COVID in the digital age has transformed the presentation of dance. Evenings shrink to an hour, often with a selection of pieces just minutes long each, and discussions become part of the performance, as in the Annenberg’s recent stream of the Martha Graham Dance Company. The audiences chatted in a sidebar and their questions added to the discussion. I thought I would feel cheated by these shortened events, but it seems to be working remarkably well..
The presentation featured two of Martha Graham’s finest dancers, Lloyd Knight and Xin Ying, performing four of Graham’s most iconic pieces: the short dances Lamentation and Satyric Festival Song, and excerpts from Appalachian Spring and Dark Meadow Suite. Archival photographs and films gave us insights into the program.
Grief and comedy
Lamentation expresses the agonies of grief so powerfully that it could have been created for our own time. In grainy black-and-white photos and film clips, we saw glimpses of Graham’s own interpretation. Xin Ying’s live performance at the empty Annenberg, seated on a bench and wrapped in a tube of purple jersey, was a silent scream reaching across the darkened theater to clutch at our hearts. She reeled to one side, then another, and held up her arms defensively, as if she could repel the cause of her anguish. Grief bound her like the cloth that stretched but never let her go. It is a brilliant piece, here movingly performed, but thankfully, very short—four minutes or so. I don’t think we could endure watching grief laid out so starkly for longer.
In Satyric Festival Song, Ying gives us the other side of the mask—from tragedy to comedy. This piece was lost; in 1994, artistic director Janet Eilber and Graham’s assistant, Diane Gray, used photographs, writings, and reviews to reimagine the piece with new music by Fernando Palacios. Graham based the dance on her study of the sacred clowns of the Pueblo Indians, and Ying’s costume, in stripes of black, yellow, and green, recalled the dress of these figures. She hopped, skipped, and bowed from the waist, sometimes in unexpected directions, her long hair flying. She demanded our attention like an unruly trickster but, as often happens in Graham’s work, even this most extroverted character was constrained to tiny steps in her narrow, ankle-length tube of a costume.
Ecstasy and hellfire
The Preacher solo from Appalachian Spring runs just under two minutes, and it delivers surprising impact in such a short time. The Annenberg segment began with a filmed version of the solo with the Nakashima sets but without Aaron Copland’s music. Then we were transported to a bare stage, darkly lit with a blue background. Dancer Lloyd Knight walked out with a measured step, turned with his arm outstretched, and pointed an accusing finger at us. He fell to his knees, reaching clasped hands to heaven in a performance half snake oil and all ecstatic religion. Copland’s score has a dangerous edge here, and Knight delivered with a powerful performance as he leapt with hellfire in the sweep of his arm. I may have watched this more than once. Okay, more than twice. It is the one great advantage of streaming performances.
Like Appalachian Spring, Dark Meadow was a commission of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress. The pieces were supposed to appear on the same bill, but the music, by composer Carlos Chávez, wasn’t ready in time. In 2016 the company excerpted the suite from the longer piece (here’s my review). For the streaming performance, we saw two excerpts from the Suite.
As with the other pieces, the segment opened with film of a performance of a part of the original piece, for three pairs of dancers. Knight performed a solo filled with Graham’s off-balance movement and, with Ying, danced one of the three pairs, in costumes of orange swirled with the cream and brown of the Southwest. Knight is a riveting dancer and the pair turned in a deliriously sensual duet.
In one of the most striking architectural moments in the dance, Knight sat on the floor, holding Ying’s legs below the knees as she stretched away from him at an almost impossible angle, then swayed, one side to the other. Unfortunately, the camera missed the angle, giving us a head-on shot at the beginning of the sequence, but adjusted in time to see Ying fold backward over Knight’s knees.
I missed the company, especially in Dark Meadow. But Graham created her greatest works during a world war and economic depression. Art rises, sturdy as weeds, in times of greatest crisis. So I salute these brave dancers, and I revel in their talent and their commitment, and I look forward to seeing them with all their fellow dancers around them when we are back in the theaters together again.
Image description: A photo from a performance of Martha Graham’s Dark Meadow. A female dancer, Xin Ying, is on her feet, and a male dancer, Lloyd Knight, sits on the stage. Knight holds Ying’s legs below the knee, and she leans away from him, one arm outstretched, at an extraordinary angle, thanks to Knight’s anchoring.
What, When, Where
The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts presented the Martha Graham Dance Company in an evening of solos and duets livestreamed on December 10, 2020, and accessible on demand through December 12, 2020. (215) 898-3900 or annenbergcenter.org.