Martha Graham Dance Company, 89 Seasons Young

The Martha Graham Dance Company gave a thrilling performance last night at Carolina Performing Arts. The program repeats tonight, 4/15/15. Dance fans will hate themselves in the morning if they miss the program’s final work, Echo.

Once Miss Graham died in 1991, there was a certain amount of dithering around about how her company would continue. When Janet Eilber, a former principal dancer with Graham, became the company artistic director in 2005, she continued to preserve and reconstruct Graham’s work, but also, as she said from the stage on the 14th, “to commission new work that resonates with Martha Graham’s legacy.” In 2014, the company premiered such a work by Greek dancer and choreographer Andonis Foniadakis.

Maintaining classic Graham style with full-powered grace. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

Maintaining classic Graham style with full-powered grace. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

His Echo, based loosely on the myth of Narcissus and Echo, is the most erotic, passionately charged dance I’ve seen in many a year. Danced by Lloyd Mayor as Narcissus and Lloyd Knight as his powerfully attractive reflection, and the ravishing PeiJu Chien-Pott as the nymph Echo, plus an ensemble of seven, this piece alone is worth the ticket. The mythic theme, the sexuality, the entrancing, propulsive music by Julien Tarride, the fabulous skirted costumes by Anastasios Sofroniou and the magical scenic and lighting design by Clifton Taylor are all highly resonant with Graham’s work. The dancing was big and precise at once, with lots of reversals of direction that let the costumes unfurl into fluid shapes, and some blink-inducing lifts and unusual intertwinings.  Although I thought the piece could have been edited to lose the final coda and end on a particularly astounding image, Echo is an astonishing dance, and does so well the aesthetic work that only dance can do. There’s some good video on the choregrapher’s site.

Narcissus and his double in Echo. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

Narcissus and his double in Echo. Photo: courtesy MGDC/CPA.

The program also includes works commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts. This concert features three new Variations on Graham’s famous Lamentation, one by Chapel Hill native tap artist Michelle Dorrance. It was curious to hear percussive hard-shod foot music as an accompaniment to, rather than a result of the dancing, and to see how Dorrance attempted to fuse her kinetic style with the Graham technique. Not altogether great, but it looks like there’s territory to explore here. The Gerring Variation is more in the Merce Cunningham tradition, and was a solid piece, and the Tayeh Variation was pretty exciting. I still like Miss Graham’s original best: a film of her dancing it precedes the new Variations (of which there are now 12 total, created since 2007).

The program’s first act includes Nacho Duato’s Rust, which CPA commissioned for the Graham company and which premiered in Memorial Hall April 26, 2013. It’s still ferocious, it’s still about torture. It still needs to be seen, and seen again.

It followed on the heels of Steps in the Street, a suite from Graham’s 1936 Chronicle, another overtly political dance. Sadly, the politics of the 2010s bear a strong resemblance to those of the 1930s, and keep this work as timely as Rust. The dancing was very fine last night, with all ten women in lockstep to Wallingford Riegger’s martial music. In long black dresses, moving backwards, clutching themselves, looking over their shoulders, they communicate a chill danger. Triangle dance fans will remember seeing it on the same 2008 ADF program with Lamentation.

The program is leavened by an absurdist dance-theater piece by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of the marvelous Big Dance Theater. According to MGDC’s Janet Eilber, The Snow Falls in the Winter, which the Graham company premiered in New York in February of this year, was inspired by a Eugene Ionesco play, but, she said, Annie-B told her that “the play was awful,” and that she threw out the plot. “So don’t look for one,” Eilber cautioned the crowd. You couldn’t have found one if you were looking. But the series of shifting scenes and ridiculous goings-on had me giggling aloud. I didn’t even mind that there were microphones, and talking. Effervescent was the non-sense.

Martha Graham Company closes super-season at Carolina Performing Arts

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham's Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand, in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

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.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato's RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato’s RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Near the end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

Near the corrosive end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

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.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

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.

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

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