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Martha Graham in the 21st Century and the Martha Graham Dance Company

March 20, 2012

Every Soul is a Circus - Blakeley White-McGuire Photo by COSTAS

The Martha Graham Dance Company is springing into the 21st Century, developing new means and mediums plus the incorporation of new choreographers to a roster that has always been focused on Martha Graham’s repertory.

I have not seen the Martha Graham Dance Company since the death of Ms. Graham in 1991. The last Graham performance I attended was the premier of The Maple Leaf Rag in 1990, Ms. Graham’s last completed work. I was quite worried about how it would survive without the legend and genius of Martha Graham, but under the leadership of Artistic Director Janet Eilber and Executive Director LaRue Allen it seems to be doing exceedingly well.

Tuesday night’s performance, the beginning of its New York season at the Joyce was a blend of past and present, historical and innovative. The evening began with “Beautiful Captives,” a video montage by Peter Sparling, which began before the house lights went down and at first just confused me. Ms. Eilber says that “the intention was to evoke the atmosphere of America in the 1930s and 40s as the fascination with psychology grew”. The video showed clips of Graham’s original performances superimposed over black and white movies of the same era with moments of dialogue. It is an intriguing video and as skeptical as I was at first, it has stayed present in my mind and I would like to see it again

Next was a dance I was so excited about, Mary Wigman’s 1926 Witch Dance (Hexentanz), it was re-created by Mary Anne Santos Newhall and performed brilliantly by PeiJu Chien-Pott. Ms. Wigman, a pioneer of expressionist dance and a central figure of Weimar German culture is considered one of the most important figures in European dance. It is a valuable piece of dance history and Ms. Wigman was an early influence in the very beginning of Graham’s development as a choreographer.

"Witch Dance” PeiJu Chien-Pott Photo by COSTAS

Ms. Chien-Pott is seated on the stage in a white Kabuki-style mask (created by Ralph Lee after the original by Viktor Magito), her hair a mass of long black tress of straw. She is upstage in an awkward position, seated on the floor, leaning forward grabbing her ankles, she began to rotate by pounding her feet, first clockwise then counter-clockwise, tossing her black straw hair in furious and intense motions, up, down, right, left, forward then back. Then she starts to eerily move towards the audience, still seated, still holding her ankles, her mask an emotional blankness, that is more intimidating than any facial expression, for its interpretation is left to one’s imagination. What is behind it, is it a witch, a figure out of lore, a demon, perhaps a thing of darkness? Costumed by Maria Garcia in a loose-fitting red dress that hangs off one shoulder, it flows around her when she stands, her arms jutting into space and she jumps to the rhythmic beat of Jack Manno’s score. She is ever-moving, sometimes sensual but always in a ritualistic manner as if we had parted the curtain of time and per back to middle-ages of dark sorcery. PeiJu Chien-Pott was dominating and held us breathless till the dance’s end.  Mary Wigman is smiling somewhere, very proud of Ms. Chien-Pott interpretation.

Every Soul is a Circus created in 1939 to an original score by Paul Nordoff with set by Philip Strap, is the tale of a woman who is the empress in her own foolish domain, she is the apex of a triangle and the beloved of a duet. The “star” of her own drama, it is a circus of ridiculous situations and foolish behavior.

Not seen in 25 years, it is a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a vain and foolish woman. Blakely White-McGuire, as the Empress of the Arena and Tadej Brdnik as The Ring Master did a fine job. Every Soul is a Circus was original danced by Ms. Graham as the Empress, and then real life lover/husband Erick Hawkins as The Ring Master and Merce Cunningham as the Acrobat, his first role with the company. So they had big shoes to fill. Ms. White-McGuire is entranced by the trivial, a red ribbon on by her feet, a bouquet of white flowers and repeatedly disappearing only to reappear in a different dress. She was both ditzy and flirtatious. Mr. Brdnik was demanding and authoritative. Though not one of my favorite Graham pieces, I can appreciate its significance.

Every Soul is a Circus Lloyd Knight and Xiaochuan Xie Photo by COSTAS

When I first read about the Lamentation Variations Project I was against it, I had very little faith that anyone could do justice to Ms. Graham’s Lamentation. But I was absolutely stunned by what I witnessed on stage. The project began as a commemoration to 9/11, a DVD of Martha Graham performing her 1930’s solo Lamentations was given to three choreographers and were asked to create a choreographic sketch in reaction to the classic work. What ensued were contemporary pieces that were tied to the Graham legacy. It was meant to be a one night event, but it was so successfully popular that it was incorporated into the repertory. They have since commissioned seven others since its conception in 2007, most recently by Lar Lubovitch and Yvonne Rainer.

Tonight was seen three offerings, Aszure Barton, Richard Move and Lar Lubovitch. Aszure Barton created a duet for two women, filled with passion and a certain darkness inherent to the soul. It is a moving exploration, a lament of past and possible future actions. Miki Orihara and Mariya Daskina Maddux gave an intense and riveting performance.

Lar Lubovitch’s premier was startling, beautiful and of the three, truest to Ms. Graham legacy. He uses the whole company, who lie prone, arranged in diagonal rows on the floor. Upstage is a couple entwined in such a way that resemble a bizarre being of multiple angled limbs attached to one body, Majestically posed on a bench and encompassed in a pool of white light, they slowly disengage from one another to become two distinct beings. Abdiel Jacobsen lifts, turns, supports Ms. Daskina Maddux as she contracts and arches, never letting feet touch the floor. The company lies reposed, encased in stretchy sheaths, similar to the tubular sheath worn by Graham in Lamentations. In imitation or tribute, the press their bodies and faces against the fabric in much the same way the Graham manipulated her own. The imagery created by Mr. Lubovitch’s choreography, with its slow movements and understated moments of both tender and passion is little short of genius and I would love to see Mr. Lubovitch do a longer piece on the company.

Every Soul is a Circus - Blakeley White-McGuire Photo by COSTAS

Night Journey, created in 1947 is a work of Ms. Graham’s signature exploration of Greek myths along Jungian lines.  It is the legend of Oedipus and Queen Jocasta, but it is Jocasta who is the protagonist not Oedipus. The dance takes place the moment of her death, when she is replaying the moments of her life, the meeting of Oedipus, their courtship, marriage and then the realization the he is her son.

The dance begins with Queen Jocasta, danced by Katherine Crockett, fixated on a length of rope, and she begins to see and relive glimpse of her life with Oedipus, dance by Tadej Brdnik. Ms. Crocket reclines on bench-slash-sculpture created by Isamu Noguchi, expressing her turmoil and regret, she is forceful and moving in her portrayal of a role original danced by Ms. Graham. Tadej Brdnik, is everything Graham required of a male dancer, an asured strong presence and powerfully muscled, his portrayal of Oedipus was without fault!

Martha Graham has been compared to Stravinsky, Picasso and James Joyce for her unique vision and impact on dance world-wide. This incarnation of the Martha Graham Dance Company  is meeting the 21st century head on, not running from it but embracing it and incorporating its technologies. As the oldest running dance company in America, I hope to see it restored financially and able to return to the larger stages of City Center or Lincoln Center. For it is on large grand stages that we should salute this company and recognize its importannt contributions to the American stage!

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