Hunter Intro to Theatre

Martha Graham Dance Company

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      Ryan Donovan

      Ryan Donovan

      Review: Martha Graham Dance Company, Joyce Theater, February 19, 2015

      Martha Graham Dance Company’s recent engagement at the Joyce Theater began, appropriately enough, with the movement most associated with Graham: the contraction. To see a Graham dancer perform the contraction is a thing of beauty. The dancer’s body appears to hollow itself from the inside out, creating an empty space where their abdomen previously was, making a new curvilinear line in space that moves the spine into a different plane. In Graham’s Deep Song (1937), the opening contraction takes place while the dancer, Blakeley White-McGuire at this performance, is seated on a white wooden bench. Her contraction immediately announces the dramatic intensity of this dance. Like many of Graham’s dances, there is the sense that the spectator comes in in medias res, with there being little or no buildup to the level of intense drama onstage. Paradoxically, this approach might seem to nullify any sense of subtlety, yet subtlety is exactly what is required of the dancer to not make the dance seem entirely grotesque or over-the-top. It is this high level of dramatic intensity that makes Graham’s work so ripe for parody.

      Watching Deep Song, I was struck again by the particular way that Graham asks dancers to use their feet. White-McGuire’s toes had an articulate life of their own, but it was Graham’s use of the heel that captured my imagination here and in the other Graham dances on the program. Rather than trying to make the heels almost disappear as ballet does with its relentlessly pointed feet, Graham accentuates the heel, whether the foot is flexed or pointed, highlighting the architecture of the body. Deep Song also features Graham’s trademark “skittering,” the quick side stepping movement done on the ball of the feet. This excerpt from Deep Song ends in silence, focusing our attention on the dancer’s breath just as we did in her initial contraction that opens the dance. Artistic Director Janet Eilber noted in introducing the evening’s program that Deep Song was created the same year in which Picasso painted Guernica, which highlighted how these two giants of modern art felt called to respond to the Spanish Civil War.

      An excerpt from Primitive Mysteries (1931) followed. Here again the distinctive use of the heel is featured. The dancers walk onstage in a U formation, leading heel-ball-toe in hesitant then suddenly quick steps. This dance featured student dancers from Graham’s second company, and the difference between the students and former Graham star dancer, Miki Orihara, was plainly evident. Orihara, wearing a bright white diaphanous dress, emanated a sense of purposeful concentration throughout, while the younger dancers seemed to be just doing the steps. Without intention and a sense of urgency behind the choreography, they can tend to seem ordinary at best, boring at worst. Part of Graham’s allure is this sense of urgent intensity that creates mystery. Without this, choreography looks like steps strung together. This was the problem with the Lamentation Variations, which is a fun idea for a gala but after seeing two brief excerpts of Graham dances, these three short pieces gave the effect of a sampler program rather than a carefully curated one. Liz Gerring’s variation was interesting for the way that she introduced pedestrian movements into the movement vocabulary, reminding us that Cunningham also descended from Graham. Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s was the most successful, perhaps because it moved the furthest away from the Graham movement vocabulary but retained a spark of strangeness and mystery.

      The Graham portion of the program closed the first half with the evening’s main event, Errand into the Maze (1947). Finally, the audience was being granted the chance to see a full-length dance. The dance began with Ying Xin rising on to a relevé that seemed have the ability to keep going higher and higher. This moment and Ying’s full commitment to the movement demonstrate the majesty that even the simplest movements can have when the dancer gives herself fully to them. Ben Schultz as the Minotaur also gave a fully realized performance, though a large part of this was certainly due to his imposing physicality. The visual impact of the slighter Ying conquering the towering Schultz was striking in its eroticism and stylized violence; not to mention the psychological implications of Graham’s reworking of the Theseus myth.

      Graham demonstrates the height of her powers of stylization in Errand. As much as she created a technique, she created a visual style that extends to her talent as a costume designer and her wondrous collaboration with artist Isamu Noguchi. When Graham’s work is performed at high level like this, it reminds one why these dances must continue to be performed. In the dances that surrounded this one, the choreography, even Graham’s but especially everyone else’s, and performances paled in comparison. The company is trying to figure out how to move forward and remain relevant while honoring Graham’s legacy, but the final works on the program showed that this task is not so simple to achieve.

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