Martha Graham, one of the great founding mothers of American dance, said that dance is communication and her choreography communicates the depths of a woman’s soul. For this visit, the company brought three iconic pieces and a collection of brief works from new choreographers inspired by Graham’s signature piece, Lamentation.
Dark Meadow Suite opened the program, and it was my favorite of the night. With music by Carlos Chavez, it begins in silence with a chorus of women dancers and then introduces male dancers. The program says the piece is about ritual, but it would be more accurate to say that the piece explores ritual in the context of being and experiencing the world as female.
Here we are introduced to Martha Graham’s iconic dance language, based on the contraction of the gut. The angled movements of arms and legs are the natural outcome of a contraction that pulls the spine after it, curving over the body as if protecting it from a blow. This is wholly unlike traditional ballet, which uses extension and lifts to set the ethereal woman on an idealized pedestal, curved backward to present her for the adoration of the man who literally supports her. By contrast, “Woman,” as portrayed in Dark Meadow, is female incarnate, in all her struggles — in all her anguish — and in all her power. It made me cry. I wanted more.
I love Errand in the Maze unreservedly. In the dance, Ariadne replaces Theseus in solving the maze and confronting the Minotaur to a score by Curtis Institute Alum Gian Carlo Menotti. A dance over a rope maze was light, but left no doubt that Ariadne was searching deeply for the way to its center. We were breathless as she struggled with the Minotaur, the connection palpable as she first tried to escape him, and then seemed overwhelmed by the impulses he represents. But at one point, the absence of the Isamu Noguchi sets left Ariadne wringing her hands in the middle of a pile of rope on the floor when she should have engaged an emotional pas de deux with the two-pronged set piece that was not along for the tour.
Challenges and successes
Ariadne was not the only one missing the set piece — the rope maze snaked across an empty stage with no true end point, just an end. The Minotaur lacked his horns, and Ariadne’s dress lacked its zig-zag pattern, which would tell us that the maze represents an internal struggle. In spite of having so many of its mysteries stripped away, however, Maze retained much of its mythic quality. For this we must thank the extraordinary power of the choreography and the commitment of the dancers to the story and spirit of the dance.
Appalachian Spring was beautifully performed, with the Noguchi sets and with Aaron Copland’s transcendent score. Created in 1944, it looked to the American past to find hope for the future in the courtship and marriage of a young pioneer woman to the equally young farmer she loves. She is giddy and joyful. He is strong (Martha Graham would later marry the dancer she choreographed for the role). A puritanical preacher appears on the scene with his four female acolytes, which begs the question that if he is a puritan, why is he running around with four women? As perhaps you can guess, this is not my favorite Graham work. However, audiences love it and expect to see it on tour.
The program succeeds, but it demonstrated the challenges of touring such iconic pieces. The audience has one chance to experience the company, but the logistics of touring mean picking your centerpiece and then programing around it like a sampler, providing a taste of the company while still offering that one attraction that a general audience knows and wants to see. The Martha Graham Dance Company has a particularly tough time because the Noguchi sets are so integral to Graham’s work and they just can’t haul everything around. But I think the company met the challenge of a tour — they gave they audience what it wanted and left us wanting more.
For Alix Rosenfeld's review of this show, click here.