Immediate Tragedy 

Martha Graham Dance Company

Friday, June 19, 7 p.m.

Eighty-three years after its creation, Immediate Tragedy remains an enigma in the canon of Martha Graham; a work that, despite the rarest accolades from critics and fellow choreographers at its premiere, was never performed again after opening night. Unfilmed and undocumented outside of a handful of photographs and scraps of Henry Cowell’s original score, it became Graham’s “lost solo” and faded into myth.

But against all odds, a reimagined version will premiere Friday evening on Facebook Live with a new score by the composer Christopher Rountree.  

Carolina Performing Arts, who presented the Graham company twice in the past year and Rountree in 2019, is co-streaming the event as a part of its “CPA at Home” series of online performances.

Immediate Tragedy’s Bennington, Vermont premiere in 1937 occasioned the kind of accolades that usually ensure a work’s longevity. John Martin’s New York Times review of the solo, which Graham created for herself as an anti-fascist response to the Spanish Civil War, called Immediate Tragedy her best work in years and predicted it would “be a moving dance long after the tragic situation in Spain has been brought to a conclusion.”

Eyewitness accounts cited the fury in Graham’s passionate performance, as she beat on the floor before rebounding, propelling herself through space. “Here was a dramatically expressed, burning anger, fueled by heartbreak and grief,” wrote early Graham dancer Dorothy Bird. “Martha’s portrayal of this gallant, militant, fearless woman hid nothing.”

Yet the work was never performed again. When modern dance icon José Limón, who called Immediate Tragedy “the apogee of all her works,” asked her why, Graham would never answer directly. After her subsequent solo Deep Song, which also dealt with the Spanish Civil War, Graham moved onto new compositions.

Immediate Tragedy, a solo that—according to Limón—sparked a demonstration in the audience on its opening night, survived only in the memories of its witnesses.

But when a series of thirty photographs were recently discovered that captured Graham’s movements in the work in their original order, Janet Eilber, the Graham company’s artistic director, began to consider the possibility of reconstituting the work. That task would involve connecting the photographic data points with new choreography based on Graham’s movement style, her correspondence and the written accounts that remain of her work. She recruited composer Christopher Rountree of Wild Up to make new music, and company dancers sequestered during the coronavirus pandemic to generate the connecting gestures and phrases.

“The Graham Company has taken pieces of an archival work and created something new that feels so relevant to this moment,” says Christina V. Rodriguez, CPA associate director of marketing and communications.

From the start, the self-styled “digital dance” has been created under COVID sheltering orders. Its dancers and musicians have rehearsed and performed from their homes; none of the artists will have worked on the piece in the same room up to and including Friday night’s premiere. Video editor Ricki Quinn will assemble twenty-two disparate feeds from U.S. and Europe in a studio at the Younes and Soraya Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles as the new work livestreams Friday night.

The premiere will also include a screening of Intimate Tragedy’s companion piece, Deep Song, and interviews with collaborators.

The unlikely enterprise, Rodriguez notes, depicts “the ways in which our collective circumstances inform our current art-making. Despite all the challenges, artists continue to make art in difficult circumstances, and we’re happy to share it with our audiences.”

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