A Protest Set to Banjo: Jamar Roberts’s Dance for Hard Times

“This isn’t fun.”

That’s what the choreographer Jamar Roberts told members of the Martha Graham Dance Company at a recent rehearsal of “We the People,” his first work for the troupe.

The anti-fun note was needed because the music suggested otherwise. “We the People” is set to rearranged songs from “You’re the One,” the latest and most playful album by the singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens. It’s rocking-chair porch music or accompaniment for a foot-stomping hoedown.

But Roberts’s dance, which will have its New York premiere on April 17 as part of the Graham company’s season at New York City Center, isn’t a hoedown. It’s a protest, dressed in denim. (The costumes are by Karen Young.) For much of the work, the dancers face the audience confrontationally, fists raised. They move fast and hard — as if “yelling at people,” as Roberts put it in an interview after the rehearsal.

Dancers in the Graham company rehearsing “We the People.” From left, Meagan King, Leslie Andrea Williams, Ane Arietta, So Young An and Anne Souder.Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

In one sense, this attitude rubs against the tone and associations of the music. In another, that friction, like a bow across strings, brings out the pain, rage and resistance hidden within the sound. You might even say it brings to the surface what Alvin Ailey — in whose company Roberts was a dancer for nearly 20 years and resident choreographer from 2019 to 2022 — called “blood memories.”

An outcome of Roberts’s artistic proclivities, this resurfacing is also, in an indirect way, what Janet Eilber, the Graham company’s artistic director, had in mind. She said that the plan to pair Roberts with Giddens arose out of a possible revival of “Rodeo,” a 1942 cowboy ballet by Agnes de Mille, a pathbreaking choreographer who was also a Graham acolyte and biographer. It includes tap and square dancing.

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