In a much-anticipated return to the Seattle stage, the Martha Graham Dance Company graced Meany Hall as part of the UW World Series on May 5–7, offering a mélange of original Graham repertory and new works by 21st century artists. The tour celebrates the company’s 90th anniversary, commencing yet another decade steeped in the spirit of Graham’s radical transformation of western dance. Martha Graham sought to defy the restrictiveness of ballet technique in favor of the organic; the technique she developed embodies animal ferocity rooted in breath, fervor, and initiation from the anatomical core. In their recent performances, the company embodied the depth of this revolution with mature profundity and an ardor for movement necessitated by the very nature of her technique, bringing the virtuosity of their training to a diverse array of choreography. The program included works by Graham herself as well Nacho Duato, Sonya Tayeh, Kyle Abraham, Larry Keigwin, and Marie Chouinard. From beginning to end, the program displayed the versatility of the Graham dancers, the talent of rising choreographers, and the strength of woman.
Dark Meadow Suite kicked off the show with color and spiritual vitality. In a pre-show talk artistic director Janet Eilber explained that the Suite is a compilation of highlights from Graham’s longer work Dark Meadow, a testament to Graham’s affinity for the American Southwest, specifically, her reflections on the ritualism of Pueblo communities and the human search for interpersonal connectivity. Six women opened the work wearing orange skirts and crop tops with black and white cutouts. Set against a sunset red scrim, five dancers performed in a circular formation upstage of a soloist, whose slower gestural movements juxtaposed the sharp and rhythmic dance performed by those upstage. They stomped their feet and slapped their thighs as they would the flank of an unbridled horse. The dance evolved constantly within this aesthetic; duets, solos, and all-male sections occurred in turn, the dancers engaging in simple foot patterns as well as more full-bodied movements. Men shifted laterally in deep pliés, arms stretched as if they were fencers; women posed in arabesques with bird-like arm motions, gesturing to their mouths as in a ritualistic cry. Full of Graham’s characteristic leans, lifts, and contractions, Dark Meadow Suite was a subtle, albeit distinctive reflection on perceptions of life in the Southwest.
Nacho Duato’s 2013 work Rust was a sharp contrast to the 1946 Dark Meadow choreography. Created specifically for the company, Rust is a reflection on American indifference to “the true horror of torture,” seeking to enlighten the public on the ramifications of this civically desensitized act. Loud, electronic bass scored the quintet for five men, a dark and tortured examination of pain and the masculine drive for power in the face of stigmatized vulnerability. The dancers manipulated one another’s bodies, creating tunnels out of torsos, and dragging, lifting, throwing, and sitting on one another without subtlety. Many lifts, characterized by pull rather than loft, alluded to medieval torture devices, and the dancers eventually made their shirts into sack-like head-coverings, epitomizing a contemporary image of war. With Rust, Duato has created a starkly honest and a heartbreaking portrayal of lost male vulnerability.
Lamentation Variations are part of a larger project commissioned by the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in an effort to commemorate Graham’s work within a diverse framework of interpretations by contemporary choreographers. The series asked select dance makers (including Yvonne Rainer, Doug Varone, Lar Lubovitch, and Liz Gerring) to create short, reactionary works inspired by the 1930s film of Graham herself performing Lamentation. The three variations selected for the Seattle performances were by choreographers Sonya Tayeh, Kyle Abraham, and Larry Keigwin, each of whom submitted an aesthetically and dynamically unique offering based on Graham’s solo.
Tayeh, perhaps best known as the Emmy-nominated choreographer featured on So You Think You Can Dance, offered the first and most honest variation of Lamentation, capturing the power, will, color, and internal athleticism of Graham’s performance. The female dancers clad in purple leotards were aesthetically reminiscent of Graham in her tube-like garment. Accompanied by several men, they engaged in a fast, athletic portrayal of the sorrowful longing behind the original work. Meredith Monk’s sound score of breathy, melodic whispering drove Tayeh’s variation and the dancers, who ferociously took on the contemporary, jazzy work—they contracted into long-legged extensions, lifted one another in distal shapes, and consumed the entirety of the space with their movements.
Kyle Abraham and Larry Keigwin’s works—less physically powerful in nature—offered different interpretations of Lamentation. Abraham’s duet (performed by Lloyd Knight and Lauren Newman) was soft and subtle, set to the sad but driving piano score by Gabriella Montero. Keigwin’s work was far less melodramatic, featuring the full-company in a minimalistic embodiment of lament, aesthetically suggestive of Pina Bausch’s work. The women in gowns and men in casual dresswear were spread across the stage. They touched their faces nostalgically, shook their hands in front of their chests, and leaned back and forth, ultimately falling one by one until only one man was standing. Short and sweet, each Lamentation Variation was refreshingly to the point and interpreted the original with raw, indulgent simplicity.
Post-intermission, Peiju Chien-Pott stunned audiences with her passionate and technically virtuosic portrayal of the mythical Medea in Graham’s Cave of the Heart. Emotion appeared to emanate directly from the depths of Chien-Pott’s core, manifesting itself in the multiplicity of contractions, falls, suspended extensions of the legs, and inhuman strength so inherent to and characteristic of the Graham technique. Chien-Pott’s performance was utterly extraordinary, offering audiences a glimpse of the intention with which Martha Graham might have performed the very same work.
Inner Resources, a brand new work by contemporary choreographer Marie Chouinard, closed the show on an unexpectedly flat note. Set on eight women, the work explored gender, androgyny, and dehumanization as was clear through costuming, while offering little to no correlation between the hooded, bearded dancers and the movement itself. Beyond the frontal, formation-driven work, Graham’s dancers—while some of the most talented modern dance technicians in the world—simply weren’t a good fit to take on the hip hop-esque quality and tutting in Chouinard’s work.
Although Inner Resources didn’t end the program on a high note, it certainly didn’t detract from the overall evening. Martha Graham Dance Company’s return to the Seattle stage was as masterful as it was anticipated. Passionate, timeless, and refined—there’s little else to say except, bravo.