On December 19, 1937, photographer Robert Fraser sat in the front row of New York City’s Guild Theatre and captured moments of dance history.
That night of Martha Graham works opened with her iconic solo “Frontier,” followed by the ensemble piece “Celebration,” and then two solos meditating on the Spanish Civil War — “Deep Song” and “Immediate Tragedy.” If we turn to early reviews for descriptions, the latter likely capped off the first half of the evening like a sonorous crescendo.
"Not since the eloquent and beautiful 'Frontier,' first presented three seasons ago, has [Martha Graham] given us anything half so fine as 'Immediate Tragedy,'” wrote The New York Times’ John Martin in his review of the dance’s premiere earlier that year.
Her contemporary, José Limón, also praised Graham’s performance in “Immediate Tragedy,” describing her “consummately sinuous torso, the supple, beautiful arms, the hands flashing like rays of lightning” in his memoir.
“Deep Song” remains in the Martha Graham Dance Company’s repertory, yet “Immediate Tragedy” was lost to time.
That is until Fraser’s photos were uncovered by his son and donated to the Martha Graham Dance Company’s archives a few years ago.
Together with photographs by Barbara Morgan and George Platt Lynes, as well as correspondence between Graham and composer Henry Cowell, they comprise a dramaturgical dossier largely compiled by scholar Neil Baldwin, which forms the basis for a digital reimagining of the dance “Immediate Tragedy,” premiering online June 19.
Reconceived by the Martha Graham Dance Company with music by Wild Up’s Christopher Rountree and commissioned by The Soraya of California State University, Northridge, the 10-minute dance film premieres during a 30-minute presentation on The Soraya’s Facebook page at 4 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. EDT, with an encore presentation Saturday, June 20, at 11:30 a.m. PDT/2:30 p.m. EDT on the Graham Company’s YouTube channel. (Since publication, both the 10-minute film and 30-minute premiere presentation have been made available to view anytime via YouTube.)
Fraser’s photos not only add authentic visual imagery to the work, but also inform its composition. Not only did Fraser’s son discover rolls full of film from that 1937 night’s performance of “Immediate Tragedy,” the snap shots were also in the right order.
“So it gives you sort of a flip book effect,” says Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. “We know early in the solo that [Graham] used that position and then maybe a few seconds later she was in that position …. so you really have to fill in the blanks.”
But it also gave Eilber a road map for choreographing “Immediate Tragedy” in a world where creative meetings would have to happen via Zoom and videos would be the main mode of communication between her and the ensemble of 14 dancers scattered across the world.
For the ensemble’s first prompt, Eilber emailed each dancer four photos of “Immediate Tragedy” from the company’s collection of 35 and asked each dancer to create a short slow phrase and a short fast phrase using the four positions depicted in the photographs.
Then after each dancer recorded and WeTransfer-ed their phrases, they were tasked with combining their phrase with another dancer’s sequence. Eventually, Eilber asked the dancers to create a six-count repeating phrase that could start slow, get faster and ultimately be performed in unison to a click track.
“We should count up all the machines we’ve used, all the different technological inventions … from Dropbox to Zoom to our iPhones,” says Eilber, who worked closely with Soraya video editor Ricki Quinn to assemble the final video piece. The film stitches together each dancer’s individual dance sequences into a mosaic of square and rectangular tiles that glide across the screen, fade in, fade out and pay homage to Fraser’s photos.
While diagonal staging angles could not be employed as effectively on screen, observes Eilber, close ups, split screens and other cinematic techniques were able to create dramatic solos and moments of togetherness between ensemble members even from miles and time zones apart.
“With Ricki’s help, we’ve really leaned into using the camera to create the staging,” says Eilber. “I had to shift my thinking from how you put choreography together on stage and lean into the techniques that we can't use live … zooming in, slow motion, the same dancer on the screen at the same time in multiple squares .... So that was one of the challenges really — discovering the advantages of the screen and leaning into that.”
As composer for the reimagining of “Immediate Tragedy,” Rountree faced similar challenges in terms of collaborating with a team of scattered musicians sheltering in place, but found inspiration in the musical notations of Henry Cowell, who composed the original music for “Immediate Tragedy” since lost to time.
A musical bridge written by Cowell between “Deep Song” and the sarabande of “Immediate Tragedy” was discovered among the Graham Company archives and proved revelatory.
“It's the only part of this piece where, because [Cowell] built a transition to the sarabande, we know what tempo the sarabande was, and we know what meter it was in. And we know some of the rhythmic gestures, but only because of the bridge,” says Rountree. “Like what happens when … one city is left and then there’s a bridge? You don’t see the second city. It’s completely gone, but you can try to infer things from it because you have the bridge.”
So the composer got to work building a new score, studying rediscovered music Cowell penned for “Deep Song,” called “Canto Hondo,” and another Cowell piece called “Sinister Resonance,” which Graham used in 1988 for a revival of the dance.
“I thought what a pair for one of those pieces would be and how it would be related and kind of following the lineage. And one of the big things was … the sound of this muted piano,” says Rountree, which he describes as a kind of “percussive knocking,” whose resonance eerily parallels the loneliness and angst of our times.
“There’s this sound of the event of the piano, and then there is the sound of that event hanging in the air and resonating with all the notes, and because the piano makes that noise we actually hear the absence of a note,” says Rountree. “For that reason, it really feels like one thing alone in the void.”
In several ways, the reimagining of “Immediate Tragedy” in 2020 mirrors that of its 1937 creation. Cowell composed the music for “Immediate Tragedy” while serving time in Northern California’s San Quentin State Prison, cut off from much of the world. His collaboration with Graham took place over correspondence and the dance piece itself was a response to an earthshaking world event that Graham responded to in a very personal way, notes Baldwin, a professor of theater and dance at Montclair State University and the author of a forthcoming book on Graham.
“She had a visceral reaction to things,” he says, referencing Graham’s saying “You do not realize how the headlines that make daily history affect the muscles of the human body,” then quoting one of her letters following the premiere of “Immediate Tragedy.” “She had her eyes wide open and her brain wide open ... She says, ‘whether the desperation lives in Spain or in our hearts, it is the same.’”
“What Martha was reacting to was the rise of facism in Spain, oppression of people and that thematic material just seemed more and more present, fertile, potent,” says Eilber, discussing the evolution of the project from a study of archival ephemera to a living, breathing piece. “In the course of developing the work, the immediate tragedy in the world has changed and brought new context to our work.”
Indeed, entire sections with dancers on their knees doing Grahamian “knee crawls” carry new resonance in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Right now, in the last few weeks that taking a knee has a new resonance,” says Eilber, observing how another section — a wall of dancers in an infinite scroll — almost evokes a sea of people at a crowded protest.
“It’s really subtle,” she says. “We were able to find motivations in the immediate tragedy of today that helped design the digital design of the work.”
“I really feel history talking to itself in this piece,” adds Soraya Executive Director Thor Steingraber, who helped initiate the digital iteration of the project two months ago. “Somehow it is equally haunting as it is powerful, equally historic as it is contemporary. … What this piece does, it acknowledges the moment and it transcends the moment.”
“There’s a beautiful quote from Martha in those letters that has really inspired us in this creative process,” says Eilber, then quoting Graham. “‘I was upright and I was going to stay upright at all costs.’ So it’s about determination. It’s about resistance, ideas and qualities that are very much on our minds.”
Top Image: Martha Graham in Immediate Tragedy. Photograph by Robert Fraser, 1937. Courtesy of Martha Graham Resources, a division of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc.