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Martha Graham Dance Company Honors Halim El-Dabh with Revival of 'Clytemnestra'

Clytemnestra is the title character of the landmark 1958 ballet by Martha Graham, with music by Kent State's Halim El-Dabh.
Clytemnestra is the title character of the landmark 1958 ballet by Martha Graham, with music by Kent State's Halim El-Dabh.
Clytemnestra is the title character of the landmark 1958 ballet by Martha Graham, with music by Kent State's Halim El-Dabh.
Credit MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY
Clytemnestra is the title character of the landmark 1958 ballet by Martha Graham, with music by Kent State's Halim El-Dabh.

One of the world’s most distinguished dance companies is coming to Kent State University to celebrate the legacy of a local composer. The Martha Graham Dance Company is reviving a landmark work for a performance honoring Kent State emeritus professor Halim El-Dabh.

WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair reports the ballet marked a milestone in modern dance.

The ballet is called "Clytemnestra," named after the character who killed her husband Agamemnon after his heroic return from the Trojan War.

The story of the ballet begins in the late 1950’s in New York City.

A young Egyptian composer studying in the U.S found himself at a party that included playwright Arthur Miller and his wife. Halim El-Dabh, now 95, recounts the evening.

“I was sitting and having a martini with this very beautiful woman and talking about space and Neptune and the cosmos and some guy said, 'Are you enjoying talking with Marilyn Monroe?’  I froze. I couldn’t say anything after that.”

A subsequent conversation at that party was with Eugene Lester, composer and arranger for Martha Graham, one of the founders of modern dance.

Lester invited El-Dabh to bring his music to her studio. Sixty years later, El-Dabh recalls every detail as Graham sat to listen.

“She was dressed in black, the cloth was kind of knitted, and she sat in a position that to me was like a Greek goddess," says El-Dabh.

Martha Graham was a pioneer in modern dance and worked with some of the top composers, set designers, and costumers of the 20th century.
Credit MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY
Martha Graham was a pioneer in modern dance and worked with some of the top composers, set designers, and costumers of the 20th century.

Graham was impressed with El-Dabh’s bold new music.

She commissioned a 15-minute piece, untitled. A few weeks later El-Dabh returned with a score.  He played it for her.  She seemed pleased.

But he sensed a slight hesitation, a momentary pause. “And I tore my score, and threw it away, and said, ‘We start again.’”

Graham’s reaction reminded him of another figure from Greek history.

“I saw in front of me a woman who wants to kill," says El-Dabh, "and the woman who wants to kill is Clytemnestra.”

The First Full-Length Modern Ballet

Clytemnestra, perhaps the most hated woman in history; murderess, adulteress. El-Dabh convinced Graham to retell the tragic tale as it had never been told – from the heroine’s point of view.

The discarded 15-minute work became a ground-breaking 2 1/2-hour ballet with Martha Graham in the title role.

Kent State emeritus professor Halim El-Dabh, 95, holds the weighty score to his epic 1958 ballet Clytemnestra.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU
Kent State emeritus professor Halim El-Dabh, 95, holds the weighty score to his epic 1958 ballet Clytemnestra.

“It was one of the first evening length works of modern dance that was ever created,” says John Crawford, dean of the Kent State College of the Arts. 

He says the ballet being performed this weekend at Kent State cast Graham as a powerful woman who refuses to submit to fate.

“And one of the themes that really intrigued her was the individual in conflict with society, and she saw herself as that kind of individual,” says Crawford.

A Woman Redeemed

"Clytemnestra," the ballet, is told in reverse, through flashbacks from Hades where the dead Clytemnestra dreams of her downfall.

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, describes the scene, which opens with a low drum, "and we see Clytemnestra reclining, wrapped in red fabric, almost lying in a pool of blood, and the ghost of Agamemnon is sitting upstage, resting on a crossed spear.”

It’s the story of a cursed family’s tragic downfall, but Eilber says Martha Graham’s for the first time in 3,000 years shows sympathy for Clytemnestra.

Eilber says the 1958 ballet foreshadows the women’s movement of the '60s.

“Graham was always on the cusp of what was happening in the American social-political world,” she says.

Act II of Halim El-Dabh’s 1958 work will be performed tomorrow in Kent by the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Its success led to three other collaborations between El-Dabh and Graham, including Lucifer, a piece debuted by famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. That’s also on tomorrow’s program.

This story was produced with help from WKSU news intern Natalie Fahmy.

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.