One of the nation’s most celebrated dancers, Janet Eilber is still doing what she loves most, albeit in a very different form. As artistic director of The Martha Graham Dance Company, Eilber now fosters the next generation of top performers and oversees a wealth of varied programming, all while taking choreography into the 21st century.
Founded in 1926, The Martha Graham Dance Company is the longest-running dance company in American history. Before Eilber was installed as artistic director in 2005, the organization struggled through numerous legal disputes regarding the rights to Graham’s work. Two separate Supreme Court cases ruled in the company’s favor, and today, The Martha Graham Dance Company is as strong and influential as it was during the life of its eponym.
Much of the company’s current success can be attributed to the tireless work of Eilber, who has spent considerable time both on and behind the stage, furthering Graham’s legacy. “I first became attracted to dance as a 5- or 6-year-old, when I saw the treasure house ballerina on the television show Captain Kangaroo,” recalls Eilber. “However, what really sent me on the path to dance was the fact that my parents were on the academic faculty of the Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan.”
While studying at Interlochen, Eilber completed four hours of dance lessons each day, along with her high-school academics. “It was an extraordinary program,” she shares. “I learned modern dance, ballet, improvisation, choreography and did a lot of performing. It was a very fertile, creative education, and I really feel it has influenced everything I’ve done since.”
When pressed on what attracted her to dance, Eilber believes “it was a combination of the physicality and the spotlight.” And the spotlight certainly followed the burgeoning performer throughout her adulthood. She soon found herself studying at Juilliard, performing alongside some of modern dance’s earliest pioneers. “When I first visited Juilliard, I saw José Limón rehearsing in the studio, and I just said to myself: This is where I need to be. It just spoke to me.”
Serendipitously, Juilliard received an NEA grant during Eilber’s junior year for the video preservation of Martha Graham’s work. By that time, Graham was widely accepted as the world’s most influential living dancer. Eilber was enlisted to perform for the videos and, as such, became a de facto member of The Martha Graham Dance Company. “Martha was not crazy about us long-legged balletic-looking dancers at first,” says Eilber. “And after a performance, Martha came up to me and said, ‘You’ve been hiding from me.’ I certainly didn’t feel like I had been hiding from her, but she was very complimentary about what I had brought out in the roll, and from then on we worked together on almost every new ballet that she created.”
Katherine Crocket and Ben Schultz in Night Journey.
Graham was soon choreographing moves specifically for Eilber, who went on to dance alongside Rudolf Nureyev and perform solo at the White House. Eilber also found herself working for another of choreography’s biggest names: Bob Fosse, whose expectations were similar to Graham’s. “I learned an incredible amount from Martha, who expected you to bring your totality to any given role—your personal emotional journey and your total physicality,” shares Eilber. “And when I went to work for Bob Fosse, I discovered that he was expecting the same thing.”
Beyond dance, Eilber also had a long career on the stage and screen, performing on Broadway and starring in a number of feature films. However, she could not stay away from her first love for long and, in 1994, cofounded the Los Angeles Dance Foundation. “That was a great part-time job and really got me back in touch with modern dance, which was coming of age and needed to begin appreciating its classics,” notes Eilber. “Then I segued into working with the Martha Graham Center and Dance Company again—helping them with their assets and their archives—and that eventually led to my becoming artistic director.”
Since then, Eilber has spearheaded countless initiatives, programs, and performances furthering the legacy of Graham. “We now do a spoken introduction to all our performances; we do thematic seasons that allow us to present not only Martha Graham but other choreographers, as well; we use media onstage; we have partnered with numerous educational and musical organizations; and we even have online video competitions,” she says.
Eilber will be demonstrating the extent of her impact on the organization when The Martha Graham Dance Company performs a series of works at the Purchase College Performing Arts Center on February 20. Among these will be Graham’s heartbreaking masterpieces Night Journey and Lamentations. “The brilliant thing about Night Journey is that it is a revision of the Oedipus story,” says Eilber. “It is an incredible combination of stream-of-consciousness, memory, and flashback.”
Audiences can expect a few other surprises during this show, which will undoubtedly demonstrate the very best of what contemporary dance has to offer. For Eilber, these performances and their enduring impact all originate from the genius of Graham and the importance of her oeuvre. “The best way to honor Martha is to take up the mantle of trying to understand where modern dance is going and interact with those people who are taking it into the future,” says Eilber. “Martha always used to say, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul,’ and it really can describe things that words just cannot.”