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Lamentation Variations Worthy Heirs to Graham’s Original

by Bonnie Rosenstock
October 25, 2017
Martha Graham Studio Theater
55 Bethune Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10014
(212) 229-9200
In 2007, Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Company, created the “Lamentation Variations” project to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. “By accident the company had a show on the 9/11 anniversary, so we reached out to three important choreographers, Aszure Barton, Larry Keigwin and Richard Move, to create new works,” she said. “It was a radical idea, to bring historical context to new works. We began touring them around the world [and received positive feedback], so we tried it again. The idea just took off.”

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of these first three works (LamVar10), which now number 14, the Graham Studio series presented a two-night NEW@Graham event on October 17 and 18, which featured five variations on each night, plus a discussion with several of the choreographers who have created variations over the years. The inspiration for the variations was a film from the early 1940s of Graham performing her iconic signature solo, “Lamentation,” which played on a large screen at the beginning of the event. Graham created it in 1930 with the subtitle “Dance of Sorrows.” It didn’t reference a specific person, time or event, but personified universal grief.

There were parameters for the commissioned choreographers to follow, explained Eilber. They were to create a movement study in reaction to the Graham film for the current company of Graham dancers. They were allowed only ten hours maximum of rehearsal, had to use published domain music, simple props and costumes, and it had to be under four minutes, the length of “Lamentation.”

On October 17, the night I attended, the works presented were by Kyle Abraham (2015), Gwen Welliver (the world premiere will take place in 2018), Lil Buck (in its New York premiere), Bulareyaung Pagarlava (2009) and Keigwin (2007).

Abraham created a duet, performed by Lloyd Knight and Lloyd Mayor (He has also had two women dance the duet.) The two bare-chested men, one white, one black, danced slowly, balancing in many positions, which they helped each other maintain.

For Welliver, who had just finished her piece, she said she was most impressed with the importance of abstraction in Graham’s works, her motion and theatricality, plus the music by 17th- century composer Henry Purcell. She delivered a trio, performed by Ari Mayzick, Leslie Andrea Williams and Xin Ying, with the haunting “What power art thou” (the “Cold Song” aria from his 1691 opera “King Arthur),” sung by the exceptional German-born countertenor Klaus Nomi. The dance is profoundly sad, with suffering hands and repeated sinking to the ground and sustaining various poses. In the recording there is applause and cheering at the end of the aria. (My research backstory: Nomi died of AIDS in New York in 1983 at the age of 39. His ashes were scattered over his beloved New York City.) At the end of the dance, the performers walk strongly and confidently.

Buck used nine Graham dancers for his variation. While it was still slow and melancholy, it featured bouncy movements in place, running and holding various poses. One woman shaped her hands as if holding a small ball. Pagarlava’s quartet had three bare-chested men in light beige shorts and a woman in the same color unitard. It was full-on grieving with lyricism. At the end, the woman, So Young An, attached herself to one of the men’s ankles while he held hers. The other two men then took over holding her by the ankles and slowly walked backwards as she hung upside down. It was visually dramatic and moving.

Keigwin, one of the first tapped for the project, choreographed for the full company, accompanied by Chopin’s “Nocturne in F Sharp, Op. 15 No.2.” He said he remembered feeling grateful there were rules, which already made so many decisions for him. “I was taken by watching Martha’s solo and took notes, the focus on hands, the gestures, the diagonals, the rocking,” he said. “I used that as motifs for my own language.” There were trembling fingers, palms touching. There is slouching and swaying. The women arched backwards, and as they brought their heads forward and down, their long loose hair flowed over their faces. A woman slides down from her partner’s arms. It’s a beautifully executed study in sorrow, a worthy heir to the master, as are all the variations.

The “Lamentation Variations” are available on YouTube and Vimeo.
Photo of So Young An and Ben Schultz in Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s Lamentation Variation.

Photo of So Young An and Ben Schultz in Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s Lamentation Variation.

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo of Laurel Dalley Smith, Anne O’Donnell, Ben Schultz and Xin Ying in Larry Keigwin’s Lamentation Variation.

Photo of Laurel Dalley Smith, Anne O’Donnell, Ben Schultz and Xin Ying in Larry Keigwin’s Lamentation Variation.

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo of Laurel Dalley Smith, So Young An, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker and Lloyd Knight in Lil Buck’s Lamentation Variation.

Photo of Laurel Dalley Smith, So Young An, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker and Lloyd Knight in Lil Buck’s Lamentation Variation.

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Graham Company, speaking to the audience about the 'Lamentation Variations,' with a film of Martha Graham's solo 'Lamentation' playing in the background.

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Graham Company, speaking to the audience about the "Lamentation Variations," with a film of Martha Graham's solo "Lamentation" playing in the background.

Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock

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