November 10th, 2010 5:33 pm | by HEATHER WISNER News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

LIVE REVIEW: Martha Graham Dance Company at the Schnitz

Martha Graham Dance, Chronicle

Dance history sprang to life in an excellent multimedia program from the Martha Graham Dance Company, staged Tuesday night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The show, which marked the company's second White Bird appearance this decade, combined full-length and excerpted dances with film footage and onstage narration from artistic director Janet Eilber. The last, in particular, provided valuable insight into the artistic influences and world events that shaped Graham's work.

The program's first half explored Graham's early work with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and with the Greenwich Village Follies. As Eilber noted, American artists in the early 20th century were still establishing their own cultural identity and dances of the day often reflected a fascination with “exotic” Eastern cultures. This was true of St. Denis's 1906 trio The Incense. With its bellydance-like costuming, it stood in stark contrast to Graham's 1930 work Lamentation, in which she stripped away theatrical and cultural artifice to embody grief. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, draped in Graham's famous purple jersey tube, danced with eloquence and finely etched detail. The choreography is still striking today, although critics were not kind when it debuted; one, Eilber said, wrote of fearing that Graham would give birth to a cube onstage.

Also striking was “Steps in the Street,” part of Graham's wartime work Sketches from ‘Chronicle.' A retort to rising Fascism, it opens with the ensemble's women, cloaked in black, marching in a kind of backward lockstep. Militaristic and mechanical movement thread through the work, along with a chilling sleepwalking step that suggests either blind following or lost direction. The dancers performed the piece with exquisite precision.

Martha Graham Dance, Maple Leaf Rag

On the other end of the spectrum was Maple Leaf Rag, which Graham choreographed in 1990. Graham's signature style has been parodied by everyone from Hollywood to Richard Move, and in this work, Graham herself got in on the joke. This comic ensemble piece is set to Joplin's music and revolves around a springy ballet barre that functions more like a tightrope. Cheery partnerships in and around that setting are punctuated by Serious Choreography, dramatically danced by women wearing Graham's famous topknot.

Not all the evening was a retrospective; the program also included Lamentation Variations—modern choreographers' responses to Graham's iconic work. White Bird commissioned local choreographer Josie Moseley to contribute a piece to the company's collection. Set to a saxophone score by Joshua Redman and danced by Samuel Pott, it contained recognizable Graham elements (contractions, floor work) although it wore its grief less visibly than the pieces by Larry Keigwin and Bulareyaung Pagarlava.

In the end, it was a pleasure to see the company dancing so well, particularly after a rocky period in the late ‘90s, when its future and the ownership of its dances were uncertain. Other long-established companies (Ailey, Taylor and Cunningham come to mind) might do well to follow Eilber's lead. This program demonstrates how a company can skillfully share its past even as it looks toward the future.

Images: Jennifer DePalo in Martha Graham's "Sketches from 'Chronicle.'" Lloyd Knight, David Zurak, and Oliver Tobin in Martha Graham's "Maple Leaf Rag." Photos by Costas.
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