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Martha Graham, Looking Back

Katherine Crockett in "Move Variation" by Richard Move (photo by Costas, courtesy of Martha Graham Dance Company)
Ground-breaking dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who died in 1991, lives on in the company that bears her name. To celebrate the company's 85th anniversary, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance is on tour, and their stop on Friday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts was on one of my top picks for the dance season. The performance did not disappoint, offering the opportunity to revisit the company's history and some of its most celebrated choreographies. The experience also demonstrated that although the company carries on its founder's ideals, it is also becoming more and more like a museum. By contrast, the company founded by one of Graham's early collaborators, Merce Cunningham, is in the midst of closing permanently after Cunningham's death.

The first half of this program was a sort of guided tour of Graham's life and her work in dance. Films and images of Graham's early work, supplementing a historical narration, introduced a chronologically arranged series of short dances. It began with the embarrassingly cheesy exoticism of Graham's early work with Ruth St. Denis's Denishawn company, a sort of faux-Cretan priest of Knossos dancing to Erik Satie's dreamy Gnossienne No. 1 (complete with the misguided addition of a final cadence to give the music some finality) and a Carmen-esque gypsy-lite Serenata Morisca to music by Mario Tarenghi.

There were only the most superficial similarities from that early work in Graham's breakthrough pieces, Heretic (shown in video) and Lamentation. In the latter work, premiered in 1930, Graham used a sort of sheath of costume material to make her body into a series of geometric shapes, with stark movements, mostly while seated on a simple bench, evoking the vocabulary of grief. Video of Graham's performance showed that the dancer in this version, the tall, beautiful Katherine Crockett, was if anything more precise, more abstract, but also somehow less spontaneous than Graham's original. With the color of the costume now a more somber black, it was difficult to avoid seeing the costume, enveloping Crockett's head and body, as something like the Middle Eastern abaya, giving a different twist of meaning to this particular lamentation, something that the stark, folk-inflected music by Zoltán Kodály did not discourage.

Two more dances from Graham's most influential period, the 1930s, filled out the picture. Steps in the Street, with its crowd-like movement of women in black dresses, all seemingly disconnected from one another, seemed prescient of the existential loneliness of Giacometti sculptures, with some movements in silence and others set to music. Panorama, a paean to social activism, was recreated by George Mason University students, moving like flocks of birds in bright red dresses in angular, unsmiling movement, not with the same unity and polish as the professionals but with admirable enthusiasm.

The highlight of the evening was the most recent work, three dances by young choreographers called Lamentation Variations, in response to Graham's signature work, mentioned above, commissioned for the 2007 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Crockett was back in the middle dance, Move Variation, bending and twisting in a shaft of sideways light, a playful intertwining of balance and stillness. The third dance, Keigwin Variation, brought the whole company together, each dancer seemingly checking himself or herself in a mirror. Fretting, worried gestures increased until the entire group collapsed in death, leaving one couple standing in an embrace, until slowly the woman of the couple slid from her partner's arms.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Halzack, Martha Graham dancers bring vitality to classic works (Washington Post, October 23)

Calvin Wilson, Dance performance enhances legacy of Graham (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 17)
It was certainly worthwhile to see the company's recreation of perhaps Graham's most famous choreography, Appalachian Spring, which Graham and her company premiered in 1944, in the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium. The work is perhaps not quite as iconic as Aaron Copland's score, but its sincere war-time nostalgia -- the hopeful story of a homestead wedding somewhere on the American prairie -- is still affecting, if a little hokey. Samuel Pott, as the Husbandman, was tall and all-American in the boundless strength and gumption of his movement, while Maurizio Nardi's Preacher (a role danced by Merce Cunningham at the premiere) had both earnest faith and an odd note of menace. Isamu Noguchi's minimalistic set had just enough lines to suggest the simple country house, the silhouette of a rocking chair used as the seat of authority by Katherine Crockett's wise, overseeing Pioneering Woman.

The next modern dance event not to miss is the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater (December 2 and 3).

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