Degas Today: Six Reflections by Maida Withers

A leader in the area of dance and technology, Maida Withers is the founder and artistic director of Dance Construction Company of Washington, D.C., a professor in the department of theatre and dance at The George Washington University, and member of Washington Project for the Arts. This Friday, October 21, Artisphere presents DANCE:FILMS by MAIDA WITHERS, exploring the intersection of dance, film, new media, and performance (click the event link to watch trailers). In anticipation, Withers visited the Degas exhibition and shares her responses to the iconic “painter of dancers” in this guest post. 

(left) Maida Withers. Courtesy of the artist. (right) Edgar Degas, Two Studies of a Ballet Dancer, c. 1873. Brush and brown ink, heightened with white, on pink paper, now faded, 16 1/16 x 11 1/16 in.The Pierpont Morgan Library, Bequest of John S. Thacher

Visiting the Degas’s Dancers at the Barre exhibition at The Phillips Collection, you realize the comprehensive, lifetime interest and commitment of Degas to dance, a passion I share as a choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker.  In reflection, I had the following thoughts and feelings after visiting the exhibition:

1. Degas images are still the universal icons for dance – ballet and beyond. Live performance can have a strong impression for the viewing audience, but nothing quite parallel to the visual art image that can be viewed and studied over and over again. The closest modern dance has come to an icon, perhaps, is Martha Graham, but there is no singular Graham image comparable in our memory to that of Degas and the ballet.

2. Recognition of our changing views about the “dancer’s body.” Certainly there is more diversity in the look of dancers today partly due to the change in training and the widening range of roles and styles the dancer must be able to perform. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Martha Graham

Google Doodles are a serendipitous treat, transforming the familiar primary colored serif letters into something whimsical. Today’s doodle, in honor of Martha Graham’s 117th birthday, appears to be an easy favorite, judging from the number of times it has already been captured and presented on YouTube.

Martha Graham visited the Phillips in May 1944 at the request of Duncan Phillips, who wrote to her of “our great wish that you can lecture on your art in our Gallery this Spring . . . Washington is eager in wartime for such occasions.” In that year, Aaron Copeland’s  Appalachian Spring would premiere, which Graham choreographed and danced the leading role. The powerful American spirit in the work was easily what Phillips was hoping Graham could bring to his audience through this conversation.

Phillips Memorial Gallery, Martha Graham will talk informally on her art, The Dance, 1944. The Phillips Collection Archives

Making David Smith Dance

David Smith’s study of moving forms and dancers, in particular choreographer Martha Graham, served as the inspiration for the recent public program–Making Shapes in Space: David Smith and Dance.  Kelly Mayfield, artistic director of Contradiction Dance, choreographed a response to the energy and movement of the sculptures in David Smith Invents.

Compare the company’s interpretation of Bouquet of Concaves to the sculpture in the Phillips. What’s your take on this cross-disciplinary collaboration?

Contradiction Dance company's interpretation of Bouquet of Concaves (Photo by James R. Brantley)

David Smith. Bouquet of Concaves , 1959. Steel, painted. The Phillips Collection, gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2008. © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

If you’re interested in more photos from the performance, check out our Flickr set.