The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 5, 2020
March 5, 2020 was a good night to celebrate women for so many reasons. It was the day Senator Elizabeth Warren ended her campaign for U.S. President. I listened to her withdrawal speech earlier that morning. Rather than feeling sad that no strong female candidates remained in the race, I chose to be thankful for those who had stepped up to the challenge, expressed exciting ideas, promoted the welfare of women, gained the respect of countless people in this nation and across the world, and inspired girls to dream big. It was also the opening night of Martha Graham Dance Company’s performance of The EVE Project, which was created to celebrate women and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. In addition, March is Women’s History Month. So celebrating women through dance seemed just right, at just the right time.
The Eve Project did not disappoint. Indeed, I departed the theater feeling completely fulfilled and proud to be a woman and a dancer. It was a rare evening when, in the midst of concerning local and world events lately, I recognized hope. The printed program included a quote from Graham, “First we have to believe and then we believe.” Yes, yes, yes. I have to believe a woman will lead this country one day. I have to believe female choreographers will get their fair share of attention. I have to believe the audience for contemporary dance will grow.
Appropriately, Graham’s 1948 work Diversion of Angels kicked off the dancing. The work featured three dynamic women — one in white, one in red, and one in yellow, each representing a distinct aspect of love (mature love, erotic love, and adolescent love, respectively). Although they danced with men, and other women acted as a chorus of sorts, these three colorful women were the clear focus of the dance. Diversion of Angels left no doubt that the women were in control. The piece began with a male dancer whose splayed fingers formed a crown above a woman’s head, and there was a similar gesture at the end. At one point, one of the women actually stood on the back of a man who was flat on the floor. Overall, the movement was stylized, yet vital. I sensed the breath of the dancers as they twisted their upper bodies. Simple geometric patterns emerged and added to the drama. In this garden of love, the women were bold flowers and the men, in their brown costumes, receded into the background.
In Ekstasis, which was reimagined by Virginie Mécène in 2017 after Graham’s original 1933 choreography, Anne Souder telegraphed even more power and beauty than the three women in Diversion of Angels combined. This is not a slight against the preceding very fine performances, it’s a tribute to the astounding work that is Ekstatis and the stellar soloist who pulled it off so flawlessly. Souder didn’t train with my modern dance teacher, but she hails from Maryville, Tennessee, just down the road from my hometown of Knoxville, and I was thrilled to see her representing East Tennessee so well. In a body-hugging shimmery sleeveless knit dress that reached to the floor, Souder stunned by moving slowly. Even her smallest movements had large repercussions. I was so entranced, I found myself holding my breath. With a hip pushed out, arms stretched to the side, Souder tilted into a deep lean. Her incredible elongation and the resulting change in shape of the dress formed a striking image. And it kept happening. Multiple gradual yet impactful shifts brought a womanly sculpture to life. Ekstasis screamed femininity even as it elegantly whispered. Although the dress was tight, the dancer was anything but confined. Wow.
I could have left the theater happy after that amazing solo, but remarkably, more wow moments followed. In 2007, the company’s Artistic Director Janet Eilber conceived of the Lamentation Variations as an event to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 and to honor Martha Graham’s iconic solo Lamentation by inviting choreographers to create a dance inspired by it for the company’s current dancers. The event was hugely successful, and many new dances have been developed, among them three dances by female choreographers Aszure Barton, Liz Gerring, and Michelle Dorrance. These variations address themes of loneliness and loss and are incredibly moving. All feature dark costumes and definite reminders of Graham, whether snippets recalling the exaggerated shapes of Lamentation or its somber mood.
Dorrance’s variation struck me the most. Dorrance is a tap genius, and so I wondered how she would maneuver Graham dancers. Dorrance didn’t make them tap. She showed her genius by incorporating tap into the soundscape (music by Dorrance and Jaco Pastorius). A line of ten dancers, facing forward, walked toward the audience and then split, turning in different directions. The audience heard not their quiet barefoot footfalls but the steady shuffle and drag of tap heels. The eerie footsteps echoed as the dancers silently paced, together but in isolation. Dorrance’s variation was both heartrending and brilliant.
After intermission came Pam Tanowitz’s Untitled (Souvenir) to music by Caroline Shaw (Punctum for string quartet and Valencia for string quartet, performed by Attacca Quartet). In its initial moments, I cringed because the work seemed to make fun of Graham’s choreography. Although the costumes and set could’ve been from an actual Graham piece, the movement, spotlighting phrases of authentic Graham choreography, appeared to lampoon Graham. I saw Tanowitz’s choreography almost as a cruel parody, until I settled into it. Pretty quickly, Untitled (Souvenir) moved from borderline mockery to genuinely touching tribute. Impressively, Tanowitz took Graham technique as a base and cleverly riffed and expanded on it, ultimately creating something unique and able to stand utterly on its own.
Fittingly, the evening closed with another Graham work, Chronicle, a rousing anti-war dance from 1936 reconstructed in the 1980s and 1990s from photos and film clips. Ten women delivered a persuasive appeal for peace. In the first section, Spectre-1914, Leslie Andrea Williams, accompanied by drum beats, mourned. She gripped her long skirt lined in blood red, making a shroud and sending a clear message of emotional devastation. Dramatically, she leaned back on her knees and appeared to ominously stab herself in the chest. Subsequently, a group of ten dancers, a single hand to the neck, elbow bent, the other hand wrapped across the waist, stepped at alternating angles, one foot on half-toe following behind them. As they lunged in perfect unison, the dancers were almost zombie-like, but they also reminded me of goddesses. They leaped into the air in a building frenzy, rejecting the call to battle in a battle of their own making. Go Martha! Go women!