South Florida Symphony Orchestra and the Martha Graham Dance Create Visions of Community
Photo by Melissa Sherwood

South Florida Symphony Orchestra and the Martha Graham Dance Create Visions of Community

People often imagine that new artwork is the product of the solitary artistic genius slaving away in a lonely studio. The South Florida Symphony’s 20th-anniversary program foregrounds a different vision of the artistic process: the kind of innovation that occurs when artists surrender their single vision in their encounters with other artists and the greater community.

January 21 through 24, the South Florida Symphony Orchestra (SFSO) will present its anniversary program in Key West, the Broward Center, and the Arsht Center together with the 20th-century dance vanguard the Martha Graham Dance Company.

The program includes two iconic pieces by 20th-century composers: Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring," as well as a world debut of a Martha Graham Company choreography set to music by South Florida composer Tom Hormel. Collaboration as art process is central to the historic partnership between Copland and Graham. From their partnership emerged Copland’s 1944 “Appalachian Spring Ballet.”

The SFSO collaboration with the Martha Graham company grew from a series of smaller collaborations. “Maurizio Nardi, a former principal dancer with Martha Graham, was working as an artistic director for the Key West Modern Dance Intensive,” SFSO conductor Sabrina Maria Alfonso says. “He contacted me about a short, 15-minute introduction they had choreographed based on the letters written between Martha Graham and Copland during the composition of 'Appalachian Spring.'”

This connection would lead to the deeper collaboration that resulted in the SFSO’s current anniversary program, which will also include a new collaboration between composer and choreographer. Choreographed by Virginie Mécène — director of the pre-professional troupe Graham 2, comprising dancers from the Martha Graham School — and performed by the 11 Graham 2 dancers, "A New Place" will be performed to Hormel’s "Legend of Bird Mountain," a piece originally written for the Sun Valley Festival contest in 1990 by the longtime Fort Lauderdale resident. SFSO hosted the world premiere of the symphony during its 2016-17 season.

South Florida Symphony Orchestra and the Martha Graham Dance Create Visions of Community
Photo by Melissa Sherwood

For Martha Graham artistic director and former company dancer Janet Eilber, the common bond among the three pieces is the theme of community. “Community is important to all of these works. In ‘Appalachian Spring,’ the eight characters are typical Americans who form a community," Eilber says. "Through the ballet, Copland and Graham wanted to distill the American experience, and since it premiered during World War II they also wanted to send a message of hope for the future.

“The new ballet based on Hormel’s work, Virginie has titled 'A New Place,'” Eilber continues, “and she has placed it in New York City. The lead woman is new to the city, and she is looking for connection and community. Finally, in the second piece of the program, ‘The Rite of Spring,’ it is the community itself that chooses a woman to dance herself to death.”

After its South Florida premiere, the new choreography based on the Hormel composition will become part of the company’s permanent repertoire, continuing a practice the Martha Graham Company initiated in 2013 of commissioning new, 20-to-25-minute works by contemporary, cutting-edge choreographers.

Asked how it feels to look back at her 20-year odyssey as both conductor and founder of SFSO, Alfonso says that starting a symphony from scratch had taken a lot of work, but “it is an incredible feeling to look back over the years since the inception of the symphony. To be able to come to the point where the orchestra is able to perform with Martha Graham and world-renowned artists feels terrific. We are really focused on being a leader in the cultural arm in South Florida.”

— Sean Erwin, artburstmiami.com

South Florida Symphony Orchestra: Martha Graham's Dance of Life. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 23, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 24, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $40 to $125 via ticketmaster.com.

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