The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Following in Martha Graham's steps
Dance professor Duane Cyrus brings the powerful “Steps in the Street” to Greensboro.
by Dan Nonte, UNCG staff writer
Photography and video by Chris English, photography editor

When he was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Duane Cyrus would watch spellbound from the wings as his fellow dancers performed “Steps in the Street.”

Now, more than 15 years later, the assistant professor of dance has shared that 1936 composition with a new generation of dancers.

Supported by a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and university matching funds, Cyrus led a reconstruction of the seven-minute dance with UNCG student dancers. The project culminated in the spring with performances at three local high schools, where the dancers also discussed the work, and on the UNCG campus.

Cyrus was one of the last company members to audition for Graham, who died in 1991. He feels a personal connection to the artistic pioneer but is far from alone in his devotion to her legacy.

“Graham was, in many ways, the mother of all contemporary dance,” said Jan Van Dyke, head of the Department of Dance. “Since her death, we all feel a responsibility to keep her work alive and relevant to our students and the general public.”

Last summer, Cyrus researched “Steps.” He traveled to New York to interview Graham dancer Yuriko Kikuchi and brush up on the Graham technique. During the fall, he taught Graham's technique and history to dance majors and held auditions for the cast. In the spring, he guided rehearsals, performances and outreach. Elizabeth Auclair, a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company 1993-2009, came to UNCG for 11 days in February to help teach the work.

The cast members researched the context in which the work was created, the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. Women had won the right to vote less than two decades earlier. Set to a stirring composition by Wallingford Riegger, the dance evokes images of breadlines and mass arrests.

At one point, dancers march across the stage in unison with arms outstretched before them. “It reminds me of picketing, demonstrating and trying to move forward as a whole, yearning and striving for something,” said graduate student Melissa Pihos, a cast member who made a documentary about the project.

Cast members immersed themselves in the era and the work. The months of study and rehearsal paid off. “You canít help but feel what Martha Graham was feeling,” said Andrea Lalley. “You can't help but have the emotion that she actually had when you're dancing her dances.”

Near the end of April, Cyrus watched his students perform the work for the last time. He was in the dark with the rest of the audience this time, not the wings. “It was rewarding to see those young ladies, at the brink of their professional careers, take that leap,” he said.

“I feel like I've passed along a little bit of Martha Graham and her history.”

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