George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, VA; November 7, 2014
The early basis of my dance training was Graham technique, so I’m always happy to see the Martha Graham Dance Company, which here performed two Graham works, “Cave of the Heart” in its entirety, and excerpts from “Appalachian Spring”. The pieces attracted an older audience who were eager to revisit these modern dance classics. I doubt anyone was disappointed, although it might have been nice to have a whole evening of Graham choreography rather than half of one. Filling out the program were two works set on the company long after Graham’s death.
First and most successful of the newer works was “Lamentation Variations”, which I truly enjoyed. It premiered at the Joyce Theater in New York City on September 11, 2007. The date was not a coincidence. The piece was conceived to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, and is based on 1940s film footage of Graham dancing her iconic solo about bereavement, “Lamentation”, in which she moves while wrapped in a tight tube of fabric.
Three choreographers – Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Richard Move, and Larry Keigwin – were invited to create short works for the present company in reaction to the film. The result is incredibly affecting. In fact, “Lamentation Variations” received such an outpouring of support that even though it was intended to be a one-time event, it was added to the company’s repertoire. It is an appropriate complement to Graham’s choreography, since the choreographers were inspired by Graham herself. The work begins with the very film footage that the guest choreographers watched before embarking on their creations.
Move (the perfect last name for a choreographer!) crafted a solo, performed by Natasha Diamond-Walker, in which a single dancer, drawn toward a beam of light from the wings, slowly moves from one side of the stage to the other. She travels on a horizontal plane, as if on a tightrope.
Keigwin used the full company, dressed in shades of blue, to show how grief comes in waves and how people struggle to maintain composure, even as their hearts continue to ache. The dancers preen in unseen mirrors. They look shell-shocked, like they are struggling to maintain normalcy as they quietly quake on the inside. The last moment, where one dancer slips from the embrace of another, after the rest of the cast has already collapsed onto the floor, sang out with loss.
The strongest of the three short pieces, though, is Pagarlava’s. Three male dancers (Tadej Brdnik, Abdiel Jacobsen, and Lloyd Mayor) and a female dancer (Mariya Dashkina Maddux) take on the actual shapes of Graham’s movement in “Lamentation”. Although they did not have a shroud around them, you could almost feel its presence. Amidst the four performers, at one point I distinctly saw a single dancer become an arm, as the rest formed Graham’s body.
The other non-Graham work on the program was “Echo” by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis. Here, the tie to Graham is the use of myth to inspire movement. I liked the scenic and lighting design by Clifton Taylor very much. Smoky clouds mysteriously mix and swirl like the contents of a lava lamp. I’m sorry to report that I liked the dancing far less. The dancers move too busily, constantly flinging limbs and turning in circles, and the connection to the story of Narcissus and Echo is quite abstract. I felt dizzy from watching wild spins and endless kicks and even cartwheels, which reminded me of a misguided rhythmic gymnastics routine. Also, I wondered why, if Narcissus was so enamored with himself, he seemed to have such an antagonistic relationship with his double in the piece.
“Cave of the Heart,” brought the most sustained delight. Based on the tale of Medea, and her jealous rage, it teemed with passion. In particular, PeiJu Chien-Pott, as Medea, seethed with emotion. Her every move grabbed at the audience, tugging us along into her descent into madness. All of the dancers looked, at times, like warriors, except perhaps the princess, Xiaochuan Xie, who maintained an air of delicacy. What struck me most was the simplicity and directness of the movement, and the wisdom of Graham in choosing to collaborate with Isamu Noguchi, whose fantastic set design further enlivens the work. A metal sculpture had branch-like rays that rattled when Chien-Pott picked it up and donned it. Throughout “Cave of the Heart”, beauty melds with ugliness as the story spews forth. Samuel Barber’s music adds drama and contains harsh, raw notes and screaming strings. Graham’s costumes look as contemporary today as I imagine they did in 1946 when the work debuted. The broad blood-red stripes of the cape-like top and long skirt of the chorus, cleverly performed by a single dancer, Diamond-Walker, deliver a message of impending death.
The suite from “Appalachian Spring,” brought a different emotional reaction – pure joy. I learned from the program notes that the work premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, on October 30, 1944, a little over 70 years ago. Artistic Director and former Graham company member Janet Eilber served as a narrator who read excerpts from letters Graham wrote to composer Aaron Copland, while the dancers performed key moments that Graham alluded to her them. Rousing and buoyant, the dancers executed Graham and Copland’s collaboration adeptly, showing us the hopeful American spirit they aimed to presents.