Antonio Brown appreciates the task and its challenges: Take one of modern dance's most influential pieces — Martha Graham's groundbreaking solo Lamentation — and reinterpret it.
"It has such history," says Brown, whose dance is one of three choreographers commissioned by Verb Ballets to mark Lamentation's 85th anniversary. "It's refreshing to look back on it and to really go in and look at Graham's details and qualities of movement to create something new."
Graham changed the trajectory of modern dance with Lamentation's 1930 premiere. Wearing a tubelike shroud that revealed only her face, hands and feet, she explored death using stark, angular movements, elaborate hand gestures and raw emotion. The subject matter, choreography and costume were all trailblazing.
"Lamentation took a different approach and crossed lines at the time that other choreographers had not done," says Brown, Verb Ballets choreographer. "She opened up a new way of expressing and shaping dance."
Part of a project with the Martha Graham Dance Co. that breathes life into Lamentation, Verb Ballets presents the world premiere of Brown's work along with variations by choreographers Chung-Fu Chang and Ginger Thatcher at the Breen Center Feb. 21. The project ends with a New York City show by Verb and the Graham Dance Co. in 2016.
A graduate from the Cleveland School of Arts, Brown dances with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co. He created a group version of Lamentation that doesn't use props or the shroud from the original. "I wanted to focus on the hands being exposed and how our hands can convey emotion and grief," he says.
Thatcher, the assistant choreographer for the critically acclaimed The Little Dancer, developed her variation to express the agitation and stages of grief, using the shroud to reveal and hide emotion, with a group of dancers to symbolize grief as a universal experience.
Chang, who first learned Graham's technique in Taiwan after it was introduced to his country in 1970, developed his variation as a duet and changed the costumes to deepen the expression of mourning. "I maintain the accents of grief," he says, "but used a veil to cover the female dancer's face as a metaphor for hidden sorrow."