Experiential learning is more than ditching the classroom for an internship. It can be leaping with 11 other young women into a rich river of modern choreography.
On Feb. 2 and 3 at the UGA Fine Arts Theatre, just before the legendary Martha Graham Dance Company danced its signature ballet, “Appalachian Spring,” for a UGA Presents audience, something marvelous happened. The program opened with a dozen UGA students in Graham’s brief, evocative “Steps in the Street.”
The 1936 work, subtitled “Devastation-Homelessness-Exile,” reflects the choreographer’s distress at the rise of facism, and is danced to music by a Georgia-born composer, Wallingford Riegger. It’s a window into Graham’s unique style, which stresses movement from the core of the body and powerfully dramatic gestures.
The Graham company’s performances, master classes and pre-performance talks engaged UGA’s students, faculty, staff and audiences during the company’s four-day residency in Athens. For “Appalachian Spring,” Associate Director of Bands Jaclyn Hartenberger led a chamber orchestra including Hugh Hodgson School of Music faculty members Shakhida Azimkhodjaeva, Kristin Jutras, D. Ray McClellan and Amy Pollard as well as graduate students and other guest musicians. At a pre-performance talk by Graham Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber, Dance Professor Emeritus Mark Wheeler donated his dissertation on Graham to the company’s archives.
The Graham company’s residency was the brainchild of Performing Arts Center Director Jeffrey Martin, who began talking with the group several years ago. Once the pandemic appeared to be waning and the proper funding was in place, he felt confident in proceeding with this project.
“Having presented the Martha Graham Dance Company previously, I knew very well the impact the company’s visit to Athens would have on our community. It’s something I have really wanted to see come to fruition since I first came to Athens,” Martin said. “It exceeded my already-high expectations.”
The Graham residency project was made possible thanks to the support of the Christine and Thomas Pavlak Performing Arts Center Endowment and the Charlie and Teresa Friedlander Community Fund at the Athens Area Community Foundation. “We are incredibly appreciative of our partners and supporters who contributed to the success of this very ambitious project,” Martin said.
The students’ performance came together in an intensely short schedule of classes and rehearsals with Elizabeth Auclair, a régisseur from the Graham company, who taught “Steps in the Street” to them.
“Jan. 20 was her first day here,” said professor of dance Lisa Fusillo, who organized Auclair’s residency and this production by putting together a roster of funders. “She led a master class in Graham Technique, then had an audition where she took 12 dancers and two understudies. They worked every single day for two weeks with two days off. It was a crash course in the Graham Technique and style. I think they did a beautiful job.
“It gave the students tremendous insight into what working as a professional artist is like. The focus, the intensity, the integrity they brought to every rehearsal was really a fabulous experience. And it is the embodiment of experiential learning,” Fusillo said.
“It was fantastic,” Auclair said. “Even though they didn’t have a lot of Graham Technique training, they were so open and willing to explore this realm. It was extremely rewarding for me to work with them. They really sunk their teeth in, and they really wanted to go in deep. They all worked hard to manifest their physicality. They were absolutely on board to make that happen.
“They became very dear to me over the two weeks. I was struck by how astute they are. They seem to be very present in their lives and very actively engaged in what they’re doing. My curiosity is piqued to see what they do next and next,” Auclair said.
One dancer literally stood out from the ensemble: third-year dance and English double major Erin O’Keefe from Kennesaw, who was chosen by Auclair to dance the lead role.
“That was a really exciting moment. I was literally overjoyed,” O’Keefe said. “Having an opportunity like this was incredible and not something I could ever imagine I would get to do.”
Auclair, O’Keefe says, “was incredible. Just a great teacher. Really inspiring. She made the process really memorable and special.”
In the final rehearsal, Auclair watched intently, making gentle corrections: “We have two different philosophies in the back row there … you’ve got to follow the sound … really, really honoring what you’re hearing.” The dancers moved with precision and force to orchestral music that’s startlingly funky for the mid-1930s.
Auclair finished with a kind of benediction: “All the work is done. It’s in your body.”
When the dancers arrived at the hall for the first performance, they were greeted by a letter from Eilber that concluded, “As you perform ‘Steps in the Street,’ you join the amazing group of dancers who have brought this revolutionary dance to life over the last 78 years. Welcome. We are wishing you every success.”
At the conclusion of “Steps in the Street,” the audience exploded with applause. When that ended, another wave of applause came from backstage—the Graham company clapping, hooting and hollering for their younger colleagues, who were having an experience they will never forget.
“It was the most important performance of my life,” O’Keefe said, “so far.”