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Opening Night with the Martha Graham Dance Company

Written by Steve Ha

As part of the University of Washington’s World Dance Series, the Martha Graham Dance Company took to the stage at Meany Hall, in an incredible display of modern dances woven together with historical perspective.
Before delving into the dance itself, the show was preceded by a discussion with artistic director Janet Eilber, who covered topics such as foundations of Graham technique as well as anecdotes of her personal experiences dancing for the genius herself.  Attendance of the pre-show talk for the remaining performances this weekend is highly recommended; Eilber is charismatic and inviting; her mission is not to simply have the company dance in front of audiences but to personally engage in a dialogue with viewers.  For that reason, the show was not merely a selection of performances of Graham repertory, but a series of works with introductions by Eilber that included supplementary materials such as slideshows and film excerpts.  Like a devoted curator of a museum exhibit, Eilber took the audience on a much too brief journey through quintessential Graham.
The evening began with “Prelude and Revolt: Denishawn to Graham,” which was divided into sections of Graham’s early influences as a dancer for the Denishawn Dance Company headed by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and of course Graham’s own works.  The first part, entitled Montage of Three Denishawn-Style Solos was comprised of an excerpt from St. Denis’s The Incense, Shawn’s Gnossienne, and a section of Graham’s Tanagra, all danced simultaneously.  Exotically styled, such dances represented the idiosyncrasies from which Graham would seek to free herself from.  However, the beginnings of a framework to her choreographic choices were starting to take shape. It was clear that Gnossienne (also known as A Priest at Knossos), where a male dancer struck various open, profile stances in the image of stone reliefs from ancient Crete, had a tremendous impact on the way Graham would eventually style much of her own choreography with torsos that twisted away from the body to open toward the audience, producing a flattened effect.
It was Graham’s iconic solo Lamentation that epitomized her “Revolt,” from her past with the Denishawn and their exotic theatricalities.  In Thursday’s performance, dancer Katherine Crockett gave a stirring performance in the infamous “tube” of dark blue fabric—consumed with grief.  Like a second skin, the costume held her captive, and despite her stretching to break free she was eternally trapped.  She was the embodiment of anguish through elasticity, in the same manner that despair can follow our every action in the face of adversity.  The movements were isolated, quick and segmented at times while long and circular at others.  Despite the apparent disconnectedness, it was the tube of fabric that allowed Crockett to give the impression of the body as a whole, maintaining its integrity as a singular unit.  Although Lamentationsaw its synthesis in the beginning years of the Great Depression, the brilliance of this Graham solo is that no matter the era, her elucidation of grief will always be universal.

Martha Graham’s “Sketches from ‘Chronicle'”
Photo by Costas.

The conclusion of “Prelude and Revolt” culminated in Graham’s Steps in the Street and Prelude to Action, prime examples of steps Graham eventually codified into her technique.  Serving as commentaries on the rise of Fascism in Europe and the atrocities of war, ten female dancers dressed in long black dresses entered the stage like cautious animals but with stiffly held upper bodies and contorted arms.  War-torn, the women were dehumanized to the brink of utter devastation and through the dance they began to form stronger shapes with their arms, again employing the flattened torso as they marched and jumped with militant timing.  At one point they gathered in a circle around one dancer dressed in white, launching into a series of turning leaps with clockwork precision.  This was no corps de ballet, but a group of women who found a powerful voice in their unity.

The second half of the program commenced with Lamentation Variations, a trio of dances by three contemporary choreographers, as responses to Martha Graham’s original Lamentation and as a part of a commemoration of 9/11.  In these new pieces by Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Richard Move, and Larry Keigwin, the idea of grief was reinterpreted for a modern age.  Pagarlava chose to reveal a simple truth as Graham did in her solo, instead stripping four dancers to near nudity and having them share the burden of grief between them as it passed from one body to another in a Newton’s cradle.  Richard Move’s work took on the idea of containment, altering and reshaping the confinement from a tube of blue fabric to a singular line across the front of the stage, from which the dancer could never stray from.  The final variation, by Keigwin, was the most contemporary, having the entire company dressed in rich, but subtly colored business casual attire, peppering the stage like a constellation when the lights came up.  Their expressions of grief were more conventional and pedestrian in nature, the way people today will grab their faces in frustration or twiddle their fingers incessantly.  The dancers utilized contractions and releases, holding tension in their shoulders, which is common in this age of technology where people are sitting hunched over, virtually chained to a desk.  When the dancers collapsed at the conclusion of the dance, the sojourn of these lost souls of 9/11 victims came to a haunting end.
Lloyd Knight, David Zurak, and Oliver Tobin
in Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag”
Photo by Costas

The highlight of the evening and, appropriately, final piece was Graham’s Maple Leaf Rag—the last dance Graham choreographed—to rags by Scott Joplin.  With men and women clad in peachy pastels, a lone, pliant ballet barre stood center stage, which became a playground as the dancers engaged in nonsensical choreography.  Eilber made sure to note that Graham actually had an extraordinary sense of humor, which surprised some audience members, and many more followed suit when the dance began and they saw to what extent Graham could mock herself.  She included everything from character dances, ballroom styles, jazz, modern, ballet, and even circus feats like tightrope walking across the barre or crawling along it upside down in what can best be described as a comedic melee of pure movement.  There was a dazzling array of the most bizarre jumps and ludicrous leaps one could ever see, and yet there was a childlike purity to it all.  Maple Leaf Rag didn’t draw raucous laughter from the audience, but knowing chuckles—the kind that meant the audience was connecting to the piece by recalling childhood tomfoolery and of course adult moments of goofiness.  From one dancer whose sole purpose was to intermittently repeat the same phrase of movement across the stage to others who engaged in cheeky maneuvers (of the posterior kind), it seemed as though Graham came full circle by injecting a little melodrama into this dance.  However, it wasn’t a mockery of satire or farce; it was born out of the intimacy she had with her own work.  Only Graham could tease her dances in the appropriate manner and perhaps the most fitting end to her artistic career was truly to poke fun at everything that defined her.

At performance’s end, one can see why Martha Graham is such a crucial figure in the world of dance—suddenly, similarities with her contemporaries become connected in an immense family tree and the enigmatic language between them becomes more tangible.
Only two performances of the Martha Graham Dance Company remain for this weekend.  Performances are November 5-6, 2010, with the pre-show beginning at 7:10 pm both nights in the main auditorium and the show beginning at 8:00 pm.  Friday’s performance on the 5th will also feature a post-show lecture with artistic director Janet Eilber, also in the main auditorium.  Tickets can be purchased via the Meany Hall Box Office. For more information, please visit their website: