Glorious Angst: Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce

Despite taking Graham technique five days a week while I was studying at Ailey, I had never seen the Martha Graham Dance Company perform. My opportunity finally came with the company’s season at the Joyce this week, and let’s just say it had me wishing I had stuck it out through those 8:30 am contractions…

On Thursday night, the first live piece on the program (which opened with a video montage by Peter Sparling), was “Allegro Misterioso” by Anna Sokolow. Performed by Mariya Dashina Maddux, in a long light blue dress, hair down long, the solo began with her bent over at the waist, facing away from the audience in the upstage right corner. Her first movement, a fluttering of the fingers, signaled the frenzy that would characterize the piece. In the final moments, she slowed down in defiance of the music’s pace, and contracted as she descended to the floor, clearly highlighting for us Sokolow’s connection with Graham.

“Deaths and Entrances” purports to be loosely about the Brontë sisters: a set-up that makes this literature PhD student nervous to say the least. With no books or pens in sight and sisterly tension the dominant mode, imagining the Brontës dancing was only one of the piece’s absurdities, others including the puzzling presence of the “three remembered children” and the potential suitors who flit in and out. Yet, the contractions, the sharp angles, and the sustained mood of high drama were all so earnest and un-ironic that I must to admit to having found the excess rather delicious.

I get the impression that “Lamentation Variations”—in which contemporary choreographers are invited to create a short piece drawing on inspiration from Graham’s iconic solo “Lamentation” —has received a divided response. My fellow usher Thursday evening, for example, saw it as nothing less than sacrilege and was convinced it was making people leave the theatre. I, on the other hand, thought it achieved fairly well what it set out to do—pay homage while bringing the work into conversation with contemporary contexts. We first saw video of Graham performing the original work, its power somewhat diminished by jumpy cuts and the absence of the score. In the first variation, by Bulareyaung Pargarlava, three men and one woman, in nude shorts and a leotard respectively, used each other to evoke the tense points of contact and resistance that Graham’s fabric tube created.

The second was a premiere by Yvonne Rainer, who, as one might expect, took things in a distinctly postmodern direction. Director Eilber appeared in nondescript gray clothing, looking bored in a corner of the stage. Dancer Katherine Crockett entered in tights and a long white t-shirt, out of which trailed a long strand of purple tulle. She took her place, squatting in a wide second position, atop a plywood box and proceeded to take poses reminiscent of the iconic work. Eilber would periodically interrupt her mood of modern dance seriousness, now by shining a stage light on her face, now by shredding paper in a paper shredder—mixing veneration with irreverence.

In the final variation, choreographed by Larry Keigwin, we saw the entire company onstage, dressed in evening wear. They began by slowly and subtly feeling their faces and then their bodies, transposing the feel of Graham’s piece onto a multitude of bodies through small movements.

The highlight of the evening was easily the final piece, “Chronicle,” which aims, the program tells us, to depict the prelude, aftermath, and call to action evoked by war. I was struck by how radical it must have been in 1936 to create a dance on the theme of war using only women. The curtain rose on Blakeley White-McGuire, seated on uneven stools, with a long black skirt spread out like a tent over the uneven surfaces. She began with isolated movements of her arms, progressing to stand upon the pedestals, and finally descending to the stage floor, where she propelled herself and the dramatic lengths of her skirt with ferocious intensity.

The phrase “strong women” has become a cliché, but the dancers in the second and third sections of “Chronicle” embodied such a description in its purest form. The incredible force of their collective movement alternately conveyed pathos, anger, and devastation. In one memorable scene, the women alternately raised one fist and then the other, both arms “making a muscle” in front of their faces, a motion mimicked by their powerful, weighted legs as they traveled in a circle of resolute strength.

White-McGuire returned in the third section, now clad in a white dress edged with black, signally a shift from the menacing red of her first costume. Alternating between her pedestal and the space with the other dancers, she was at once a triumphant leader summoning the group and an active part of a larger movement. The performance of this piece was, for me, a strong argument for the continued power and relevance both of the company and of Graham’s work.

Bonus: Check out this great video of Denise Vale rehearsing the Graham company.