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Martha Graham Dance Company: Program A is A+

by Bonnie Rosenstock
February 20, 2015
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800
In my February 13 review of the Martha Graham Dance Company, I was less than enthusiastic about Program B, a mix of iconic Graham and new, uninspiring choreographies. But Program A on February 20 was wondrous, thanks to several Graham masterpieces, satisfying "Lamentation Variations" and Nacho Duato's powerful "Rust."

"Satyric Festival Song" (1932), reconstructed in 1994 by Janet Eilber, the Company's artistic director, and former Graham dancer Diane Gray, was a charming little aperitif, inspired by American Indian Pueblo culture and the clowns who mock the sacred rituals. Graham deconstructed it as a vehicle for satirizing her reputation as a serious modernist. The movement vocabulary was pure Graham, but quickened and exaggerated by the lithesome XiaoChuan Xie, as if performed by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, with frequent (and unheard of) direct eye contact with the audience and a seductive, all-knowing smile.

All is not idyllic for Adam (Abdiel Jacobsen) and Eve (PeiJu Chien-Pott) in Graham's "Embattled Garden" (1958), a work of somewhat uneven interest. According to legend, Lilith (Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch) was Adam's first wife, henceforth described as a witch, a she-demon, a night monster, a seductress, the stuff of nightmares. The now-worldly ex is back to wreak havoc, mistrust and betrayal, with the aid of The Stranger (Ben Schultz), who represents knowledge of the outside world. The sets by Graham's frequent collaborator, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, create two separate worlds on opposite sides of the stage. On the left (Lilith's and The Stranger's domain), it looks like a standing comb; on the right (for Adam and Eve) is a tilted platform with thin metal or plastic moving poles that both protect and imprison. There are many pairings as the four go through their trials and tribulations. Schultz and Ellmore-Tallitsch held their own, but Jacobsen and Chien-Pott were the stars, whether dancing together, in love or in pain, or with the two troublemakers.

As in all three programs for this season's two-week run (February 10-22) celebrating the 89th year of the Company, "Lamentation" (1930), Graham's iconic "dance of sorrows" embodying universal grief, is followed by "Lamentation Variations." The works are contemporary choreographic responses to the Graham film. It was originally conceived to be performed only once—to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11—and premiered on that date in 2007. But it has now become an ongoing Company project, upping the number of invited choreographers to around a dozen. The three variations, by Kyle Abraham, Larry Keigwin and Sonya Tayeh, were four-minute gems. Keigwin filled the stage with the entire 19-member Company most effectively and dramatically. At the finale they slowly melt into the floor, while one mourning couple is left, tenuously clinging to each other. Abraham created a duet, danced seamlessly by the intuitive XiaoChuan Xie and Ying Xin. They alternated with two male dancers on other nights, which would have been interesting to see. Tayeh's seven-dancer choreography is lyrical and powerful at the same time.

The evening's pièce de résistance was Graham's three-part anti-war opus, "Chronicle" (1936). As in many of her works, Graham universalizes, in this case, the tragedy of war. According to the original program notes, it "does not attempt to show the actualities of war; rather does it, by evoking war's images, set forth the fateful prelude to war, portray the devastation of spirit which it leaves in its wake, and suggest an answer." In the first section, "Spectre—1914: Drums—Red Shroud—Lament," soloist Blakeley White-McGuire is wearing a voluminous black dress with a blood-red underside, which she manipulates seamlessly to envelop herself, like a shroud, create patterns and folds and open wide like a magnificent bird. Whether she is dancing while sitting or standing on the pedestal or on the ground, she is majestic. "Steps in the Street: Devastation—Homelessness—Exile," an all-female chorus led by the beautiful Ying Xin, is prime Graham real estate. The third section, "Prelude to Action: Unity—Pledge to the Future," is hopeful and uplifting, with White-McGuire now attired in white, as the focal point for energizing the women to action.

This is one of the few works that Graham created which explicitly expressed political ideas although not in any realistic depiction of actual events. As a counterpoint, Nacho Duato leaves nothing to the imagination in "Rust" (2013), a devastating depiction of torture, which seeks to stir the complacent public to its horrors, along with terrorism and violence. Commissioned by the Graham Company, it features a quintet of powerful male dancers, who are subjected to extreme prison abuse, including sacks over their heads, all too realistic in today's world. The martial music by the Estonian classicist-turned-minimalist Arvo Pärt is appropriately booming and jarring. It might not be the way that Graham would have chosen to express this, but then again, being the ultra-modernist, she just might have.
Xiaochuan Xie and Ying Xin in Kyle Abraham's 'Lamentation Variation'

Xiaochuan Xie and Ying Xin in Kyle Abraham's "Lamentation Variation"

Photo © & courtesy of Brigid Pierce


Blakeley White-McGuire in Martha Graham's 'Chronicle'

Blakeley White-McGuire in Martha Graham's "Chronicle"

Photo © & courtesy of Brigid Pierce


Martha Graham Dance Company in Nacho Duato's 'Rust'

Martha Graham Dance Company in Nacho Duato's "Rust"

Photo © & courtesy of Brigid Pierce


Martha Graham Dance Company in 'Steps in the Street' from 'Chronicle'.

Martha Graham Dance Company in 'Steps in the Street" from "Chronicle".

Photo © & courtesy of Brigid Pierce


Martha Graham Dance Company in Sonya Tayeh's 'Lamentation Variation'.

Martha Graham Dance Company in Sonya Tayeh's "Lamentation Variation".

Photo © & courtesy of Christopher Jones

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