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World Premiere Martha Graham Work Takes Inspiration From Past and Present

June 16, 2020

Collaboration might be the hardest thing to keep going in quarantine. But The Soraya, the San Fernando Valley’s go-to performing arts center, isn’t just keeping artists in contact. It’s commissioning new projects too.

This week, the L.A. venue brings together two past partners — Martha Graham Dance Company and L.A. new-music collective wild Up — for a digital world premiere. And it’s been an entirely virtual process, from conception to rehearsals to performance.

The new piece, Immediate Tragedy, involves 19 dancers and musicians, plus choreographer, composer, and a digital designer — each working remotely on his or her part of the equation. Graham Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber oversaw the choreography, fleshed out by company members dancing from their homes, and wild Up Artistic Director Christopher Rountree composed the music. The thing that’s kept everything knit together: a shared source of inspiration.

Immediate Tragedy took its impetus from rediscovered archival materials around a Graham original, also titled Immediate Tragedy. The choreography for that piece, premiered in 1937, with music by Henry Cowell, is lost. The new work isn’t a recreation, though it does draw heavily on the original. Eilber’s dancers based their movements on photos related to the 1937 piece, and Rountree took inspiration from fragments of Cowell’s score.

What keeps the new Immediate Tragedy connected to the original is a shared message. Writing to Cowell in 1937, Graham reflected on the political unrest at the time (the Spanish Civil War), the backdrop for her Immediate Tragedy. That letter, which goes from despair to persistence, has been a point of reference for everyone working on the project in 2020, for obvious reasons. It’s also offered another layer of connection, between past and present, for the dancers and musicians working together on this, alone.

Immediate Tragedy premieres online, free to tune in to, on June 19 at 4 p.m. PT on The Soraya’s Facebook page and again on June 20 at 11:30 a.m. PT on the Martha Graham Dance Company’s YouTube channel.

Peter Feher is an editor at SFCV. He can be reached at [email protected].