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Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge
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Martha Graham Dance Company Program Dazzles with a Blend of Old and New

by Jessica Abrams
April 29, 2015
Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge
18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, CA 91330
(818) 677-3000
Martha Graham has earned her place in the annals of history; or rather, she commandeered it. Like Picasso and Stravinsky, she took an art form and re-branded it to be what was then inscribed as "modern."

Her technique, like ballet, was nothing less than a technique. It was developed out of the struggles and yearnings of the new era of the early 20th century she came up in. Every contraction, every release, every dance that took the journey deep into the soul's abyss signified a streamlining of movement, an aligning with the forward motion that was bringing the world into a new way of looking not only at art but at life.

Now almost ninety years young, the Martha Graham Dance Company is a living testimony to Graham's work. Performing April 18 at Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of California State University, Northridge, it managed to blend old standards with new works in a night of dazzling dancing.

The program opened with Graham's signature piece, "Appalachian Spring" and one wonders what it might have been like to see this piece when it premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1944 with Graham herself playing the young bride and Merce Cunningham her husband.

The story of a young couple making their way in the world, it was, according to artistic director Janet Eilber who introduced the evening, a story of determination and optimism for a country gathering its forces as it headed into war. The pioneering couple, played by an exceedingly feminine and sprite-like Blakely White-McGuire and an earnestly capable Abdiel Jacobsen, conveyed a sense of innocence and love that came through with every gesture, every movement. Her simple gesture of stroking of an invisible baby conveyed tenderness and devotion.

The couple then encounter a country preacher and his wife, along with four female followers whose prancing momentarily harkened back to the Dance of the Four Little Swans from "Swan Lake" but with harsh, at times almost ugly movements: staccato hopping, walking on the knees. Legs turned in. Despite a more cynical view of life – not to mention of marriage – the piece held up as a testimony to a spirit that, jaundiced though it may be, is still uniquely American.

"Lamentation Variations" is based on Graham's 1930 solo piece "Lamentation". Eilber asked contemporary choreographers in 2007 to create pieces around the commemoration of 9/11. The choreographers created four-minute pieces. Twelve were created; three performed here.

The piece began with a video of Graham herself performing Lamentation, wearing a cocoon-like fully body stocking, the image of which has been immortalized in countless photos. The video focused on her hands, clasping the garment and her face, tormented in pain. This anchored the piece into the past before it brought us into the present, the day the planes flew into the World Trade Center.

The first variation, choreographed by Larry Keigwin, featured the entire company filling up the stage, dressed in variations of business attire, all a somber gray, some carrying briefcases. The piece then exploded into movement, with dancers falling, grasping, hugging – in effect, seeking to connect while at the same time fully experiencing the gravity and sense of loss of what happened in New York on 9/11.

The third variation in the trilogy, choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, one of the resident choreographers on television's "So You Think You Can Dance," featured the spectacular PeiJu Chien-Pott plus three other women, all clad in different variations on the same theme of purple one-piece bathing suits. Where the first variation exhibited an elegiac quality, this one had a ferocity and intensity that spoke to the violence of the emotions surrounding 9/11 not to mention the event itself. Chien-Pott, long-haired and long-limbed, dazzled with her virtuosity and singular vision. Her line reminded us that gone are the days of modern dancers taking a technical backseat to their ballet brethren. Chien-Pott, legs extending past her head, resembled nothing less than a prima ballerina.

The third piece on the program, Graham's classic, "Errand Into The Maze" is a post-Freudian take on the Theseus and the Minotaur myth, with Theseus now a woman. PeiJu Chien-Pott, once again, danced the role that Graham created for herself. Blending simple gestures – her hands consistently crossed at the pelvis – with emotional intensity (this is, after all, the journey of a woman into her own psyche), it combined passion and simplicity in an archetypal journey transcending time.

The final piece, "Echo" choreographed Andonis Foniadakis in 2014, brought the current company full circle with its past. Pulling from the oft-used trove of Greek myths, it was a modern take on the Narcissus parable that, from the moment it began, did not let up. To haunting music by Julien Tarride, dancers swirled, fell, grasped, wound and unwound in a wind tunnel of movement that seemed to know no beginning and no end. As with many of Graham's ballets, the movement conveyed emotion in the deepest sense.

One wonders how a company based around a steadfast technique manages to allow other choreographers to set pieces on it. What criteria is used to complement the existing body of work? And yet the company has done a splendid job of adding new pieces into the repertoire that blend seamlessly into the body of work Graham created. Aside from the timelessness of her works, what Graham has done with her technique is to provide a springboard for almost anything. Like the ballet form from which she departed, she has provided a solid jumping off point from which her dancers can soar.

And, if the April 18 performance at VPAC is any indication, the sky, it seems, is the limit.
PeiJu Chien-Pott of the Martha Graham Dance Company in Andonis Foniadakis' 'Echo.'

PeiJu Chien-Pott of the Martha Graham Dance Company in Andonis Foniadakis' "Echo."

Photo © & courtesy of Erin Baiano


Tadej Brdnik and Fang-Yi Sheu<br>in 'Pagarlava Variation' by Bulareyaung Pagarlava

Tadej Brdnik and Fang-Yi Sheu
in "Pagarlava Variation" by Bulareyaung Pagarlava

Photo © & courtesy of Costas


Mariya Dashkina Maddux in Martha Graham's 'Appalachian Spring.'

Mariya Dashkina Maddux in Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Hubbard Nash


Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's 'Appalachian Spring.'

Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring."

Photo © & courtesy of Jeff Fasano

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