The creativity of Martha Graham Dance Company is timeless

Martha Graham Dance Company reminded the Northrop audience on Saturday why her creativity still resonates and is relevant today.

The troupe presents “Chronique”, created in 1936 in response to the rise of fascism in Europe and to express the tragedy of war. With Russia’s war against Ukraine, this brought out the emotional and thematic resonance. The dance was thought to be lost, but it was reconstructed after film footage and photographs were discovered in the 1980s.

It started with a breathtaking solo, “Spectre-1914”, danced by Xin Ying. She donned an overly long skirt designed by Graham. It had a crimson petticoat that accentuated the abstract shapes the dancer created with her outstretched limbs.

In the stylized “Steps in the Street” section of “Chronicle”, the dancers held their bodies in twisted shapes, moving in precise synchronous movements. They evoked soldiers or even weapons. The performance was flawless in its execution of Graham’s vision and distinctive patterns.

Of the eight vignettes – Sun, Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars and Death/Rebirth – celebrating different aspects of nature in Graham’s “Canticle for Innocent Comedians” (1952), only one survives. And it was thanks to a film that was shot. MGDC used this thumbnail, “Moon”, as a starting point to create a new work with the same title.

Conceived by Janet Eilber, a former Graham dancer, the piece featured choreography by seven other artists and a new score by jazz pianist/composer Jason Moran. The project was one of nine Northrop Centennial Commissions, with funding that was generated in part by donated tickets for shows canceled during the pandemic.

“Moon” was a tender and captivating climax. It contained stunning partnered work, where Jacob Larsen swung So Young An like a pendulum, later cradling her on his lap from a crouched position.

The other vignettes paid homage to Graham’s sensibility. Sonya Tayeh, who choreographed the first vignette, “Sun,” as well as the transitions that tied the piece together, was most successful in honoring Graham’s style while creating a work that shone in its own right.

However, retaining the title of the original work with entirely new Graham-inspired choreography may have been a faux pas. A new title referencing the original would have been more appropriate.

At the end of the concert, Northrop audiences were treated to a preview of “Cave,” by Hofesh Shechter, which will premiere at the City Center Dance Festival in New York City on Wednesday.

Drawing inspiration from club music and raves, the work had a heart-pounding beat. The energetic connection of the dancers as they moved together was reminiscent of Graham’s early pieces, even as Shechter’s work broke new territory to explore. Yi-Chung Chen’s lighting added to the dramatic sense of anticipation and ecstatic release in the work.

For much of his career, Graham resisted documenting his work. It’s hard to imagine that, especially in this age when we save even the most mundane moments on our phones. MSDC’s commitment to sharing its work is therefore just as important as its support for the new dances of an emerging generation of choreographers.

About Keith Johnson

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