. What attracted me most about Martha Graham was the physical and dramatic marriage in the technique itself, and the potential for growth -- and it's worked out wonderfully! Also the quality and quantity of roles for women in Graham's body of work is unique.
Tadej: What keeps me here is the daily opportunity to be part of something historically and artistically significant. And because of the way that Graham made her dances, I can embed my own interpretation in each work. Like Graham, current artistic director Janet Eilber believes that each dancer is an artist. And we are taught that we have a responsibility to the audience: to stir their emotions and to take them to places where they may not be most comfortable. That, to me, is very exciting and empowering.
Martha Graham passed away in 1991. What are the particular challenges involved in dancing for a repertory company or in creating new dances for MGC? As you know, Merce Cunningham, for example, chose to have his company legally disbanded two years after his death.
Blakeley: Well, it gives one a sense of responsibility to someone else. I -- and most of my colleagues -- didn't personally work with Martha, so I dance what I feel is right based on my own physical and historical work. I feel very strongly about my own personal perspective. We have a coach who has actually worked with Martha to help us with each piece and they sometimes have a different take on a particular work. Most times it's revelatory, but you still have to defend your position, which can be challenging. Janet has given my generation of lot of leeway to explore our own interpretations. That has also kept me in the company.
Tadej: I agree entirely with Blakeley. Our work is always couched in terms of who is going to help another dancer in the company to achieve his or her potential. This gives us a unique feeling of ownership.
Can one create new work in the spirit of Graham herself or is it better just to break free of the past?
Blakeley: There are always three elements at work in a piece: technique, the philosophy behind a piece and the physical theater. When Robert Wilson, for example, composed "Snow on the Mesa" for us in 1995, it was fascinating because he sees the theater in a very similar way to Martha. So in this case, Wilson's piece possesses a certain structural affinity to Graham's work and technique. But really that is not necessary when creating new work for MGC.
Tadej: Janet wants dancers and choreographers to respond to Graham personally more than anything else. Hence the "Lamentation Variations" series. This is an ongoing project where contemporary choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer are asked to respond to Graham's classic piece, "Lamentation." It is very much Yvonne Rainer's work. You know, Rainer wrote a manifesto in the 1950s where she rejected formality and dogma, but she was also responding to the past. That is always the case: no matter how "revolutionary" one wants to be, one can't completely escape what came before.
As a dancer, what is unique or interesting to you about Graham technique?
Blakeley: It viscerally taps human emotion. It is unapologetic. It encompasses very specific shapes, which are often quite difficult. It is the dynamic of being simultaneously off-center and seeking the center.
Tadej: Graham technique prepares you emotionally for the physical. It's always about contraction and release and how you physicalize different emotions.
What are your favorite Graham dances?
Blakeley: "Errand into the Maze." I love the design of it. That piece represents the first time that my imagination literally exploded. There is also an extreme physicality to it. The through line is tremendous. It's a privilege to dance it.
Tadej: "Phaedra," because of the change that the character undergoes. I blind myself and I am ultimately defeated, yet it is a curiously empowering piece. Also "Night Journey" and "Errand into the Maze." These works are like Biblical stories, visual commentaries that ask as many questions as they answer: Who am I? and How does this refer to my life?
Can you tell me something about "Every Soul is a Circus," which you performed in your recent season at the Joyce for the first time in some 25 years?
Blakeley: It's a comic piece, because of the hoops that we make ourselves jump through. It's theatrically ridiculous, but it's not slapstick.
Tadej: It is like a silent movie. Black and white. It's The Artist!
Can you please comment on the following quote from Martha Graham: "Our arms start from the back because they were once wings."
Blakeley: What a poetic image! It's the perfect quote, really. When I use my arms, I feel that place in my back where they were once wings. With Graham it's not about port de bras as in classical ballet, it's about carrying the back.
Tadej: It's also a prescient quote because animal images are important in Graham's work. We are about emotion and natural beauty, not manufactured beauty. You know when Eric Hawkins joined MGC, Graham fell immediately in love with him, but he would constantly try to correct the way other dancers in the company held their arms. One day [former MGC dancer and teacher] Jane Dudley got tired of this and as she was leaving the room, she yelled: "We put our arms where our backs put them!"