Martha Graham herself was my introduction to modern dance, when I was so fortunate as to see her perform during her 1967 tour. So I have a special place in my heart for the Martha Graham Company, which on April 26 and 27 closed Carolina Performing Arts’ spectacular season examining Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the centennial of that stunning music and its associated choreography and design. The company, now in its 87th season, has survived several near-death experiences and more recently, the lost of many of its costumes and sets to Hurricane Sandy, but I’m happy to report that the dancing is still sublime.
Graham died in 1991, but her technique with all its emotional power and soulful force is very much alive. Many of her dances have been preserved or reconstructed and remain in the repertory of the company, now led by former Graham dancer Janet Eilber. The program both nights featured work from the 1940s and 1950s, including Errand, pictured above, as well as Graham’s own Rite, but the biggest thrill was Rust, a work by the great Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato commissioned by CPA for the Martha Graham Company, that had its world premiere in Memorial Hall on the 26th.
One tends to think of the women when thinking about Martha Graham dances, but Rust is set on the company’s men, and exploits both their physical power and their access to their own deep vulnerability. Set to music by Arvo Pärt (from his De Profundis), sung by the men of the Carolina Choir and UNC Chamber Singers, with additional music (strange noises, increasingly threatening) by Pedro Alcalde, Rust is deeply shocking. It’s about torture.
The aestheticization of any kind of violence is deeply disturbing–but how else do you get people to face up to something like torture of captives? Rust was hard to watch, but impossible to turn away from. The horror, the bleak horror, the imagined terror, the pain, the blinding lights–when they turn on the audience, slowly, slowly raking across our dialted pupils, we know: This could happen to us. To me. Any time. First suffering, then ignominious death. For something or for nothing.
The brutality of the blows on the beautiful body of Lloyd Knight (center, above photo) was only heightened by Rust immediately following the little confection of Moon (Graham, 1952), which was danced by Knight and guest artist Wendy Whelan from the New York City Ballet. It was fascinating to watch a ballerina dance Graham. Whelan does not at any time seem rooted to earth. She is ethereal, floating just above the ground, even while lying upon it. I don’t think this would work too well in many of Graham’s dances, but it was gorgeous to watch in Moon. It was as if the dark-skinned Knight was earth and gravity both, while Whelan was the shimmering moon, always distant but never leaving. Although CPA has not formally announced its line-up for next season, the word is that Whelan will be returning with a project of her own.
The final dance both nights was Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1984–when she was 90. Graham had danced the role of The Chosen One in a 1930 revival of Leonid Massine’s choreography, which had supplanted Nijinsky’s in the Ballets Russes’ repertoire after Nijinksy infuriated impresario Diaghilev by running off and getting married–to a woman! Massine’s work has mercifully faded into the historical background. Graham’s version–funded by fashion designer Halston, with costumes by Halston–varies considerably from the earlier models. Graham focused on the Shaman and the Chosen One, and brought a holiness to the sacrifice that is glaringly absent in most versions before or since. Ben Schultz as the Shaman was by turns magisterial, tender, heroic, and implacable as he brought the poor girl to acceptance of her fate in a succession of amazingly visualized scenes. He captures her in his cloak; he binds her with rope; he throws her over his shoulders like a lamb being taken to the altar; he raises her on his shoulders to a celestial position; he wraps her in the endless reel of renewing earth. On the 26th , the Chosen One was danced with aching beauty by Xiaochuan Xie, who is about half the size of the towering Schultz. On the 27th, she was performed by Blakeley White-McGuire, whose vivid life-force made the sacrifice all the more poignant.
Saturday’s program also included a brighter Spring: the wonderfully buoyant Appalachian Spring, set to Aaron Copland’s music, with set designed by Isamu Noguchi. The trio’s contribution to the war effort (oh, that last “great” war), it premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944. Perhaps Graham’s best known work, it bolsters the spirit today just as it did then. The picture says it all.