April 20 may mark the 75th birthday of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, but in terms of the FAC's ancestry, it's more of a 92nd anniversary.
Charlie Snyder, the FAC's director of communications, points out that the center's predecessor, the Broadmoor Art Academy, was founded in 1919. Though the name changed and the building expanded by 1936, much of the institution, from leaders such as Boardman Robinson to its general school programming, stayed constant.
Whatever the actual age, though, what does stand is the FAC's remarkable history, punctuated by visiting artists, big-name events and the growth of its incredible permanent collection. To celebrate this, the FAC is hosting the Martha Graham Dance Company for a special performance, displaying 10 monumental murals by Robinson (which haven't been seen together in about 50 years) and commissioning a mural by local legend Eric Bransby to grace its grand hallway.
The FAC is doing even more, as we outline in this package. We spoke with members from the MGDC, Bransby and others in researching the FAC's anniversary events, which tie in with its long-standing traditions. In learning about its history, both the FAC and Pikes Peak Library District Special Collections department were instrumental in helping us put these stories together, providing a wealth of information and photos.
Here's to 92 years — cheers!
Three strong women founded the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, so it's fitting that a strong woman would have helped christen it when it opened in 1936. Although the galleries held artwork done largely by men, the performance art stage gave way to whom many consider to be the modern dancer of the 20th century and one of the foremost choreographers in history: Martha Graham.
On April 21 and 22, Graham and her all-female troupe performed for audiences in the brand new FAC theater, doing her most famous solo piece, "Lamentation." At the time, she was 41 and already considered a genius. Her unique and controversial style of dance is regarded as having established America as world power in performance art — in much the same way Frank Lloyd Wright did in architecture, Aaron Copland did in classical music, George Gershwin did in jazz, and Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe did in visual art.
Now, 75 years after the FAC's birth, and 20 years after Graham's death, the Martha Graham Dance Company will return to the FAC for the first time since 1936 to give a special, tailored performance. Works like "Diversion of Angels" are unchanged since Graham choreographed them, yet the company has also branched out with "Lamentation Variations," performances written by up-and-coming choreographers based on Graham's seminal piece.
"It's an incredible opportunity," says FAC executive director and CEO Sam Gappmayer, who says the FAC first reached out to the company last year. He adds that what makes the show special is that it not only incorporates Graham's original dances, but also includes a multimedia performance that demonstrates how modern dance has changed.
"So it's not just a nostalgic look at something that was performed here 75 years ago," he says.
In all of it, viewers will see the hallmark of Graham's work: a technique centered in the earth, embracing gravity instead of effortlessness and ethereality. It's a style grounded in the architecture of the body, stripped of adornment and flourishes.
"She embraced the ugly parts of ourselves, the emotions that for some people, are ugly: pain and sorrow and anger," says Katherine Crockett, the principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company. "They're kind of the things that people want to hide, and she said, 'Let me put this on stage.'"
Angels and demons
In the simplest terms, Graham insisted that a dancer's movement originate in the core of the body. In her style, the torso and the gut power the limbs, and there's little reliance on gestures or virtuoso movements of the arms and legs.
"She wanted to find a way of moving that would reveal what were you thinking and what you were feeling," says Janet Eilber, the company's artistic director and a former principal dancer who worked with Graham. "And she really discovered that, that rides on the breath. ... She focused on the torso, on the center of the body, and developed this exhale and inhale as a birth of power, like a coil that would coil up and then spring open. And that's her famous contraction and release.
"It's a very powerful, gutsy, percussive movement, and very emotionally descriptive."
Eilber explains that these movements work with the stories behind the dances, which Graham wrote. Back in the '30s, she created abstract pieces, one of the most famous being "Lamentation," a one-person performance in which a woman struggles with a tight, tubular dress as an expression of grief.
Decades later, this distinctive style of movement and her innovative dance technique still resounds with female empowerment, says Crockett, who first came upon it as a student in the New York City-based Martha Graham School of Dance in 1993.
"When I started doing the Graham technique at the school, I felt my whole world turned around," she says. "I felt that doing Martha Graham's movement, I felt empowered as a woman in a way I wasn't feeling from other messages in society."
Even after Graham began accepting men into her dance company in the late '30s (one of the first was another famous dancer Merce Cunningham; the other, Erick Hawkins, was from Trinidad, and was married to Graham for a short time), her performances featured female protagonists. But accepting men into the fold allowed her to write pieces based on Greek dramas and other narratives — for instance, she paired with Copland for another famous work, "Appalachian Spring."
Similarly, "Night Journey" tells the story of Oedipus and his mother and wife, Jocasta. The tale is told through Jocasta's point of view as she makes ready to commit suicide upon learning the gruesome truth about Oedipus. She looks back on their affair, the choreography of which alternates subtly between lovers wrestling and a mother cuddling her child.
Crockett, who has been principal dancer since 1996, says Jocasta is one of her favorite roles to perform. She says this work is the perfect example of the way the choreography imbues the emotions of the character into the dancer.
"If I'm doing a deep pelvic contraction and all of my air is thrust out of my body in a violent, intense way," she says, "I'm going to have an emotional response, because we're flesh and blood."
But Graham didn't constrict herself to tormented psychological works, either. "Diversion of Angels" is an ode to the stages of love. Graham wrote the work inspired by a painting by abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, and it features three couples dressed in yellow, red and white. The yellow couple, Eilber explains, represents "material, adolescent, flirtatious love"; the red couple, "lyrical, passionate love"; and the white pair "enduring, mature, spiritual love."
"Martha used to say this might be three different women, [or] it might be one woman at three different times in her life," Eilber says.
Crockett performs the woman in white, and says there's an ancient aspect to it, denoting the unchanging nature of pure love.
"I feel like this radiant goddess just vibrating out into space and she's kind of this mother earth figure too," she says, "A healing, compassionate being that connects the earth and the sky."
Graham was born in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, but her family traveled frequently by train to the U.S. Southwest and California before eventually settling in that state. Eilber recalls Graham talking about observing the expansive space and clear light of these parts of the country and how it influenced her perception of the fundamental elements of dance.
She would return to the Southwest again and again throughout her life. Her ashes were even scattered in northern New Mexico when she died at age 96.
"Several of the ballets, her classic works, are inspired by the rituals of the Native Americans of the Southwest," Eilber says.
Another source of inspiration lay in Graham's dissatisfaction with the state of dance as she started building her career. Eilber says that dance was mostly borrowed from other countries in the early 1900s and 1910s. "America was sort of obsessed with faux-Oriental gods and goddesses from India or China or wherever. Or kings or queens from the ballets, you know, princes and a class system that had nothing to do with America."
Like many new ideas, it wasn't totally accepted at first. Graham's costumes, which were tight-fitting across the body to showcase the dancers' movements, were considered shocking. And the emphasis on the body's core was a revolutionary concept at the time, though Eilber says that today we are more accustomed to the notion, thanks to yoga and Pilates.
But it didn't take long to catch on: Graham rose to fame and formed her own dance company in 1926. A decade later, she would choreograph another defining work, "Chronicle," and be invited by Adolf Hitler to perform at the International Arts Festival organized in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Berlin. Graham angrily refused.
That same year she brought her company west to perform at the FAC. And to be able to come back now is something that Eilber cherishes.
"Our legacies kind of mesh for a few days," she says, "It allows us to perform for an audience that's kind of in sync with us, more than the usual."
That meshing echoes the inspiration of many of Graham's works, and a happy one at that.
"She talked about finding the moments that are inevitable and that the transitions should be inevitable," says Crockett, "There's the transition from one place to another, it's an inevitable change and it's a beautiful thing to experience."