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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Staging Martha Graham's Celebration

An Interview with Yuriko

By Mindy Aloff
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

Among Barbara Morgan’s very greatest images of the Martha Graham Dance Company are the handful of her ensemble, rocketing in synch, from Celebration (given its première in 1934, photographed sometime between 1936 and 1941). Graham, herself, is nowhere to be seen; she never performed in the dance. Some of those who did, though, have recorded their experiences, which might lead one to think that the dance consisted of jumping from beginning to end. (Various estimates put the number of jumps in it at around 150.) “It was sensational because we jumped the whole time,” May O’Donnell told critic Tobi Tobias in 1981. In Robert Tracy’s Goddess: Martha Graham’s Dancers Remember, Pearl Lang recalls that “the technique is very difficult. They used to teach the difficult jumps from Celebration in class.” Jane Dudley, also interviewed by Tracy, remembered: “When I was asked to join Martha’s company, I had to learn Martha’s dance Celebration, which nearly killed me. The fact is, enthusiastic as I was, and with as well-endowed a body [as] I had, I wasn’t prepared for the stamina a dancer needed for Celebration.” An especially vivid account is Bonnie Bird’s, in her memoir Bird’s Eye View: Dancing with Martha Graham and on Broadway:

“In 1933 Martha choreographed Celebration, a marvelously energetic dance suggestive of atoms and molecules rebounding to and fro, being propelled in space. We ran backward with tiny steps on half-toe, knees straight, similar to bourrées, which created a feeling of vibratory momentum. I jumped in the center of the group until my legs ached. Others split off like frecrackers spewing out in different directions. The dance was impersonal, yet exciting, and we all loved it. The fact that we danced Celebration with impassive faces was puzzling to people in the audience. Martha had expunged smiling long before this.”

Artistry doesn’t evolve or decline: Celebration, originally a work for 12 women (one more was added for the Barnard production), will always be great Graham choreography. Technique, however, is another story. Seven decades after its creation, the technique of Celebration is still demanding—every jump still takes its toll—yet its demands are no longer solely the province of dedicated professional dancers. Earlier this fall, it was staged by The Martha Graham Dance Company for performing-arts students at New York University. And on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, November 13-16, it will be performed in the Miller Theater of Columbia University by Barnard College dance students in a staging by the Graham authority Yuriko Kikuchi (who, during her 50-year association with the Graham enterprise, went by the name of Yuriko).

The fact that Celebration can be staged at all by anyone is largely owing to Yuriko, who, in the spring of 1987, when she was the director of the Martha Graham Dance Ensemble (an organization that she had founded) brought together a group of dancers who had performed Celebration during the 1930s in order to reconstruct the dance, which, at that time, hadn’t been performed in nearly half a century. Sophie Maslow, Dudley, Marie Marchowsky, and a handful of others met almost every day for several weeks to achieve this, while musician Stanley Sussman—who was the conductor and musical director of the Graham company at that time—worked to reconstruct Louis Horst’s accompanying score for trumpet and drum. The score, itself, was a product of intense rewriting by the composer. Horst was “at heart a sentimentalist [who] struggled to keep sentiment out of his music,” Janet Soares explains in Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World, and he labored on the score for Celebration until it achieved exactly the right sound—in the words of the composer Normal Lloyd, “sparse, dissonant, and highly melodic.”

The veterans’ rehearsals and lively conversations were videotaped, and there is delicious irony in the fact that Celebration—whose physical action and metaphorical significance concern the unity of a group that shares a common breath—produced vociferous disagreements among its original cast about what the steps actually were. Yuriko had never danced in Celebration, herself. She was dependent on her oral historians (Maslow and Dudley was particularly helpful); on her own knowledge of the Graham repertory and of what Graham was likely to do in making, say, a transition between passages; and on her own historical sense of how the dances from that period in Graham’s career looked. As an award-winning choreographer in her own right,Yuriko was also able to bring an artist’s empathy and perfectionism to details. The Ensemble’s 1987 performances of Celebration, and of Yuriko’s other reconstructions of dances from the ‘30s (Heretic, Steps in the Street, Panorama) thrilled a new generation of theatergoers and opened up a window on Graham’s early years that had long been shut.

After ten of Graham’s dances passed into the public domain recently, Yuriko, a small yet wiry and able person who is now well into her eighth decade as a dancer, decided to offer her services as a stager on a volunteer basis to dance companies and student groups who wish to present them. Under the title “The Arigato Project,” for expenses alone, Yuriko will travel to stage this group of dances, sometimes bringing her daughter—the former Graham dancer, teacher, and stager Susan Kikuchi—to help her. Last year, as part of The Arigato Project, she staged a deeply impressive production of Steps in the Street on the Barnard dancers, and she has just returned to New York from staging Appalachian Spring, to tumultuous critical acclaim, for Dennis Nahat’s Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. In June of 2004, she’ll stage Steps for the student dancers at the High School of the Performing Arts; in April of 2004, she’s scheduled to return to San Jose to stage the solo Frontier. (Yuriko’s work for The Arigato Project is over and above her regular, paid work as a stager, which includes a 2001 production of Appalachian Spring for The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.)

This past Saturday, after Yuriko and Susan conducted a rehearsal of the Barnard students (who performed with spectacular commitment and collective strength), Yuriko spoke about her new, self-designed program.

“‘Arigato’ means ‘thank you’ in Japanese,” she said. “It’s my thank you to Martha Graham and to the dance world for giving me such a beautiful life, and I want to give it back. The knowledge, experience: I can’t take it with me. It’s my legacy to young dancers.

“I’m not ‘Yuriko’ when I’m doing it; I’m a missionary. Yes, I’m doing it for Martha, but Martha’s not here. I’m doing it for Martha’s work.”

As a spectator at the rehearsal, I can attest to the fact that The Arigato Project is as painstaking and illuminating as the coaching of young dancers by original interpreters for The George Balanchine Foundation, which has set a standard of coaching for dance that is very high. Furthermore, Yuriko and Susan provide different kinds of information that momentarily dovetail in complementary ways. Before I arrived, Susan had spoken from notes about the general philosophy and spirit of Graham’s work—the physical ideas of suspension and hanging, the role of gravity (physical and moral) in Celebration’s many jumps, the absolute importance of using imagination in the course of dancing. As the 12 dancers present (one was absent that day) had already learned the basic choreographic architecture, the emphasis was on refining the performances and the counts and spacing.

The division of labor was mostly that Susan—who is still in beautiful dancing shape—demonstrated and took charge of mechanics, such as working out problems in traffic patterns and in the preservation of the dancers’ stamina. Yuriko, on the other hand, would call attention to moments that required the dancers to use their ability to project movement as physical embodiments of mental images. The students also participated in very important ways. At one point, it was discovered that the CD of the music—which will be performed at Miller live, with percussion provided by Barnard’s musical director, Gilles Obermayer—was problemmatic in a passage because the melody line came in at an unexpected place. A two-count fix had to be made to the entire dance. The students offered one possible solution after another, all extremely sensitive to implications for the entire dance. As Susan enthused afterward, “they don’t have the [Graham] technique, but you can reach them on such a high level intellectually!”

Still, I believe that the Miller audiences are going to see something of the technique, too, in the sense that the dancers will have exercised the relationship between their minds and their bodies at a level that isn’t often possible in professional dance companies, where rehearsal time is often scarce. Singling out a jump sequence executed by senior Marie Yereniuk, Yuriko said to the group: “You see that? She has a presence. You want to be the one who is looked at. Not because you’re showing off, but because you can bring something to it [the dance] that no one else can.” Susan seconded the comment: “You have to be special in a group piece.” Yuriko, about a jump: “Don’t forget: this travels. You! You! You! You!” Susan: “Another thing about Graham technique: the jump has to tour. You don’t come down.”

The most dramatic difference between the stagers—which summed up a difference of generations and of life experiences—occurred when Yuriko was trying to get the students to feel a lifting quality in their breastbones. “It’s inside you! And it comes out [as a lift in the chest]. Martha talked about this. In Indian ceremonies to the sun, they slit the skin here [at the same point in the breastbone], and they push through a thin slab of wood, and then they lift the arms. If do this [she sinks back her weight on her legs], it hurts. If you do this [she sinks in her chest], it hurts. To relieve this pain, you have to do this. [She lifts up her chest as she opens her arms.] I learned this in 1944, ’45. Not many people know it; I was lucky.” Susan said nothing until after the students completed a subsequent set of pendulum movements for the arms. Then she said, “Okay. Rest. Shake it out.” After taking five, the dancers were back in their places, raring to go. –Mindy Aloff

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 7
November 10, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff



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Mindy Aloff
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Gay Morris
Susan Reiter
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan


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last updated on October 7, 2003