Martha Graham Dance Company
Dark Meadow Suite, Clytemnestra (Act II), Maple Leaf Rag, Mosaic
George Mason Center for the Arts
April 28, 2017
We all know the name Martha Graham. “Er, yes, of course,” was my response. “She was that lady who created modern dance, right? With the big skirt?”
I felt like an outcast among lifetime followers of her work in the audience, many of whom would probably scoff at my lack of dance history knowledge. My inexperience seemed like a setback at first until I realized, unlike most of the mature audience members, I would have the unique pleasure of watching the Martha Graham Dance Company with virgin eyes.
The performers took the stage for Dark Meadow Suite, and as they started to dance I got the same feeling as if I were watching a prequel to an epic movie, an origin story, and excitedly connected the dots of past to present in my head. The movement style that characterizes Martha Graham — the flexed feet, the hunched backs, the audible exhales, the dramatics, all of which are so commonly used in modern dance today — were performed in such a way by the dancers that I was as captivated as if I had never seen this style of dancing before.
The women, dressed in long skirts and crop tops, stood in a semicircle creating a ritualistic rhythm with their feet. A soloist twirled about with her hands on her head, separate from the rest as if searching for her place in the world. With a Native American tribal influence, the piece explored the different relationships that we form throughout life with our community, our lovers, and ourselves. My favorite section of the work consisted of four couples on stage, men and women, demonstrating traditional gender roles as the men stood high and the women crouched low in front of them. Their power roles shifted as they traded positions and executed unconventional, mind-boggling lifts and spins. The piece ended with a reprise of one man sitting behind his partner, holding her up by her shins as she leaned forward, twisting her torso and pulling, stretching, reaching.
I was also given a taste of Graham’s only full evening-length work, Clytemnestra, which tells a tale from Greek mythology of treachery, revenge and cold-blooded murder. The audience was shown Act II of the story, where Clytemnestra’s children plot to kill her to avenge the murder of their father Agamemnon. Graham’s choreographic style was apparent: dramatic yet tasteful. The movement was somewhere in between pedestrian and abstract, enough so that the story was easy to follow without being predictable.
The show concluded with Graham’s Maple Leaf Rag, the last full-length ballet she ever choreographed. This was my favorite piece of the program because I felt like I was watching Martha Graham the person, not Martha Graham the choreographer. The piece was sort of a montage of her works, in parody form, where she pokes fun at her own reputation. There were even a few moments when the dancers mocked the dramatic walking that I had just seen in Clytemnestra.
The first performer on stage was a man holding a woman ridiculously high above his head, which immediately warranted laughs from the crowd. With perfect comedic timing, a woman with an oversized version of the iconic Graham white circle skirt dipped and twirled across the stage several times throughout the piece. In duets, different couples danced together with exaggerated goofy expressions and cartoon like transitions, and then balanced themselves on a giant, wobbly barre center stage. At one point, a man even crossed the stage while slapping his own rear end. I really enjoyed learning that the complex mind of Martha Graham also contained a sense of humor.
The evening also included a new work by the avant-garde Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui entitled Mosaic. In an effort to keep the Martha Graham Dance Company relative to the times, Artistic Director Janet Eilber invites guest choreographers to join them each season. The encompassing theme of “sacred/profane” led Eilber to choose two of Graham’s classical, spiritually rooted works and brought in Cherkaoui for his “dysfunctional, mythical, profane” perspective.
Mosaic, an abstract, ritualistic work inspired by the sensual mysteries of Middle Eastern culture, began with the dancers overlapped in an intricate formation moving just their fingers. Dressed in loose layers of brown, maroon, gold and turquoise, the dancers wound their hips and swayed their limbs, rolling up from the floor and back down again in an effortless wave. Each performer broke off into his or her own movement, coming in and out of the center, creating identities separate from the whole.
With the chiming of bells, they were called to assemble; their movements became sharp and geometric, forming an endless amount of unique shapes with their arms. At one point, the dancers even stripped down to nude body suits with henna-like markings. They broke off into groups and duets, but would always come back to an intermingled pose with fluttering limbs: the mosaic – the many small pieces that make up a larger picture.
It was a pleasure to see two choreographers from completely different centuries together in one evening. It is one thing getting to see the pioneering influence, the backstory of modern dance that is the Martha Graham Dance Company, but having it come full circle with the current work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui put into perspective just how significant of an impact she had on the dance world. Janet Eilber has helped extend Graham’s legacy since 2005 and is continuing to reach new audiences by embracing the changes and the fusion of styles that is becoming present-day modern dance. Dancing closely with Graham as her principal dancer for years, Eilber follows her example of constantly evolving into something new and different, all without wavering from the her signature style in an ever-changing world.