Martha Graham Dance Company: The EVE Project

Thursday, Jan. 30, 7:30 p.m., $27+

UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill

Maybe Martha Graham, who was born in 1894 and lived until 1991, could have predicted that The New York Times would endorse a woman for president. Two, in fact: Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. After all, the paper wrote that the convention-breaking choreographer was ahead of her time, to which she famously responded, “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the time.” 

Although the times that Graham lived in shaped her pronoun of choice, she unquestionably changed the shape of dance, and of women. She unleashed the pelvis, solar plexus, and breath from the trappings of the tutu through her codified contract/release technique, revealing women’s sexuality, personal power, and consequently, political voice. 

It makes sense, then, that the Martha Graham Dance Company is traveling the country with The EVE Project, which commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. It also makes sense that it’s coming to Carolina Performing Arts, which has dedicated its season to the same milestone.  

Graham stripped movement to abstract expression—”I don’t want to be understandable; I want to be felt,” she said. This can make her dramatic dances feel timeless. In her 1936 piece Chronicle, which is on the program at Memorial Hall, we won’t see the story of fascism goose-stepping its way through Germany. We’ll see a physical response to it in a still-poignant work that Graham made after refusing an invitation from the Nazis to perform in Germany.

The program also features Graham’s lighthearted Secular Games and two commissioned works: Untitled (Souvenir) by Pam Tanowitz and Deo by Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jene Smith. 

A companion to The EVE Project, “19 Poses for the 19th Amendment” is an online video in which dancer Xin Ying mirrors powerful Graham poses and invites the viewer to follow along. The poses were selected by Janet Eilber, a former principal dancer who worked closely with the choreographer and has been the artistic director of the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance since 2005. We recently discussed Graham’s rare charisma, the new visions of womanhood she revealed in dance, and why Eilber wants to offer them up as something to use, not just something to see.  

INDY: How did The EVE Project come about?

JANET EILBER: Five or six years ago, I wanted a theme that featured revolutionary women that Martha created for the stage: complex, flawed, powerful women. I commissioned top choreographers who happened to be female. We wanted to feature the power of the individual and the Nineteenth Amendment. 

Where did the idea for the 19 poses video come from?  

I wanted everyone to be able to own Martha Graham’s power. To own some of Martha Graham. I wanted to collect poses anyone could do, even sitting down. You can memorize them. Use them in any way you want to create a work of art. We’re launching a project for people to take photos of themselves and post them online. We invite people to choose a pose, use props, do something practical in real life. One student put an orange in her claw-shaped hand. In the flying hair photo, one student put a hair dryer in her hand. I put the photos in an order I thought the transitions worked. Swirl one way, then another—a logical flow. 

YouTube video

How did Martha Graham know so much about communicating the essence of information through the body? 

It was her life study. You know the story of her father catching her lying? She asked him, how did you know? Her father said, I could tell by the way you moved. He was a psychiatrist whose office was in their home, and she saw patients coming through. She said that she saw the physical manifestation of a mental issue. That understanding was part of her childhood. It fed her genius. She was able to read people. She had an innate understanding of physical expression. Her genius was an intellectual understanding, and her own being, born to the animal charisma. 

Charisma. I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on her. I was about 10 years old. Our dance teacher took us to WQED television studios to perform. Afterward, this regal woman seemed to glide past us in profile. We had no idea then who she was, but a hush and stillness came over everyone.

Yes, she had a presence. Like Frank Sinatra. I saw him perform in front of thousands of people. He walked onto stage casually and you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I thought, there’s another one of them. They lived their charisma and their power.

Graham performed until she was 75.

Yes. Performing at an older age. That’s a whole larger topic. As she aged, she created works for herself that were less physical, and more acting. Like Hecuba, where she’s surrounded by armies, and the Trojan war. Martha used her age and wisdom in a powerful way. Leaving the trappings of her youth. It’s instructional for women of a certain age. We gain other powers. We lean into our experience, wisdom, intellectual acumen, and relinquish things that no longer serve us. She was all about understanding and leaning into what serves us. 

Correction: The Carolina Performing Arts season is not called “The Future Is Female.” That was the name of one performance.

Comment on this story at 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.