By Rachel Straus
One sign of a masterpiece is that it never looks dated. Friday's performance of "Embattled Garden" by the Martha Graham Dance Company at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College met that standard.
"Garden" is set in an architectural phantasm by designer Isamu Noguchi. Instead of a biblical garden, this eden resembles a prison chamber. At its center is a gigantic standing snake, rather than the legendary fruit tree. Noguchi's psychedelic set immediately signals that all is not right in paradise.
Graham's four characters - Eve, Adam, Lilith (Adam's former wife) and the Stranger - are surrounded by Carlos Surinach's orchestrally muscular score, the overall mood of which resembles the climactic moment in a Hitchcock thriller.
Graham forcefully matched Surinach's musical tension by keeping all four of her dance-actors on stage: Caught in each other's glare, and the confines of the set, they struggle against each other like cats in the night.
Martin Lofsnes, who danced the role of the Stranger with a terrifying intensity, watched in glee as Lilith steals Adam's attention away from Eve. Lilith, danced by Katherine Crockett, coiled and uncoiled her mesmerizing, long legs with a seductress' knowing confidence.
Meanwhile Adam, danced by David Zurak, stood inert, biceps flexed and fists clenched. His lack of movement not only indicated his psychic struggle, it showed him to be more mythical figure than flesh-and-blood man.
Eve, danced by the petite Virginie Mécène, was equally captivating. As though possessed under the Stranger's power, Mécène circled her arms in a hot pink, flared skirt with Flamencoesque bravura to Surinach's bolero-influenced score.
In the end, Lofsnes climbed up Noguchi's tree branches - jutting red poles aimed at the garden - like the legendary snake. Then each dancer touched red brilliantly underscoring that this garden's roots bear the tangled bloodlines of the human race.
The evening's sold-out performance included four other Graham dances - "Satyric Festival Song" (1932), "Deep Song" (1937), "Maple Leaf Rag" (1990), and "Sketches from Chronicle" (1936).
The mixed bill showed off Graham's artistic range. In "Rag," Graham humorously spoofed her own dance technique - full of prances, static poises and repetitive jumps. In "Chronicle," the young corps demonstrated that Graham's very same movements can frighteningly depict the dehumanizing aspects of war.
Recently Graham's 1958 masterwork reflected the real life events of her troupe.
Last May the company won a two-year-long court battle against Ron Protas, the choreographer's sole heir, who laid claim to the majority of Graham's 180-plus dances after her death in 1991 at 97.
Protas, now legally cast out of Graham's garden - whose flowers are her dancers and artistic directors Therese Capucilli and Christine Daiken - is a banished man.
After the company's two-year performing hiatus, the dancers triumphantly return to the important work of tending to one of the 21st century's greatest artistic forces.
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