Friday, April 12, 2019

Martha Graham's 2019 Legatees

Charlotte Landreau, Lorenzo Pagano, Lloyd Knight, Anne O'Donnell in Untitled (Souvenir). Photo: Brian Pollock
Choosing Pam Tanowitz to choreograph a commission for Martha Graham Dance Company highlights Graham’s ever-growing legacy as it zigzags through generations. Tanowitz’s style is most often compared to that of Merce Cunningham’s—formal, angular, classically-based, rigorous. Before founding his own company, Cunningham danced with Martha Graham. And while their choreography differs in innumerable ways, he retained her senses of plasticity, theatricality, and purity of line. These elements can be found In Tanowitz’s new work, Untitled (Souvenir), seen at the Joyce Theater on April 11.

And like Cunningham, Tanowitz’s work is more cerebral, and less emotional and expressionistic, than Graham’s. Tanowitz really pushes form, articulating the limbs tautly, and inventing witty traveling steps that are simple, yet new, such as hopping on one foot with the other leg at 90º, foot flexed. Port de bras defy convention, and like Merce, the torso often creates odd angles with the pelvis and legs. It is not what you’d deem organic movement, but highly thought-out and experimental, given the same old human body. For all of Tanowitz’s formality—underscored by Ryan Lobo/Ramon Martin’s elegant, black & white columnar jumpsuits and pieces—the work is couched in humor. Those at rest observe the others dancing, as if in rehearsal. They gather and form a handsome tableau in the finale.

Deo. Photo: Brian Pollock
The other premiere on the program (there were three different slates) was Deo, by Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jene Smith. In stark contrast to Untitled (Souvenir), the dance for eight women employed a highly expressive vocabulary. Leslie Andrea Williams, standing alone, flinched with increasing movement until she contracted deeply. The dancers lay on their backs but for their legs and heads, which floated off the ground listlessly. The women clumped together, with little space between one another, tottering across stage like a floating raft. One arrayed her limbs apart from her body, and resembled a spider. Low, wide squats and contractions lent a primal feel that summoned the power of Graham’s vocabulary. The beige/mocha-toned dresses (by Karen Young) evoked slightly more modest versions of those worn by Pina Bausch’s women in her Rite of Spring, and gave the similar impression of flesh. Deo created a hermetic world which made me feel as if I watched a private ritual that held deep meaning for its participants.

Laura Andrea Williams in Chronicle. Photo: Melissa Sherwood
The Graham works performed were Errand into the Maze and Chronicle. A willowy Xin Ying and brute-like Ben Schultz performed Errand, a concise and epic telling of the Minotaur tale; Isamu Noguchi’s spare but strategic set pieces are always thrilling to re-see. And Chronicle remains one of Graham’s high points, its urgency and rebel- summoning drumbeat as fervent as when it was created—as Graham refused an invitation by Hitler to perform in the 1936 Olympics. Williams danced the opening "Spectre" solo, a masterpiece portrait of an individual’s physical and spiritual strength danced breathtakingly well, plus a demonstration of Graham’s brilliance with costuming as drama. (The double disc podium she stands on seemed to be cleverly repurposed in Tanowitz’s work, albeit standing on its edge.) The stage-crossing “défilé” exercises have retained their speed and drive, and are a reminder of the light of perseverance hope in dark times—a useful notion at the moment.

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