Above the voluminous dress in the black-and-white photograph, the womans dark-rimmed eyes dare us to figure out what she wants. Kim Jones has taken the dare. When Martha Graham Dance Company comes to Knight Theater next week, well see what Jones discovered.
The assistant professor of dance at UNC Charlotte is billed as a reconstructionist of Imperial Gesture, the 1935 solo Graham premiered in New Yorks Guild Theatre.
She has spent the last two years as an archaeologist, detective and choreographer of the solo that Blakeley White-McGuire will dance twice at Knight: on Thursday in a free, registration-only concert and Friday in a public performance.
That show breaks down into two sections. Prelude and Revolt gives us works Graham would have seen, danced or set from the 1900s through the tempestuous 1930s. It ends with Lamentation Variations, in which contemporary choreographers riff on one of her most famous solos and set movement to Chopin, Mahler and hip-hop. After intermission comes Grahams bold Appalachian Spring.
Imperial Gesture, created in the middle of The Depression, now comes in the middle of Prelude and Revolt.
She was political, even though she didnt declare herself to be, says Jones. Art was politicized then; modern dancers would show up at steel mills or factories and dance at lunch time. Gesture premiered at a benefit for workers, and the left-wing magazine New Masses referred to it positively for two years.
(The staid New York Times had less enthusiasm: (Its) not altogether successful, in spite of some excellent passages and copious cheering from the house. It is something of a study in arrogance whose ending in collapse and defeat lacks conviction, except from the standpoint of left-wing wishful thinking.)
The Graham company had been resurrecting its founders lost 30s works when Jones danced there from 2002 to 2006. Shes a Graham régisseur, trusted to stage existing pieces outside the troupe. So when artistic director Janet Eilber asked Jones to revive Gesture, she jumped.
I started with nothing but two reviews from opening night and four photos, says Jones. I thought, This is crazy. But Janet got 30 more shots from the estate of the photographer (Graham favorite Barbara Morgan), and the Library of Congress had 30 reviews. The color of the dress was described as rust, apricot, even clay but at least we had a place to start.
Lehmann Engels score for the five-minute solo had vanished, so pianist Pat Daugherty wrote a new one. (Hell play it here.) Jones found drawings of Grahams floor work for Gesture, lifted and color-coded the patterns and used the Morgan photos to set up a sequence of moves.
She interviewed dancers from the period, and weekly rehearsals and tech sessions continued in New York through this month. The result so pleased Eilber that the company will take Gesture to New York for its winter run at Joyce Theatre.
Martha Graham Dance Company hasnt come to Charlotte since 1981, when its founder was 87. (It performed at Ovens Auditorium, where tickets were $12.50.)
The Knight Theater appearance has been underwritten by UNCC, which supplied a faculty grant to pay for Jones work and has produced and promoted the concert, and Wells Fargo Foundation, which put up $50,000 toward both performances. (The free one, now filled, was aimed at first-time audience members.)
For Jones, this triumph is the culmination of a 20-year Graham odyssey, from taking classes with the company in 1992 (the year after Graham died) to helping UNCC dance students study Graham technique at the companys New York base. Jones has also set Panorama, Grahams short but massive 1935 piece, for this concert; she auditioned more than 70 local dancers and will use almost half.
Ask why Grahams work speaks so deeply to her, and Jones replies as an ex-gymnast I like the rigor and discipline and a dancer: Her use of breath seems so natural. And I like the resistance, that play between tension and release.
You grow physically when you do her work. But its really that she talks about humanity, how we live in the world. She allows a person to express all emotions.