by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
UW WORLD DANCE SERIES
MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY
Poor Martha Graham! Her groundbreaking dance company is touring the country celebrating its 90th anniversary, which ought to be a good thing - a love-fest of gratitude and awe. After all, Martha Graham, who died in 1991, but whose dances live on, was one of the first and greatest American modern dance choreographers. Every dance maker who followed had to come to terms with her innovations, and many of her gestures and approaches to movement have become part of our common dance heritage. Like other great American women who changed the landscape of their arts (Emily Dickinson, Billie Holiday...) Graham dared her critics while discombobulating her audiences.
Among the most discombobulated by the Martha Graham Dance Company this season was critic Brian Seibert of the New York Times, who saw the same program that we saw this month at the UW World Dance Series and gave it the worst dance review I've ever seen. Bad reviews are good reading, of course - much more amusing than rave reviews (except to the subjects). Seibert found Marie Chouinard's new work, Inner Resources, 'terrible' and 'puny,' comparing it to 'teenagers trying to be comic and profound, and clueless about both.' Graham's own choreography fared only marginally better. He called 'Cave of the Heart' merely 'solid' and new company members merely 'promising.' He said 'the real shock...was how terrible it was' - meaning the effort of Artistic Director Janet Eilber to update the company by commissioning new works that acknowledge, in some way, the Martha Graham technique.
Seibert's discontent made me more curious but less enthusiastic about my trip to Meany Hall on May 7th. Even though my dance buddy and I loved MGDC when they came to Meany Hall in 2010, I wondered if they had somehow lost their steam as the 90th year approached.
So here's the good news: Mr. Seibert must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed the day he saw the Martha Graham Dance Company perform their anniversary program, because the dancers were just as captivating and the choreography just as challenging as ever - elemental, surprising, and fresh - especially Chouinard's Inner Resources. I'll discuss these out of order - it was a long program of two Graham works, three short dances based on her work, one dance by the great Nacho Duato, and the Chouinard, which I found fascinating. All in all, a fabulous program.
Inner Resources (2016) - Choreography by Marie Chouinard
Yes, the dancers were wearing button-down shirts pulled over their heads - the 'inane' idea that bothered Seibert so much - but the stiff collars at chest level created a truly mysterious effect. Electric blue shirts against a blood orange back drop, together with upstretched arms and drooping wrists, gave the impression of a flock of headless horsemen - assuming headless horsemen were actually high-stepping herons. The soundscape, by Louis Dufort, was annoying in that satisfying way that tells you you're not in Kansas anymore. So when the women pulled off their shirts and showed their moustaches - yes, handlebars - it fit right in to the strangeness of it all. These devices would be corny or, in Seibert's estimation, juvenile, if it were not for the quality of the dance itself, and the precision with which the women executed the dramatic effects of their movement. They could have done this dance shirtless, moustache-less, and colorless, and it still would have been a dance of complex and striking ideas. What ideas? I don't know - transgender ideas, identity ideas, empowerment ideas. It seemed both expert and timely to me - and definitely challenging, which is Marie Chouinard's choreographic calling card. Yet under all the tricks and tropes is a pattern of movement - groups splitting into mirrors, melting into duets, swelling into mobs, scattering into chaos, forming into chorus lines - that show the hand of a brilliant dance-maker at work.
Dark Meadow Suite (2016) - Based on Dark Meadows (1946) and Cave of the Heart (1946) - Choreography by Martha Graham
Today we're so used to the angular drama of Graham's movement that it's hard to imagine that these dances dating from 1946 were anything other than powerful and satisfying. But Graham was as disconcerting to her original audiences as Chouinard is to Brian Seibert. Graham's movement was mocked by comedians and castigated by critics who were only learning to love ballet in 1946 and hardly ready for departures from classicism. Now we can see the pure elegance of works like Dark Meadow Suite - a reduction from a much longer work that captures and abstracts the essence of the original dance. Set to the chamber music of Carlos Chavez, we see four couples execute stately movements that seem to defy gravity. The most striking effect, to me, was a moment from the famous sarabande, when all four men are on the floor supporting the women who fall slowly backward onto their outstretched arms, then fall forward again as the men brace their knees, allowing them to lean like figureheads into an invisible wind. The dance is characterized by strength and stiffness - the women remaining fully posed even as they are lifted over the heads of their partners - yet the slow dignity of the movement is not stuffy or rigid, but solemn, subliminal, important.
The narrative of Medea that forms the structure of Cave of the Heart is equally dramatic and formal, using a set by Isamu Noguchi to powerful effect. Graham was drawn to the elemental conflict of rivals for love, and in this dance the male object, Jason, is treated like a Miles Gloriosus character - brawny, handsome, and dull-a mere love object for Medea, the Princess, and the female Chorus to enact their world-shattering emotions. This gripping dance plays out the profound tragedy of womanhood in a radical reversal of the patriarchal point of view. The angular, breath-based gesture of the women embody their passion, while the walking-statue rigidity of Jason forms a plinth for their suffering figures.
Lamentation Variations - Three works choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, Kyle Abraham, and Larry Keigwin
Artistic Director Janet Eilber has found a very clever way to honor the legacy of Martha Graham by giving choreographers an opportunity to create short works that follow some strong rules: no longer than four minutes, no costumes or sets, any number of dancers from the company, and a reference, in some way, to Martha Graham's famous solo dance, Lamentations (1930), either through movement, music, or concept. Three of these works were presented, all displaying a range of responses to these seemingly rigid requirements. Though widely different, each demonstrated some Graham-like quality that made them appear as new varieties from a single stem - and all intriguing. There are twenty-five of these short dances so far; what a great tribute, and potential full-length program, for this inventive company. We were also treated to the great pleasure of a 1943 film of Graham in Lamentations, which not only reminded the audience of her movement and her authority, but linked the new works to her inspiration.
Rust (2013) - Choreography by Nacho Duato
Clearly MGDC is not stuck in its glorious past, because this dance, commissioned for the company in 2013, is being performed all over the world - as well it should be. Duato is known for his willingness to take on the personal cost of the failures of social justice in works such as Jardi Tancat and Rassemblement. In this dance he uses a troupe of five male dancers to evoke the layers of suffering inflicted on victims of torture - and their human commonality with the torturers. Beginning with an eerie soundscape of clicks and slaps, two fully-clad men work over another dressed only in underclothes. They throw him around in ways that clearly evoke the relationship between cruelty and helplessness. Then, to Arvo Pärt's Requiem, droned in male voices, all of the men - torturers as well as tortured - are now in underclothes enacting a brotherhood of compulsion from an outside source. From this we understand that the torturer is as compelled as the tortured; we also see in Duato's combination of individual supplicating movements and group configurations - slow crack-the-whips, pile-ups and entanglements - the tragedy of lost potential and the limits of brotherhood. The ending - in which one man walks free past kneeling men with heads covered and hands bound - evokes the arithmetic of torture. This is a fearless representation of the feared and fearful as only a choreographer like Duato can make for a company as brave as MGDC. At this rate, they have another 90 years of great dance in their future - and so do we.
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