Monday, April 22, 2024

Martha Graham Dance Company: Doesn't Seem a Day Over 98

Rodeo. Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

Incredibly, Martha Graham Dance Company will celebrate its centennial in 2026 with GRAHAM 100. But it started the festivities recently with a New York City Center season titled American Legacies, because when you’re a modern dance company that has reached such a milestone, you’re allowed to pull out the stops. The program I saw on April 17 included Graham contemporary Agnes de 
Mille’s Rodeo, with a stirring new orchestration of Copland’s canonic score by Gabe Witcher, played live by a bluegrass band. How refreshing to hear a more vernacular rendering of this score, so familiar and rote by now in the fully orchestrated version we usually hear. The performance also boasted new costumes by Oana Botez, colorful calicos, florals, and pastel hues, and evocative projections by Beowulf Boritt. Laurel Dalley Smith danced the Cowgirl—truculent at being ignored with her tomboy ways, but effervescent after donning a skirt and drawing attention. (Okay, the storyline might need overhauling as well, but... have things really changed that much?)

Jamar Roberts was commissioned to create We the People to bluegrass music by Rhiannon Giddens, also arranged by Witcher. In all denim separates (by Karen Young) and inky fields striated by cross-stage lighting (Yi-Chung Chen), the 12 dancers seemed fueled by passion, whether stemming from anger or protest. Scything arms, strident chops and twists, and thumping heels denoted the movement, frenetic in its start-stop rhythm. It felt like a martial arts demonstration at moments, with energy coiling and releasing. Roberts spaced several solos to silence between musical movements, dimming the sense of festivity that burbles in Giddens’ compositions, but focusing the underlying urgency in the movement. In particular, Lloyd Knight thrusted his arms, bowing backward so far that his head disappeared. The bluegrass tied this work to Rodeo, underscoring the simmering sociopolitical messaging in opposition to de Mille’s romantic caper.

We the People. Alessio Crognale-Roberts, Marzia Memoli, Lloyd Knight. Photo: Isabella Pagano

Maple Leaf Rag, from 1990, was Graham’s last choreographic work. She spoofs her own Greek tragedy seriousness, sending several dancers across the stage doing iconic Martha-isms—a woman in a cartwheeling skirt, a man pounding into an arabesque, holding his head as if in pain. The joggling board, remarkably flexible and yet strong enough to fold four dancing men, is the focus centerstage, where dancers flex, flirt, perch, and bounce. While Graham is often remembered for her mythic dramas, she certainly poked fun at herself with a sharpened stick in this dance.

I so often write about modern dance legacies these days. And Martha Graham Dance Company, under the guidance of Janet Eilber, is forging an optimal path for one-choreographer troupes. Stand-alone commissions frequently bear some relation to the repertory, such as the shared bluegrass roots in this program. Add to that the new production of Rodeo, refreshed for a new generation. And there’s the ongoing Lamentation Variations, short pieces by outside choreographers riffing on Graham’s famous solo. Eilber gives pre-show remarks about the rep, and they’re consistently informative and terse. While each company must forge its own path, the Graham company balances old and new with respect and a sense of humor.

Book note: Deborah Jowitt's biography of Martha Graham, Errand into the Maze, was recently released. Jowitt's descriptions of Graham's dances offer a valuable archive of her repertory, with the same grace and flair that marked Jowitt's decades of dance writing, primarily for The Village Voice.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Chamber Dance Collective at the Stissing Center

Nocturne, choreography by Martha Clarke. Photo by Richard Termine, courtesy of New York
Theatre Ballet. Dancer: Guyonn Auriau in a 2017 performance at 92Y

After a particularly momentous week on Earth that included a wicked windstorm downing trees and power lines, an earthquake, and an eclipse, seeing An Evening of Master Choreography with Chamber Dance Collective at Stissing Center in Pine Plains definitely felt like a balm. It marked the unofficial start of the vibrant cultural season upstate, when foliage blooms, birds and insects emerge, and performance thrives.

It also showed how inventive artists and presenters can be given modest resources. The Stissing Center dates from 1915, and after several iterations (including a laundromat) and lying fallow for decades, was given an elegant modern renovation, reopening five years ago. It has a fairly compact stage—four dancers (Amanda Treiber, Mónica Lima, Giulia Faria, and Julian Donohue) and pianist Michael Scales filled the proscenium—but it didn’t feel small. The trick is choosing great repertory that fills the space yet stays within the constraints.

Catherine Tharin, a dance writer and scholar, programmed the event (as well as two programs later this year). This slate was curated by Diana Byer, who founded and ran New York Theatre Ballet for many years, stepping down recently. The works performed at Stissing proved a wonderful mix of the billed “masters”—Jerome Robbins, Martha Clarke, Richard Alston—plus young choreographer / 
dancers who may earn that moniker in the future: James Whiteside, Melissa Toogood, and dancers Treiber and Donohue. Scales played two musical interludes as well, making for a lively, packed 70-minute bill.

Mamborama, choreography by James Whiteside. Photo by Richard Termine,
courtesy of New York Theatre Ballet. Dancers: Amanda Treiber and Mónica Lima
in a 2022 performance at Florence Gould Hall

Byer is a renowned figure in the ballet world, and the dancers showed her Cecchetti style training, although not all of the pieces were strictly classical. The most balletic works were Robbins’ Rondo (with playful variations on pointe and big chainés and leaps) and Alston’s The Small Sonata, with dramatic archer poses and Amanda Treiber tenderly wrapping a leg around Julian Donahue—both radiant in their bejeweled, webby tunics. In Treiber’s Wind-Up, the women wore toe shoes as well, and Donahue joined them, creating playful, geometric shapes with a modern feel.

Martha Clarke’s dramatic flair marked Nocturne: wearing only a tulle skirt, head shrouded in gauze with eyeholes, Mónica Lima limped on, a defeated phantasm of a romantic ballerina. She covered her nakedness with her arms and skirt, trying to flap her vestigial wings, and collapsed. She untied the red ribbon from her neck, using it as a makeshift cane to hobble off. Haunting indeed, and a step beyond the proverbial dying swan. In Toogood’s A Study with Mónica, Lima knelt, palms flat on the stage, and drew her hands up her body and aloft, stretching keenly. Stillness was as important as movement, and precision key in a perfect low arabesque, arms levered in front.

The Small Sonata, choreography by Richard Alston. Photo by Richard Termine, courtesy of
New York Theatre Ballet. Dancers: Amanda Treiber and Julian Donahue in a
2020 performance at Danspace Project

In Square the Circle choreographed by Donahue, the foursome wore sneakers and bright, sporty separates. The movement was equally bold and space-eating, with the dancers uniting in a kind of square dance section. It vied for the flashiest dance on the slate with James Whiteside’s Mamborama (excerpt), with Lima and Treiber in sparkly, cabaret-style tunics and on pointe, zazzing it up with humorous puppy paw hands, snapping and counting fingers, and jazzy rhythmic interpretations.

Departing the Stissing Center, we were offered old-fashioned boxes of popcorn for the road. What a nice gesture after a satisfying, dense, buffet of dance. Two more dance offerings follow: Seoul-Mate, Korean traditional and contemporary dance on June 2, and The Bang Group, featuring David Parker’s contemporary work filled with drama, wit, and rhythm, on Oct 4 & 5.