Q&A with dancer Blakeley White-McGuire
The Martha Graham Dance Company will close Carolina Performing Arts’ “The Rite of Spring at 100” celebration with a program titled “Myth and Transformation,” which is composed of multiple programs, including “The Rite of Spring.”
Staff writer Breanna Kerr spoke with the lead dancer for the show, Blakeley White-McGuire, about her role in the company, this performance and the importance of “The Rite of Spring” as a classic.
Daily Tar Heel: What is your role in the Martha Graham Dance Company?
Blakeley White-McGuire: I am one of the principal dancers with the Martha Graham Dance Company.
I am dancing The Woman in Red in “Diversions and Angels” and The Chosen One in “The Rite of Spring.”
DTH: What does “The Rite of Spring” mean to you?
BWM: It’s a very famous piece of music, first of all.
It’s a visceral piece of music that gives many images, but Martha Graham’s “Rite of Spring” means extreme effort, excitement, sexuality, endurance and bringing all of those elements together in dance with (Igor) Stravinsky’s incredibly moving score.
DTH: Do you think “The Rite of Spring” still has cultural resonance in today’s society?
BWM: If we look at our own rituals and who we are willing to sacrifice in our culture — who is disposable — it’s extremely resonant.
I look at the role of The Chosen One very much in relation to leaders who know they are up against cultural embedded ways of being and yet they still go forward with their mission.
So The Chosen One knows she is a part of this ritual, and she knows one of the maidens will die. When she’s chosen — in my interpretation — she, while scared out of her mind, still accepts her fate and accepts her role in the community.
That resonates really strongly with people today.
DTH: How long have you been preparing for your role as The Chosen One?
BWM: Since learning it several months ago, I have come to understand that I’ve been preparing for this role for about 10 years, since my first technique class.
It makes me think beginnings are so important because you never know where a beginning is going to lead you, so it’s important to give everything, to do well, to do your best — and I say that in relation to technique.
DTH: What is your background in dance, and how long have you been dancing in the company?
BWM: I am an American dancer, and I was raised in the American dance studio community: ballet, tap and jazz.
I moved to New York when I was 19, and I began studying at the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, specifically training in Graham’s technique.
I also study classical ballet, and I dance opera, tap and I make my own choreography.
DTH: Why is “The Rite of Spring” still so important even after a century since its first performance?
BWM: Because it’s a classic. It strikes a chord in humanity and the people who are open and willing to feel the relentless energy of it.
DTH: What do you hope audiences will take away from the performance?
BWM: I hope they will be moved by the beauty and the passion of Graham’s work and of our dancers’ work.
I hope the audience will connect with what we are sharing with them, and I hope the audience will feel a part of it.
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‘Rite of Spring’ revival at UNC to feature new costumes
The Martha Graham Dance Company had planned to use Halston’s original costumes for a revival of Graham’s 1984 “Rite of Spring.” This work is included in the company’s Friday and Saturday programs at UNC’s Memorial Auditorium. Superstorm Sandy changed that plan. “There was a rush of water that ripped doors off walls,” company artist director Janet Eilber said of that storm’s devastating effect on the company’s New York headquarters. About four months before the storm hit, the company had moved into Merce Cunningham Company’s former headquarters a block from the Hudson River. So, the Sandy-propelled surge tide had flooded the basement where all the company’s costumes and sets were stored, Eilber said in a telephone interview. Ten days passed before the water could be pumped out and that’s when they found soaked costumes, including vintage wear, she added.
They managed to salvage some costumes by sending them to a laundry. A trunk full of costumes worn by Graham has been sent to be restored, Eilber said. Other costumes were beyond repair, such as Halston’s black and white loincloths and sarong-style skirts designed for Graham’s “Rite of Spring.” What audiences will see this weekend are new costumes inspired by Halston’s originals, she added. The company needs to raise $3 million to replace or restore damaged sets and costumes. Stars from the dance world performed at a Feb. 25 benefit with North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble alumna Michelle Dorrance kicking off the show, Eilber said. To reconstruct Graham’s “Rite of Spring,” not performed since 1993, the company used film footage of the original work as well as first-hand knowledge shared by the company’s rehearsal director Denise Vale and Kenneth Topping, who had danced in the original cast, Eilber said.
Graham’s “Rite” features 17 dancers and includes a Shaman and The Chosen One, the maiden sacrificed for Earth’s spring renewal. In the Graham Company’s current production, Blakeley White-McGuire and Xiachuan Xie share the role of The Chosen One (on alternate nights at UNC).
“They’re both phenomenal dancers and very different in this lead role. There’s a certain fragility to her – a natural projection of the innocence,” Eilber said of Xiachuan. “Blakeley is a dynamic actress. She’s a tigress. She’s not just the victim in this role.”
White-McGuire explained her interpretation: “She’s an active participant in the ritual. The fear is there but also the choice. It’s the empowerment of the individual,” the dancer said in a telephone interview.
This “Rite” also represents the culmination of White-McGuire’s years of study in Graham’s technique, which builds physical strength, mental concentration and tenacity, the dancer added. “The Graham technique is incredibly athletic. The physical and emotional are intertwined. It’s an endurance piece for the company,” she said. White-McGuire’s solo comes after 15 minutes of hard dancing. While she doesn’t have the 123 jumps The Chosen One executed in the original “Rite,” White-McGuire performs some very energetic moves. “I haven’t counted, but there may be 123 contractions and releases,” she said. When creating her “Rite” at age 90, Graham no doubt drew on her own experience of performing The Chosen One in a 1930 version choreographed by Leonide Massine with the set designer from the original 1913 “Rite.” Graham’s relationship with Massine proved contentious, Eilber said. At one point, Graham told him, “ ‘Get me out of these damned boots.’ She danced her role barefoot,” Eilber added. It would be 53 years until Graham would create her own “Rite.” “It really is an incredible work,” Eilber said. The work reflects Graham’s revolutionary contribution to modern dance. “She took body language and theatricalized it,” Eilber added. Both Stravinsky’s and Graham’s works evoke the primal. “Graham’s gutsy, percussive, elemental movement style was a great match for Stravinsky’s music,” she noted. “They’re both geniuses.”
In her Feb. 29, 1984, review of the premiere of Graham’s “Rite” at Lincoln Center, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff had high praise. “It is a ‘Rite’ that is totally elemental, as primal in expression of basic emotion as any tribal ceremony, as hauntingly staged in its deliberate bleakness as it is rich in implication,” the critic writes. Graham sets her “Rite” in a desert landscape evocative of the American Southwest with rituals suggestive of Native American inspiration, Kisselgoff notes. In Graham’s version, instead of dancing herself to death, The Chosen One succumbs from sheer terror, “the life ebbing out of her in a spasmodic solo,” the critic writes. “She is quite simply an artist of the greatest depth and she stirs us so strongly that we cannot merely walk out of the theater as if we had witnessed just another dance performance,” Kisselgoff writes. The audience must have agreed, for they gave Graham’s work a standing ovation at the premiere.