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Reconstruction of things past: Martha Graham Dance Company

by Joanna G. Harris
February 4, 2014
Zellerbach Hall
Bancroft Way at Telegraph
(2430 Bancroft Ave.)
Berkeley, CA 94704
510.642.9988
Joanna G. Harris
Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
Under the leadership artistic director, Janet Eilber, the Martha Graham Dance Company appeared on the UC Campus this past weekend. This is the first time since 1988 they have done so and audiences were delighted, some to see works known long ago, others to realize the legendary dances of times past. The program consisted of three works: "Appalachian Spring," "Cave of the Heart" (1946) and "Maple Leaf Rag" (1990). "Rag" was the last work made before Graham's death in 1991. In it, she satirized many of the stylistic movements and choreographic devices used in her repertory. To everyone's great pleasure, Aaron Sherber, Music Director of the Graham Company, conducted the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Live music is wonderful, especially if it brings us pieces by Copland, Barber and Joplin!

Graham continued to dance her work "Appalachian Spring" and the part of the bride into her fifties. Even at that age, she had the ability to project drama and emotion. For the February 1 performance, Mariya Dashkina Maddux portrayed the Bride; Lloyd Mayor, the Husbandman, Lloyd Knight, the Preacher (a role that originated with Merce Cunningham)and Natasha Diamond-Walker, the Pioneering Woman. In addition, the Followers were danced by Tamisha Guy, Lauren Newman, Xiaochuan Xie, and Ying Xin. All were very effective in this Americana dance-drama. Lloyd Knight brought power to his role but I would have liked to sense more exuberance in Maddux's portrayal of the Bride. But, as one friend remarked, "they're all trained like ballet dancers." By that she inferred that the technical presentation outshined the dramatic. Perhaps that is the nature of today's fusion of ballet and modern dance.

"Cave of the Heart" fared better. Here, Graham portrays the Jason/Medea story with only four performers. Jason is the conquering hero, his princess-bride, a fair young thing, Medea is enacted as a sorceress and the chorus, a single figure in one of Graham's own remarkable striped costumes. Particularly noteworthy was Miki Orihara as Medea. Her intensity, concentration and skill were most admirable. Other dancers were Tadej Brdnik as Jason, Xiaochuan Xie as the Princess and Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch as the Chorus. The Barber score, "Medea, Op.. 23" felt like it was written for the piece, wonderfully underlying the work's dramatic tension. In fact, these dance dramas consist for the most part of solos, like arias or soliloquies. The
score, like the Copland score (commissioned by Graham for "Appalachian Spring"), makes us mindful of how much modern dance and music worked together in those early days, achieving great results. As in the first piece, the gorgeous sets were by the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, providing another example of how collaboration redefined contemporary theater-dance.

"Maple Leaf Rag" is pure fun, especially if you have seen Graham works before and have registered her movement style. In a "Dance in America" video, "Dancers' World", Graham shows her company warming up at the barre, making dramatic entrances and exits. Here, the barre becomes a set piece, providing a place for thought, acrobatic feats and central staging. A woman in white wanders through with a circular leg action, a direct movement quote. The action is quick, exciting and very funny. Marc Shapiro, of the Berkeley Symphony played the "Rags."

Greatly appreciated as a history lesson and recollection, was the special appearance of dancer/teacher Marni Thomas Wood, Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley, during the week prior to the performances. Marni and her husband David Wood, taught Graham technique at UC Berkeley for almost twenty-five years. Watching her teach and listening to her recalling Graham was treat for those of us who remember those great days and something special for all.
Kenneth Topping and Erica Dankmeyer of Martha Graham Company perform 'Cave of the Heart'.

Kenneth Topping and Erica Dankmeyer of Martha Graham Company perform "Cave of the Heart".

Photo © & courtesy of John Deane

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