For Martha Graham Dance Company member Leslie Andrea Williams, the two-night run Thursday and Friday (March 23, March 24) at UNC’s Memorial Hall, is not just another stop on the company’s current tour. Instead, it’s a chance to come home to the “land of the longleaf pine” (North Carolina). She grew up in Raleigh, where she began taking dance lessons at age 3 and she expects a big turnout from her immediate and extended family at these performances in Chapel Hill.
“It’s really great having all that family in the audience,” the 23-year-old dancer said in a phone interview from New York.
Serendipity played a role in both her discovery of Martha Graham’s work and the Martha Graham Dance Company’s discovery of her.
She had not studied Graham, a pioneer of American modern dance, in high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which she entered at age 14. But after graduation, when she auditioned for and won a spot at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, she learned about Graham in freshman and sophomore classes with former Graham dancers Terese Capucilli and Christine Dankin. “And, thanks to them, I have this job at this [Martha Graham] company,” Williams wrote on her web site.
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From those women at Juilliard, Williams had learned roles in Graham’s work that included the role of She of the Ground from the 1946 “Dark Meadow.” “I had my first out-of-body experience onstage in that piece. That’s what inspired me to do more Graham,” Williams said in the phone interview. Her senior year, she was asked to perform that role again in a Juilliard dance concert. Williams also performed in the Juilliard Seniors Concert that year.
And, Martha Graham Dance Company artistic director Janet Eilber happened to be in the audience both times and had been impressed.
“Although I enjoyed Leslie in She of the Ground from ‘Dark Meadow’ – I really noticed her in the Juilliard Senior Concert. She danced ‘Trumpet’ from ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ from Bob Fosse’s ‘Dancin,’ ” Eilber stated in an email. In a group dance with 25 seniors, she stood out with some undeniable presence and ability to connect with an audience, she stated “I invited her to audition [for the Graham company] after the senior program,” Eilber stated.
After that audition, Williams became a member of the Graham company in July 2015.
For this company, there’s plenty of Graham’s work to explore. Since founding her company in 1926, Graham created 181 masterworks. Graham choreographed her last work, “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1991, the same year she died on April 1 at age 96. (The UNC program includes this work that Williams described as “a crowd-pleaser” as well as Act 2 from Graham’s 1958 “Clytemnestra.”)
Graham had created a technique centered on contraction and release that enabled her to forge a ground-breaking dance style that gave voice to spiritual and emotional undercurrents.
Several years ago, the Graham company started inviting contemporary choreographers to develop new works to add to the company’s repertoire.
The Graham Company’s upcoming UNC program includes the North Carolina premieres of Annie-B Parson’s “I used to love you,” inspired by Graham’s 1941 “Punch and the Judy” and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Mosaic,” commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts. The company premiered these two works at the opening of their current season last month at the Joyce Theater in New York. This season also marks the company’s 91st year.
“There are so many different styles, I get to express myself as a versatile dancer,” said Williams, who appears in “Mosaic.”
This new work by Cherkaoui is part of Carolina Performing arts 2016-2017 “Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey,” a series of 13 works that explores the plurality of Muslim identity as opposed to the over-simplified presentations of Muslims in the U.S.
Cherkaoui, whose personal heritage includes Moroccan and Flemish, is no stranger to UNC’s Memorial Hall stage where Carolina Performing Arts presented his 2007 “Sutra,” performed by monks from China’s Shaolin Temple, and his 2011 “Babel” (“Words”).
In learning “Mosaic,” Graham dancers had to use a different way of moving that took some getting used to, Williams noted. “You’re using your body in a way that’s a lot more elastic. You use your whole body to move your arm. This work is capturing the essence of the individual and also how we connect as people to this bigger picture,” the dancer said.
In the section called “Trance,” dancers had to learn not to think. “You have to lose control and get out of your head. I felt like I was in a trance,” Williams added.
While this work proved very challenging, the choreographer made learning it a positive experience, Williams said.
“He’s a very spiritual person, relaxed, very kind and understanding,” Williams explained.
The score Cherkaoui used for this new work includes Turkish music, poetry by Rumi (a Sufi mystic poet), as well as audio from news’ broadcasts. “You can hear people screaming and bombs going off,” Williams said.
“Cherkaoui is referencing Middle Eastern conflict as part of this work – something that Graham also did in “Clytemnestra,” Eilber said in a phone interview from New York.
And, while both choreographers have distinct voices and choreographic styles, they also have other things in common, Eilber noted. “Cherkaoui, like Graham, uses ritual and is attracted to the sacred and also has contemporary commentary,” Eilber added.
Editor’s note: After the Martha Dance Company’s UNC appearances, look for a review at susanbroiliarts.wordpress.com
GO & DO
WHAT: Carolina Performing Arts presents the Martha Graham Dance Company.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (March 23), 8 p.m. Friday (March 24).
WHERE: UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill.
TICKETS: 919-843-3333 or www.carolinaperformingarts.org