Martha Graham is often referred to as the “mother of modern dance.” Her disdain for pretty, psychologically comforting movement proved revolutionary when she first started creating pieces in 1923. Another of her breaks with tradition — perhaps even more shocking at the time — was her consistent employment of dancers of varying races and ethnic groups.
Graham died in 1991. The company she founded has now revised its mission, presenting not only dances of the master choreographer but also the work of her contemporaries and their successors.
A case in point, Dance Is A Weapon is a multimedia piece that combines live performance with archival film footage. Weapon includes works by Isadora Duncan, Eva Gentry, Sophie Maslow, and Graham herself, as well as pieces by the New Dance Group, a working-class collective formed in 1932.
The dances are all openly — even vehemently – political, dealing with social issues of the working class and the disenfranchised.
The program opens with a 1917 Duncan solo inspired by the plight of the proletariat in revolution-era Russia. Works by New Dance Group comment on the economic dissolution caused by the Great Crash of 1929. Outside the cities, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, together with the rise of agribusiness, displaced Midwestern farmers at an alarming rate. The Maslow piece, inspired by folk ballads of the era, expresses the farmers’ struggle, as well as their abiding spirit.
The final dance in Weapon is Chronicle, by Graham herself. Developed in response to the rise of European fascism, it was intended to universalize the tragedy of war.
San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center presents Dance Is A Weapon February 11 and 12.