Program A: “Dark Meadow Suite,” “Ekstasis,” “Woodland,” “I used to love you,” “Maple Leaf Rag”
Martha Graham Dance Company
New York, NY
February 14, 2017
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman
As revolu- tionary as she was from the 1930s through much of the 20th C., Martha Graham’s stylized oeuvre might now come off as a dance dinosaur. Under the direction of Artistic Director Janet Eilber, though, this offering by the Martha Graham Company dodges every bullet. In the first of three mixed evenings at the Joyce Theater, the company offered a dramatic, beautifully danced program of Graham classics mixed with new works by well-chosen current choreographers to show off the discipline, intelligence, and flexibility of a troupe Graham would still be proud of, in work that still has something to say.
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s “Ekstasis” reimagined by Virgine Mécène. Photo © Brigid Pierce.
In the opening excerpts from “Dark Meadow,” the stage and dancers were bathed in improbable orange. A group of dancers offered, in silhouette, a pattern of immediately identifiable Graham movements: angled elbows in sharp parentheses around their bodies, then opened into the crisp right arm angles that would be at home in a parade around a Greek krater.
The dancers moved easily from low deep squats on strong thighs to quick, stomping steps for emphasis and sound, slapping their legs, then they moved in energized skips, hops, and shuffles, weaving solidity with airiness. In powerful lifts, men carried the women’s bodies rigidly flat overhead, or in tight angles folded around the chest of a partner. Especially in many magical duet scenes, these were nymphs and goddesses in shifting permutations of balance and pattern.
Although each of the Graham works were revelatory, the most gripping was “Ekstasis,” recreated by Virginie Mecene from a few photos and Graham’s notes, but with no film record as guide. Graham spoke of this solo as critical to her formation as a choreographer and her movement vocabulary, saying that her discovery in this work of the relationship between hips, shoulders, and pelvis “changed” her. In this rendering, performed by the remarkable PeiJu Chien-Pott, those words took on very specific meanings, as Chien-Pott melted from the shoulder down in a deep S-shapes, morphing from curve to crispness, angled lines and leg lifts.
The guest choreographers in Program A were Parson and Lidberg. Parson found her inspiration for “I used to love you” in the film of a little known early Graham work, “Punch and Judy” (1948) that featured Graham and Erick Hawkins as the unhappy couple of medieval puppetry. Before the show started, that film played in a loop for the audience; it was filled with recognizable Graham movement, but an unexpected lightness, as Hawkins skipped with his feet in goofy, wide-armed forward steps on straight legs, and Graham spun rigidly, as if with a puppet’s wooden spine.
Parson, the co-director and choreographer of Big Dance Theater, used the film’s record to create a witty dance theater piece with text, her own idiosyncratic genre steeped in Graham's scenes and steps. Parson built a new story with those echoes, framing her tale with three brightly costumed chorines (originally a glum Greek chorus sitting in the corner of Graham’s piece, who barely registered attention.)
The trio, Anne O’Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, and Laurel Dalley Smith, sat downstage at three microphones, lit garishly like puppets, narrating and reacting to a story in which the feckless Punch’s love interest is now a man, and Judy is both more pained and more dramatic, as beautifully danced by Xin Ying. The mix of set and media included the original Graham film projected on an old-style screen – and a blackout, where there was a gap in the original film. Parson cleverly wove Graham-inspired movement into this differently angled tale – their shoulders, angles, lifts, and the high sweep of Ying’s beautiful legs so smoothly slid into the new story – with Parson’s own moves, including a powerful male duet of athletic and sensual leans and shifts.
Lidberg’s “Woodland” was a clever pairing in a program that started with “Dark Meadow.” Lidberg also offered a world of bold and bolting nymphs, forest spirits that reveled in play. To a wending score of strings and harp by Irving Fine, the dancers were lifted by the music. In a long parallel line, the dancers ran from one side of the stage to the other, somehow misplacing one lone dancer, Xin Ying, who seemed to levitate as she wafted around the stage. She was met by a masked dancer, then the others slid in, a troupe of masked woodland creatures, not menacing, but exotic and curious. They linked their arms and wove around Ying, then couples pulled away; these dancers were always in transition, a rush of life mixing it up. In a final dash across the stage parallel to the open, the troupe recovered Ping, scooping her back into the tribe. The woods were whole again.
Graham’s last completed ballet “Maple Leaf Rag,” was the last work of the evening. Opening with a tape of her recognizable nasal voice saying to Louis Horst, “Louis, play me the Maple Leaf Rag,” it was the choreographer’s own sense of humor and self-knowledge that wove through this athletic, demanding work. The dancers moved from solos and duets to a full stage around a rubbery central dance barre, and the clear, rhythmic movement (replete with thigh-slapping beats) and big prancing steps lightly mocked Graham’s recognizable serious style. In moves along, over, and under the barre, it sagged and shifted, requiring the dancers to be even more balanced and specific in their motion (reminiscent of the old joke about Ginger Rogers… the same as Astaire, but in heels, and backwards.) The work was simultaneously a detailed joke and a proud anthem.
Another dance fragment was overlaid on “Rag,” as downstage, Konstantina Xintara danced along the stage’s apron, swirling in the circular white-skirted costume from Graham’s “Letter from the World,” and literally upstaging whatever was happening behind her. It was an image so iconic that, although beautifully executed, the audience giggled whenever she appeared -- we were all in on the joke. Graham’s is a legacy so large, so baked into dance consciousness, that the grandiose goal of framing both the sacred and the profane felt fully accessible within this evening’s embrace.
Top: (L to R) Marzia Memolia, Abdiel Jacobsen, Charlotte Landreau, and Lloyd Mayor in Martha Graham’s “Dark Meadow Suite.” Photo © Brigid Pierce.
Middle: Anne O’Donnell and Xin Ying in Annie-B Parson’s “I used to love you.” Photo © Brigid Pierce.
Bottom: Konstantina Xintara in Martha Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Photo © Brigid Pierce.
copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman