Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

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Juilliard Dance

 
Published: February 27, 2015
Category: review

Lamentations on the Current House of Graham

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK ­­ The Martha Graham Dance Company’s two­-week season at The Joyce Theater (Feb. 10­22) resembled not so much a dance company with a core set of aesthetic values, but a house divided. On the bottom floor was the imposing modernist Martha Graham (1894­1991) and her masterworks, performed with varying degrees of success. On the second floor were the postmodernists­­ Andonis Foniadakis, Annie­B Parson, Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Liz Gerring, and Michelle Dorrance—of whose works some were commissioned by the Graham company (seen Feb. 17, program B).

The first-­floor dweller owns the house, but in these performances, she lived in the shadows, her words often interrupted, her dances excerpted and used as demonstration for teaching moments (more on that later). The strength of Graham’s presence was doubly diluted by the motley variety of styles represented in the commissions, all created with a mandate to celebrate Graham.

Graham’s stark and forceful language, when spoken well, still illustrates the pathos of the human experience. Her sculptural certitude, as seen in a too­-short excerpt of Steps in the Street (1938, reconstructed 1989), possesses the visual punch of Picasso’s Demoisselles de Avignon (1907). The commissioned postmodernists (Pagarlava, Gerring, and Dorrance), all are familiar with this Graham work, as well as her other masterpieces, and they tried to capture her brooding nature and approximate her intensity. Yet they have neither mastered her vocabulary nor developed one of their own as cuttingly articulated as hers.

In their variations on Graham’s Lamentation (1930), they use snippets of Graham: a little mythology here, a little expressionist dance there. To be fair, all of these choreographers know how to turn a phrase. But next to Graham, their ideas seem shallow. Maybe they felt artistically hampered. Finding choreographic affinities with Graham is a tall order.

So, how does this house divided unite? With a lot of talk. On two occasions, Artistic Director Janet Eilber suggested from the stage that the eight pieces (plus a short film by Peter Arnell) on the program were interrelated. On the surface, this made little sense: Program B included one Graham work, two Graham excerpts, one Peter Arnell film, and five Graham ­company commissions. But Eilber unfurled her reasoning: Graham’s sparse Errand into the Maze (1947), performed to a recording of Menotti’s suspenseful score for piano and percussion, is a “psychological work,” because Graham was inspired by the Greek legend of the Minotaur in the labyrinth, and the labyrinth (if you’re a Jungian) symbolizes Graham’s journey into her psyche. After intermission, Eilber attempted to connect Errand to Foniadakis’ never­-stop-­moving Echo (2014) because Foniadakis’s inspiration was also Greek myth­­–the Narcissus story.

More connective tissue was provided in the season’s “Shape & Design” theme, said Eilber; all of the programmed works contained these two constructs, we were informed. It must be said that all dance works, no matter how brilliant or mundane, use shape and design. Perhaps the season’s theme provided the rationale behind star architect Frank Gehry’s commissioned graphics that accompanied Graham’s terrifying Steps in the Street (1936). Created in response to the rise of fascism, the piece works best with a plain black backdrop. The moving image the dancers create ­­ dressed in black floor­-length skirts walking backwards, like sleepwalkers whose bodies have become shields of iron – is heart stopping.

Indeed, it was the dancers that consistently drew the eye. In Pagarlava’s Lamentation Variation, Peiju-Chien Pott (pictured) self-jettisons into the air like a freed bird and releases into the floor like a cascading waterfall. Tadej Brdnik’s minute gestures in Parson’s The Snow Falls in the Winter, inspired by Ionesco’s The Lesson, demonstrated his acting prowess, as he transformed into the repressed, sadistic persona of the embittered teacher created by Ionesco. Artistic directors need to create programs that not only give dancers an opportunity to stretch themselves artistically, but also give audiences the opportunity to absorb, and appreciate, a founding choreographer’s vision. The house of Graham is still worth visiting. May Eilber find a better way to keep it standing.

Peiju-Chien-Pott in Lamentation Variations

Musical America

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