(Photo of Martha Graham’s Lamentation by Petra Bober, from TONY)

Saturday afternoon my friend Alyssa and I went to the second of Martha Graham Dance Company’s programs this season: this one including several of her works spanning her 70-year career. The matinee began, though, with one of the most compelling set of dances I have honestly ever seen. The company had commissioned three different modern choreographers — Aszure Barton, Richard Move, and Larry Keigwin — each to make a dance honoring Martha Graham’s famous Lamentation, an immensely compelling evocation of grief. This set of dances was called Lamentation Variations and premiered on September 11, 2007, in commemoration of the terrorist attacks. I had missed it then, but saw it on Saturday — the only difference being that they’d taken out the Barton and substitued a new Variation by Bulareyaung Pagarlava, a Taiwanese choreographer who happens to be married to guest dancer with the company, Fang-Yi Sheu (who danced Clytemnestra).

Before the dances began, they showed a film of Graham herself dancing portions of her original Lamentation, her body reaching, stretching, contorting in that constricting fabric. Then they showed these three contemporary variations on her theme of grief.

All three Variations completely blew me away – -most especially the first, by Keigwin. I usually find Keigwin’s work humorous and clever, but this was absolutely haunting. A large group of dancers, mostly dressed in business attire, or casual sports coats, or, in the case of some women, cocktail dresses, took the stage. At first they all looked out at the audience, but it was as if they were looking at themselves in a mirror, primping themselves, putting in contact lenses, checking their hair, makeup. As some continued doing this, others turned their backs to the audience, then slowly raised their arms, and slowly fell to the ground almost as if being shot. In the end, one couple is left standing, a woman and a man, the woman holding onto the man with all her might, he slowly falling, out of her grasp, out of her reach. It was so reminiscent of 9/11 and loved it. I’ll never forget it.

The second Variation, by Move, was a solo performed by a woman, Katherine Crockett (who is pictured above dancing the original Graham Lamentation). She was dressed all in black and the entire dance seemed like one long fall downward, as she reached forward, upward, arched backward. It was dignified and bewitchingly beautiful and the audience howled with applause afterward.

The third was the new Variation by Pagarlava, danced by four people — three of the company’s men, and one woman — Sheu, all in nude-colored leotards. The movement was kind of a combination of Mats Ek-like sharp, awkward flexed-footed hobbling evocative of grieving, and lyrical movement that seemed a more operatic evocation of lament. At the end, Sheu climbed atop one of the men, standing, and lowered herself behind him until their bodies were almost the exact antithesis of the other: she held his ankles and he hers. Two men stood beside them, then the man let go of her and stepped away from her. She was now held up by two men on each side of her, they holding her by the ankles. They walked backward, receding from the front of the stage into the dark, she upside down. It was harrowing, and, again, the audience screamed with applause.

Pagarlava and Sheu, by the way, have just formed a new dance company, LAFA & Artists, which will premiere at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. They, along with Avi Scher (whose work I saw for the first time on Friday at the “Fridays at Noon” dance hour at the 92nd Street Y and was completely blown away by), whose company will also perform at the Pillow, provide two good reasons for heading up to western Massachusetts this summer. I plan to go at some point, though I’m not yet sure when.

The second piece on was Martha Graham’s Sketches From Chronicle, created in 1936 in response to the horrors of the first World War and the Fascism that engulfed Europe in its aftermath. This was the most compelling work I think I’ve seen by Graham. In the first section, a woman performs a haunting solo, standing atop a pillar, wearing another one of those long widow-like black dresses with a blood red underskirt. She thrashes about, bending over backward, forward, kicking out, throwing her arms up, shaking her head wildly, her hair like a flicking snake. It’s like she’s seen atrocities her body just can’t bear.

(photo by John Deane, from Seattle Times)

In the following section, a group of women are dressed all in black. At times they move to march-like music, their bodies awkwardly moving forward like the men in Graham’s Greek tragedies: feet flexed, knees high, backs bent over, as if they’re evil toy soldiers being commanded by a puppeteer. At points a single woman breaks free. That section ends with her walking backward slowly and carefully, as if away from something.

(photo by John Deane, from Critical Dance)

Following Chronicle was Errand Into the Maze, from 1947 (it premiered at the Ziegfield), another of her dances based on Greek myth, this of Theseus, who journeys into the labyrinth to confront and defeat the Minotaur, half man, half beast. Graham, typically, turns Theseus into a woman, who ventures into the cave¬† — both literally and figuratively — to confront the demon that dwells there, or who haunts her internally, and eventually slays him. As in Clytemnestra, the movement here could be viewed as somewhat “dated”, but the way I see it, it’s really very historical and should be revered as such. Graham’s work, like the gorgeous sets like Isamu Noguchi, must be preserved the way plays by Shakespeare and Euripides must be, even if the movement language and costumes and decor do seem to harken back to another time. The themes are human, and eternal.

(photo of Maple Leaf Rag by Jaki Levy, taken from MarthaGrahamDance’s Flickr account)

The program ended with the cute, funny Maple Leaf Rag, from 1990 and set to Scott Joplin’s music of the same name. Costumes are basic leotards but with rich textures and sheens,and, for the women, these gorgeous, low-waisted skirts — they are designed by Calvin Klein. Graham was friends with Joplin and her words, in her voice, are sounded at the beginning, “Oh Scotty, play me that Maple Leaf Rag,” as a woman, representing Graham, lounges on a flexible see-saw-like piece of furniture. The dance involves the whole company and there’s lots of comical partnering, the couples playfully battling each other, making up. The dance shows Graham’s ability to laugh at herself, as a woman dressed all in white with Graham’s trademark long skirt from time to time crosses the stage in repeated turns, holding the dress up dramatically. At these points the music turns more shrill, foreboding, and the couples give her dirty looks and shoo her away. Eventually she joins their ranks and is converted to a fellow fun-loving frolicker.

I really enjoyed this second program overall and now I’m sad the company has left NY; they don’t come around often enough.

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