A bal­ance of past, fu­ture

Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pany is still cre­ative as it hon­ors her le­gacy.

Los Angeles Times - - CULTURE MONSTER - By Mar­garet Gray cal­en­dar@la­times.com

The im­por­tance of Martha Gra­ham in mod­ern dance can’t be over­stated: Like Pi­casso and Stravin­sky, she is cred­ited with bring­ing a clas­si­cal art form forcibly into the 20th cen­tury through rad­i­cal, and shock­ing, in­no­va­tion. The earthy, jan­gly, of­ten pur­posely unlovely style she pi­o­neered so per­me­ates our cul­tural land­scape that we tend to take it for granted.

The Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pany, which Gra­ham founded in April 1926 and which has con­tin­ued to per­form since her death in 1991, has set it­self the task of hon­or­ing her le­gacy with­out pre­serv­ing her in am­ber — of­ten a doomed en­ter­prise. But on its 89th birth­day Satur­day, the com­pany per­formed a pro­gram at the Val­ley Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter in Northridge that joy­ously bal­anced the past with the fu­ture.

Of the four dances, two were choreographed by Gra­ham in the 1940s, and two were by con­tem­po­rary chore­og­ra­phers re­spond­ing to her work. The im­pres­sion was of artists en­gaged in a mu­tu­ally re­spect­ful, af­fec­tion­ate and in­spi­ra­tional con­ver­sa­tion across time.

The first, “Ap­palachian Spring,” faith­fully and ten­derly re­vived Gra­ham’s most fa­mous ballet, with its stir­ring score by Aaron Co­p­land and its stark, ab­stract set by Isamu Noguchi. This in­flu­en­tial work was first pre­sented at the Li­brary of Congress in 1944, star­ring Gra­ham and her fel­low com­pany mem­ber Merce Cun­ning­ham as a newly mar­ried pi­o­neer cou­ple, the Bride and the Hus­band­man (here danced by Blake­ley WhiteMcGuire and Ab­diel Ja­cob­sen), who an­tic­i­pate to­gether a life of sim­ple gifts, while a preacher (Lloyd Knight) and his four fe­male fol­low­ers prance ec­stat­i­cally around them.

The chore­og­ra­phy is ar­rest­ing, some­times star­tling. The dancers slap their own bod­ies, hop and spring and scut­tle along on their knees. At times they seem barely teth­ered to the stage. Ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s artis­tic direc­tor, Janet Eil­ber, Gra­ham and her col­lab­o­ra­tors in­tended “Ap­palachian Spring” as a tes­ti­mony to the spirit of Amer­ica.

Although “Ap­palachian Spring” is charm­ing to its core, it was in the sec­ond piece, “Lamen­ta­tion Vari­a­tions,” that the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional dia­logue be­gan to catch fire. In 2007, Eil­ber asked con­tem­po­rary chore­og­ra­phers to cre­ate re­sponses to Gra­ham’s 1930 solo piece, “Lamen­ta­tion,” for a com­mem­o­ra­tion of 9/11. The chore­og­ra­phers were in­vited to cre­ate orig­i­nal four-minute dances (about the length of the orig­i­nal) in no more than 10 hours of re­hearsal. The ini­tial “Vari­a­tions” were in­tended to be per­formed only once, but they proved so fruit­ful that the com­pany con­tin­ued the project. It has col­lected 12 vari­a­tions since, Eil­ber said, and had pre­pared three for this per­for­mance.

But first, on a gi­ant screen, the au­di­ence got to see what the chore­og­ra­phers were re­spond­ing to: film clips of Gra­ham in “Lamen­ta­tion.” The crackly footage, played with­out any sound, still has a rev­o­lu­tion­ary power.

In the clips from “Lamen­ta­tion,” Gra­ham wears a shroud-like tube of fab­ric in which she writhes in ap­par­ent agony. Her face is harshly pow­dered in white, and her black eye makeup looks smudged. Her move­ments are strange and un­nat­u­ral. She de­picts grief as in­escapable im­pris­on­ment in one’s own skin, with no re­lief or com­fort.

The three en­su­ing vari­a­tions did not achieve the same ef­fect; it was dif­fi­cult, af­ter the gi­ant pro­jected Gra­ham, to ad­just to the smaller scale of live dancers on­stage. Also the vari­a­tions were per­formed by groups, rather than in the stark iso­la­tion of the orig­i­nal. The first, by Larry Keig­win, fea­tured the full com­pany danc­ing to­gether in a more gen­tle dis­cor­dance to Chopin’s Noc­turne in F Sharp, like peo­ple hud­dling to­gether in an ef­fort to find con­so­la­tion in the wake of Gra­ham’s hellish vi­sion.

The sec­ond piece, by Kyle Abra­ham, was en­chant­ingly smooth and lovely, lack­ing the agony of the orig­i­nal. The third re­sponse, by Sonya Tayeh of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame, was set to a fright­en­ing score by Mered­ith Monk and added a more ex­plicit in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the sex­ual pol­i­tics only sug­gested in the orig­i­nal.

Af­ter the in­ter­mis­sion, sex­ual pol­i­tics were ex­plored fur­ther in two pieces in­spired by Greek mythol­ogy. The first, “Er­rand Into the Maze,” was Gra­ham’s ver­sion of the myth of the Mino­taur. In her vi­sion, it is not Th­e­seus who ven­tures into the maze to con­front the beast but Ari­adne, here per­formed by the ex­quis­ite PeiJu Chien-Pott. Here the com­pany dis­penses with the orig­i­nal cos­tumes and set. Chien-Pott dances in a sim­ple white dress; Ben Schultz has a thrilling phys­i­cal­ity as the mus­cu­lar Mino­taur.

Fi­nally came “Echo,” a dance choreographed in 2014 by An­do­nis Fo­ni­adakis. In­spired by the myth of Echo and Narcissus, it fea­tures two male dancers, Ja­cob­sen and Lloyd Knight, drown­ing in their ad­mi­ra­tion of each other, while a woman, Ying Xin, at­tempts to dis­tract them from mu­tual ab­sorp­tion. The per­form­ers’ grace and phys­i­cal­ity are gor­geously ex­ploited by the mes­mer­iz­ing chore­og­ra­phy. This per­for­mance ended the evening in a swirl of move­ment, thought and color.

Jeff Fasano

PER­FORM­ERS left the im­pres­sion of artists en­gaged in an af­fec­tion­ate con­ver­sa­tion across time.

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