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.

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